O’JAYS / “For The Love Of Money”
We opened the time capsule and found a prophecy exactly mapping our contemporary plight. The document had been recorded in 1973, over thirty years later it was sounding fresh. And dire, but insistent, throbbing with life and urgency. We got to deal with this. This: the way we are, the way we living. Our love of money; our disdain for each other. The capitalism that brought us here as currency. The capitalism we keep current within our selves. Ubiquitous as the air we breathe.
What was in the water back then that yesterday's sounds could be so right on today?
Seven. Eight. Nine minute grooves. Who did they expect to listen that long to a pop tune? What radio station would play an anthem denouncing “a love of money”? And where did they get those funky-ass bass lines?
From the creaking of the slave ship setting sail on the high seas to the discordant jangle of selling ourselves as well as selling out each other for mean green, Ship Ahoy is a monumental achievement of popular music. When it dropped, Ship Ahoy provided an incisive response to Marvin’s question about What’s Going On?, which Mr. Gaye had asked a few years earlier.
What distinguishes this O'Jay's recording is that it was not received as protest music to be listened to occasionally but instead was top of the charts hit music. We bumped it in our cars criss-crossing urban avenues, crowded on nightclub dance floors, and especially through the radio airwaves. All of our stations were encouraging us to think about what we would do for money, about how we had been done for money.
Take a deep breath. Think about it.
The music made us think about it. About our lives. How we were living. How we were treating each other. What government and business was doing. But especially what we were doing to ourselves. To each other.
The cover art. The O’Jays in the hole of a slave ship. A portrait on the inside: a trio of black entertainers standing by the sea. No, not entertainers. Not flashily dressed. Standing there in silhouette looking to the distant horizon. Their heads proudly crowned by well shaped afros. What an image. What a story. Enslaved and imported. Now emancipated and still bedeviled, contemplating their condition.
There is something warrior resolute in their stare on the front cover. Something seeking wisdom in their inside cover seaside contemplation. Man, was this the O’Jays? Yes and no.
Yes, this was that famous male trio whose close harmonies, tight choreography and stirring song echoed inner city preoccupations with securing respite from daily troubles through the ecstasy and pleasure of love. Not noted particularly as political. But then here was Ship Ahoy. And all of a sudden, or so it may seem that it was sudden, the streets became avenues of social awareness.
This was the early seventies. Black power had leavened the Civil Rights movement, taken it higher. Back to Africa, militantly forward. A soundtrack of how Negroes became Black. And beautiful. And embraced Africa. And became conscious. And self critical. Concerned not just with status quo politics but concerned too with the inner state of our dis-union. How the love of money was killing us, leading us to self destruct. Concerned also about the outer us, the environment. What was being done to the air.
This was not just blind race pride. The O’Jays (Eddie Levert, Walter Williams and Eric Grant) were serious as cancer. Deadly as a heart attack. “Don’t Call Me Brother” unless you really mean it, really were going to walk the walk and not just mouth the talk. Who else would put a damn near ten-minute-long self-critical jeremiad on a pop record and expect it to sell in the stores and get airplay?
What we were witnessing was not just entertainers becoming conscious, but producers kicking out the jams. The production team of Gamble and Huff were offering Black Power militancy that trumped Motown’s Civil Rights gradualism. No more being inoffensive. Time to tell it like it is. No more muzzling the anger. Time to tell the truth.
Gamble and Huff were both politically conscious and musically savvy in ways Gordy could not match. They used strings and things, state of the art production techniques, but there was also deep grit in their grooves. Stomping, sweating, shouting Black shit that was a bit too strong for supper clubs. This was not ghetto gone Las Vegas, but rather the street loud and proud, proclaiming where we is is where it's at!
Ship Ahoy may not have been crossover material but it sure was a message the masses of us wanted to hear, deeply wanted to say. Out loud. And the O'Jays did it and it was just what the masses wanted. Needed. And eagerly embraced.
The musical level of achievement is awesome. Mtume, listen to how they use vibes on “Don’t Call Me Brother.” Listen to how they not just sing, they also preach. Eddie Levert doing the griot, running down how his automobile was vandalized and knowing that it was his so-called brother that did it. Notice how it uses the polyrhythm of the gospel-influenced three/four time pushed up against the heavy, R&B four/four backbeat. Socially, musically, this is an inspired song.
What match do we have for the serious contemplation of “Ship Ahoy”? Is there any contemporary (circa the first decade of 2000) that compares to “Ship Ahoy” musically or politically? Heavy drums. Mournful strings. Punching horns. And those steel strong male voices cutting through it all.
I love the merry upbeat instrumentation on the song of caution, “This Air I Breathe.” And, of course, the bass on “For The Love Of Money” has been sampled so many times it has its own life.
The musical inventiveness, the soulful vocals, the political forwardness; what a potent mix this all is.
But I don't have to offer anymore attempts at explanation, I'm sure you already dig and understand these sounds. This music which reflected a larger social context. A music that three decades later is more on point than when it was first created. How wise the eye that addresses the future using language of its time—language understood when it was created—and yet, somehow is also language totally appreciated years and years later. Two generations on, the more things change… why are things still the same?
—Kalamu ya Salaam
The love of money
When I think about the O'Jays, and in particular, about the O'Jays' music from this time period, I think about how authoritative they are. They have such a powerful, commanding tone. They were talking about serious subjects in serious ways and yet, they were keeping it listenable. I know and like all of these songs.
As Kalamu says, it is hard to believe that songs with such depth, character and structural complexity were right there front-and-center in the world of popular music. Kalamu's right too, that music like this just isn't being made anymore. Actually, I'm not sure that's true and I don't think that was really Kalamu's point. I think his real point was that music like the O'Jays' isn't at the forefront of popular music. There are artists we can point to who are making popular music that has this same level of artistry and seriousness about it, but those artists aren't selling millions and aren't well known.
Thinking in particular about the most popular song from Ship Ahoy, "For The Love Of Money," I think about the Biblical verse (Timothy 6:10 for those keeping track at home) that says, "Money is the root of all evil." I was always confused by that because I could think of all sorts of evil things that didn't have much to do with money. But the actual verse is - and note that the O'Jays got it right - "The love of money is the root of all evil." Now we're on to something. And so were the O'Jays. If anything, I think their words make more sense in our current times of SUVs and flashy cellphones and $300 bottles of liquor than they probably did back when they were recorded.
-Mtume ya Salaam
The writers got it right
I'm a writer. When it comes to popular music, unfortunately, almost all of the attention goes to the performer and sometimes the producer but what about the writer. What about the person(s) who actually thought it through and figured a way to hook it up. So for the record: "Ship Ahoy" is by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff; "This Air I Breathe" is by Kenny Gamble and Bunny Sigler; "For The Love Of Money" is by Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and A. Jackson; and "Don't Call Me Brother" is by Kenny Gamble and Bunny Sigler. Mad props and much respect.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Sunday, August 26th, 2007 at 12:08 am and is filed under Classic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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