Melvin Van Peebles
The Revolution Will Be Digitalized!
I'm gonna say a word or two about Melvin Van Peebles because I'm a firm believer in givin' credit where credit is due. Melvin, suffice to say, has some unsettled debt owed to him.
His name probably means squat to you.
I'm guessin' this is because most of his music -- at least the important records -- has been lost over the years. This plausibly has somethin' to do with the fact that The Man doesn't dig Van Peebles' brand of art, and maybe even views him to some degree as a potential threat (as are all high-profile folks whose agenda preaches the exchange of American values in favor of human ones).
But Melvin is a monumental figure, and not just because he's the archetype for supreme bad-asses like Shaft and Superfly, or because his hip anti-authoritarian FUCK YOU had a greater impact on our current society than most of the counterculture figures of the last century combined. When you get down to it, Van Peebles is a testament to resilience, and he has accomplished more in this culture than damn near any artist in our current nigh. Van Peebles is the guy that shook the foundations and permanently changed the youth culture by way of Afro-nationalism, black sexuality, and the emergence of a black hero/vigilante figure in a time when our society was filled with such hatred and racial ignorance that folks of different colors could not so much as sit next to each other without a potential riot breaking out. This was during a period when it seemed like the only black entertainer that didn't play a “yes suh, no suh,” song-and-dance minstrel role was Miles Davis, and all he did was perform with his back to the crowd. So you can imagine where Van Peebles stood when he broadcasted songs on the order of When the revolution goes down, which side are you gonna be on?
You could say Melvin did for the black experience what Che Guevara did for the Brown Movement, meaning he made the Cause the hippest thing goin' -- and though it don't seem like much of a coup, this was nonetheless all it took to galvanize the nation into making the black experience a palpable and acceptable commodity. Plus, he spoke directly to the black proletariat, planting the idea that they deserved a dignified place in the sun, if not reparations (and if they don't get what's due to em' then by God they should TAKE what's rightfully theirs by any means necessary). But by the end of it, Guevara became a casualty of the times and Van Peebles was confined to live the rest of his days in relative obscurity (at least from the eyes of the American public); the legacy that both men cultivated and built became watered-down and reduced to little more than a commercial by-product. It's easy to chalk up their failures as just another example of what happens when you mesh politics with pop culture. Be that as it may, this fact hasn't stopped Van Peebles from his quest to integrate his canon into every facet of pop media. Although his albums are scarce, his influence is felt to this very day. But I'm getting ahead of myself here cuz I think it's important, at least in this instance, to offer up some personal details about our subject before we delve into his work -- if only under the assumption that his contribution to black muzik (and film) was so personal and influential that the man hatching the work may very well be as fascinating as the work itself.
First, the broad strokes. In addition to being a self-taught musician, Melvin is also a writer, poet, painter, fighter pilot, television producer, filmmaker, and the only black American member of the '60s French avant-garde scene. Not bad for a guy whose humble beginnings consisted of translating Mad magazine from English to frog-tongue so French folk could appreciate American humor at its adolescent best. Like most American visionaries, Melvin is an expatriate. He has lived and studied in Mexico, Holland, and France; though he produced most of his major work in America, it is undeniable that he prefers foreign soil, Europe specifically, which I can only guess has to do with some combination of creative freedom, racial tolerance and white women. Cuz it's no secret that Melvin's propensity for white pussy puts even the likes of Quincy Jones' jones for ivory cooz to shame -- inasmuch that ol' Melvo broadcasts this fact in his film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, where he films himself humpin' some free-lovin' hippy on the roof of a ramshackle Oldsmobile. Let's forget for a moment that this scene alone makes Do the Right Thing look as tame as The Chronicles of Narnia. Cuz the mystery as far as I'm concerned is how a film like Sweet Sweetback, at least according to Variety, has become one of the top grossing motion pictures of all time, and yet somehow Van Peebles name still floats in relative obscurity. I say relative because even though your average corn picker in Iowa never so much as heard the name Melvin Van Peebles, Sweet Sweetback made such a heavy impact on Huey Newton that immediately after screening it he made the film mandatory viewing for every member of the Black Panther Party -- which isn't at all surprising when you take into account the premise of the movie. In a nutshell, a black hero figure exacts revenge on whitey by offin' hateful pigs while taking his women in the process. I'm oversimplifying this a bit, but not by much, I'm afraid. Regardless, this was the first film of its kind, and despite its controversy, it had single-handedly birthed a whole new genre of B-movies: Blaxploitation. Which, incidentally, is a label Melvin hates.
On the other hand, Van Peebles has produced his share of dunced-out trash too (Sweet Sweetback arguably being one of 'em). The majority of his work -- most certainly his music -- is critical folderol. His albums, albeit monumental, are inconsistent at best, and when they're bad, they're awful, if not completely intolerable (and not in the sense that it's so bad it's brilliant, like how Shaggs music resonates).
Notwithstanding, Van Peebles believes his message is pivotal, and his talent (or lack thereof) is trivial by comparison. It goes without sayin' that this is an all-too-rare quality in any artist. More often than not, the verities that spew out of any musician's mouth, as selfless and humanistic as those tunes may seem, can be linked back to his/her pompous ego (Jim Morrison bein' a prime example of this precept at its truest). But that's not Van Peebles' racket. He doesn't go for all that narcissistic bullshit. This may account for why his work is by-and-large unheard of. On the other hand, his obscurity could be due to the fact that Van Peebles is, indeed, talentless (at least musically).
For starters, his singing voice is equivocally on par to the sound of nuns gettin' raped. He cannot carry a single note to save his life, in any octave. This is a fact that he's keenly aware of and has responded to by cutting a record called What the. . .You Mean I Can't Sing? Ignoring the brilliant irony of the album's handle, the production is top notch -- another fine example of what happens when you combine street soul with '70s funk vis-a-vis Sly and The Family Stone. However, the dynamite instrumentation only makes Van Peebles' yodeling sound even more pathetic by comparison. Be that as it may, I kinda dig Melvin's voice, if only on the merit that it's unique and distinctive -- which is the same argument I'll always make for Bob Dylan's nasal intonations. Cuz it goes without sayin' that I'd rather hear the likes of Robert Zimmerman or Lou Reed (or Van Peebles, for that matter) than some gutless operatic dove a la Celine Dion any day. As Kerouac simulcasts in one of his more lucid poems: It ain't about what you got that matters most but how you use it. I'm paraphrasing, but you get the idea.
Aside from Mel's non-existent singin' chops, he understands the inherent power of language and how a sentence or phrase, when properly executed, can shift the cleavage of decades via unifying or sinking a nation of millions. Sometimes it can even have the simultaneous effect of empowerment and entropy, a state which Melvin often finds himself treadin' in. His verbiage, delving into beta-noire slang and jive talk, speaks to higher levels of social awareness. His first two albums -- Br'er Soul and As Serious as a Heart Attack -- were predominately spoken-word records set to music; albeit, it may not sound like shit now, but back then was a real tornado of a mindfuck. Plus, this hostile Afro-poetry on wax jig was arguably the skeleton blueprint for what's now labeled rap music (cuz all of this went down five years before Afrika Bambaattaa, Kool Herc, and Grandmaster Flash even considered scratchin' their first records in public).
It was certainly the Magna Carta for unprecedented, no-holds-barred revolutionary talk on wax, of which groups like Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets, Public Enemy, Dead Prez, The Roots, etc. emerged. Remember: this all went down in a time when the only real vibrant black message bein' made, at least musically, could be found in jazz. At the time, soul and rock 'n' roll were consumed with little more than droppin' out and partyin'. And tho' jazz was spiritually and socially laps ahead of everybody in the musical circuit, all of that precious noise was merely implied (granted, by records filled with some of the most god-awful beauty and pain to blaze out of a horn, but suggested nonetheless). And the major difference between figures like John Coltrane and Van Peebles, at least concerning where they stood culturally, was that Coltrane sought some form of retribution and absolution for everybody, whereas Melvin was so past absolution that it seemed like nothing less than bloodshed would satisfy him, and he articulated this fact like he was jumpin' off a cliff.
And that's what makes this brotha so goddamn important; if the passing of time has taught us anything, it's that verities steeped in insubordination are at heart what the most meaningful art is about. Plus, beyond having the courage of his convictions, Melly tries to reach people on a real level. That would certainly account for that controversial scene of black-rage on white flesh in Sweet Sweetback and the blatant offensiveness of his music, cuz all of it is designed for audience reaction, on any gut level. The fact that he lacks the musical chops to back his vision makes his haphazard attempts even nobler, cuz when all said and done, Melvin's music is full of life and passion. His songs -- albeit far from the grandeur of say, the Kinks -- had somethin' personal to relay, and even if you don't agree with what he had to say, there's inherent beauty in his sincerity. Which I suppose is the lesson of all this spewin' and ruminatin'. Cuz sincerity is a beautiful quality, probably because it's such a rare trait in today's art scene (much less in our music) that any glimpse of it is like staring at the Godhead. Artists are so concerned with posturing and posin' that they forget what really counts, that the music they create is supposed to lift us up from this stinkhole of an existence (if not help us temporarily forget it). And believe it or not, Melvin tries to make strides toward this effect.
Anyway, most of Melvin's records, excluding his soundtracks, are out of print. However, word around the rumor mill is that Water Records has plans of reissuing What the. . .You Mean I Can't Sing?, an item worth picking up because beyond adding another obscure title to your CD/record collection and indulging your liberal guilt with the ravings of an angry black man, there's some noteworthy tunes like “A Birth Certificate Ain't Nothin' But a Death Warrant Anyway” and a hackjob cover of Stevie Wonder's “Superstition.” One might assume that, since the Van Peeble catalogue is so scant, there'd be a decent chance that there's some collectible value to 'em. Fat chance. His records are worth squat for the simple fact that hardly anybody knows who Melvin is, or if they do, more often than not, they don't give a hot shit. His upcoming collaboration with Madlib may change this fact, but honestly, who gives a flyin' fuck what those reprobates think? Pick up a copy and decide for yourself which side you'll be on when the revolution pops off.