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Black Power: Music of a Revolution

January 21, 2011

Today’s roll: 4 – 4 – 10.
Result: Black Power: Music of a Revolution by Various Artists

There are a lot of great compilations of soul, funk and R&B from the “superfly” era (roughly 1968-1974) but there aren’t too many worth hanging on to beyond the rip to MP3. Black Power: Music of a Revolution has kept its place on my shelves because it transcends merely collecting a bunch of songs onto a pair of foil discs, it tells a story.

Taking a page from Tarantino movie soundtracks, the songs on Black Power are interspersed with clips of speeches from black activists Huey Newton, Kathleen Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X. The effect is almost like listening to an NPR audio-documentary about the times. The clips illuminate the songs, putting them in context and bringing to life the time and place the artists were singing from. The picture painted might be a bit of a romanticized caricature, but it makes for a great mythology and a more fulfilling listening experience.

But even setting the gimmick aside, these two discs are about as solid a set of gritty, bass-heavy, badass soul and funk grooves as you’re going to find. These types of collections recycle a lot of the same titles, but you’ll find many of the essentials are here. From the bombast of “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” by James Brown to the psychedelic soul of “Message From a Black Man” by The Temptations to the Isley Brothers’ classic call to arms “Fight The Power” and William DeVaughn‘s smooth ghetto philosophy on “Be Thankful For What You Got“, the set rarely misses a beat.
Because of the compilation’s “black power” slant, all the songs have a political element. You won’t find a lot of the classic pimp epics (like “Superfly“) found on other comps, but you will find handful of tracks usually passed over by the more blaxploiation oriented collections. The unforgiving “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil Scott-Heron is followed by The Last Poet‘s equally unforgiving “When the Revolution Comes” on disc two. Later on, jazz singer Nina Simone makes an appearance with her anthem “To Be Young, Gifted and Black“.
One of the reasons the compilation works so well is the subject matter keeps it rooted in the 1968-1974 time frame, really the golden age for funk and soul. There’s a raw hungriness to these tracks which funk finds missing as it stretches into the 70s towards the slickness of disco. The few instances the album takes a misstep is when it reaches past the ’74 deadline with tracks like Parliament‘s 1977 “Chocolate City“. Though the song fits thematically, it doesn’t hold the same angry fire as the rest of the songs and another visceral soundbite from Huey Newton might have been a better choice.
You shouldn’t walk away from this review thinking the album is all dire piss and vinegar about being oppressed. Even the angriest songs would play well at a dance party. “Express Yourself” by The Watts 103rd St. Band is a perfectly possitive jam (even if it gets sampled by N.W.A. 17 years later) and no one ever really listens to what Earth, Wind and Fire are singing, they just want to feel that rhythm section pumping.
Black Power is on of those rare compilations. It works as solid entertainment and as something morean historic document of a fascinating era in the popular mythology of late 20th century America.
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