Each week, The Perfect Chord looks back at albums you may have missed when they dropped, or miss now that they've faded from memory. This week's glimpse into the crates:
In the early 1990s, astronomically high-profile producer Bill Laswell (the man behind, among many others, Herbie Hancock's Future Shock album and Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes") enjoyed a lengthy fascination with the erstwhile members of Parliament/Funkadelic, employing funkateers Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell as sidemen to avant-metal guitarist Buckethead in a myriad of projects and cobbling together a relentless stream of one-off recordings. Some of these albums ended up being released on Rykodisc as the Black Arc series, intended to illuminate the true breadth of the Black experience and influence in contemporary music–or, simply, to include all of the other P-Funk All-Stars Laswell hadn't gotten to yet.
For 1994's Under The 6, Laswell dispatched guitarist Michael "Kidd Funkadelic" Hampton to add texture to a group fronted by bassist Islam Shabazz and producer/guitarist Bill McKinney. Completing the line-up was drummer Mackie Jayson, founding member of hardcore punk icons the Cro-Mags (and recent veteran of two separate stints drumming for Bad Brains). With all the pieces in place, Slave Master was born.
Despite Hampton's funk pedigree and Jayson's punk cred, the album itself is largely an exercise in midtempo groove metal. Tracks like "Heal" and "Damnation" feature breakdowns that would sound just as welcome on a Pantera or Megadeth album; the former, with Jayson's double-kick drum beneath McKinney's frenzied palmmuted chords, is clearly meant for head-banging. What sets Slave Master apart, however, are Shabazz's lyrics, usually delivered via an aggressive rap and almost exclusively influenced by his Muslim (specifically Nation of Islam) beliefs. The juxtaposition of Black Muslim dogma against the backdrop of roaring power chords seems jarring conceptually (imagine Elijah Muhammad preaching over a Slayer instrumental), but the band makes it work.
McKinney is the reason the entire concept doesn't come crumbling down under the weight of its own ambition; his shrewd decision to insert segments of actual Muhammad speeches into portions of a good number of the songs fills a lot of otherwise-empty spaces. The first such sample drops two-and-a-half minutes into album opener "Godless," floating beneath a psychedelic Hampton solo and providing a haunting mental image. McKinney proves he's no slouch on guitar, either; his rhythm guitar work, particularly on "Each One Teach One" (which opens with a thirty-second Muhammad sample over a speed-metal backbeat), forms a tight groove with Shabazz and Jayson and allows Hampton's searing leads to go in all directions at once. His most valuable contribution, however, are his background vocals–at times melodic, at times doubling Shabazz's rap, at all times fleshing out the entire arrangement, making each song seem less like a by-the-numbers studio project and more like an actual album.
The album's standout track, "Come Out," features the group at its best. Jayson lays down a slow beat, but with a slight swing; McKinney and Hampton's guitars swirl and roar in a doom-y progression. The song begins with a burst of atonal noise before launching into the main melody, anchored by Shabazz's bass as he begins, of all things, John the Baptist's account of Jesus Christ's adventures exorcising demons. Between verses, the band immediately tightens from its doom-y dirge, the guitarists riffing crisply over Shabazz's slapped bass. The song tells three different episodes before ending on a single-note, syncopated outro; the overall impact is so evocative, it feels less like a religious tale and more like simple storytelling.
Indeed, were it not for the intrinsic limitations of its lyrical content, Under The 6 would arguably easily be at home in the record collections of any metalhead, which is as much due to McKinney's arrangements as it is to Laswell's pitch-perfect production; Jayson's drums fill the mix, and the guitars occupy very specific positions until Hampton cuts loose. This is not to say the album isn't universally enjoyable; just as one need not be a Christian to enjoy gospel harmonies, one need not be a Black Muslim to appreciate the sharpness of the interplay between McKinney and Shabazz. Still, of all the Black Arc releases, Under The 6 is the most confining–and most intriguing.
A. Darryl Moton is a high school debate coach, preschool bus driver, Black Iowan, and numerous other things that make you doubt his sanity. He currently bumps the bass in Portland, Oregon.