AN INTRODUCTION TO THE SUPER FLY ’70SPAID THE COST TO BE THE BOSS!
I am a child of the Super Fly ’70s. Being born in the six–four, the Year of the Dragon and Muhammad Ali’s historic ass whuppin’ of Sonny Liston, meant that I would be coming of age, or comin’ up, as it were, in the decade that lay ahead. I can’t imagine comin’ up at a better time.
The ’70s—I’ll get into the “Super Fly” part later—would coincide with my own tenth anniversary on the planet, and this meant that my experience would evolve right along with everything else. As the Black nation came to life, so would I. I would be growing up during the richest, most fertile period of Black culture ever. The ’70s would be the decade that set the tone for all the decades to follow.
Imagine a long, “money green” Cadillac Eldorado, the Biarritz version, a vinyl top of a contrasting color, let’s say gold or champagne, you know, “green for the money and gold for the honey,” some gangsta whitewalls, with the covered spare tire on the trunk. In my dreams, I’m wearing a great suit (a “slick vine”) topped off by a pimped–out Borsalino hat, which covers my smooth perm, also known as the “Lord Jesus.” As I’m driving, leaning to the side, my eyes level with the steering wheel, an aerosol can of “Money House Blessing” with the Native American head on the side ready to zap any lingering weed smells out of existence, I drive by a powder blue “deuce–and–a–quarter.” My eight–track tape player oozes out something laid–back, mellow, and chill. Curtis Mayfield comes to mind. Out of the tinted window, I see people wearing platform shoes, glass heels with dice inside, wild–ass butterfly collars, coke spoons around their necks, the whole nine, straight out of Flagg Brothers or Eleganza, the Black haute couture of the day. This is my fantasy of the era, not one I lived, mind you—back then I was just a li’l shortie myself—but one that I certainly wanted to live, because this was what was around me every day.
When I think about the Super Fly ’70s, what always comes to mind is the culture itself: the flix, television shows, fashion, sports, and overall attitude that grows from all of these things. I grew up surrounded by this at every turn. It seeped through every aspect of my life, every pore of my being. I lived it, I ate it, I drank it, I smoked it, and I snorted it. The music was like the sound track, the movies and TV shows provided the visuals, and sports offered the opportunity to see greatness and the never–ending quest to reach a higher level constantly on display.
As a kid, surrounded by all these images of Black culture in the first full decade of a free Black nation, I simply took for granted that it would be this way forever. Things started to change in the late ’70s/early ’80s; I watched the TV show Diff’rent Strokes
, heard disco music, and watched Richard Pryor in The Toy
, and I was suddenly slapped into the reality that all good things unfortunately come to an end.
The early to mid–’70s was the era when Black popular culture exploded in America, a watershed moment when the culture moved from the segregated spaces that it had been forced into, out into the open, now available for a full public viewing.
Black popular culture is no longer confined or segregated as it was back then, but rather it’s very much an integral part of mainstream culture in America. There was a time when Jet magazine used to list every appearance of every Black person who would be on television for the entire week. To try to do something like this now would require an entire magazine all by itself. We live in a world where Black celebrities host major award shows like the Oscars and the Grammys—often taking home a number of the awards themselves as well. Black celebrities appear on elite mainstream magazine covers, are investors in professional sports teams, head major record labels and flagship fashion outlets on Fifth Avenue, just to name a few things.
Hip hop music dominates the music business in general, while Black athletes have become the norm, providing the standard by which all other athletes are measured. The language of hip hop has entered into the popular lexicon, and hip hop artists, moguls, and NBA players define what it means to be rich and famous for the nation as a whole.
So first and foremost, this book will, like Nas and (his father) Olu Dara, help to bridge the gap between the present and the past. Hip hop didn’t just come up out of nowhere on its own. Like all culture, it grew out of what came before it. This book will help you understand how the ’70s set the table for the hip hop explosion and how deeply indebted hip hop is to Black culture from that pivotal decade.
The ’70s were, of course, significant in their own right long before hip hop came along. Poised between the militant politics of the late ’60s and the emergence of the conservative Reagan ’80s, the ’70s stand as a decade full of any– and everything. Because it was so new, there was a freshness to the culture that came forward, a sense of liberation, a statement of self–determination on the part of all those people who felt that they were no longer going to try to appease mainstream taste. Instead, they were emboldened in their commitment to being as Black as they wanted to be: in style, taste, and overall action. The Blacker, the better. When I was a young kid in the ’70s, my aunt bought me a T–shirt with a picture of James Brown rockin’ his perfect Afro. This T–shirt said it best: SAY IT LOUD. I’M BLACK AND I’M PROUD.
In one sense, the ’70s stands out because there was very little that came before it in terms of consistent mainstream Black entertainment. There was a limited Black presence on television, and a generally stereotypical presence at that. The representation in film wasn’t any better, save for Sidney Poitier, who, though highly relevant at one time, eventually wore out his welcome because he was represented as being so perfect that he started to look like a figment of some White liberal’s imagination as opposed to a real Black person. While I can most certainly appreciate all his pride and dignity now, there came a time in the late ’60s when Poitier just wasn’t what was needed anymore. Even Poitier himself realized this when he changed his image in the mid–’70s, teaming up with Bill Cosby in Uptown Saturday Night
’s Do It Again
(1975), and A Piece of the Action
The ’70s represented something bold, something striking, something so far out of the box as to never have been seen or contemplated before for Black culture. The incredible creative energy that emerged from the politics and rebellion of Black America in the late ’60s was now being channeled into the music that people listened to, along with the movies and television shows that they watched and the fashions that they wore. There was now a completely different outlook on life that grew out of this newly liberated state of being. The people had thrown off the mental shackles of times past and were embracing the changes that were coursing through the veins of the culture. This was the “brand–new bag” that James Brown had been talking about in his song, and it was also what the Philadelphia group McFadden and Whitehead meant when they sang their anthem “Ain't No Stoppin’ Us Now” in 1979. When Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band sang “Express Yourself” (1970), they too were dealing with freedom of expression and self–determination, both ideas that had come to define the ’70s.
ONE NATION UNDER A GROOVE:
THE BLACK '70S ON ICE
In the '70s, the decade immediately following the civil rights and Black power movements in America, Black popular culture emerged onto the national scene. This visible emergence began a transformation of American culture that continues to influence what we watch and listen to today. Prior to the '70s, racial restrictions in America generally meant that Black culture was kept under wraps, often operating in segregated environments like the "chitlin circuit," and when visible, the images were generally either stereotypical, nonthreatening, or both. Yet in the 1970s, not only were there a larger number of Black media images now available, but the mode of expression was decidedly much more demonstrative.
Prompted by the politics of the time, Black culture was vibrant, energetic, and responsive to the conditions that were starting to shape a newly emancipated group of people. In the past, a great deal of Black culture that was available to the masses had been specific to White definitions of Black expression. However, in the '70s, Black culture started to assume a "for us, by us" sensibility that allowed for the free expression of a culture that was hip, funky, and interested in its own overall sense of identity.
The '70s represents that point at which Black culture started to become the mainstream of American popular culture at large. And while Black culture had since the 1920s served as the avant-garde of American culture, this culture was now visible in the most mainstream of places and started to define what was hip and cool. This would only increase over time.
One of my favorite flix of all time is the Gordon Parks Jr. masterpiece Super Fly, starring Ron O'Neal. To me, that movie was about pursuing life to the fullest, overcoming obstacles, making the best of a bad situation, turning nothing into something, maximizing yourself in one area only to parlay and move into another. On top of this, everything in the flick was just like the title: fly. The clothes, the cars, the dialogue, the whole scene, everything about that movie was so fly that a normal degree of flyness wasn't enough; it had to be Super Fly! This movie was a metaphor for the whole era.
In the Super Fly '70s, Black America kicked in the door of the entertainment industry and went on to forge an indelible imprint on the American psyche that has continually reshaped the way we experience popular culture in this country. While most Black cultural representation prior to the '70s was similar in existence to most Black people at the time--invisible--the seeming onslaught of Black culture in this new era stood out by contrast and exposed the absence of what had not been in place before.
The Notorious Ph.D.'s Guide to the Super Fly '70s is a showcase of this large proliferation of '70s images from my own perspective as someone who both lived through and experienced this culture firsthand, and who later started writing, researching, and making a living explaining this culture to the masses.
If you haven't figured this out already, I am the Notorious Ph.D., a lethal combination of intellect and street knowledge, a unique "collabo" between the formal and the vernacular, a Super Fly '70s blaxploitation hero trapped in a professor's body. Welcome to my world!
The guide is my version of the newest/latest. Some people, though none as erudite and fly as your boy, have discussed the blaxploitation films, the soul music, and the popular television programs of the '70s before, but these separate arenas of entertainment have never been conceived of as one cultural movement with various forms of expression. The guide is unique in labeling this a cultural movement and addressing it as a whole, while still focusing attention on the various pieces that make up the sum of its parts.
The Super Fly '70s focused on representation and self-expression, emboldened by the strident politics of Black empowerment that were at the core of this societal moment. There is an overall mood, sensibility, and mode of representation specific to Super Fly '70s culture that grew out of the political concerns of that era, yet this culture has never been properly represented in all its groundbreaking magnitude. As a matter of fact, many people over the years have dismissed the Super Fly '70s as being frivolous and empty. Some have even derided the whole era as negative and argue that many images took Black people backward in time. Fuck that! It's all love from where I stand.
The guide will showcase the '70s and all the things that I consider Super Fly about it, from my informed and highly subjective perspective. Remember as you go forward, this is the Notorious Ph.D's guide, not an encyclopedia, not a comprehensive textbook, or anything else remotely passing itself off as objective. No, this is my muthafuckin' book! What you will read about here are my favorite things, without apology. If you're looking for Diana Ross or Michael Jackson, you're not going to find them here. If you're dying to read about Sounder or some other "positive" Black image from the time, you'd better go pick up a Jet magazine, 'cause it's not here. This is about urban culture, the more real, the better, as far as I'm concerned. I ain't tryin' to win no NAACP Image Award. I'm just tryin' to keep it real and be cool at the same time.
Consider this book a running commentary, a bomb-ass journal, and a ready compendium of all things that I consider fly about the era. Whenever you need it, the info is right at your fingertips. For all the true '70s heads, this book will remind you of everything that you loved about the era, and for all of you squares out there, this book will take you to school and put you up on what's really hip too.
For generations of people who came of age in the '80s, '90s, and the new millennium, the '70s served as the school that would shape and influence much of what has been created in the time since, replacing the '50s and '60s as the decades that proved most influential on the baby boom generation. The Super Fly '70s--the explosion of Black popular culture--is, in many ways, a bridge that allowed for the transition from that era to today's hip hop generation. Not only is the '70s representative of a generational shift in American culture, but it is also the cultural warehouse that has continually provided inspiration, source material, and a historical reference point for media representation in the most contemporary sense.
I have always said that you judge the significance of an era by the way future generations respond to that which came before them. This is what makes the '70s so fly: the fact that the hip hop generation has drawn such a great deal from the period. The '70s Black culture set the table for hip hop to come along and feast on all the good shit left behind. This is obviously the case in terms of music, but also in terms of things like the return of cornrows as a popular hairstyle, vintage sneakers as a fashion statement, and a red, black, and green wristband for effect. All of these things came from the '70s, and all of them have been recycled by this new generation.
Excerpted from The Notorious Phd's Guide to the Super Fly '70s by Dr. Todd Boyd. Copyright © 2007 by Todd Boyd. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.