“The first book ever written about 24-Carat Black”
I’ve been a professional music journalist for eight years, but I’ve been fascinated by sampling in hip-hop–that is, the technique by which music producers use fragments of preexisting recordings, such as a drumbeat or vocal hook–for much longer. As a teenager, I was blown away when I heard a Curtis Mayfield track in the wild and realized I recognized it from a Beastie Boys album, or when I recognized a Frank Zappa deep cut that had been sampled by Madvillain. For me, sampling has been an unlikely vehicle of music discovery. I’ve fallen in love with albums both classic (Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On) and obscure (Funk Factory’s self-titled 1975 gem) after hearing them sampled in hip-hop.
It was sampling that got me interested in 24-Carat Black, a relatively obscure ’70s funk group whose music echoes throughout hip-hop nearly 50 year later. Briefly signed to the legendary Stax Records, 24-Carat Black completed just one album, a brooding, ambitious 1973 concept album titled Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth, before disbanding and sinking into obscurity. Yet over the last few decades, their music has become a near-ubiquitous sample source for rappers and producers. 24-Carat Black’s evocative grooves and hooks have been sampled by rap legends like Nas, JAY-Z, Eric B. & Rakim, and even Kendrick Lamar, on his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2017 album DAMN.
In 2018, when Kanye West sampled the group on Pusha T’s album Daytona, I began tracking down surviving members of 24-Carat Black and investigating their unusual story. I was fascinated by the odd discrepancy between the band’s cultural endurance and their lack of name recognition, and I was riveted by the remarkable stories the band members told me about their brief rise and fall under the direction of Stax arranger Dale Warren, who composed their music. Most of all, I was struck by the reality that the surviving musicians have never been able to receive royalties from the continual samples of their music; some of them are still living in poverty, a brutal irony given that inner-city poverty was the primary theme of 24-Carat Black’s only completed album.
My new book, Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth (Bloomsbury, 2020), recounts the album’s backstory as well as tracing its rebirth as an underground classic in the ’90s rap community. It’s the first book ever written about 24-Carat Black, rooted in hours of interviews with the original musicians. (The book is part of the 33 ⅓ series, in which each volume focuses on one classic album.) It is my sincere hope that the book will help bring some long-denied recognition and justice to 24-Carat Black, and pierce some of the mysteries that have shrouded this unusual masterpiece for 48 years.