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The Return of Superfly

Today's hard-core 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 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 the supporters of hard-core rappers 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 and the Family's No Way Out juxtaposed the usual gory mini-movies with repudiations of violence. But although the anti-violence tunes have taken some of the heat off of the hip-hop industry, the majority of those songs are hollow -- they're insincere public-relations gambits rather than true evidence of 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 most 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 or not it seems counterfeit. 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, such as "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 grew up in some tough neighborhoods. But instead of drifting into crime or apathy, he gravitated toward music. "I never really had to acquire an interest in music," he told Blues & Soul magazine in 1974. "I just happened to grow up around people who were a constant inspiration." One of those inspirations was Jerry Butler, with whom he performed as a child in a collective called the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers. Some years later, Butler recruited Mayfield for a gospel group that would become the Impressions. When Butler left the Impressions in 1959, 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 1960s, Mayfield had backed away from his work with the Impressions, preferring instead to concentrate on Curtom, a label he had 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 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.

 

To say that Mayfield gave Shore and Fenty more than their money's worth is a colossal understatement; it's painful to imagine the movie without his songs. Gordon Parks Jr. went on to become a sturdy director, but his work on Superfly is choppy and erratic. And while Ron O'Neal did an effective job of portraying Priest, the coke peddler whose outrageous fashion sense provided the flick with its name, the other performances were uniformly stiff. The action scenes had some kick to them, but only because they were cut to Mayfield's beats. He provided the texture that the visuals only approximated, sketching Priest far more eloquently than did Fenty's screenplay. That's why the soundtrack's lasted while the film has become little more than a footnote even among connoisseurs of the blaxploitation genre.

"Little Child Runnin' Wild," Superfly's first number, serves as something of an overture for the album, touching on motifs that Mayfield revisits. Against a backdrop of Latin percussion, an insinuating organ and a stabbing brass and string arrangement, Mayfield observes a young junkie from afar before crawling inside his head for the accusatory lines, "Didn't have to be here / You didn't have to love for me / While I was just a nothin' child / Why couldn't they just let me be." He follows this refrain with an attempt to put the kid's misery into a broader context: "Where is the mayor / Who'll make all things fair? / He lives outside / Our polluted air." Finally, he takes a preliminary shot at Priest, declaring, "Can't reason with the pusherman / Finance is all he understands."

But Mayfield knew better than to dismiss this figure so cavalierly. In "Pusherman," he came up with a melody that's as seductive as the dealer's pitch: "I'm your mama / I'm your daddy / I'm that nigga in the alley... / You know me / I'm your friend / Your main boy / Thick and thin / I'm your pusherman." When he croons "Got to get mellow now" like an addict finally feeling the warmth in his veins, he seems to be saying that anyone is susceptible to these demons -- even him. In "Freddie's Dead," he takes his empathy a step further; it's one of pop music's most affecting elegies. Mayfield dares to examine the demise of Freddie, an underling played by Charles McGregor, as a symptom of a global disease. He sings, "Why can't we brothers / Protect one another? / No one's serious / And it makes me furious." But he contrasts his indignation with a devastating quatrain about how easily this event can be brushed off: "Another junkie plan / Pushin' dope for the man / A terrible blow / But that's how it goes."

"No Thing on Me (Cocaine Song)" isn't nearly as subtle as "Freddie's Dead"; it's a straightforward anti-dope anthem that's musically a bit too sunny. But "Eddie You Should Know Better," an internal monologue for Priest's partner (Carl Lee), is a multidimensional look at a person who understands that he's heading for disaster but is too exhausted to save himself. And the title song is a fascinating blend of Shaft-like hero worship and lyrical denigration. Priest spends the film trying to make enough cash from one last coke transaction to retire, and the momentum of the narrative coaxes the audience to root for him to succeed. But Mayfield isn't willing to champion this goal. He recognizes the appeal of the gangsta creed in his chorus: "You're gonna make your fortune by and by / But if you lose, don't ask no questions why / The only game you know is do or die / Ah-ha-ha." But in the verses, he makes it plain that Priest is not nearly as noble as he seems. His final judgment is compassionate but unblinking: "Had a mind, wasn't dumb / But a weakness was shown / 'Cause his hustle was wrong."

It's no insult to note that Mayfield never topped Superfly; Orson Welles didn't make a better movie than Citizen Kane, either. As the '70s wore on, Mayfield's music became denser and less accessible. If you listened to it long enough, much of it was revealed to be remarkable, but during the disco days, fewer and fewer people were willing to spend the time. He was sustained by a loyal cult audience until August 1990, when in an accident at a performance in Brooklyn he was paralyzed from the neck down. This tragedy reminded members of the music industry of Mayfield's accomplishments, and they responded: Since his injury, he has received numerous awards, been the subject of a tribute disc, seen his work compiled on a fine boxed set (1996's People Get Ready!: The Curtis Mayfield Story) and recorded last year's New World Order, a moving and surprisingly effective new full-length CD.

 

The reappearance of Superfly can be seen as part of this avalanche of acknowledgment, too, but it needn't be; it stands quite well on its own. Moreover, the songs serve as a challenge to a new generation of musicians to write about their world in a more rigorous and insightful manner than they have in the past. That's Curtis Mayfield's legacy. Now it's up to his hip-hop children to do the old man proud.

-- Michael Roberts


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