On His 73rd Birthday, Curtis Mayfield’s Contributions To Hip-Hop Live On (Audio)
Today (June 3) would have been Curtis Mayfield’s 73rd birthday. The iconic Soul, R&B, Doo-Wop and Rock & Roll vocalist died more than 15 years ago. However, his voice, his guitar, and his indelible swagger keep on pushing through the consciousness. Hip-Hop has put Curtis Mayfield on his rightful pedestal, in life and in death.
The man’s words, his sound, and his attitude ring through the music Hip-Hop Heads hold dear. Through that, the veteran’s catalog continues to be in deserving celebration, especially on a birthday:
“(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go” (1970)
Lyrically and sonically, Curtis Mayfield’s solo, self-titled debut delivered a wicked indictment on the world’s racial disharmony. Mayfield threw a finger to the establishment before the song even kicks in. Using strong language effectively, Mayfield’s commanding vocals (especially on the 1971 Live! version) have been lifted by producers for four decades. However, once the composition kicks in, things get really interesting. Mayfield called the world’s wicked ways out, and made a jam that was eerie, poignant, and groovy all at once.
In structure, style, and substance, this song was the outspoken attacks on the oval office. Whether dead prez’s fuzzed out, unsteady aesthetics, or Kanye West (who also sampled the song) chiming in, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” on cable television, this song had the chutzpah, the cajones, and the gumption to do it first. Curtis brought races together, simply by pointing to the divisions imposed on people. From Public Enemy’s “By The Time I Get To Arizona” to Tupac’s “Changes,” so many mantras and attitudes are built in this pungent, fuzzy, and rich outcry.
Throughout the 1970s, Curtis Mayfield proved that one artist could voice a character eloquently. After his sweet sounds with the Impressions, the Chicago, Illinois native was able to take on protagonists in various grind-house and Blaxploitation films. Curtis only added to the on-screen cool, especially in 1972’s Super Fly. While the title track may be the trademark, “I’m Your Pusher” not only captured the essence of Youngblood Priest, the song’s justification and apathy at once explained an epidemic across the world. The dope-peddler had an anthem, that both glorified and sardonically condemned him at once. The drums and accents enhanced the message.
Whether originator (and heavy sampler) Ice-T, or the Jeezy and Rick Ross era, this song would be a mainstream archetype for the hustler’s mentality. The neighborhood hero with the girls and the cars thrived, years before WC & The M.a.a.D Circle’s Curb Servin’, or T.I.’s “Rubberband Man.” Moreover, Mayfield’s soft delivery, poetic use of repetition, and humanizing of the drug-dealer has become a major first. This song is “Justify My Thug” and “Blueprint (Mama Loves Me)” in one. For just over five minutes, Curtis Mayfield played the part as well as any actor in the film. Years later, the authenticity of the song, and the dichotomies of its meanings have become a staple in Hip-Hop’s hustler mentality.
“On The Move” (with the Impressions, 1974)
From Pete Rock’s “Tru Master” to D.I.T.C.’s “Drop It Heavy,” the musicality of this Three The Hard Way soundtrack standout spoke to the dustiest corners of the hardcore Hip-Hop sound. While it often seems “it’s mostly the voice” with Mayfield, the Curtom Records star’s guitar playing and instrumentation remains technically elevated. Like Isaac Hayes, James Brown, or Nina Simone, Curtis’ music endures through Hip-Hop vocally and musically.
Unlike so many of Mayfield’s contemporaries, the singer-songwriter’s entire catalog attracts re-purposing. Whether 1969 or 1979, the guitarist, producer, and smooth crooner made melodies and arrangements that producers are driven towards. Whether he was uplifting the people, telling his own pained story, or complementing a character on screen, Curtis found the soul in all things. He spoke through many mediums, and it is why his work forever endures.