The Godfather of Soul James Brown used to have a kind of a test for how funky a record was. He once remarked about Kool & The Gang’s “Funky Stuff” that it was so funky, he had to pull over his car while he was driving because if he didn’t, he’d have wrecked from grooving so hard. The militant, grinding, insistent on the beat groove of “1000 Death’s” from D’Angelo’s long awaited third album, “Black Messiah”, fits my criteria for such a recording. This song perhaps carries the theme of the album as well as any other found on it. The title is a variation of a quote Julius Ceaser by Wiliam Shakesphere, “Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.” This saying has been quoted in many forms over the years, but has come down into the popular urban lexicon from actor and rapper Tupac Shakur, who said it in the form of “A coward dies a thousand deaths, A soldier dies but once.” D’Angelo takes this idea and crafts a narrative that fits the last five to six years of renewed militant activism, from the Oscar Grant protests, to Occupy Wall Street, from the Egyptian Revolution to the protestors facing off against militarized cops in Fergueson, Missouri. D crafts a vicious, pounding funk jam that goes inside a soldiers mind, framing this battle as a righteous one instituted by “Yahweh (Jehovah) and Yehushuah (Jesus) themselves.
The song begins with some distorted guitar and Questlove’s snare drum tapping out some practice notes, but they serve almost as if the instruments are beckoning your attention to the vocal sample that is about to play. Khalid Muhammed, the controversial 1990s era Nation of Islam minister is the speaker, talking about Jesus, but not the white, European image of him that has been sold. He speaks of Jesus as a sun burned man with skin of brass and “hair like lambs wool”, and also a man who was a revolutionary and turned down Satans “New World Order.” Not only does Muhammed’s speech provide the spiritual grounding for the album theme of a revolutionary “Black Messiah”, it also links D’s music and song to the great legacy of ’90s revolutionary hip hop that sampled speeches by leaders like Khalid Muhammed. In fact, Muhammed’s voice can be found on the intro to Public Enemy’s classic “Night of the Living Baseheads (“the way many of us act….we’ve even lost our minds.”) As Minister Muhammed continues to speak in praise of nappy hair, the funky revolutionary beat revs up, with Questlove providing the sort of solid eighth note kick based back beat drumming that provided so much of the foundation for hip hop. They are able to get a sound on the drums that is very reminiscent of the late ’60s, early ’70s funk drum sound that hip hoppers of D and Questlove’s generation cherished so much.
Distorted wah wah guitars lace the track as D’Angelo introduces a wicked, chugging slap bassline underneath Minister Muhammed’s speech. D chokes and hammers on two high bass notes before going to a muddy, drilling, dead pitch, percussive bass line, only briefly breaking out some melodic notes as accents. The bass sounds like marching music fit for basic training the world’s funkiest army. Underneath another sample begins to play, of Chicago Black Panther Minister Fred Hampton, one of the greatest of the Panther leaders, a devoted community activist murdered in his sleep by the police in the late ’60s. Minister Muhammed’s speech provides the more emotional basis for D’Angelo’s soldiers battle, almost like a fiery black cleric urging his charges into battle. While Chairman Fred provides the more rationed reasons for resisting capitalist colonialism. D’s vocals come in, as distorted as ever, almost having a quality of being sung over a cheap walkie talkie. His character talks about getting over his fear and going over the hill in battle. The music keeps pounding and going forward, like a soldiers relentless marching with Questlove’s relentless hi hats pushing it forward.
D’s lyrics and vocals sound like the interior dialouge of a person about to go into battle: “I can’t believe I cant get over my fear/They’re gonna send me over the hill/Ah the moment of truth is near/They’re gonna send me over the hill”. He goes from that insecurity to a kind of a thrill of being in battle, the complete opposite, reckless side of war.
That’s when the chorus comes in, where the music switiches up to a massive, heavy pentatonic riff, reminiscent very much so of pre-1976 Funkadelic. It’s a riff in the style of Rock, with several instruments playing the same line, and the chorus serving as the inspiration to D’s scared soldier, “It’s War! That is the Lord!/I wont nut up when we up thick in the crunch/Because a coward dies a thousand times/But a soldier dies just Once.” The song rides out with several minutes of pure early P-Funk style funk rock jamming, with Questlove upping the intensity of his rhythms, strong guitar soloing and the Vangaurd’s voices wailing.
“1000 Deaths” is a very interesting song, for one, it’s one of the most on the beat things D’Angelo has ever done. D is known for his laid back, lazy swinging rhythms but this song is a whole nother thing, aggressive and on top of the beat. And it is fitting due to it’s militant subject matter. The song is open to many interpretations, but what D gave us for sure is an aggressive, funky, intense track. On top of that he layers speeches by black activists to support a narrative of a soldier conquering his or her fears. Of course, there are many kinds of social justice soldiers, including Dr. King and his activists in Selma, as well as the Black Panthers. D’Angelo has created a powerful piece of art that can inspire in many different contexts. And sadly, I feel it will be more and more necessary as America in particular faces more and more confrontation over issues of social justice. But I’m glad D has done his part with super heavy funk!