The Return of Superfly

One of the best albums of the Seventies is more timely than ever.

Today's hardcore rappers are in a difficult position. Many of them achieved success via exciting accounts of drinking, drugging, dealing, whoring and homicide that they defended by claiming that the tales were simply reflections of the hard realities in America's inner cities. But following the murders of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., even their supporters began pressuring them to make music that was more productive and less shortsighted. As a result, discs such as the Wu-Tang Clan's Wu-Tang Forever and Puff Daddy & the Family's No Way Out juxtaposed the usual gory mini-movies with repudiations of violence. But although tunes fitting the latter description have taken some of the heat off of the hip-hop industry, the majority are hollow, insincere--public-relations gambits rather than a mending of ways. This impression is compounded by the artists themselves, who frequently sound as if they recorded the songs at the point of a gun.

Such complaints are seldom dished out by the all-good crowd--those rap fans who regard even the most constructive criticism of the form as evidence of mutiny. They prefer to grade on the curve, arguing that any increase in positivity needs to be encouraged whether it seems counterfeit or not. Besides, they go on, it's unrealistic to expect any performer to fully capture the contradictions of ghetto existence. You either celebrate it or you denigrate it. There's no middle ground.

Superfly, the Curtis Mayfield soundtrack to the 1972 film of the same name, puts the lie to this argument. Although it was initially attacked in some quarters for glorifying illicit behavior (the same charge levied against contemporary rappers, often with infinitely greater justification), it's actually an intelligent and intensely ethical examination of a very modern protagonist. Some songs, such as "Pusherman," seem to laud the character; others, like "Freddie's Dead," make it clear that his actions have consequences that cannot and should not be ignored.

A 25th-anniversary edition of Superfly, released late last year by Rhino Records, is lavish and a bit gaudy; it includes a thick booklet, a gatefold package and a bonus disc peppered with instrumentals, demos, alternative mixes and radio spots that weren't included with the original platter. But such attention to detail is richly deserved. Mayfield's work is better than the movie for which it was made, but it's also much more than that. Simply put, Superfly is one of the finest recordings made in the past quarter-century, and it has a tremendous amount to teach musicians who aspire to chronicle life on the streets.

Mayfield was uniquely qualified to tackle this subject. Born in Chicago in 1942, he was raised at Cabrini Green, a notorious housing project that symbolizes for many the failure of the welfare system. But instead of drifting into crime or apathy, he gravitated toward music. At age seven he began performing with three cousins and vocalist Jerry Butler in a collective called the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers. Nine years later Butler recruited Mayfield for a gospel group that would become the Impressions. When Butler left a year later, Mayfield assumed creative control of the outfit, and the combination of his instrumental skills (he taught himself to play guitar), a quavery voice that was at once sensitive and forceful, and a unique songwriting style led to a raft of hits, including "Gypsy Woman," "It's All Right," "I'm So Proud," "Keep on Pushing" and "People Get Ready." The best of these were more than pop confections; they were infused with the spirit of the civil-rights movement, in which Mayfield was personally involved. To plenty of observers on the front lines of this quest, Mayfield crystallized in song the wisdom that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. poured into his speeches.

By the late Sixties, Mayfield had backed away from his work with the Impressions, preferring instead to concentrate on Curtom, a label he founded, and his own solo work. As befit the times, his music and lyrics became harder, more militant: "(Don't Worry) If There's Hell Below We're All Going to Go," with its memorable opening ("Sisters! Niggers! Whiteys! Jews! Crackers!" Mayfield shouts), and "We People Who Are Darker Than Blue" were calls to action that avoided accusations of dogmatism thanks to their tuneful funkiness. This approach was the key to Mayfield's success; he knew that if he wanted a message to be delivered, he had to make it musically compelling.

What happened next had everything to do with timing. In 1971 Isaac Hayes composed the music for a motion picture called Shaft, and his theme about the main character, described in song as "a black private dick who's a sex machine with all the chicks," was both a chart-topping smash and the winner of an Academy Award for Best Song. (Hayes's appearance at the ceremony, where he wore nothing but gold chains on his bulky torso, is one of the singular moments in Oscar history.) These achievements opened up opportunities for the making of more African-American action movies scored by African-Americans. Producer Sig Shore and writer Phillip Fenty, the men behind Superfly, were beneficiaries of this trend--and when it came time to put music to their film, they chose Mayfield to create it.

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