When Biggie (the late Notorious B.I.G.) waxed poetic about “back in the day” in the song “Things Done Change”, there was reason to pause—Biggie’s “back in the day” would have been Bed-Stuy/Crown Heights circa 1980, the same year Reagan was anointed President and three years after then President Jimmy Carter paid a well publicized visit to a shit-hole known as Charlotte Street in the borough affectionately known as the “boogie-down”. By all accounts there was not much to celebrate back then in those urban enclaves that became synonymous with urban blight and a burgeoning urban underclass (you all have read Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire Vanities, right?). Not that Biggie was mistaken, no doubt there was much luv on the planet they call Brooklyn in those days as they still luv deeply and meaningfully in most urban communities, but that don’t mean that there ain’t drama on the regular.
It is perhaps such romanticizing about recent urban history—a state that I refer to as “post-industrial nostalgia”—that allows folks to continue to have faith in the face of drug addiction, high unemployment, police brutality (it’s a damn shame what’s gone down in Cincinnati these last seven or eight years), diminishing services, etc. It is this nostalgia for the era when black urban communities begin to wilt under the pressure of de-industrialization, municipal collapse, and heroin addiction, that informs the debut release of The Transitions, a trio managed by Michael Bivens, he of New Edition and the creative energy behind the early career of the unforgettable Boys II Men and the more forgettable Another Bad Creation (ABC) and Subway.
With their debut Back in Da Days, The Transitions recall the Harlem that Chester Himes made so famous in a string of detective novels such as Pink Toes, Cotton Comes to Harlem and Come Back Charleston Blue, the latter two of which were the inspiration for Blaxploitation staples of the same title from the 1970s. In fact Bivens has suggested that the recording was based on a film treatment he created which was inspired by Blaxploitation fare such as Hell Up in Harlem, Three the Hard Way, and of course Black Caeser. The recordings cover art reflects this notion as it looks like a film advertisement.
While Bivens’s rave that the group is like having “Donny Hathaway, Bobby Womack, and Al Green, in their prime, all in one group” would only hold sway with a generation of music consumers who have not really listened to the body of work of the aforementioned classic Soul Men, the trio of Charles “Gator” Moore, Rashawn Worthen, Balawa Muhammad more than competently update the classic Soul Man sound of the 1970s. It may be a coincidence that Muhammad, who with brother Dauwd Muhammad was one of the co-writers of Donell Jones’s “U Know What’s Up”, began his career with a group formed Luther Campbell, since The Transitions seem like an updated version of Campbell’s H-Town, albeit with a little more talent.
The recording’s lead single, “Ghetto Laws”, co-written by group members and producer Daniel Pierre, captures best the sensibility found throughout the recording, namely how can “we” soulfully narrate the tensions of the ghetto over the sound of classic Soul. Clearly influenced by the “Thug” Soul of Jaheim and Dave Hollister the lead single falls flat with its over-wrought organ melody that sounds like it was from some dance scene that was left on the editing floor for the film Blacula. The trio sounds much more accomplished when the production is left to K-Gee and Eric Williams. K-Gee was behind the boards for the recordings most infectious tune “Back in Da Days” which should have been the project’s lead single. Though it’s hard not to chuckle at lyrics like “back in the days it used to be so clear, everybody was hustling, but the hustlers disappeared / Now the shots rang out and everybody lives in fear…” the point is well taken—there has been a kind of death of “community.”
K-Gee is also behind the boards for the misogynistic groove “Fat Ass Pam” which may cause some to query why “keeping it real” is always invoked when describing women who “turn tricks”, but never the trifling “niggas” who are just as complicit in the activities of the so-called “trick”. Williams is behind the boards for one of the project’s best songs “New York, NY” which samples Ahmad Jamal and may be one of the best “New York” songs since Kool G Raps’s classic “Streets of New York”.
Other standouts on Back in Da Days include “5th of Gin”, if only because the Muhammad Brothers dared write a song about smoking a blunt, drinking some gin, and “Straight F***ing” before homeboy’s parole officer came over to take him “upstate”. Logically “Straight F***ing” is also the title of the Charles “Gator” Moore solo, where his voice most closely resembles that of Bobby Womack recalling H-Town’s “Knockin’ tha Boots”, and Teddy P’s “Turn Off the Lights”. Rashawn Worthen gets his chance to summon the ghost of Soul Men past with his chilling channeling of Al Green—only Phillpe Wynne did it better—on the track “A Rainy Night (in Harlem)”, the title of which is inspired by the Brook Benton classic (my daddy’s favorite) “Rainy Night in Georgia”.