Zach Schonfeld on the significance of 24-Carat Black’s legacy
I realize that 24-Carat Black’s 1973 soul-funk masterpiece may seem like an unlikely choice for the 33 1/3 treatment. I also realize that much of the target audience for this book series may not be especially familiar with 24-Carat Black. As I write in the book’s introduction, “Its influence is largely invisible. It never sold ten million copies. It doesn’t show up on Rolling Stone lists of the 500 greatest albums of all time. At the time of writing, it doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia entry.”
So I thought I’d write a short post about why this album matters, and why I wrote a book about such a relatively obscure funk album that, despite its considerable impact on hip-hop, has never become anything close to a household name. Here are nine reasons why I chose to write a 33 1/3 about 24-Carat Black’s Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth.
- 24-Carat Black’s story has never fully been told before. As I note in the introduction of the book, 24-Carat Black’s lone studio album has been “shrouded in deep mystery for forty-seven years.” Yes, there have been plenty of blog posts, album reviews, forum threads, and even some reissue liner notes about 24-Carat Black. But there’s been very little detailed reporting or original research on the group’s backstory, their eventual abandonment by Stax Records, and precisely how their music was resurrected by the hip-hop generation of the early ’90s. I wanted to correct that. I tried to do that story justice—while extracting some detailed first-person accounts from the musicians who lived it.
- The band’s story is full of drama and intrigue. Band members being carted off to jail for not paying hotel bills? An impromptu encounter with Elvis? Near-death experiences while riding in the back of a U-Haul? A frightening run-in with the KKK? Dragging a casket onstage as part of a performance stunt? Band fights that led to half the band quitting on the spot? This all happened during 24-Carat Black’s brief, ill-fated run as a touring act, and it’s all in the book. Had 24-Carat Black been more successful and long-lasting, their story would have made for a killer VH1 Behind the Music episode.
- Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth is a masterpiece. A funk-soul concept album with a genuinely unique vibe, urgent sociopolitical themes, and a remarkable gloss of orchestral sophistication. There is no other album quite like it.
- You’ve heard their music, or at least snippets of it. 24-Carat Black’s music has been sampled endlessly by prominent rappers and hip-hop producers. Kendrick Lamar, Nas, Eric B. & Rakim, Jay-Z, RZA, and Pusha-T are just a few of the notable rap acts who have incorporated 24-Carat Black compositions into their own work. More recently, 24-Carat Black was sampled just last month on Busta Rhyme’s 2020 album Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath of God. Few funk/soul albums have had such an unusual and extended afterlife.
- Yet most people still don’t know their name. Outside of the rarefied circles of rap producers, record collectors, and soul obsessives, 24-Carat Black remains fairly obscure. I was struck by the group’s lack of name recognition despite the remarkable afterlife of their music. I humbly hope this book may bring a little more attention or recognition to their music.
- This story is also a story about the rise of sampling. I’ve described the book as a “micro-history” of sampling through the lens of one highly sampled album. I wanted to investigate how sampling has evolved since the 1980s, how these changes have shaped the sound and business of hip-hop, how this musical collage art can also bring legal and ethical complications, and how this particular album found its way into the hands of so many different rappers and producers on the hunt for samples.
- The surviving musicians are unable to profit from the samples. This injustice is at the center of this story: The musicians of 24-Carat Black do not own the rights to their own music, and they don’t receive a cent when prominent rappers sample their work. Some of them are still struggling to make ends meet. I want to spread awareness of the group’s situation, and the lack of recognition and compensation for their music.
- This is part of a larger pattern of exploitation in the music industry. As I note in the book, 24-Carat Black’s story exists within “a deeper historic pattern of predominantly Black funk and soul musicians being cheated out of money or recognition.” From Isaac Hayes winding up bankrupt in the late ’70s to Clyde Stubblefield, performer of the endlessly sampled “Funky Drummer” break, struggling to pay his medical bills, it’s a familiar story, and one that makes 24-Carat Black’s story particularly potent. The music industry must reckon with this legacy and provide reparations for the Black musicians who helped build this culture.
- Because Black Lives Matter. And American music is built upon the brilliance and innovation of Black music.
This concludes Zach’s takeover of the 33 1/3 blog, a great way to kick off the weekend! Check out his book on one of the most influential bands you’ve probably never heard of.