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Melvin Van Peebles

Melvin Van Peebles' status as a pioneering African-American filmmaker likely obscures the fact that he also busted barriers and blazed trails as one of the forebears of rap music. If there's anyone who could draw from a large pool of life experiences, it was Van Peebles, a supremely creative individual who could also list Air Force bombardier, cable car driver, postal worker, portrait painter, journalist, novelist, playwright, and actor to his résumé. Not only that, but he lived in several locations throughout the U.S., Mexico, France, and Holland. Most of the attention aimed at Van Peebles over the years came through the films he had written, directed, and scored -- including The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968), The Watermelon Man (1970), and Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971) -- but he also revolutionized Black music with several albums that combined rapping with out-there jazz and funk. Just after Van Peebles completed his direction of The Story of a Three-Day Pass, he signed a recording contract with A&M. The result was 1968's Br'er Soul; with its back-cover sleeve work simply stating "Free Huey," the grooves within consisted of the artist's streetwise raps with free jazz accompaniment. 1971's Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, a Broadway production helmed by Van Peebles, yielded an original Broadway cast double LP -- like Br'er Soul, it was released on A&M. That same year saw the release of the revolutionary Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, which also featured a soundtrack recording with each track penned by the director. One of his finest recording moments without ties to cinema or Broadway came that same year; As Serious as a Heart Attack took his eclectic mishmash of soul, funk, jazz, and rapping even further and featured backing from Doug Carn, Albert Hall, and Tom Scott. Van Peebles' prolific run continued with the double album for the 1972 musical Don't Play Us Cheap, which was a little lighter in tone than its predecessor. The director wasn't able to get it on the big screen, so he took it to Broadway. He landed on Atlantic for 1974's What the...You Mean I Can't Sing, another studio album that built on his prior non-film/non-stage work. 20 years went by before he returned to recording. Ghetto Gothic, released in 1995 by Capitol, was a characteristically Van Peebles record, filled with stylistic curveballs, Broadway-like compositions, and his animated verbal delivery. Melvin Van Peebles died at his home in Manhattan on September 21, 2021; he was 89 years old.
© Andy Kellman /TiVo
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Discography

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