Original Format: mp3
When I finished “Over the Line” there were a bunch of songs left over, and it was hard not to notice the common thread among them: they were all songs by African-Americans (except one by Rodriguez, who is Mexican-American). Only then did I realize that everything on “OtL” was made by people of the Caucasian persuasion. So I started assembling a companion piece, and here it is.
I am of course against segregation in all its forms, and it’s probably in bad taste to call these two mixes “separate but equal.” Maybe they reflect the different ways drug issues manifest themselves in the lives of people of different backgrounds, or something like that. In any case, this is food for thought, hopefully.
Broadway Sam (Part 1) Iceberg Slim
“Iceberg Slim, whose legal name was Robert Beck, burst on to the scene nearly half a century [sic] ago, with his memoir ‘Pimp: The Story of My Life’ (1967), followed immediately by the novel ‘Trick Baby’ (1967), which was adapted for the screen by Universal Pictures. During the nineteen-seventies, Beck published three more novels and a collection of political essays, recorded a spoken-word LP, was profiled in magazines and newspapers, and became a bona-fide L.A. celebrity.” —Robin D.G. Kelley, The New Yorker
Pusherman Curtis Mayfield
“Mayfield takes an observer’s view on this song, refraining from judgment and showing the pusherman from the perspective of a potential client. To a kid on the street, the drug dealer shows up everywhere, and can take on many forms: mother, father, doctor, friend. Said Mayfield: ‘The first thing I wanted to do was not condone what was going down, but understand it, and speak in terms of how one can keep from getting locked into these things which youngsters and a lot of people see all around them.’ This is one of the first popular songs to use the N-word in the lyrics, as Mayfield sings, ‘I’m that ni–er in the alley.’ This didn’t stop it from getting plenty of airplay on Album Oriented Rock (AOR) and R&B radio stations. The song wasn’t released as a single and no ‘clean’ edit was issued, but the word never posed a problem, as it was done not for shock value and fit in with the gritty subject matter.” —Songmeanings.com
The Pusher Nina Simone
I was today years old when I learned that this song was written by Hoyt Axton after a friend of his died from an overdose. It was made famous by Steppenwolf, but Hoyt’s own version is fascinating, it maybe a little long:
Broadway Sam (Part 2) Iceberg Slim
“Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim, by Justin Gifford, is an exercise in demystification. We learn that Beck’s oft-quoted claim of having an I.Q. of 175 was false, and that ‘Iceberg’ was just a nom de plume that Beck invented while writing ‘Pimp’ (his actual street name was Cavanaugh Slim). Having conned, cajoled, and terrorized his way through the underworld, Beck ironically proved to be a perfect mark for Holloway House, his longtime publisher, whose miniscule royalty checks never matched their extraordinary sales figures.” —Robin D.G. Kelley, The New Yorker
Cloud Nine The Temptations
“The Temptations’ soulful staple, ‘Cloud Nine,’ released on October 25, 1968, is much celebrated as the first Motown song to win a Grammy. It’s also a revered exemplar of the group’s fruitful relationship with producer Norman Whitfield and his co-writer Barrett Strong. Recorded with a new-look Funk Brothers band featuring the wah-wah guitar of Dennis Coffey, it was also the marker of the taut, tense new sound the combined talents would create together from that point on.” —udiscovermusic.com
Slippin’ into Darkness War
“You can hear similarities between this song and Bob Marley’s 1973 release, ‘Get Up, Stand Up.’ Says [War drummer Harold] Brown: ‘Me and Bob Marley and B.B. Dickerson were in Atlanta, that was the last time we were together. We were walking to the radio station. Bob Marley looks at me, and he punches me on the arm, and he said, ‘Boo. I do song for you guys. I do song for you guys.’ Song was ‘Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights.’ He took that from ‘Slippin’ Into Darkness,’ that motif.” —Songfacts.com
Sugar Man Sam Baker
There’s real disconnect here between the breezy music and the grim lyrics — which in a way makes the whole thing that much more unsettling.
Broadway Sam (Part 3) Iceberg Slim
“Beck described meeting the Black Panthers in his most enigmatic and overlooked book, ‘The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim’ (1971). Subtitled ‘The Real Robert Beck,’ this slender collection of essays was his manifesto. Inspired by James Baldwin’s ‘The Fire Next Time’ (1964) but bearing a closer resemblance to Julius Lester’s ‘Revolutionary Notes’ (1969), the essays were not meant as a repudiation of ‘Pimp.’ Rather, they could be read as a kind of Hegelian synthesis produced from the unity of opposites: Cavanaugh Slim (thesis) and Robert Beck (antithesis).” —Robin D.G. Kelley, The New Yorker
King Heroin James Brown
I like that even in a preachy song about the scourge of deadly drugs, James has time for a dumb joke about “fellow Americans” and “lady Americans.” There is a certain cheese quality to his rhymes here, though the sentiment feels like a sincere one.
Quit It Nat Adderley
Turns out this is a cover of a Miriam Makeba song — which I might have used instead, had I known. Though Nat’s version is pretty nifty too. What do you think?
Home Is Where the Hatred Is Gil Scott-Heron
Another song that is a lot bouncier than the words seem to call for. Sometimes musicians just can’t help but groove — and who wants to listen to a dirge anyway? A spoonful of sugar etc.
Broadway Sam (Part 4) Iceberg Slim
“Revolution, in Beck’s view, was not only necessary but inevitable. He wrote, ‘America is being led to her death by racist power junkies coasting on a stupid trip — the fatal fantasy that soldiers and police can destroy with clubs and guns an indestructible force: the hunger of the human soul for dignity, justice, and freedom.’” —Robin D.G. Kelley, The New Yorker
Sugar Man Rodriguez
It’s been 10 years now since Searching for Sugar Man briefly made Rodriguez something of a household name, and he seems to be keeping a low profile these days. Apparently he was on tour as recently as 2018 — maybe he’ll be back post-pandemic? I’d love to see him.
The Devil Is Dope The Dramatics
At the time the Dramatics were not saying that the devil is awesome, which is how it sounds now. Coolio (R.I.P.) must have known this when he did his version, but went ahead anyway.
The Truth Shall Make You Free The Mighty Hannibal
To quote Homer Simpson, “I don’t even believe in Jeebus.” But such in Hannibal’s fervor that he’ll have you shouting right along with him.
Broadway Sam (Part 5) Iceberg Slim
“Beck understood that writing was a form of entertainment and a hustle as well as a political act. Even as he flirted with the Panthers and swapped his nightmares for revolutionary dreams, he knew that his greatest commodity was his street cred — and he pimped it, even as he disavowed it. This ambivalence kept him from leaping headlong into the movement, but it also mirrored the urban proletariat’s love-hate relationship with a laissez-faire capitalism that rewards and celebrates those who obtain wealth by any means necessary.” —Robin D.G. Kelley, The New Yorker
Stone Junkie Curtis Mayfield
It felt too easy to end with the upbeat resolution of “The Truth Shall Make You Free.” Curtis’s song is more ambiguous, and more realistic.