The soundtrack album that paved the way for the blaxploitation explosion, Shaft set the template that other soul/R’n’B soundtracks tended to follow: an uptempo title track full of Latin percussion, wah-wah guitar and sweeping orchestration, several low-tempo soul-jazz mood pieces, a couple of vocal tracks and a couple of funk instrumentals. What Hayes did brilliantly here was to use the musical language and sonic palette of R’n’B and apply them to a film soundtrack, using jazzy guitar licks, Stax-esque horn lines and funky beats to create mood and elicit emotion. A classic soundtrack.
‘Blaxploitation’ is a blanket term for early seventies films made by Black directors and aimed at Black audiences. The films were generally independent, low-budget and their subject matter was often crime, drugs, sex and racial tension. The genre included a broad range of films so it can be problematic to generalise, but blaxploitation movies have often been accused of glorifying violence and perpetuating stereotypes of Black communities. While this may be true in some cases, the films were also extremely popular with their audience and were vital in the development of the Black film industry while providing creative outlets for Black actors and directors.
Musician and writer Questlove in his book Music Is History notes the tension within the blaxploitation genre, saying that for many they were “exciting, thrilling and even inspirational” but describing early blaxploitation classic Shaft as “…if not an overt tool of white control, a perfect example of of the way that the white hegemony had forced black people to internalise stereotypical ideas of themselves.” The complex impact, influence and meaning of the blaxploitation genre is a subject probably best left to experts. However, aside from the films themselves, there were the soundtracks, many of which were superb.
The early seventies were an incredibly fertile period for soul and funk music. Studio technology had progressed to enable high-quality multi-track recordings while new gear like synthesisers and effects units like phasers, chorus, envelope-followers and wah wah pedals broadened the scope of what was musically possible. Many black artists were stretching out and including new influences from psychedelia, jazz and Latin in their music, expanding the sonic language of R’n’B.
The increasing popularity of the album format also encouraged experimentation in songwriting and production too. In his seminal book, The Death of R’n’B, author Nelson George refers to a new sophisticated musical sensibility that emerged during the early seventies, where Black music became “longer, more orchestrated, more introspective — some Black albums had the continuity and cohesions of soundtracks even when they weren’t. Latin percussion in the form of cowbells, congas and bongos suddenly became rhythmic requirements, adding a new layer of polyrhythmic fire to the grooves. Minor chords, frowned upon during the soul years, began appearing in the work of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and the proliferation of black bands such as Earth Wind and Fire, Kool and the Gang and Mandrill.”
It was in this creative atmosphere that artists like Willie Hutch, Isaac Hayes, Bobby Womack, Roy Ayers, Grant Green, Edwin Starr, Johnny Pate, James Brown and Curtis Mayfield produced many enduring and sophisticated soundtrack albums for the films that would later be called blaxploitation movies.
Films require music for every mood, so the soundtrack albums were often expansive, bold and highly inventive. Rickey Vincent in his book Funk: The Music, The People and the Rhythm of the One notes that “The black film formula was a ready-made recipe for the black musician to explore the range of black American life and express it in song. Each soundtrack featured a snappy and radio-friendly intro theme, chase scene music, romantic or sexy love scene sounds, and music for funerals, weddings, stealthy suspenseful moods and bloody action.”
Composed by some of the most successful and influential Black artists, played by superb musicians at the very peak of their game, in an era of musical confidence and experimentation, Vincent is absolutely correct when he says “Soundtrack albums produced a level of variety and consistency that rivalled the great funk bands of the era.”
Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song from 1971 is considered by many to be the first blaxploitation film. The soundtrack by Earth Wind & Fire is heavily punctuated by sound effects and dialogue from the film and isn’t the best of the genre. However, later that year, Isaac Hayes released the soundtrack to Shaft, the first double album from a soul artist, which became the best-selling release in Stax Records’ history and won four Grammys. Curtis Mayfield’s seminal Superfly followed in 1972, and both albums were much-copied exemplars of the soul and funk film soundtrack. Over the next few years there was an abundance of blaxploitation projects, plenty of which came complete with soaring soundtracks.
Over time, many of the musical innovations of these albums found their way into pop music, TV themes and adverts and by the end of the seventies, the wah wah guitar, conga-heavy, highly-orchestrated and elongated funky rhythm tracks that characterised blaxploitation movies had become clichéd. But many of the soundtrack albums stand up extremely well today, full of sophisticated, adventurous and confident soul, jazz and funk.
The first film soundtrack from composer/arranger/producer Johnny Pate is an unsurprisingly high-quality effort. The mood pieces are sophisticated, introspective soul-jazz while the up-tempo tracks are seriously funky, with their superb-sounding drum breaks proving extremely popular with hip hop producers looking for beats to sample. Shaft In Africa also features Motown stalwarts The Four Tops on their suitably cinematic-in-scale ‘Are You Man Enough.’ Like the best soundtracks, Shaft In Africa goes through a series of moods, tones and textures while expertly maintaining musical cohesion.
The Short Eyes soundtrack is one of Mayfield’s lesser-known albums, perhaps because of its unpalatable subject matter (the fate of a sex offender in prison). But while the dark lyrics of the title track can’t help but detract from its stone-cold groove, its instrumental second half is a consummate lesson in soundtrack funk. Short Eyes is perhaps Mayfield’s boldest album in terms of the guitar work and he supplies plenty of raging hot solos à la the Isley Brothers here, with the dark funk perfectly balanced by classic-Curtis sweet soul like ‘Need Someone To Love’ and ‘Another Fool To Love.’
The second film soundtrack from guitarist, producer and singer/songwriter Willie Hutch, Foxy Brown is another classy collection of songs. With only a couple of string-laden, misty-focus romantic tracks, the album is mostly an updated, funked-up version of the Motown sound which swings between loose-limbed funky soul tracks, thick with layered backing vocals and restrained string parts, and more uptempo jams full of Stevie-esque clavs and fatback drumming. Aside from the rich, wide-screen production, Hutch supplies plenty of strong songs, making for a highly durable album.
Marvin Gaye took a sophisticated and urbane approach to his soundtrack for 1972’s Trouble Man, producing a mix of orchestrated soul-jazz and cutting-edge synth-flavoured funk with plenty of jazz influences and a moody film-noir feel. Trouble Man is intimate and intense, romantic at some points and futurist at others with a high quality level throughout. Understandably overshadowed by its release between the two soul classics What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On, Trouble Man is a worthy member of Marvin Gaye’s 1970s classic album run.
Across 110th Street’s soundtrack is made up of six Bobby Womack songs and five instrumentals from composer and trombonist J.J. Johnson. Johnson contributes brassy, fast-paced tracks heavy on the overdriven clav along with moodier, sultry, semi-easy listening pieces. Womack meanwhile, is in fine form with the anthemic title track, a gossamer-light acoustic version of his gorgeous ‘If You Don’t Want My Love’ from his ‘Communication’ album of the previous year, and ‘Do It Right’ which is absolutely packed with exquisite guitar work tucked into every corner of the mix.
The Mack is an extremely well-executed and played soundtrack album with an opulent musical palette full of harps, french horns and velvety orchestration, all melded to Hutch’s funk and soul songs. Tender moments like ‘Mother’s Theme’ or classic seventies-soul torch track ‘I Choose You’ are high quality, high drama soul, while elsewhere there’s plenty of uptempo percussive soul and funk jams, characterised by tight, taut, interlocking funk guitar work from Hutch himself, ably aided by session stars Louie Sheldon and David T. Walker.
Sheba, Baby came out in 1975 from Saxophonist Monk Higgins and songwriter/producer Alex Brown with vocals from Barbara Mason. Mason features on three excellent, inexplicably unknown songs, the slinky title track, the minimal, bluesy ‘I’m In Love With You’ and the synth-soul of ‘She Dit It.’ The rest of the album is funk and soul ensemble instrumentals with big brass riffs, plenty of fuzz and wah wah guitars alongside Moog and horn solos. A superb example of a quality Blaxploitation soundtrack that outlasted its film.
Hayes’ first post-Shaft soundtrack was inevitably going to be compared to the original and from the very first seconds, with the opening high-hat rhythm intro that bears a distinct resemblance to ‘Shaft’, Hayes employs many of the same musical devices here. In the process, he creates another high-calibre selection of quality soul-jazz with chord changes and string arrangements that lean toward easy listening, and several ensemble-funk tracks in various moods and tempos. Album highlights ‘Hung Up On My Baby’ and ‘Randolph & Dearborn’ are great examples of the big, lavish arrangements that Hayes excelled at.
Slaughter’s Big Rip Off was largely composed and arranged by JBs trombonist and band leader Fred Wesley and includes ‘Transmographication’ from Wesley’s aborted solo album project. Elsewhere you get plenty of JBs funk with the irresistible descending chords of ‘People Get Up And Drive Your Funky Soul’ and the intricate street-funk of ‘Slaughter Theme’ particular standouts. Vocalist Lyn Collins makes the most of her one track with an impressive performance on the slinky ballad ‘How Long Can I Keep It Up.’ Made up of songs rather than ‘chase scene’/’love scene’ tracks, ‘Slaughter…’ sounds more like a decent JBs/James Brown album than a film soundtrack.
1974’s Hell Up In Harlem soundtrack featured an all-star session cast including Motown bass-supremo James Jameson, Joe Sample on keys and Dennis Coffey on guitar. Breaking with blaxploitation convention, Hell Up In Harlem is mostly made up of songs with only two instrumental pieces (and an instrumental version of the title track). Starr’s distinctive half-rough/half-sweet voice is expertly backed up by a Mizell brothers production that is a little rawer than their usual smooth and sophisticated vibe. If it wasn’t a soundtrack, Hell Up In Harlem would work perfectly well as a standalone artist album and was definitely a career highlight for Starr.
With substantial input from band leader and trombonist Fred Wesley, James Brown’s first soundtrack album presented several examples of the stark, taut funk sound the JBs had perfected by ’72 as well as mellower tracks like ‘Sportin’ Life’ and straight-up soul like the bluesy ‘Like It Is, Like It Was’ or the soft-focus heartbreak of ‘Mama’s Dead.’ Black Caesar also included stone-cold funk classic ‘Mama Feelgood’ from vocalist Lyn Collins. In a discography that ranges from earth-shapingly influential to disappointingly lacklustre, Black Caesar is one of Brown’s stronger and more cohesive efforts.
The highly influential Superfly soundtrack was put together by the Chicago soul dream team of Johnny Pate arranging and orchestrating Curtis Mayfield’s funk and soul parables and paeans. It stands above most early seventies Black film soundtracks because of the quality of the songwriting and with only two instrumental tracks, this is a soundtrack full of exquisitely crafted soul songs. From the unexpected string coda at the end of ‘Little Child Running Wild’ to the pitched percussion on ‘Pusherman’ or the circular un-resolving chords of ‘Think,’ Superfly is a highly inventive album too, setting a standard that Mayfield’s contemporaries would struggle to reach.
Soul drummer extraordinaire Bernard Purdie’s soundtrack album to the 1974 movie Lialeh is an absolute treat. Eschewing the bongo/conga-driven wah wah ‘chase scene’ aesthetic of many blaxploitation soundtracks, Purdie instead put together a gorgeous collection of laid-back soul and funk, all underpinned by his peerless drum work. With not a bad track in the seven that make up its thirty-three minutes, Lialeh features four vocal tracks with the easy swing of the title track a particular joy, and three tightly played, nimbly arranged instrumentals, ending on the effortless, euphoric funk of ‘Hap’nin.’
‘The King of Rock & Soul’ Solomon Burke released the soundtrack to Cool Breeze in 1972. It’s a mix of funk and traditional-style soul tracks, all with rich, orchestrated arrangements, and absolutely filled to the brim with congas, bongos, over-driven guitar solos, clavinets and wah wah guitar. Aside from the bizarre ‘Ichbyatht Wt’ which is the ‘William Tell Overture’ with some overdubbed dialogue, it’s a strong soul and funk album with Burke’s big, commanding voice well suited to the expansive productions.
With producer/arranger/composer Johnny Pate’s OST for 1973’s Brother On The Run you get a distinctly jazzy take on the Blaxploitation aesthetic. The uptempo tracks are full-on conga-heavy wah wah grooves, sweetened with strings and sweeping, big-band-esque horn lines, all produced to perfection. The slower more pensive mood pieces are very pretty, deftly utilising the musical language of soul and R’n’B to convey the various moods of the film. Sophisticated, widescreen soundtrack-soul.
Written, produced, arranged and performed by vibraphone player/producer/composer Roy Ayers, 1973’s Coffy is one of the strongest, most sonically-consistent Black film soundtracks of the era. Coffy offers up steamy funk like ‘King George’ and ‘Brawling Brawds,’ high-tension jazz funk like ‘Aragon’ and plenty of slick, atmospheric soul-jazz that all fits together as part of a greater whole. It’s a great sounding record too: the percussion is crisp and upfront in the mix, the bass is full, the synths, guitars and keys all occupy their own space in the sonic spectrum, the musical parts all interlocking like a well-oiled piece of musical machinery.
The stand-out track among the six that make up the Solomon King OST is the near-12-minute ‘Theme from Solomon King’ title track. Kicking off with what sounds like a pre-set drum rhythm from an organ, it builds into a highly orchestrated, grinding Hammond and strings epic, complete with a lengthy bass-and-percussion breakdown. Vocalist Helena Hollis appears on a deep-soul take on the Carol King-penned ‘Changes’ and singer-songwriter Jimmy Lewis who produced the album fronts a couple of nice bluesy soul tracks too.
Jazz guitarist Grant Green wrote and produced jazz label Blue Note’s first soundtrack for The Final Comedown, a little-remembered drama from 1972. The effortlessly cool and weightless groove of the title track is well known to funk and acid jazz aficionados and ‘Afro Jazz’ pursues a similar funky-jazz path. Elsewhere mournful pieces like ‘Luanna’s Theme’ or ‘Father’s Lament’ expertly blend soul jazz with orchestration and Green also includes some high tempo percussion and atmospheric mood tracks alongside the obligatory wah wah/congas chase-scene tracks.
Truck Turner was Hayes’ second soundtrack of 1974, and was another double album from perhaps the most prolific period of his career. Once again he put together a highly effective soundtrack that confidently wandered through swinging R’n’B, blissed out easy-jazz, down-home bluesy jams, pristine uptown soul and gutbucket funk. Mostly instrumental with just a handful of vocal tracks, its diversity was its strength, maintaining the listener’s attention across its seventy-one minutes. Widescreen instrumental soul.