Fela Kuti – “Unknown Soldier” (1979)
Make the time for this track, I promise you won’t regret it. “The personal is political/the political is personal” doesn’t even come close to getting it for Fela Kuti. This track has everything that’s great about Fela’s music and Afrobeat–all participants serving the groove in the best JB’s-like way, some playing a repeating, individually tiny sound figure repeatedly for the duration of this 30-minute track in order to create something much larger than the individual, something hypnotic and transcendent.
But this is one instance where I’d insist on paying attention to the lyrics, too: the story Fela tells here is astonishing, and the way he tells it keeps my hair standing on end for the duration. I can think of few moments in music more wrenching, heart-breaking, and astonishing than Fela’s description of the murder of his mother peaking at the pure sound of loss at 22:55-23:05. But the whole thing is the most effective contrast of humanity versus the dehumanising effect of military-minded “order” I’ve ever known, in any medium. This is one of the high achievements of popular music.
Curtis Mayfield – “(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go” (1970)
Curtis Mayfield can have a lot going on in his tracks, but they never feel over-stuffed. Mayfield could absorb larger-scale soundtrack-ready arrangements of brass and strings without losing any of the sharp melodicism or the funk, a balance he was one of the first to master. In that vein, this track has long been one of my favorites–a real gateway drug to the musical joys of the 70s. Here the strings feel especially integral, not aloof in that great Gainsbourg/Vannier way but sharp and directly interacting with the rhythm instruments. But the tops is that fuzz-bass and the dubbed-out echos whenever Mayfield refrains, “don’t worry”.
Jeru the Damaja – “Ain’t the Devil Happy” (1994)
Though it’s a little unfair, “conscious” has come to be a near-synonym for “soft” or “hippie” or “not real” when it comes to hip-hop. Jeru, though, is conscious like hip-hop forefathers the Last Poets or Gil Scott-Heron were conscious: politically conscious, sociologically, spiritually, economically: not “foolin around”. Jeru felt no reason to compromise between brains and musical brawn. So also like those forefathers, he achieves the rare feat of political music that matters as much for its music as its message. Spare and efficient, “Ain’t the Devil Happy” is not the least bit dated, like even plenty of other musically enjoyable mid-school hip-hop.