Can You Dig It? 20 Greatest Songs From Blaxploitation Soundtracks

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Times have changed.

A year from now, Chadwick Boseman and the cast of Black Panther are expected to massacre the box office with the blackest superhero movie in recent memory.

A mere 50 years ago, though, black action stars were all but nonexistent to the public eye. But as real-life heroes of the civil-rights movement began to reshape the country in the 1970s, a new batch of fictional heroes soon captured the imaginations of black America.

Those characters became part of the blaxploitation film movement, low-budget flicks that cast African-Americans as leading men and women and changed the game for black representation in films. While the films certainly had their shortcomings – especially those that came dangerously close to glorifying negative stereotypes – their influence on pop culture, specifically music, is undeniable.

Take a look back at the 20 best songs from some of blaxploitation’s biggest soundtracks. Even if the track names don’t ring a bell, give ’em a listen – nearly every song here has been sampled by current music stars.

There may not be a Chadwick or Lupita Nyong’o today if we didn’t have Richard Roundtree and Pam Grier so many years ago. Here are the sounds that changed history.

Honorable mentions: Curtis Mayfield, “Eddie You Should Know Better”; Herbie Hancock, “Fat Alberta Rotunda”; War, “Youngblood”; Curtis Mayfield, “Junkie Chase”; James Brown, “Slaughter’s Theme”

20. Dennis Coffey, “Theme From Black Belt Jones”

Film: Black Belt Jones (1974)

Edd said: Blaxploitation and martial arts go hand in hand, so it’s no surprise that this title track packs a punch. Vibrant horns and high-pitched chants help raise the stakes for the battles to come.

19. Joe Simon, “Theme from Cleopatra Jones”

Film: Cleopatra Jones (1973)

Edd said: Blaxploitation was filled with strong female leads, so Joe Simon cooked up a theme song that accented Cleopatra Jones’ strength and sexuality. When Simon said the “uzi carrying mama” “moooooooooves like the desert winds,” you felt it.

18. The Four Tops, “Are You Man Enough”

Film: Shaft in Africa (1973)

Edd said: Let’s be real – Shaft in Africa doesn’t have the strongest reputation among movie buffs. It’s a guilty pleasure at best, and downright ridiculous at worst. But the film’s soundtrack is undeniable and this often-overlooked cut from the iconic Four Tops is among their best offerings.

17. Rudy Ray Moore, “The Human Tornado”

Film: The Human Tornado (1976)

Edd said: It’s not often that a sequel surpasses its predecessor, but the title track from The Human Tornado actually outshines the original Dolemite score. Rudy Ray Moore wasn’t playing games with this one.

16. Melvin Van Peebles, “Sweetback’s Theme”

Film: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)

Edd said: This track isn’t just catchy funk, it’s also a slice of music history. “Sweetback’s Theme” features an up-and-coming soul group that would soon gain greater acclaim as Earth, Wind and Fire. This cut paved the way for their careers while bolstering blaxploitation’s soul sound.

15. The Impressions, “Three the Hard Way”

Film: Three the Hard Way (1974)

Edd said: This one often gets lost in the shuffle of more high-profile blaxploitation releases but both the film and score deserve more love. Three the Hard Way featured the dream team of  Fred Williamson, Jim Brown and Jim Kelly battling a bunch of white supremacists – it’s basically the Black History Month version of The Expendables. Curtis Mayfield’s former group The Impressions use gentle funk and uplifting lyrics to set the stage for this union of superpowers.

14. Issac Hayes, “Main Title Truck Turner”

Film: Truck Turner (1974)

Edd said: Issac Hayes might primarily be known for another blaxploitation classic (more on that one later), but his score for the brash bounty hunter Truck Turner is just as noteworthy. It’s almost James Bond-ish in its execution, but of course, with much more attitude.

13. Willie Hutch, “Brother’s Gonna Work It Out”

Film: The Mack (1973)

Edd said: Willie Hutch’s The Mack just might be the greatest blaxploitation soundtrack of all time. The set’s final track is masterful, with a breezy intro that exudes coolness. From Dr. Dre to Ro James and all points in between, this track has been sampled countless times by R&B and hip-hop artists, and for good reason.

12. Roy Ayers, “Coffy is the Color”

Film: Coffy (1973)

Edd said: Roy Ayers doesn’t get enough credit for pushing the boundaries of the blaxploitation sound. By adding subtle jazz inflections to his soulful backdrops, his tracks became slightly more atmospheric and all the more infectious. “Coffy is the Color” is proof.

11. Curtis Mayfield, “Freddie’s Dead”

Film: Super Fly (1972)

Edd said: Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly score is one of the genre’s biggest achievements. Mayfield’s lush production and knack for storytelling help to make this track unforgettable.

10. Willie Hutch, “Overture of Foxy Brown”

Film: Foxy Brown (1974)

Edd said: Now if I were a biased music reviewer, this would be my pick for No. 1 – it’s by FAR my favorite song derived from a blaxploitation score. While I can’t objectively say it’s the best song the genre has produced, it’s still 55 seconds of near-perfection. “Don’t let him down, Foxy.”

9.  Marvin Gaye, “Trouble Man”

Film: Trouble Man (1972)

Edd said: It’s rare than a soundtrack actually outperforms its film, but thanks to the brilliance of Marvin Gaye, the score of Trouble Man did just that, with this track serving as the crowning achievement.

8. Curtis Mayfield, “Pusherman”

Film: Super Fly (1972)

Edd said: Curtis Mayfield’s soulful commentary once again reigns supreme on the Super Fly soundtrack. “Pusherman” stands as one of the greatest depictions of life as hustler ever recorded, even 45 years after its release. “Been told I can’t be nothin’ else/Just a hustler in spite of myself” – it’s as powerful and addictive as the pusher’s product.

7. Rose Royce, “Car Wash”

Film: Car Wash (1976)

Edd said: By the late 70s, disco began to break out as music’s hottest trend, and the main theme from Car Wash rode that wave to immortality. It’s not just one of the most recognized songs of the blaxploitation era, it’s one of the most recognized songs of all time. Admit it, you’re humming the melody to yourself RIGHT NOW.

6. Bobby Womack, “Across 110th Street”

Film: Across 110th Street (1972)

Edd said: This track found new life the late 90s thanks to its inclusion on Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown soundtrack, but decades earlier, it had made its name as an anthem for low-income blacks. “Trying to break out of the ghetto was a day-to-day fight” – those were more than lyrics, that was life. Bobby Womack brought those struggles to light.

5. Willie Hutch, “I Choose You”

Film: The Mack (1973)

Edd said: Yet another classic song from The Mack soundtrack, and yet another song that has been borrowed by dozens of your favorite rappers and R&B singers. Willie Hutch’s lush arrangements and warm vocals personify romance.

4. Rose Royce, “I Wanna Get Next to You”

Film: Car Wash (1976)

Edd said: Your mama n’ dem’s favorite love song! Rose Royce’s romantic staple has become a hallmark of R&B, and that legacy started all the way back on the Car Wash soundtrack. Without question, one of the most iconic songs of the 1970s.

3. Willie Hutch, “Theme of Foxy Brown”

Film: Foxy Brown (1974)

Edd said: Willie has dominated this countdown, and for good reason. His sound has become synonymous with the blaxploitation movement. And his theme song for Foxy Brown, one of the genre’s most trailblazing heroes, continues the legacy of exemplifying strength through soul.

2. Curtis Mayfield, “Superfly”

Film: Super Fly (1972)

Edd said: The crown jewel of the Super Fly soundtrack is, unsurprisingly, its title track. The opening guitar licks are instantly recognizable, and once those horns kick in, the journey begins. It’s the ultimate theme song for 70s decadence.

1. Issac Hayes, “Theme from Shaft”

Film: Shaft (1971)

Edd said: Clearly, this was the only choice for the top spot. I’m stating the obvious here, but this song IS blaxploitation in its purest form – a potent blend of soul and attitude; effortlessly cool with an edge of danger. Shaft became an inner city hero and a pop culture icon, all thanks to this irreplaceable score. Can you dig it?

Did your favorites make the list? What are your favorite blaxploitation songs?

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