Heliocentrics with Melvin Van Peebles

Last Transmission

published in The Wire No.369, London, 2014

If there’s a crossroads in the culture and mythology of black music, it’s not simply a north axis intersecting a west axis. It’s more like a hundred asterisks and crosses, each converging on a centre, densely politicised and explosively sounded. And the more music heads toward the future, the more interest there is in squinting at this map of lines, imploding as a pulsing black dot. Zoom in, and it becomes a throbbing planet.

Such is the terrain explored in Last Transmission by Heliocentrics and Melvin Van Peebles. This is the 3rd Heliocentrics project dealing with black musical aesthetics and (by inference) politics. The album seems sonically in thrall of the interracial fault line where ‘head’ rock became a blackened psychedelica ooze, courtesy of Funkadelic’s game-changing Cosmic Slop (1973). The production plays out like fictional outtakes of the messiest grooves and liquefied back-beats from the Clinton mother ship. Raw drum sounds, retro triple-time echoes and random oscillators add to the smeared studiophonic textures.

Atop these slackened rhythmatised globules, a slurred narcoleptic voice is heard. It’s Van Peebles, now an octogenarian. His jowled and voweled delivery resembles the outré peripheries of YouTube rap, as he charts his astro birth, regeneration, transference, and general oneness with the cosmos.

Van Peebles’ rambling here carries none of the iced anger which fuelled the soundtrack he composed for his first independent film, the infamous Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), performed mostly by a newly founded Earth Wind & Fire. Other tracks on the film are attributed to Brer Soul, in reference to Van Peebles debut album Brer Soul (1969) – a jalopy ramble of hermetic wails and tales set against modern jazz schizophrenic lines of flight. They’re wild hybrids, like Baptist choirs jamming with street corner poets in a black-Americana version of Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle (1967).

Hearing Van Peebles’ voice quakily deliver stoop chats and parlour digressions on Last Transmission has me reaching for that crossroads map, but again I’m confronted with a throbbing black dot: what precisely is the best way to evaluate this collaboration? how will I orient my listening? I admit to not being bowled over by its fusion of loping cosmic grooves and growling poetic lines, mostly because I’m uncertain of Van Peebles’ contextualization within the music. Yet Van Peebles’ connection is by no means inconsequential.

As an independent film maker and cultural critic, Van Peebles has always been concerned with revolutionary issues, be they truth-tripping the past or agitating for the future. He declares this cogently in the spoken essay documentary Classified X (1997). Therein he damns Hollywood from its naïve racist brutality in the 20s through to its 50s ‘new negro’ spirit, and on to the action-besotted bursts of black supremacism in the 70s blaxploitation cycle.

Thus Last Transmission bears silent echoic breaths of Van Peebles’ early political assertions, just as it is ingrained with traces of other black political incursions, interventions and collaborations across 30 years of music. Back-tracking, I’m reminded of the two The Last Poets collaborations produced by Bill Laswell (Holy Terror, 1994, and Oh My People, 1984). (Indeed, parts of Last Transmission flit past the cultural radio dial of the better sides of both illbient and trip hop.) Both albums utilise collaboration to forge sharp intersecting lines of music and politics, and in the process honour The Last Poets as paternal rights bearers of conscious-raising rap.

But even The Last Poets were not so unified. Break-away member Jalaluddin Masur Nurridin recorded under another name: Lightnin’ Rod. His debut album Hustlers Convention (1973) is a clear snap from the black bough of resistance honed by The Last Poets and their conscious-raising imperatives. Club fave “Sport” references a black trickster past (notably Sportin’ Life from Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess) and prophesises the future of late 80s ‘gangster’ rap wherein pimping and macking were ruthlessly lionised as a discomforting race card powered through a boom box. Lightnin’ Rod’s braggadocio prose owes little to the Harlem Writers Workshop that spawned the Last Poets, and much to the writings of Iceberg Slim – especially his later novel The Naked Soul Of Iceberg Slim (1971), which grants the reader an unsettling ride through the unsavoury politics of power-tripping via the mind-messing of prostitutes.

Van Peebles’ often seething dialogue throughout Sweetback is fuelled by disenfranchisement (celebrated by Lightnin’ Rod), but quelled by self-empowerment (extolled by The Last Poets). Indeed, his consequent career charts a dynamic push from the urban to the societal to the cosmic. He moved from the real street to the media platform to outer space. This last stop frames his tale-spinning on Last Transmission. In episodic chapters – more segues over cross-fades between tracks – Van Peebles conjures a droopy delirium as he tells of his merging with various gasses of the cosmos. Methane figures most, peaking with the memorable Oedipal line “We’re as happy as can be; my methane mum and me”. It’s less psychedelic floating and more post-op come-down. But this could be its charm: Van Peebles talks of cosmic penetration while Heliocentrics do as their name says and provide variegated modes of space transport for Van Peebles’ rambles. Ultimately, their music becomes a form of reverse time travel, linking the record’s stark separation between Van Peebles’ voice and the studio ‘backing’ back to Brer Soul.

At this eternal crossroads of black music, where the past shoots forward and the present is sucked back, multiple dualities nest within its teeming converging lines. Black cosmology is unavoidably implicated here. One side rests on inner city stoops in tenements, glaring at the stars, perceiving their distance as remote as the stars on the US flag. The other floats above the street into the transcendental ether, on a majestic carpet woven by poets, shamans, visionaries, revolutionaries. Last Transmission experiments with a navigation between the two, dropping social utopia and fictive science in equal measure. The results pick up transmissions of Sun Ra’s heliocentric flights, Funkadelic’s neologistic grooves, The Last Poets’ poeticised parables. And riding high in the mix: Van Peebles own couch-trip, floating high above the crossroads.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.