Upon its release in 1971, there was nothing quite like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. The low- budget, independently-made film – written, directed, edited, composed by and starring Melvin Van Peebles, and rated X “by an all-white jury” as its tagline proclaimed, ushered in the blaxploitation genre in shocking and often graphic fashion. Prior to the film’s release, the multi-hyphenate Van Peebles realized that the best way to spread the word about his groundbreaking work was via music. And so, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song: An Opera – A Film of Melvin Van Peebles – The Original Cast Soundtrack Album arrived on Stax Records, the Memphis record label that was home to some of the country’s most important African-American musical artists. (Indeed, it was home to some of the country’s most important musical artists, period.) As part of the label’s 60th anniversary celebration, Sweet Sweetback has returned to vinyl in a new 180-gram edition cut in Memphis at Ardent Studios and pressed at Memphis Record Pressing.
The album, as hinted at by its cumbersome title, isn’t a conventional soundtrack album – rather, it’s an audio-vérité mélange of dialogue, sung and instrumental music, and effects. It initially functioned as a teaser for the film and now serves as a souvenir and fascinating audio document in its own right. It was composed by Van Peebles, who couldn’t read or write music but could hum his concepts to musicians who could bring them to life. In this case, the musicians were the young members of Earth, Wind and Fire. Their work on Sweet Sweetback roughly coincided with their debut Warner Bros. album, which was released in February 1971. (The movie arrived in theatres that April, with the soundtrack having preceded it into stores.) The soundtrack was jointly credited to EWF and Brer Soul, which was the name assumed by Van Peebles for his 1968 A&M Records LP of the same time. That album introduced Van Peebles’ proto-rap style of speak-singing, which can be heard on such Sweet Sweetback tracks as the funky organ-and-brass explosion of “Hoppin’ John.” The music and dialogue (which jumps out of both speakers in a very discrete stereo presentation) are appropriately raw and gritty for Van Peebles’ dark story of the titular character (portrayed by the writer-director) on the run from the police.
For all of the free-form, sonic experimentation and coarse language on the soundtrack, there’s plenty for straight-ahead soul, R&B and even hip-hop fans to savor. The driving “Come on Feet” has the EWF horns in full force, while the band shines even more on the irresistible, even breezy, saxophone-led jazz groove of “Sweetback’s Theme.” The first few tracks on the second side have a more typical structure than the first, with brief snippets of dialogue (identified as “Voices”) accompanying each track. “Mojo Woman,” sung by an unidentified female vocalist, is a smoking slab of R&B. “Sanra Z” begin as a meditative piece, highlighted by low, funereal brass, until the jarring introduction of an electric guitar; it then transforms into a workout for the group. Threads of gospel and spirituals run through the score, as well, from the very first track in which the strains of “Wade in the Water” are juxtaposed with an explicit sex scene depicting the underage Sweetback losing his virginity to a prostitute (“Sweetback Losing His Cherry”). The raucous, anthemic chants of “Won’t Bleed Me” are accompanied by EWF’s surging Latin rhythms.
The 180-gram vinyl LP is housed in a sturdy gatefold jacket replicating the original Stax release, right down to the misspelling of A&M publishing concern “Almo” as “Alamo.” The inner sleeve happily bears new liner notes describing the album and film’s history penned by LA Weekly columnist Jeff Weiss, as well as an appreciation from Melvin’s son, Mario Van Peebles, who followed in his father’s footsteps in integrating music into such films as New Jack City. Audio quality on the vinyl is exceptional; the pressing is quiet and detailed.
More than 45 years after the release of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, many of its themes are still sadly relevant today. Its soundtrack doesn’t have the accessibility of its Oscar-winning successor Shaft, also released on the Stax label, but it does offer a hard-hitting journey through the mind of the visionary writer-director and musical artist Melvin Van Peebles. As a lost chapter in the career of Earth, Wind and Fire and a snapshot of a groundbreaking moment in cinema history, it’s a welcome addition to the Stax 60th anniversary collection.
- Sweetback Losing His Cherry
- Sweetback Getting It Uptight and Preaching It So Hard The Bourgeois Reggin Angels in Heaven Turn Around
- Come On Feet
- Sweetback’s Theme
- Hoppin’ John/Voices
- Mojo Woman/Voices
- Sanra Z/Voices
- Reggins Hanging On in There as Best They Can/Voices
- Won’t Bleed Me
- The Man Tries Running His Usual Game But Sweetback’s Jones Is So Strong He Wastes the Hounds (Yeah! Yeah! And Besides That Will Be Coming Back Takin Names and Collecting Dues)