When James Brown turned in what was to be the soundtrack for Hell up in Harlem, the film’s producers weren’t happy.
To them, it was just more James Brown music.
Nothing they hadn’t heard before.
And they’d heard quite a bit before.
You see, James Brown had provided these producers with the music for two other films.
Black Caesar and Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off.
Slaughter being the sequel to Caesar.
Hell up in Harlem was the third film in this trilogy.
And James Brown had been tapped to complete the trifecta.
But the folks at American International Pictures decided the music wasn’t funky enough.
Stories told by Brown band members attribute that sentiment to the flick’s director/producer Larry Cohen, but he denies it.
Brown ordered the tapes be returned to him.
And he turned the soundtrack into his next album.
The title track, which also served as the album opener, was apparently started by Fred Wesley, then Brown’s musical director, and drummer John Starks, often referred to as ‘Jabo’.
They’d crafted it while watching a rough cut of the film.
Brown decided to go another way.
He came up with a lyric fueled by righteous anger and hell bent on retribution, and doubled down on the grit in his voice to make sure you knew he wasn’t having any bullshit, warning you that you best get ready for the big payback.
Thematically, the words were mean to accompany the film’s opening scene.
Now, they seemed like a message to the filmmakers.
You sold me out, now you better run for cover, because I’m going to collect what’s mine.
And Brown did.
The Payback was not only a #1 R&B hit as a single in spring 1974, it went top 40 on the pop charts.
And the album met with very strong sales - it is apparently his only album to gain a gold certification - and good reviews.
Hell up in Harlem got a soundtrack from a couple of Motown talents with a title track by Edwin Starr.
You never heard of it?
But you know this song, either in its original form, or as a sample in hits by folks like En Vogue and Mary J. Blige.
Now that’s some pretty cool payback indeed.