The album may or may not be obsolete, but the fact remains: People have long obsessed over individual songs. The Single File is The A.V. Club’s look at the deep cuts, detours, experiments, and anthems that make us reach for replay.
Curtis Mayfield missed the future by five days. Bedridden, paralyzed, his right leg amputated, the R&B icon died on December 26, 1999, finally succumbing to diabetes and the trauma he’d sustained in a freak stage accident nine years earlier. He was 57. For a songwriter who had long been obsessed with the future—fearfully as well as hopefully—it’s a tragic irony that he never witnessed the year 2000. He didn’t get to see which of his competing prophecies might have come true: harmony or Armageddon.
As it turns out, the 21st century has produced a bit of both. Not that Mayfield would have been surprised. At the height of his popularity in the early ’70s, he bounced back and forth from forward-looking anthems such as “We Got To Have Peace” and “Move On Up” to grim prognoses like “Superfly” and “Future Shock.” Together these songs embody the racial, social, and political upheavals—the harmony and the Armageddon—of their age. None of them, though, casts a more chilling shadow than “(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go.”
“Hell Below,” Mayfield’s debut single as a solo artist, was released soon after he stepped down as the leader of the beloved soul group, The Impressions. The song also opens Curtis, his first solo album. Always a deliberate and self-aware artist, he didn’t choose randomly. He’d already steered The Impressions toward funkier, more conscious material—most notably on 1968’s This Is My Country and 1969’s The Young Mods’ Forgotten Story—but as a solo artist, he wanted to make a fresh impression beyond The Impressions. “Hell Below” certainly did that. While The Impressions had shown occasional flashes of darkness or outrage, Mayfield’s sweet, silky tenor sounded more pleading than pummeling. It didn’t help that the diminutive, baby-faced Mayfield—whose bucktoothed smile is plastered on almost every Impressions LP—kind of looked like a teddy bear.
On “Hell Below,” though, he comes out like a grizzly. A feral bass line launches the song, growling and loping along like a wounded animal. On top of it, a Tower-Of-Babel clamor of voices—some gibbering like TV news, others pushing The Book Of Revelation—twist the mood from bestial to biblical. Then Mayfield steps up. To listeners in 1970, it must have been jolting. That’s Mayfield’s sugary voice, all right, only now it’s suddenly curdled and turned venomous. “Sisters!” he shouts menacingly. “Niggers! Whiteys! Jews! Crackers!” He chews each slur and spits it into the abyss; they echo all the way down. Then, with a glee that’s borderline maniacal, he annihilates all racial barriers with a simple, horrific reassurance: “Don’t worry... If there’s hell below, we’re all going to go!”
And then Mayfield—one the mellowest, most mellifluous crooners in the pantheon of soul—screams his fucking head off.
There’s no shortage of epic screams in the history of popular music. Roger Daltrey’s in “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Bruce Dickinson’s in “The Number Of The Beast.” Kurt Cobain’s in everything. Mayfield’s bloodcurdling shriek in “Hell Below,” however, is the most harrowing and hair-raising of them all. It erupts from his lungs like lava, seemingly melting the man making it. Disembodied, it seethes. Within seconds, it doesn’t even sound human anymore.
Inhumanity—that’s what Mayfield is funneling. “Hurry / People running from their worries / While the judge and the juries / Dictate the law that’s partly flaw,” he sings, his supple voice finally recognizable but still oozing righteous rage. “Top billing now is killing / For peace, no one is willing.” He’s not a happy man. Just a few years earlier, he’d penned Impressions songs like the gospel-tinged “People Get Ready” and the uplifting “We’re A Winner,” hymns to the Civil Rights Movement. By 1970, the dream of a new America had all but disintegrated. “Everybody smoke / Use the pill and the dope,” he accuses, full of equal parts shame and anger. “Educated fools / From uneducated schools / Pimping people is the rule / Polluted water in the pool / And Nixon talking about don’t worry / He says don’t worry.” Mayfield is ripping scabs off the nation’s fresh wounds, and he’s not finding scars. All he sees is gangrene.
Even at its most corrosive, “Hell Below” is immaculately produced and played. Latin percussion syncopates and pops. Wah-pedaled guitars scratch and snarl. The string section screeches like a chorus of fallen angels. Tied together by that monstrous, sinister, slithery bass line, it makes for eight unrelenting minutes of the deepest, lushest funk of its era. Still, the instrumental tracks have always been the song’s least sampled elements. From N.W.A.’s “Niggaz 4 Life” and Redman’s “Rollin’” to D12’s “That’s How” and Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks,” rappers have zoomed in one particular part of Mayfield’s performance—or rather, one particular word: “nigger.” The way Mayfield hurls it down, he sounds like Moses on the Mount. He’s not trying to repurpose or reclaim the word. After years of making some of the most mesmerizingly beautiful music of the 20th century, Mayfield is instead trying to shock people awake—by rubbing their noses in the ugliness and sin of the world around them.
Mayfield, though, goes on to drop something much bigger than the N-bomb: the A-bomb. Seven minutes into the song, with his litany of ills and existential dread hitting a crescendo, he punctuates the song with an explosion—specifically, the sound effect of a nuclear bomb detonating. The blast swells horrendously over the instruments. The beat drops out entirely, as if it were just another flattened piece of civilization’s machinery. Mayfield evaporates. Silence gives way to a primal thrum, a genocidal chuckle, the bomb personified. Eventually the percussion fades back in, like a heart-attack victim regaining a pulse. As the coda slinks off into a radioactive sunset, it becomes clear that “Hell Below” isn’t merely a cautionary tale. It’s a near-death experience.
Two decades after the release of “Hell Below,” Mayfield had a near-death experience of his own. A lighting rig fell on him while he was onstage in New York, crushing three vertebrae and rendering him a quadriplegic for the remainder of his life. He managed to make one last album, two years before his death in 1999; aptly titled New World Order, it bursts at the seams with hope for the future while acknowledging the ominous clouds on the horizon of the new century. “Oh, what a fulfillment of prophecy / Let us teach the children freedom’s never been free,” he sings with weary wisdom on the disc’s title track. The weariness isn’t just emotional; he had to record his vocals from his bed, one line at a time, each breath a struggle. But he still shares what’s left of his strength: “The times dictate a plan / Mother Earth’s given birth to a brand new man / Sister, I know you’re misunderstood / But hold on to your man, ’cause the future looks good.” In fact, Mayfield’s future could not have looked worse. But even with his health failing, he kept his eyes fixed ahead on new beginnings—if not for him, then for the human race.
The most poignant line of “New World Order” is one of its simplest. “There’s no need to worry,” he sighs, his voice like still water. Twenty-seven years earlier, he was singing similar words—only they weren’t meant to be calming. “They say don’t worry / Don’t worry,” goes Mayfield’s mocking, scathing refrain on “Hell Below.” Before embracing that sentiment at face value near the end of his life, he denounced such soothing words as the tools of tyrants, those who aim to keep the population drugged, dumb, and numb. All it takes, though, is a listen to the concert version of “Hell Below” (released in 1971 on the incredible Curtis/Live!) to hear just how delicately, how bittersweetly, the song could be interpreted. Stripped to a skeleton, free of studio frills, it’s both terrified and tender—both optimistic and apocalyptic. Just like Mayfield.