my life’s a natural high

The Muzak where I work has a strangle-hold on a safe, vanilla-indie-lite-latte aesthetic: a shitty Beatles cover here (fuck you, Julie Taymor), some Spoon or Feist there, followed by some Sister Hazel and Edwin McCain. It’d be a mortal sin for me to admit that I enjoy even 10% of the output to my co-workers, who regularly lambaste its whitebread ways.

The scourge of chain restaurant workers worldwide.

I had the pleasure of DJing the kitchen speakers recently and always revel in the opportunity, if not a bit too much—enough time spent making the on-the-go playlist means I’ll get yelled at a minimum of four times any given night. Trying to please my co-workers without the shortcut to blast Lil Wayne over the sound of the Muzak is a creative challenge, no doubt.

When my playlist was at full sail, it traveled many waters–most of them chartered. I was pretty spineless, but I’m a pleaser till the bitter end. “Suspicious Minds” typically slays; “I Want You Back” leaves ’em wanting more; “Get Up (…Sex Machine)” gets people up. I took a little liberty when I picked “Superfly,” but I’d already won them over by then–and it was a risk worth taking.

The new guy, Charles, could barely contain his 50-year-old belly from shaking as he prepped and mixed noodle dishes in metallic bowls. He hadn’t heard this track in years–and have you seen the movie? Super Fly was player of the year–he had, like, 12 hos! “SUPA-FLY,” he’d loudly sing on cue, shuffling and sliding his feet. And I wondered: why is Curtis Mayfield so unheard of to audiences not in the AARP? Why can’t more potbellies rumble over their belts?

The funk continues after the jump…

You certainly will recognize Curtis in some capacity, whether you know it or not. He was head honcho of the Impressions, one of hundreds of “The” bands from the soul-single-sixties relatively faceless to popular knowledge at large. Their smash hit was “It’s All Right,” a soothsaying slow-burner that ushered in a successful career in the soul circuit that still hits oldies frequencies. His voice often coos and purrs with an under-his-breath finesse, like some seventies Sandman whispering a funky lullabye. He’s been rampantly sampled by the likes of 2Pac, Kanye (the key horns from “Touch the Sky”), Jay-Z and The Beastie Boys.

mp3: The Impressions – It’s All Right

His classic album, “Superfly,” was the soundtrack to a blaxploitation flick of the same name and is widely known as one of the finest soundtracks ever put to tape. Songs coolly creep like “Pusherman,” catching a drug deal in real time. Horns flourish and recede throughout the record, and you can sense the rise and fall of the drug kingpin without even watching the film itself. Super Fly eventually gets out of the pushing game, but not before his friend, Eddie, tries to make one more big score and–well, I don’t want to ruin it for you. Actually, you can probably deduce by the sixth song that MOTHAFUCKA GETS HIS ASS KILLED (“Eddie, You Should’ve Known Better”–to say the least).

Though it’s fairly evident that the film spends a good amount of time glorifying the drug-pushing lifestyle, Curtis manages to slip in a little incisive commentary about the ghetto throughout the record. His insight on civil rights issues was underappreciated in his time and may have kept his canon from being fully canonized due to its lack of “safe” themes. The drug-free triumph cut, “No Thing On Me (Cocaine Song),” could single-handedly put you through rehab in its blithe, jubilant five minutes. “My life’s a natural high/the Man can’t put no thing on me,” he croons, laying the issues on the line but still leaving hope to overcome.

mp3: Curtis Mayfield – No Thing on Me (Cocaine Song)

His music wasn’t just an outlet for social commentary—the man knew his way around a heart-melting ballad. “The Makings of You” has been covered by countless artists–Monica even themed her entire 2006 comeback album around the song. “The love of all mankind/should reflect some sign/of these words I’ve tried to recite/They’re close but not quite/almost impossible to do/reciting the makings of you.” If your heart doesn’t melt, well, there’s little hope for you. Strings and horns mimic that feeling of pure happiness and redemption you get when everything feels right, when all doubt is removed; an arrangement that captures a rare understated beauty that manages to avoid excessive schlock and schmaltz, the same of which can’t be said of most romantic ballads from that time.

mp3: Curtis Mayfield – The Makings of You


2 Responses to “my life’s a natural high”

  1. April 29, 2008 at 12:21 pm

    Great post buddy. Also the writing style is really enjoyable.

  2. September 11, 2008 at 10:03 am

    muzak is also hated by retail+office workers. and wow, when i was working at joseph a bank we NEVER got anything as good as spoon. there was one song by all american rejects or one of those cookie cutter pop punk bands on the christmas cd. that was the rockingest it got.

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