On 24-Carat Black: The Obscure '70s Soul Group That Became a Hip-Hop Sampling Staple
Author Zach Schonfeld describes the unbelievable odyssey of their lone album 'Ghetto: Misfortune's Wealth'
In the spring of 2017, after several weeks of fevered online anticipation, LA rapper Kendrick Lamar finally unveiled his breathtaking fourth studio album DAMN for the entire world to enjoy. Like so many others, I was instantly rapt by the dense lyrical wordplay and eye-widening aural textures that had become Kung Fu Kenny’s stock and trade going all the way back to his debut Section 80. While DAMN is hardly Lamar’s best album – shoutout to Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City -- it’s enough of a masterpiece that the fine folks who pick the Pulitzer winners saw fit to award him the prize in music the following year.
The committee referred to Lamar’s latest as:
“A virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”
Though DAMN’s singles “Humble” and “Loyalty,” along with the U2-featured track “XXX” left their initial mark, the track that lingered the longest in my mind was tucked near the back end of the album.
“Fear” is a nearly eight-minute long, sonic therapy session in which Lamar recounts three different episodes from his life at the ages of 7, 17 and 27 when he felt deep, inescapable terror. It’s truly unlike anything you might’ve heard before. Over a breathtaking patchwork of glistening keyboard melodies, muted snares, and a simple, mournful guitar riff, Lamar wonders to the almighty about why he’s forced to suffer; why he’s got to bleed. It’s the emotional heart of the entire record.
Before we ever get to hear Kendrick’s voice on “Fear” another voice comes crying to the fore. A woman’s voice. A voice weighted down with all the sadness of the ages.
“Poverty-he-he-heeee / Paaaaaranoia,” she wails.
The first 100 times I listened to “Fear” I didn’t have the slightest clue who that woman was. I suppose I could’ve looked it up, it just simply hadn’t crossed my mind to check. It turns out her name is Princess Hearn. She was one of many members of a short-lived music collective called 24-Carat Black that were signed to the vaunted Stax Records label so many decades ago. The group only put out one album, a sprawling and extraordinarily sophisticated collection of socially conscious soul songs titled Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth in 1973 before vanishing altogether.
For the vast majority of short-lived musical acts that’s typically where the story ends. A fleeting opportunity at large-scale cultural and commercial acceptance before being ushered into the dustbin of history; forgotten by all, except those who were present to take part. This is not that story.
I hardly knew anything about 24 Carat Black or Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth until very recently, when I picked up Zach Schonfeld’s amazingly well-researched 33 1/3 book on the topic. Imagine my surprise as it slowly dawned on me how much of the music assembled by this collective served as the bedrock to so many songs I’ve known and loved for years. My world was rocked.
I’d heard pieces of 24-Carat Black before in Jay-Z’s “Can I Live II.” I’d heard it in “In the Ghetto,” by Eric B. & Rakim, “Nas is Coming,” by Nas and “Rebirth of the Slick (Cool Like That)” by Digible Planets as well. It also showed up in “Infrared,” the bone-chilling coda to Pusha-T’s most recent album Daytona but again, I had absolutely zero idea.
Fortunately, Zach is an acquaintance so I called him up and asked him some more questions about 24-Carat Black, Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth, and why he spent so much time and effort to tell this specific story. “I’ve discovered so much great music just from hearing it sampled by some producer then going online to figure out where the sample came from,” he explained.
From the first time Zach listened to Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth, “I really liked it,” he said. “I didn’t know a lot about it at the time, but it was different from most albums that had been put out by Stax. It was clearly darker and more cinematic.” It wasn’t until “Infrared” dropped in 2018 however, that he decided to investigate further. “It’s hard to explain why that sample caught my interest…it was such a woozy and intense vocal sample that I had to know what the original song was.”
The song Pusha-T and his producer Kanye West snipped for “Infrared” was by 24-Carat Black, but it didn’t appear on Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth. The song was called “I Want To Make Up” and appeared instead on a subsequent, archival release put out by the Numero Group in 2009 named Gone – The Promises of Yesterday. With a desire to learn more Zach, “Decided to track down some of the members of 24-Carat Black and interview them about how they felt about their music being sampled on that Pusha-T track, but also Kendrick Lamar’s album DAMN the prior year…I didn’t know I was going to tumble down the rabbit hole.”
The first person Zach reached out to was the woman you hear on “Fear,” Princess Hearn. “She was just bursting with interesting stories about the band’s heyday, and some of their misadventures on the road.” Among those misadventures was a litany of chaotic gigs, inspired recording sessions, unpaid bills, and even a few arrests. Zach was hooked, and started pulling at even more threads until the whole thing unraveled at his feet. “As a journalist…when I get when to interview someone with amazing stories to tell, and they haven’t had that opportunity to tell those stories publicly before, that’s a great feeling.”
Fortunately, Princess Hearn put Zach in touch with other members of 24-Carat Black, many of whom were willing to share with him their own takes on their experience in the ‘70s. Some were more than happy to open up about that unique time in their young lives when they hardly had a dime, but relished in chasing after an elusive dream. Others who were more jaded about the endeavor were exceedingly willing to point fingers at those they felt doomed the entire enterprise.
He didn’t stop there.
Zach flew to Detroit to see the remnants of the recording studio where the album was laid down. He talked to hip-hop producers who used 24-Carat Black’s music as the basis for their own creations decades after the fact. He also reached out to the band’s business associates, including Al Bell, the legendary head of Stax Records who still holds a sincere place of fondness in his heart for Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth.
“That was a really interesting interview,” Zach said. “When I reached out to him I didn't know if he even remembered who 24-Carat Black was or had thought about this record in the past 45 years, but he did. In the book, I believe I quoted him saying he believed it to be a masterpiece on par with the Mona Lisa. He was very regretful that he wasn’t able to carve out an audience for this record in 1973 and seemed pretty wistful about how things turned out for this record.”
While there are nearly two dozen people who could rightfully call themselves members of 24-Carat Black, at the very center of the story is a man named Dale Warren. Born in Detroit in 1943, Warren was a conservatory trained violinist, before his aunt landed him a job arranging strings for Motown. By the late ‘60s he worked his way down South to Memphis, catching on with Stax Records who were then in the midst of what amounted to a reboot after extracting themselves from a business partnership with Atlantic Records and selling to the global conglomerate Gulf+Western.
“I believe that he was a musical genius who had a singular vision of bringing his classical training in conversation with funk and soul music of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in a way that very few arrangers of that period were capable of doing,” Zach said. “He achieved that vision on Isaac Hayes’ album Hot Buttered Soul and on other records he arranged for Stax by the Staples Singers and others. 24 Carat Black was meant to be the culmination of this vision that he had.”
While Warren was an undoubted musical visionary, he also unfortunately had a dark side as well. “I spent a lot of time interviewing people who knew him intimately, including his former wife Princess Hearn and his daughter from a separate relationship,” Zach said. “From the reporting it became apparent that he was an absuive figure and womanizer. I didn’t want to gloss over those facts…I didn’t want the book to side-step the fact he mistreated a lot of people and was an unstable person.”
Warren died in 1994, and thus can’t speak for himself or his behavior today. Needless to say, his legacy, as laid out in the book, is…complicated. “I don’t think people really know his name today,” Zach said. “He contributed to a lot of legendary records, he was part of the Wattstax concert — he was the conductor of the Wattstax orchestra — he played a really significant role in both Motown and later Stax…and really hasn't received his due as an arranger and an artist. The story of 24-Carat Black is so intertwined with Dale Warren’s own and rise and fall of the soul scene that the first half of the book kind of functions as de facto biography of Dale Warren.”
The more that Zach reported on the story of Dale Warren, and Stax, and 24-Carat Black and Pusha-T, the more he sensed a graver and more immediate story begin to emerge. “The story became more tragic and more dramatic once I learned that the members of the group had not been able to receive any royalties from the samples of their music, which is just a really stark injustice.”
What began as a mere curiosity about the origins of some of his favorite music samples, turned into something resembling a cause to highlight the ways in which the members of 24-Carat Black and other musicians just like them, have been wronged by the record industry at large. “I wanted to bring attention to the fact they hadn’t been paid for these samples because I feel that’s something that should be rectified.”
And it should be rectified! The laws governing who gets paid for what in the music industry are as confusing as they arcane. The fact that this collection of musicians who did so much to say something of real importance in their own time about oppression, about systemic racism, about the ways in which the system is stacked against them, while also directly impacting the sound and aesthetic of so many groundbreaking works in the years afterward, haven’t received their due is nothing short of a travesty.
As the group sang on “Poverty’s Paradise”
“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, yes yes /
That's what they tell me /
Liquidation and distress /
That's what they sell me.”
In 2018, Kendrick Lamar received a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts with DAMN. Perhaps in 2021, Princess Hearn and the other members of 24 Carat Black could receive a royalty check or two?
Zach Schonfeld’s Top 6, Stax Record Albums
Otis Redding — Otis Blue (1965)
“I don't need to tell anyone how great this album is. It’s widely considered Otis Redding’s best record.”
Isaac Hayes — Hot Buttered Soul (1969)
“An album that really revolutionized the parameters of what was possible for funk and soul LPs. Every time I put this record on, it blows my mind all over again. When the drums come in on ‘Walk on By’ it’s intoxicating.”
David Porter — Victim of the Joke?…An Opera (1971)
“This is kind of a weird album. In the book, I talk about how Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth is notable for being one of the earliest soul concept albums. Some people call it a soul/funk opera. I think it’s debatable about whether it is an opera, but this album by David Porter definitely is a soul concept album/opera. It’s an album that has a whole storyline that’s threaded throughout the record. There are these little skits between the tracks, which kind of feels like a pre-cursor to rap albums of the late ‘90s. It has really great, elaborate arrangements courtesy of Dale Warren. It also has a soulful cover of “Help!” by the Beatles. There’s also a 10-minute track on this record called “The Masquerade is Over,” which is a really brilliant, mind-melting song. Rap fans will recognize it because it was sample on “Liquid Swords” by GZA.”
Frederick Knight — I’ve Been Lonely for So Long (1972)
Frederick Knight was kind of a one-hit wonder. He had a hit called “I’ve Been Lonely for So Long” that was a really melodic soul song from ‘72. The album is also called I’ve Been Lonely for So Long, and it’s just a really beautifully arranged, soulful record. Dale Warren was involved in this record as well. I happened to stumble upon it at Rough Trade, a record store in Brooklyn, while I was working on the book. I took it home and listened to it over, and over, and over.
Isaac Hayes — Joy (1973)
“An Isaac Hayes album that doesn’t get the acclaim it deserves. It came out the same year as Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth. The first track is this 15-minute, funk meltdown. It’s just incredible. Kanye West sampled the drums from that track on ‘30 Hours’ on The Life of Pablo.”
Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth (1973)
“My number one, for obvious reasons.”