As Black History Month comes to a close, some might wonder how to effectively celebrate the contributions African-American citizens have provided, and continue to provide, to American culture. An easy answer to this is to embrace those contributions. In the world of modern music, you’d be hard-pressed to find a song that isn’t influenced by African-American music in some way. From blues to jazz to hip hop, black Americans' contributions to the American songbook are invaluable. Below are just a few classic records that demonstrate the abundance of virtuosity in the black community over the years.
1. “A Love Supreme” by John Coltrane:
By 1964, Coltrane had already established himself as one of jazz’s premier saxophonists. Coltrane achieved success with seminal records such as “Blue Train” and “Giant Steps,” but “A Love Supreme” was the moment that pushed Coltrane forward as more than just a man with some chops. Coltrane transcended the conventions of jazz music on this record, trading them for something more spiritual and other-worldly. "A Love Supreme" is a glimpse inside a mind full of negative capability; it’s a recording equal parts demanding and meditative.
2. “There’s a Riot Goin’ On” by Sly and the Family Stone:
Just months before Sly and the Family Stone released their fifth studio album “There’s a Riot Goin’ On,” soul legend Marvin Gaye released “What’s Going On.” A beautiful glimpse into the ugly world of racial disparity, Gaye’s opus posed a question that Sly eagerly answered. Despite the revolutionary nature of the title, "Riot" sounds more like watching chaos while stoned in a living room than actually participating in the revolt. The record is full of soul yet void of gloss, with distorted vocals and muddy production creating an atmosphere as chaotic as the subject matter. If “What’s Going On” is the sound of confusion toward a generation of unrest, then “There’s a Riot Goin’ On” is a stark grin at a world on fire.
3. “The Low End Theory” by A Tribe Called Quest:
On “Excursions,” the opener to A Tribe Called Quest’s second album “The Low End Theory,” rapper Q-Tip explains the cyclical nature of music: “You could find the abstract listening to hip hop / my pops used to say it reminded him of be-bop / I said well daddy don't you know that things go in cycles / the way that Bobby Brown is just ampin' like Michael.” A record that holds its jazz and soul-based influences on its sleeve, “The Low End Theory” couldn't start on a more fitting rhyme. With its socially conscious rhymes and vintage beats, the record truly started a blueprint for hip hop to come. With believers in Kanye West and Mos Def, “The Low End Theory” is a pretty sound theory to subscribe to.