The fourth album by Melvin Van Peebles, and his second soundtrack release, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is drawn from the movie that began the Blaxploitation genre – even if the film’s content didn’t really draw up a template for the flicks which followed it. What Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song did as a movie was show that, yes, Hollywood could make money from films with strong black lead characters being, well, baadasssss and ghetto, rather than trying to sell Sidney Poitier to the white folks. What it did as a soundtrack was… also be baadasssss. It put Earth, Wind & Fire’s name in the spotlight for the first time, and proved that a man who would later make an album called What The…. You Mean I Can’t Sing?! could still get his message across… Future hip-hoppers took note.
Let’s be certain here: Mr Van Peebles cannot sing. And Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, released in June 1971, two months after the film, is very much a soundtrack album, not a straightforward Stax collection of soulful songs. However, today’s listeners are much more used to hearing a non-singing voice on record than a 1971 audience was. And this record grooves like a plough on wet mud.
Kicking off with a bizarre mixture of gospel and sex on ‘Sweetback Loses His Cherry’ (including a snip of ‘Wade In The Water’, which EWF’s leader, Maurice White, would have played night after night as drummer with Ramsey Lewis), it rapidly becomes apparent that Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is almost an audio drama with funk. ‘Come On Feet Do Your Thing’ is the standard movie chase, with “whitey” hunting Sweetback over urgent horns and sirens; ‘Sweetback’s Theme’ is nightclub jazzy R&B, with the aformentioned Lewis’ trademark handclaps; ‘Hoppin’ John’ is so like James Brown’s ‘Mother Popcorn’ – and just as good – that it’s a wonder a lawsuit didn’t ensue.
There are further gospel-like interludes, guard-dog attacks, dancin’ jazz grooves and some highly clichéd dialogue between The Man and the Black Man, which wasn’t so clichéd back then. And today, you couldn’t find a record, soundtrack or otherwise, as freewheelin’ and funky as this.
If you’re looking for an early taste of what Earth, Wind & Fire became, you won’t find it here, despite the occasional appearance of kalimba, one of the band’s trademarks. What you will find is unique; you might file it alongside Lightnin’ Rod’s Hustlers’ Convention, but where that album spells its story out, Melvin Van Peebles instead demands that your imagination fills in the gaps his soundtrack leaves behind. It works just as well without the visuals in that case. Whatever else Van Peebles went on to achieve – and there was plenty – if he’d stopped with the movie and album of Sweet Sweetback, he’d always be regarded as baadasssss.
Buy Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song here.
The Stax Classics playlist here.