Our definitive roundup of blaxploitation soundtracks.
Dovetailing the civil rights movement, 1970s blaxploitation film was the birth of a new code of black representation. Often formulaic, they featured black heroes thrown into style-heavy contexts (anything from crime to westerns to sci-fi), often facing white opposition in one form or another.
It’s a genre shrouded in disagreement but whether you think it was empowering or that it encouraged divisive stereotypes, it’s impossible to ignore the music that accompanied the action. The soul and funk soundtracks often surpassed the quality and popularity of the films themselves. In contrast to the radio-friendly funk of the time, ’70s soundtracks are complex and feature rich orchestration. Quite the ear treat.
So, in alphabetical order (of film title), here’s our essential selection of 1970′ blaxploitation soundtracks. Listen to the playlist below and scroll down to check out the records individually.
Bobby Womack & J.J. Johnson
Across 110th Street (UAR, 1972)
Film: $300,00 is stolen from a Mafia-owned Harlem bank. Two detectives are on the case but so are the mob…
Soundtrack: The film owes its cult status to the title track, which was later revived by Tarantino in Jackie Brown. Overall there’s a nice blend of classic ’70s soul and funky instrumentals.
Film: Mafia world becomes entangled with a karate school, leading to death, revenge and plenty of martial arts.
Soundtrack: Music that packs a punch. Heavy bass, mega drums and blasts of groove, plus bits of sound effects and dialogue thrown in. The title track (left) chants its way along and Love Theme is a choppy delight you need to hear.
Film: A day in the lives of employees at a car wash and the strange visitors they encounter.
Soundtrack: Debut album of the Whitfield produced group Rose Royce, and the music that launched their name. The title track was a number one hit but dig deeper and you’ll be rewarded with sharp disco funk cuts and hypnotic instrumental pieces.
Herbie Hancock Fat Albert Rotunda (Warner Bros., 1969)
Film: Bit of a double cheat here – it’s taken from Bill Cosby’s animated TV (not film) series Hey, Hey, Hey, It’s Fat Albert, which was released in 1969 i.e. not quite the 70’s.
Soundtrack: Definitely worth bending the rules for this expertly crafted album. There’s a nod towards the funk territory that a later Hancock embraces but with a strong jazz flavour from the post-bop, Blue Note days.
Film: More black revenge. This time a seductive lady masquerades as a high-class prostitute to infiltrate mobsters that killed her boyfriend.
Soundtrack: Not as successful as the soundtrack to The Mack but infinitely better. “Give Me Some of That Good Old Love”(left) is a slice of delectable, foot-tapping soul. And “Hospital Prelude of Love Theme” is a thing of beauty.
Sun Ra Space Is The Place (Blue Thumb, 1973) Film: Experimental, trippy, bizarre stuff but would you expect any less from a film starring Sun Ra? Afro-centric sci-fi and a non-linear narrative meets blaxploitation to produce a cinematic take on Sun Ra’s music.
Soundtrack: The opening scenes are accompanied by the 20-minute free-form “Space Is The Place” that occupies side A. On the B there’s four incredible cuts showing off a range of styles and instrumentation.
Film: A drug dealer wants to quit the game but before going clean he needs to complete his biggest deal yet to fund his mobster pension.
Soundtrack: Mayfield’s third studio album, a huge hit and a big influence on the blaxploitation soundtrack genre. The lyrics are masterfully socially aware – using storytelling to challenge the glamorisation of street life but without overtly moralising.
Melvin Van Peebles Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song (Stax, 1971)
Film: A landmark classic written, directed, scored and starring Melvin Van Peebles. It’s often credited for starting the blaxploitation boom.
Soundtrack: Performed by Earth, Wind and Fire, it was released before the film to generate publicity because Van Peebles didn’t have funds for advertising. The soundtrack’s not as groundbreaking as the film but it’s still funky as hell.
Film: Mr T., a private detective, is hired to fight a masked gang but things get very complicated…
Soundtrack: Like Hayes and Mayfield before him, Marvin Gaye stepped up to soundtrack a film and ended up outperforming the film quite considerably. A strong contender for the best Blaxploitation soundtrack ever.
Film: The rise and fall of an ambitious New York pimp with a clear moral guide being offered up by the film.
Soundtrack: Scored and conducted by trombonist, J.J. Johnson, it’s all about breakbeat sections and driving instrumental cuts. There’s an edginess to the soundtrack which mirrors the action-packed uncertainty on screen.