Can You Dig It?

Title: Can You Dig It? : The Music and Politics of Black Action Films 1968-75

Artist: Various Artists

Label: Soul Jazz Records

Formats: 2 CD set, 4 LPs (vol. 1-2)

Catalog Number: SJR CD 214
Release Date: September 29, 2009

The period of the late ’60s and early to mid ’70s was a time of social change in America, when previously marginalized and ignored groups were making their voices heard. Coinciding with this change in the country at large was a drastic economic change within the motion picture industry. With revenues plunging, companies pursued previously unexplored avenues of revenue, one of which came to be known as Blaxploitation films.  Featuring largely black casts and often primarily black crew members, these films brought out black audiences en masse. This was the first time Black Americans were able to see themselves on screen in non-subservient roles outside a few films here and there. Black audiences flocked to theaters to see stories told from their perspective, and heroes with features (and problems) akin to what they saw and experienced daily.

Another extremely notable aspect of Blaxploitation films was the music accompanying them. Artists like Issac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield and Willie Hutch provided music scores that in many cases have held up stronger than the films themselves. Can You Dig It?, a two-disc set released by Soul Jazz Records, brings together a generous offering of music from a wide selection of films produced during the Blaxploitation era. While songs like the themes from Shaft and Superfly are infamous and have been played and heard consistently since the ’70s, this set offers selections from other films with lesser known soundtracks.  Tracks include Joe Simon’s “Theme from Cleopatra Jones,” Dennis Coffey’s “Theme from Black Belt Jones,” Edwin Starr’s “Easin’ In” from Hell Up in Harlem, Willie Hutch’s “Theme of Foxy Brown, and “Sweetback’s Theme” by Brer Soul (a.k.a. Melvin Van Peebles)  and Earth, Wind & Fire.

Following is the official trailer for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Courtesy of Xenon Pictures):

There are no real misses in this set as all of the songs have stood the test of time. The set also includes offerings from R&B/soul acts not known primarily for soundtrack material such as Martha Reeves, Solomon Burke, and Booker T & the MG’s. Overall, the collection offers a sampling of the era’s best musical works and serves as a good starting point for those interested in Blaxploitation era music.

Ironically, the real star of this set is not the music. As with many Soul Jazz releases the true gem is the liner notes by Stuart Baker that accompany the discs. Can You Dig It? comes with a 96 page booklet that speaks to the socio-political climate in Hollywood that produced these films and soundtracks, giving a much needed perspective that helps us understand why the works themselves are so significant. The booklet also provides profiles on the actors/actresses, crew members, producers and musicians who were instrumental in creating the soundscapes that accompany a very unique (and regrettably) all too brief period of cinematic history.

Reviewed by Levon Williams