16th January, 2019
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Superfly – Curtis Mayfield

Blaxploitation movies that emerged in the early 1970s, had black actors and communities as the heroes and laid emphasis on the plot, rather than being portrayed as sidekicks or as victims, which used to be the norm in Hollywood. The soundtracks of these movies had soul and funk as the guiding genre. ‘Superfly’ was one such movie and the great soul musician Curtis Mayfield was chosenfor the soundtrack.

Starting a singing career with the gospel choir, Curtis Mayfield joined the group The Impressions at the age of 14. While with the group he wrote one of the most socially / politically aware songs of all time People Get Ready. In his solo career, Curtis carried forward this awareness to a higher level with the soundtrack of ‘Superfly’, whose plot revolves around a cocaine dealer trying to quit the underworld. It gave him a vast playing field. With subjects ranging from poverty, drug abuse, crime and death, he made an album that stands tall, along with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, as a commentary on black lives.

Both musically and lyrically, the album is incredibly powerful. However, initial listening will draw your attention towards the music first, which is as fine as a brilliant confluence of soul and funk can get. With delicious bass guitar, groovy drums and wahwah guitar sound, the music influenced several future generations of musicians. But it’s the profound subtlety of the lyrics that really makes this album special.

Using the plank of the plot, Curtis gave voice to some incredibly journalistic, yet empathetic lines for the times. Consider these:

In the song, Pusherman (2nd track, side 1), he comments on the role of a drug dealer as a businessman: “For a generous fee / Make your world what you want it to be”.

In the song Freddies Dead (3rd track, side 1), he reminds the listeners of the evils of drugs: “Stay clean, away from drugs, remember Freddie’s dead”. Yes, it’s a dark song.

And in the title track Superfly, the last track of the album he describes the protagonist: “The game he plays he plays for keeps, hustlin' times and ghetto streets”. The bass guitar and the drums, both are pretty mean here.

My first few encounters with the album left me mesmerized for several reasons. The ‘almost shy’ falsetto singing of the man, the sharp twangs of the lead guitar, the groovy bass guitar, the primeval drums and the sublime, yet impactful lyrics. But what really stays after several affairs with the album, is the ease with which Curtis Mayfield sent some very strong messages to America.

He was the man!

Year: 1972
Genre: Soul / Funk
Duration: 37:05
Label: Curtom

Rating: *****

Reviewed by Meraj Hasan 

Meraj Hasan is a Mumbai based communication professional (and an amateur poet/musician) with a passion for listening to music the vinyl way. His 25 year old Technics turntable along with a humble collection of LPs across genres like Classic rock, Classical, Blues and Jazz (amongst others) are his prized possessions.

He can be reached at +91 9833410791 or email: meraj.hasan@gmail.com

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