I love browsing at Jackpot Records in Portland’s Hawthorne district. It doesn’t have the biggest inventory, but the collection is well chosen and there are plenty of listening stations to try music. That’s where I happened upon Brotherman, the 1975 soundtrack for a movie that was never made. (The accompanying image was commissioned by the record company when the album was released for the first time in 2008.)
As one promotional blurb put it, the character of Brotherman “was a pusher that became a preacher. A gangster pimp serving soup from the trunk of his Coup Deville. A mutant cross between Robin Hood and Friar Tuck. Everyman, our man on the street, Brotherman.” Prior to the script being finished, the producers commissioned an original soundtrack to be performed by The Final Solution, a fledgling vocal group from Chicago’s west side.
The Final Solution is an unfortunate name, the one also given to Hitler’s extermination plans during World War II. But, as with Joy Division, another band whose name recalls the Nazis, the music transcends whatever you call it. Whereas Joy Division’s music was morose, though, the Brotherman soundtrack is joyous. I’ve listened to the entire album something like 25 or 30 times in the few weeks since purchasing it on a whim at Jackpot, and I have to restrain myself from listening even more – and this from a guy who usually never wants to listen to the same song more than once per day.
Lots of blaxploitation movies had better soundtracks than scripts. Other than authentic films of the ‘60s and ‘70s made by black filmmakers like Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, most of the big classics like Superfly, Cleopatra Jones, The Mack and Shaft were the productions of white Hollywood producers and filmmakers – hence the “exploitation” part of the blaxploitation term. They were stronger on the style and charisma of their stars, actors like Pam Grier and Fred Williamson, and got more out of their driving funk soundtracks, than on artful filmmaking.
I wasn’t listening to much funk or R&B when it was originally made in the early ‘70s. I was only born in 1972. But my mom had an abiding affection for Stevie Wonder, and in our house records like Talking Book or Songs in the Key of Life played more often than anything but The Beatles. Even if I never grew to love Stevie’s music from later in his career (the ‘80s and beyond), those 70s albums, particularly Innervisions and Music of My Life, have acted as a point of entry into a lot more Nixon and Ford-era R&B and funk. At some point I fell in love with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On, Shuggie Otis’ Inspiration Information, The Best of The Meters, and Funkadelic’s One Nation Under A Groove. I’m certainly no expert on 70s funk, soul or R&B, but I’ve realized it’s a passion. This music, along with disco, is a direct antecedent to hip-hop. As a result, these are also some of the last years that the majority of African-American musicians were focused on making some form of singing verse-chorus-verse songs with instrumental backup. Believe me, the arrival of hip-hop and the Pandora’s box of sampling that accompanied the genre’s arrival have been wonderful. Where would I be without my copy of Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory? Or De La Soul, Sugarhill Records, Erik B & Rakim, Tricky, Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys? (Okay, I'm dating myself.) But soon after the 1970s, soul began a slow descent away from its place in the spotlight or, in other cases, assimilated into saccharine top-40 pop music. I can’t think of much music outside of hip-hop that has simultaneously this much grit and swing, hopeful verve and real-world resonance.
To my ear, Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly is the gold standard of blaxploitation soundtracks, and Brotherman seems to fit in that tradition. There is a driving beat with jangly guitars, banjos (!), and curvy, swinging drums. A few years ago a musician friend described wanting to sample this certain style in a dance music loop. The word “curvy” was key in his description: the idea of a drummer of that era of rock, pop or R&B/funk favoring what would today be characterized as too many drum-fills and having a subtly fluctuating tempo—the difference between a human and a synthetically produced beat. If you like what Thelonious Monk does in his brilliant jazz tunes, for example, playfully tiptoeing in and out of the tempo on piano, this kind of drumming gives off a similar feeling. It’s by no means exclusive to funk, for drummers like Keith Moon of The Who or Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix experience typify the curvy, nearly out-of-control drumming style. But I appreciate it the most listening to Brotherman.
One online review described the Brotherman soundtrack as “modestly constructed, featuring none of the indulgences common in blaxploitation soundtracks. There are no orchestrations, horn sections, or sprawling arrangements, and only [the title song] "Brotherman" itself contains obvious blaxploitation signifiers, opening with ‘Runnin' game was his thing,’ while ‘Where There's a Will’ acts as the requisite self-motivation track. Most of the remainder deals in affairs of the heart. Everything is conveyed with sweet group harmonies and gently churning arrangements where a pleasantly flicking rhythm guitar is a near constant.
According to the Urban Dictionary, the term “brotherman” is “a word used to describe an extremely ‘down to earth’ individual. Brotherman can be used simultaneously with the first name of a person in an effort to show they share a strong mutual bond. A group of cool people can be deemed brothers as they share a strong brotherly bond. Brotherman, are you and Brother Dabin going over to PQ's house to hang with the brothers from KBC?"
Perhaps it’s crass of me, but even though I love the music for the music itself, I can’t help but facetiously wonder if Barack Obama is on some level the Brotherman hero of the song. The Final Solution came from Chicago and are part of that city’s burgeoning funk and soul scene of the 1970s, when Obama would have first settled there. And considering the astonishing sight of watching him actually become our 44th president certainly has elevated Obama to superhero status in my book – even more so given the implosion of newly sworn in Portland mayor Sam Adams’ implosion in a sex scandal. Brotherman Obama—and I mean that term as a compliment in the highest order, not a trite racial epithet, of course—is definitely the guy to save the day: a man of great intellect and oratory skill who is still in touch with the streets; his first job after graduating Columbia was a community organizer in the tough streets of Chicago. I guess I can’t help but imagine this political godsend’s rise with just a little bit of extra curvy drumming in the background and a pulsating bass propelling the action.
Most of all, the Brotherman soundtrack feels joyous to me. Maybe it’s the gospel influence of the vocal harmonies populating nearly all of the songs. Maybe it’s just the cumulative effect of this up-tempo sound with an expressive Mowtown-esque array of instruments. But somehow a record that most people would approach tongue-in-cheek (a blaxploitation soundtrack-fun! And one never made—weird!) is to me a set of songs that sink deep inside, like the heat from a warm bath. Inevitably a lot of my affection for this period of music is based on it coming from those first years of life when one’s brain is such a sponge. But you wait and wait for albums that you love like this, that you start at the beginning as soon as the last song ends, that you can listen to in a dark room, lying on the floor with full attention devoted, or that can become wallpaper while you’re, say for example, writing a blog post. For all I know, people reading this who listen to Brotherman wouldn’t find it anything special. But for me, this dealer-turned-preacher distributing soup from his Coup de Ville is, at least until I inevitably move onto another album, a kind of long-lost sibling.