Author on 24-Carat Black’s ‘Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth’

October 30, 2020 by

360°Sound spoke with writer/editor/journalist Zach Schonfeld about his forthcoming 33 1/3 book on the influential but underappreciated soul-funk concept album Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth by 24-Carat Black. A longtime favorite of crate diggers and soul aficionados, Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth is, as Schonfeld notes in the book, “an album that nobody has heard of but everybody has heard.” And that’s because so many famous rap songs have sampled it.

Drawing on research and interviews, Schonfeld provides a fascinating account of the musicians behind this masterpiece, which was released to little fanfare in 1973 on Memphis’s famed Stax Records, and its impact on hip-hop. Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth is out Nov. 12 on Bloomsbury Academic.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

360°: Please start by telling us why you chose this great but relatively obscure album to write a 33 1/3 book on.

Zach Schonfeld

Zach Schonfeld: My interest in 24-Carat Black was triggered by my interest in sampling. For a very long time, I’ve been fascinated by sampling in hip-hop – both the creative and legal dimensions and complications of sample culture. When I was high school and I heard There’s a Riot Goin’ On by Sly and the Family Stone, it blew my mind that I recognized all these samples that I’d already heard on Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys and De La Soul’s first record. There’s something magical to me about the way producers can take a fragment of music that has been forgotten and lost to listeners and repurpose it in a completely new genre of music and build something new around it.

My interest in samples got me obsessed with this era of funk music, Isaac Hayes, James Brown, David Porter, and especially the more offbeat, ambitious funk albums from the early 70s. I came across 24-Carat Black and became familiar with their music because they’ve been sampled by so many different rap artists that I love, including Eric B. & Rakim, Digable Planets and Nas. There’s such a huge gap between how predominantly [24-Carat Black] have been sampled by very well-known rappers and how few people know their name.

The more immediate impetus for this book was Pusha T’s album Daytona and specifically the song “Infrared.” In 2018, I became obsessed with that sample, and I really wanted to know what the story was behind it. I’d heard Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth; I hadn’t heard the [2009] Numero Group compilation of their music, which is where that sample is from. I wrote a story for Pitchfork and tracked down some of the members of 24-Carat Black and just became completely fascinated with their story.

It’s such a dramatic story – how they were discovered by Dale Warren, how they were signed to Stax Records, during what was a very historic and tumultuous period for soul music. And then how they were essentially abandoned when Stax Records went under and their album fell into obscurity only to be dug up 15 years later by Eric B. & Rakim. I was struck to learn that the members of 24-Carat Black had never been able to receive money from these samples. That fact is unfortunately very common throughout the music industry and it’s one of many potent examples of how musicians, predominately Black musicians, have been taken advantage of and exploited by the forces of the music industry.

Tell us a little about Dale Warren, the mastermind behind the 12-piece group’s one and only album.

Dale Warren was an enormously talented arranger/songwriter/composer. His background was in classical composition. He was the nephew of Raynoma Gordy Singleton, wife of Motown founder Berry Gordy, and served as an arranger for the Detroit hit machine in the ‘60s. Eventually, he landed a position as a staff arranger at Stax. His big break was arranging the strings on Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul, which is one of the most influential and brilliant soul albums of all time. Warren was the mastermind of 24-Carat Black. He wrote most of their materials, he mentored the young musicians, many of whom were still teenagers when he found them, and he also married Princess Hearn, who was the lead singer.

He was kind of the driving force behind the lyrical themes. The album is largely about poverty in the inner city. The first half of the book kind of functions as a biography of Warren because his story was so intermingled with 24-Carat Black’s rise and fall. But he was also a very flawed and troubled individual. He passed away in 1994, which made it more challenging, but I interviewed a number of people who knew him intimately.

He was an alcoholic and cheated on numerous wives and mistreated his daughter when she was very young. I wanted the book to address these facets of his character honestly and transparently. I didn’t want the book to gloss over the fact that he was an abusive person, and I don’t want to whitewash that aspect of his legacy.

Did it seem that the record’s lack of success was mostly due to poor timing?

Absolutely. I spoke with [record executive and former Stax Records co-owner] Al Bell for the book, and he insisted that he did try to promote the album to radio DJs. His background was in the radio business and he had very deep ties to some of the leading Black radio stations of the day. He claimed the DJs just weren’t feeling it. They didn’t get it and didn’t think their audience would respond to it. What’s clear to me is that this album was doomed by very poor timing.

Stax Records was struggling with severe financial problems during this period, and they were also struggling with this disastrous partnership with CBS Records, a distribution deal where CBS basically went out of their way to sabotage Stax after Clive Davis, who had arranged the deal with Bell, left. Then, Stax went bankrupt while 24-Carat Black was in the middle of this grueling long tour that left them stranded with no cash and no way to get home. It was a disaster.

What are your hopes for the book?

I’m keenly aware that this is an album unfamiliar to many people who might come across this book. I’m hopeful the book will bring more attention and recognition to 24-Carat Black, particularly to the surviving musicians who created this music and are still out there today waiting to get paid for all these samples. I sincerely hope that the members of the group will be able to receive some form of justice and compensation in whatever form that may take.

I’m hopeful that more people will discover this music and find some sort of value or meaning in it, because it is an incredible album that never got its due. If this book serves any role in bringing this music to more listeners, I would be very humbled and pleased by that. I also hope the book will raise more discussion of who the music industry is set up to benefit, who is profiting from the creativity and labor of these musicians, not just in 24-Carat Black, but across the entire funk and soul genre who put so much blood, sweat and tears into this music and ended up broke or forgotten or uncompensated. I hope this book will contribute productively to those long-overdue discussions.

I hope that the members of 24-Carat Black will be able to feel proud and at peace with what they accomplished because when I interviewed them, some of them felt like nobody cared about their music or this record. I wanted to tell them that that’s not true. People are still listening to this record today. Obviously, it didn’t sell a million copies or get played on radio, but this album is a significant artifact. I wanted to pierce the veil of mystery that surrounds it and tell the story that I think has gone untold for 47 years.

To order a copy of the 33 1/3 book Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth, click here.

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