Shabazz Palaces’ Ishmael Butler first heard it when he was a kid in the mid-1970s: the woozy, apocalyptic funk of 24-Carat Black.
Butler’s father, a history professor, routinely brought home avant-jazz LPs of the day, exposing his son to Sun Ra and Pharoah Sandersbefore he was even old enough to read. Somewhere in his record collection was 24-Carat Black’s only studio release, a bleak concept album called Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth.
“When I was young, I heard the album a lot,” says Butler, who was once known as Butterfly from Digable Planets. “As I got older, my impression of it was, damn, this shit really is good—and really outside the normal approach to R&B.” Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth, released on Stax Records in 1973 and reissued just this year by Craft Recordings, paired hard grooves with unflinching soliloquies about black poverty and despair. The tracks were long, and, from Stax's view, not easily marketable. But for Butler, even the inky-black cover and band name seemed charged with meaning. “The name was always right to me: 24-Carat Black. That was a slick use of words and imagery that evoked something ancient, mysterious, dark, bright.”
The group’s name crystalized Ghetto producer and arranger Dale Warren’s theory of African-American culture as a neglected treasure. But for most people, 24-Carat Black’s name was a nonentity: Ghettodidn’t sell. “The concept of the album was before its time,” says singer Princess Hearn, who joined the group as a teenager and later married (then divorced) Warren. “It was too sophisticated,” theorizes Rob Sevier, co-founder of the archival label Numero Group, which released demos for 24-Carat Black’s incomplete second album in 2009 as Gone: The Promises of Yesterday. By the end of the ’70s, Stax had folded, the band had dissolved, and Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealthhad slid into bargain-bin obscurity.
Which is where it would have remained, if not for hip-hop. In 1992, Butler unearthed his dad’s 24-Carat Black LP and nabbed a drum sample from “Foodstamps” for Digable Planets’ jazz-rap classic “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” which would become the group’s biggest hit. Two years earlier, Eric B. & Rakim had used a vocal hook from the album’s title track to pump urgency into their song “In the Ghetto.” As rap producers began pillaging ’70s soul in search of dusty vibes and tight drum sounds, 24-Carat Black’s long-forgotten grooves became sample manna.
24-Carat Black’s name is still largely unknown today, yet its music continues to infiltrate A-level hip-hop records. The latest example appears on Pusha-T’s new album, the Kanye West–produced Daytona: The standout track, the Drake diss “Infrared,” spins dizzily around a disembodied vocal loop lifted from 24-Carat Black’s “I Want to Make Up,” which—like a number of recent Kanye samples—was first unearthed by Numero. And last year, Kendrick Lamar included a sample of “Poverty’s Paradise,” a 13-minute epic from Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth, on DAMN. Listen closely to the beginning of “FEAR.” and you’ll hear Hearn wailing, accompanied by stray lines from the original recording (“I been hungry all my life”).
The surviving members of 24-Carat Black have seen virtually no money from these samples, however. Throughout the reporting of this piece, the Numero Group began collecting paperwork to get the surviving members paid something, including clearance money from the Pusha sample. Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth has become a lost masterpiece examining poverty and inner-city hardship, yet its creators still feel the sting of past exploitation.
The story of 24-Carat Black begins at a frat party in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the early ’70s. It was there that Dale Warren first caught sight of a young 12-piece soul outfit from Cincinnati called the Ditalians. The arranger, a conservatory-trained violinist and composer, saw “the fruition of his soul-suite vision on display before him,” writes Sevier in the liner notes for Gone.
Warren got his start arranging string parts for the Supremes and other Motown acts. By the beginning of the ’70s, he was riding high on the success of Isaac Hayes’ masterpiece, Hot Buttered Soul, for which he created dazzling orchestrations. With Hayes’ label, Stax, footing the bill, Warren promised the Ditalians fame, changed their name, and reimagined their entire repertoire. In 1973, they entered the studio with a full orchestra to record Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth.
Organized into eight songs (or “synopses”) examining different aspects of the black inner-city experience, Ghetto struggled to find a market among Stax listeners seeking breezy soul hooks. The label either couldn’t or simply didn’t promote it, and Warren refused to edit the songs down to single length. By that point, Stax’s mounting financial problems were keeping records from actually reaching stores. The drama prompted much of the band—all except Hearn and two others—to quit during a scuffle in a Holiday Inn parking lot and return to Cincinnati.
Undaunted, Warren assembled a new lineup and promoted Ghettowith a revue-style stage show. With the Stax cash dwindling, Warren attempted to keep the group afloat with his own money. “We were going from town to town, just trying to survive,” says singer C. Niambi Steele, one of the new members.
24-Carat Black hit a new low in 1975: Stax went bankrupt while the group was on the road. In Kentucky, several members were jailed for not being able to pay hotel charges. Robert Manchurian, a producer–arranger, remembers trying to cash a check from Stax only to be informed the label’s account had been frozen: “I’m sitting there with a $35,000 check, looking crazy.” “We had to call our brothers and sisters to send us Western Unions to try to get us back home,” adds Hearn. “We were stranded down South.”
The group disintegrated. Four 24-Carat Black alums formed the successful funk band Shotgun. Hearn became a corporate receptionist in Cincinnati, where she still works. Warren conducted symphonies, struggled with alcoholism and depression, and died in 1994. (The group’s final recordings, startlingly potent demos from late 1974, spent decades rotting in a Chicago basement before Sevier discovered them in 2008. The salvageable tracks became Gone: The Promises of Yesterday.)
But Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth didn’t die so much as mutate into an à-la-carte funk-loop database for savvy rap producers. During the late ’80s, producer Paul C apparently stumbled upon it at a Rockaway flea market while working on Eric B. & Rakim’s third album, 1990’s Let the Rhythm Hit ’Em. “He played it for me over the phone and was like, ‘Yo, this is tough,’” Large Professor told Complex. Before his 1989 murder, Paul C made a cassette of the title track for Rakim, who brought it into the studio and looped up the vocal hook on “In the Ghetto.” It became the first major 24-Carat Black sample.
By this point, rappers were increasingly lifting fragments of Stax-era R&B classics for breakbeats and samples. Bored by obvious sample sources like James Brown and Sly & the Family Stone, producers such as the Dust Brothers (who produced the Beastie Boys classic Paul’s Boutique) and later Madlib increasingly hunted for obscure finds. Word spread about 24-Carat Black’s album. “If you collect records, you’re aware of it,” says Sevier. Its songs cropped up on more than a dozen compilations before 2000. Nas and Dr. Dre sampled it on 1996’s It Was Written. The same year, JAY-Z sampled it on a Reasonable Doubt bonus track. Naughty by Nature not only sampled “Poverty’s Paradise” but named an entire album after it.
“When we heard that Nas and Dr. Dre [sampled 24-Carat Black] on ‘Nas Is Coming,’ it was like, Oh my God!” says Hearn. “To me, it was like something was being rebirthed from the dead.”
Twenty-two years later, Hearn has received, to date, a mere $500 from the rebirth of 24-Carat Black. (The check came from the Numero Group recently, while this story was being reported.) Hearn, like the group’s other surviving members, is living in obscurity and, in most cases, unable to earn royalties or sample clearance money from Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth. That’s because they hold neither the publishing rights nor the master recording rights. Not that every rapper who used their music even paid anyone for it—several contacted for this piece admitted they sampled 24-Carat Black without clearance.
Since Warren wrote nearly all of 24-Carat Black’s material, the publishing royalties presumably go to his estate. (We were unable to reach Warren’s widow to confirm.) The recording copyright is thornier: Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth was owned by Stax, whose post-1968 catalog was acquired by Fantasy Records in 1977, which was subsequently acquired by Concord Records in 2004. (“We do own the album in question and grant sample licenses charging proper licensing fees,” confirms Concord’s vice president of licensing.)
“In those days, when we signed a contract, we didn’t read the bottom line,” says Manchurian, the producer-arranger sometimes described as Warren’s right-hand man. “A lot of things were not [understood] because of our lack of education on the music industry.”
The particulars of 24-Carat Black’s story are unusual but exist within a deeper pattern of black musicians in the ’70s being cheated out of money or recognition. Sly Stone wound up homeless, living in a van while his ex-manager and a production company reaped his royalty payments. Isaac Hayes was forced into bankruptcy and lost his home when his records stopped selling. And most comparably, consider the tale of Clyde Stubblefield, the late James Brown drummer whose “Funky Drummer” breakbeat has been sampled more than 1,000 times. “They never gave me credit, never paid me,” Stubblefield told the New York Times in 2011.
“It’s more common than you know,” Steele says, “the taking advantage of artists who are pure and give all they got, only to be rewarded with a pittance—maybe a ride in a limousine. And then you go home, and you still have to figure out how to feed your family.”
Calling Steele to discuss 24-Carat Black proves to be a sobering conversation. “I’m 70 years old and I’m still in poverty,” she says. “I just buried my mom and I can’t find her will. I wish I had the kind of money that would come from residuals, royalties—whatever you want to call it—to save my mother’s house. But I don’t have a penny. I spent my last money taking care of her. And now I can’t even save the house that I was brought up in.”
After 24-Carat Black, Steele moved to New York City and became a nurse, juggling work with acting and singing gigs. In 2006, she was hit by a car and spent two years homeless. She’s featured on the tracks that became Gone but never received any money for them until this summer, when Numero also sent her a $500 check. She adds that, upon Gone’s release, she had to buy her own music on Amazon.
Given all this, Steele remains somewhat ambivalent about the samples. Pusha-T’s “Infrared” is one of the year’s most talked-about rap songs, but it’s not really paying the bills. “If Kanye West wanted to go and say, ‘All the members of 24-Carat Black, y’all been in poverty all your life, I’ll give y’all a million dollars,’ he could do that,” she says. “Look us up! Look us up and throw some money in our hands, ’cause we’re burying our parents.”
Steele compares 24-Carat Black to a dinosaur: displaced, forgotten, fossilized by time. “The dead dinosaur made the fuel that runs the world,” she says. “The dinosaur wasn’t paying attention. He was too busy trying to live. He didn’t know he was going to be fuel. And neither did I.”
Story courtesy of "Pitchfork"