Blaxploitation films of the 70s and early 80s entertained and empowered their audiences by depicting brown heroes combating racism and greed through outlandish violence. One such film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, exemplified this and set the framework for cult films thereafter – Shaft and Super Fly among them. Equally striking and ahead of its time was the film’s soundtrack, composed by Melvin Van Peebles, who was also the film’s writer and director. The songs were performed by a young, and then largely unknown, Earth, Wind & Fire.
From the campy action and social awareness of these films emerged profound soundtracks that more often than not overshadowed the films themselves. The music itself was a character device, driving the narrative in fitting and at times explosive ways, invisible but always felt. Here are five of the most important scores from the era and beyond.
Trouble Man (Marvin Gaye)
T Plays It Cool is one of the most robust instrumentals you’ll ever hear, all helmed by Marvin Gaye, who was given full creative control of the project after renewing his contract with Tamla Motown’s subsidiary label. He basked in the creative freedom, arranging and also producing the album. It was a logical progression for Gaye to focus less on societal ills than his previous masterwork, What’s Going On. This was his 12th studio album, and Gaye seemingly immersed himself in the film’s character, adding layers of vocals to pivotal scenes and deeply focusing on the film’s character. Tracks like There Goes Mister T and Deep In It have soft, nuanced moments that rival the tenderest of movie scores by the likes of Jon Brion and Mark Mothersbaugh. At the time, Gaye was the most profitable R&B artist in history yet this album, with all its subtle complexity, sounds like it’s from a young, masterful, hungry new composer. Gaye also performed vocals, drums, keyboards, piano, and synthesizers on the album.
Black Caesar (James Brown)
James Brown’s fiery output seems tailor-made for the Blaxploitation genre. After all, his powerful social anthem I’m Black and I’m Proud hit black radio and was still on the minds of many. The soundtrack was condemned for being scattershot, but Brown’s ingenuity proved he was ahead of his time. It also didn’t hurt that the album featured in-the-pocket expertise from the JB’s, and vocal enhancements from Lyn Collins. Down and Out in New York City is classic Brown, traversing snappy drums with aggressive vocals, shouts, and screams. Critics decried the soundtrack’s disconnect with the film’s storyline, yet decades later, the soundtrack’s frequent use in hip-hop has kept its presence in place. It also sits among Brown’s canon as one of his best later works. The great Fred Wesley is credited with adding composition and arrangements to the already exuberant score.
Cotton Comes To Harlem (Galt MacDermot)
A master composer with an enormous catalogue dating back to the 50s, Galt MacDermot also wrote songs for the juggernaut play-turned-film Hair. His mastery of moody strings cut deep into the soundtrack’s tone, ushering portions of the film along with its foreshadowing presence. My Salvation clocks in at under two minutes, but has a sunny feel despite the serious subject matter. The aforementioned Hair, for all of its glorious melodies and warm piano clinks, was, in fact, an anti-war production. MacDermot was a master in merging bright tones with heavy themes. Cotton Comes To Harlem won’t be remembered for its cinematic impact, but its sonically rich soundtrack will forever hold its place in the legacy of Blaxploitation.
Super Fly (Curtis Mayfield)
No list of movie soundtracks – let alone Blaxploitation ones – is complete without mention of Super Fly. Similar to Nas’s Illmatic, Super Fly is towering within its genre, yet completely transcends it. This was Mayfield’s third solo release and he was beyond capable, weaving intense imagery with themes of poverty, drugs, and violence. Aesthetically macabre with flicks of guitar, it’s all woven in place by notions of self-liberation and self-determination. Mayfield was more emotive than ever, peppering songs with vocal ranges unheard in previous solo releases or group work with the Impressions. In a post for nerdtorious.com, author and filmmaker Nelson George remarked: “I saw this movie in Times Square back when it was still down and dirty, and this tale of a New York coke dealer Priest was influential in storytelling, style and score. Listening to it recently, years after hip-hop has used Super Fly’s themes and sampled it liberally, Mayfield’s masterpiece holds up.”
Black Dynamite (Adrian Younge)
Released in 2009, Scott Sanders’s Black Dynamite was more a fun pastiche to the Blaxploitation genre than a serious depiction of it. Adrian Younge, a gifted composer who had an affinity for analog gear, extracted all the aforementioned soundtracks and threw them in a blender. What emerged were rich compositions that were part Galt MacDermot, part Trouble Man, and part Black Caesar. Shine has a collage of harmonic vocals that mushroom into thick grooves perfect for a 70s car chase sequence; colorful harmonies coalesce over propulsive bass lines throughout. These ebullient arrangements are something a young Tina Turner would have devoured. Younge went on to collaborate with some of the biggest musicians in the game, but this was his springboard toward greatness and a sharp nod at the Blaxploitation progeny that came before him.