Say the Words and You'll Be Free

Even if your first listen to the Slam soundtrack is a casual one, experienced as background music while playing cards or making love, it would be hard to miss its surface power--the soaring vocals, incandescent samples, razor sharp raps, steam-blasts of poetry. Later, you might vaguely recall the variety of ways a dozen-plus producers set the table for the verse and chorus, the lyrics and poems, the words, to be the main course.

 

But you can’t truly savor them until you’re alone and undistracted. Only then can you take in the full depth of an album that follows in the footsteps of Walt Whitman, who wrote shortly before the Civil War that the purpose of poetry is “to cheer up slaves and horrify despots.”

 

In Slam--both on the soundtrack and in Marc Levin’s excellent poorhouse-to-jailhouse-to-coffeehouse movie--the rappers act their ass off and the actors such as Saul Williams and Sonja Sohn are real-life poets who write their own lines. The movie is bursting with its pride in poetry and rap and so is the soundtrack--Noreaga knowingly defines himself as an artist on “Thug Poetry” (over a Charlie Daniels sample) while Williams’ character uses poetry to evaporate a jail yard beatdown in a way that makes the pen not just mightier than the sword, but more street as well. Ron, a character in the movie who’s in a prison workshop, centers the soundtrack when he gangsta-raps the scorching “Why” (“I shot three motherfuckers and I don’t know why”) in front of his class while KRS-1 and Saul Williams combine singing, rapping and poetry on “Ocean Within,” which seems New Agey until you stumble head-first into the lines about how the lies the teacher chalks up on the blackboard lead to you ending up as a chalk outline at a murder scene.

 

While many soundtracks today are mere marketing ploys in which much of the music doesn’t even appear in the movie, here the cross-pollination of film and album is so complete that the soundtrack winds up adding a storyline of its own, albeit one that goes more in a circle than a straight line. The glamorization of drug dealing (Big Punisher’s “Sex Money and Drugs”) gives way to dead prez’s “Sellin’ D.O.P.E. (Drugs Oppress People Everyday)” which leads to Brand Nubian’s “Time is Running Out” which puts the blame for drugs on a government that finances narco-trafficking.

 

While all this is going down others are paying attention. On “I Can See,” a track that explodes out of Staten Island via Stax/Volt, Tekitha and Cappadonna declare: “My eyes have been opened.” They are definitely watching Raymond Joshua (Williams character) as he outs the black bourgeoisie at a coffeehouse poetry slam (“Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are standing in the corners with rifles pointed at the heads of the little children”) and you can feel them nod their heads when Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Coolio end the story with “The Park.”

 

“The Park” begins with Coolio’s “shout out to all jails everywhere,” goes on to break down in truly scary detail how our society dysfunctions, and ends by calling for everyone to gather in the park to build an army not for protest, but for transformation.

 

Slam elbows its  way past other great rap soundtracks like Deep Cover and Wild Style to put itself on a pedestal with perhaps only Superfly as a high point of soundtrack storytelling. If the music’s not quite as good as Curtis Mayfield’s, Slam has the advantage of, if not a happy ending, illuminating a path toward one.

 

 

Rock & Rap Confidential / 1998