“Real, Compared to What”: Anti-War Soul

It’s been a regular occurrence over the past decade for soft drink companies to use hip-hop music (presumably, the “real” flava) to attract buyers. Sprite changed the world of soft drink advertising nearly 15 years ago when it reached out to the likes of Heavy D and the Boyz to hawk their fizz.

So, the recent ad campaign by Coke, featuring Chicago rapper Common and R&B vocalist Mya, was no surprise. Neither was the company’s decision to use Common, the “conscious” rapper of the moment, following behind the Mos Defs and Talib Kwelis as stylish, audience-friendly urban griots. Common and Mya are now part of a campaign dubbed “Coca-Cola… Real,” which includes other 90-second spots featuring neo-soul standard-bearers such as Musiq, Amel Larrieux, Angie Stone, and Donnie. Coke calls their music “Nu Classic soul.”

But if all this was to be expected, what is surprising is the song featured in the commercial: “Real, Compared to What” is a remake of the Eugene McDaniels’ anti-war anthem “Compared to What.” The original version of the song is a powerful example of black pop that wasn’t afraid, echoing Audre Lorde, to speak truth to power, an element sorely missing in contemporary black pop music.

Many of the so-called hip-hop generation’s artists have been remarkably silent, while Bush, Rumsfeld, Rice, and Powell march lockstep to war with Iraq. Thus it is terribly ironic that in the midst of major antiwar protests around the world, one of the most “conscious” of hip-hop artists referenced one of the great protest recordings in the pantheon of soul music to sell brown caffeinated fizz.

Most classic soul listeners are very familiar with Edwin Starr’s chart-topping song “War,” which always gets referenced in potted histories of the Anti-Vietnam War movement. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” with its passionate, layered, and sophisticated pleas for peace, environmental justice and spiritually is generally regarded as one the most important protest recordings ever released. But very few of the folks who currently have Gaye, Starr, and a host of others on the nostalgia mix-tape, have even a fleeting clue of who Eugene McDaniels is.

And so: Eugene McDaniels had a solid, if not spectacular, recording career in the 1960s, singing pop ditties for the Liberty label. Disenchanted by the state of race relations in the late 1960s, most notably the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., McDaniels took a brief sojourn from the States. During this period, he wrote “Compared to What.” The song was initially recorded and released by a young soul vocalist by the name of Roberta Flack: her version appeared as the opening track on her debut recording, First Take (1969).

A second version of the song was recorded later that year by pianist Les McCann and saxophonist Eddie Harris for their album, Swiss Movement, recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival. The McCann and Harris version became an international hit, selling over a million copies. At a time when black folks, American youth, and anti-war protesters were literally taking it to the streets, “Compared to What” was a scathing critique of social realities in the United States, taking aim at the clergy, “poor dumb rednecks,” “tired old ladies,” and the Vietnam War. McDaniels’ lyrics were clear: even to raise questions about the war in Vietnam was considered an act of treason. McDaniels’ observation, of course, resonates powerfully in the post-9/11 world, where folks like Congresswoman Barbara Lee and Noam Chomsky have openly questioned the legitimacy of U.S. military action in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The success of the McCann and Harris recording of “Compared to What” began a new chapter in McDaniels’ career, as he was signed to the Atlantic Recording label. But this “second” stage was short-lived. McDaniels recorded two discs for the label, the second of which, Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse (1971), goes down in pop lore as one of the most blatantly political musical tomes ever recorded and released commercially by a major label. Headless Heroes contains critiques of blue-eyed soul (“Jagger the Dagger”); examines the phenomenon of “shopping while black” (“Supermarket Blues”) years before “racial profiling” entered into the national lexicon; and checks the futility of race hatred (“Headless Heroes”).

“The Parasite,” on the same album, is McDaniels’ most stinging critique, of the root of American Imperialism and its relationship to the genocide of America’s native populations. On the track, McDaniels describes some of the early settlers as “ex-hoodlums” and “jailbirds” who used “forked tongues” in their drive to pollute the water and defile the air. Referencing the U.S. ideology of “Manifest Destiny,” McDaniels sang that as “agents of God, they did damned well what they pleased.”

Shortly after the release of Headless Heroes, the label “dropped” McDaniels. Apparently, he tweaked some folks at the White House with a not so thinly veiled shot at the Nixon administration (“Rewriting the standards of what’s good and fair / Promote law and order / Let justice go to hell”). As myth has it, then Vice President Spiro Agnew gave a quick holla to Armet and Neshui Ertegun, the founders of Atlantic. In a recent article in the Kansas City Star, McDaniels reflects that the duo “fired me on the spot and killed the record.” McDaniels disappeared as a recording artist, though he continued to write songs, including the classic “Feel Like Making Love,” a number one hit for Roberta Flack in 1974.

Ironically, McDaniels would have remained obscure (cashing royalty checks from the numerous times “Feel Like Making Love” has been recorded), if not for the hip-hop generation whose youngest members are now oblivious to his legacy. Out of print for more than 20 years, Headless Heroes found its way into the music of A Tribe Called Quest, Organized Konfusion, The Beasties, and Pete Rock and CL Smooth as samples. The original recording quickly became a collectable, and bootlegged pressings of the disc also appeared. When the recording was re-issued on CD in 2001, on Joel Dorn’s Label M, a whole new audience was exposed to McDaniels’ incisive commentary.

While it is in some ways welcome to hear McDaniels’ “Compared to What” drift through the air courtesy of Common, Maya, and Coke, the fact remains that the song’s appropriation is yet another example of how the marketing of “classic cool” often obscures the political contexts in which some pop art was initially created, whether it be witnessed in Che Guevara tee-shirts (on Taco Bell commercials with a “militant” Chihuahua) or celebrity recordings of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” like those witnessed directly after the 9/11 attacks. As the hip-hop generation and their artists struggle to find their voices amidst those already opposing the war with Iraq, it would do them well to go back to the music of Eugene McDaniels, John Lee Hooker (“I Don’t Wanna Go to Vietnam”), Freda Payne (“Bring the Boys Home”), and even Paris (“Bush Killa”), to find examples of how powerful such efforts can be in Ashcroft’s America.