The 1970s and 80s in Washington D.C. are out of sight, out of mind for the hordes of new Washingtonians moving to the district. Nowadays, the decision to pursue art in the district often gets you the side eye. But this town has not infrequently been the cradle of powerful movements of artistic expression, and there’s no reason to think it can’t be again. The rumblings of this spirit are palpable, whether it’s at the U Street go-go corner protests or at Howard U where an angry resident called for moving a historic black campus to accommodate his dog. The squeeze is here, and voices cry out for a change.
But before the days of gentrification, another generation of voices cried out for change in a much different way. They were experimenters, psychonauts, free thinkers, and born again American citizens, basking in the aftermath of a victorious struggle against white supremacy. The Civil Rights movement set the 1970s up to be a time of glasnost for Washington’s black population, and, of course, the revolutionary flavor infused the music of the time. Artists like Gil Scott Heron and Sun Ra pushed the boundaries of jazz, rock n roll, and West African music in a quest to capture black identity outside a system that suppressed it. At the heart of it all was a local music label called Black Fire and a one of a kind promoter named Jimmy Gray.
Gray popped into this world 1937, on a street named for the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, himself a kind of performer and promoter, in a neighborhood founded by freedmen after the Civil War. But it was the Depression, and the abject poverty only sharpened the sting of systematic segregation. Jimmy came of age in the 1960s, when the wave of oppression finally broke. It was a time of vigorously social agitation, demand for recognition, a time when Bebop was at its height and beatniks flooded the clubs on U street and across the district. Jimmy sensed the promise in the air, but it was his sister who would help him find a direction for that energy. She frequented Bohemian Caverns, D.C.’s legendary jazz club, where she saw everyone from Duke Ellington to Ella Fitzgerald, often letting her younger brother tag along. Jimmy quickly developed a passion for jazz and frequently fraternized with the groups that passed through town. Jimmy turned 30 in 1969, an ambitious young man in the wake of the Civil Rights movement.
It was a great awakening for the black community. “There was a strong push for black identity outside what the system produced,” says Gray’s son, Jamal, himself an artist, musician, and collector. That push would often be more than polite society could handle. Early in the decade, a beatnik jazz artist named Gil Scott Heron recorded “The Bottle,” a confrontational song about the struggles of black urban life: alcoholism, poverty, violence. Heron’s label Strata East refused to release the controversial song, but Jimmy knew it was something the world needed to hear. He offered to distribute and promote the song himself, tirelessly crossing the country with a trunk full of copies to sell to mom and pops and dick jockeys. When “The Bottle” became a hit, Jimmy cut the middle man and launched his own label: Black Fire.
Gray’s new label captured the essence of those days of freedom. Whether it was the chaotic emancipated jazz of Sun Ra or the agro lounge and proto go-go of Experience Unlimited, Jimmy Gray was shuffling it across the country in the trunk of his car. Jamal accompanied his father on some of these trips, riding once from Richmond to NYC and hitting every mom and pop shop along the way. Jimmy would pick up rare records along the way for his own collection, which would eventually reach the unfathomable number of over 10,000.
He carried vinyl with psychedelic artwork, colorful West African masks in a cubist landscape or golden winged creatures flying over a cloud and titles like “Space Jungle Love” and “Bush Brothers and Space Rangers.” The groups Gray promoted manifested a vision of Afrofuturism that simultaneously glorified the ancestral roots of the African people. At a time when Nigerian musician Fela Kuti was Africanizing the sounds of James Brown across the ocean, black empowerment was proving itself to be a global movement. There was “a sense for widening consciousness: Period. People were trying to adopt something new,” says Jamal. As the 80s approached, many of these bands coalesced into the go-go movement that came to define D.C. music and E.U. set a gold standard in the genre with a surprising hit called “Da Butt.” The later punk movement imbibed a lot of the most daring and ferocious tendencies in the music of this period.
The decision to rerelease the records from this crucial time was sparked by the friendship of Oneness of Juju member Plunky and a rare record collector named Egon. Egon was a Black Fire superfan who helped bring its music to artists like Madlib and Dilla, producers on Stones Throw and Now Again. Dilla sampled tracks from these rare records in some of his own songs. Egon and Plunky’s collaboration with Stones Throw and Now Again helped keep the music alive while the labels current artists were shifting the culture of their time. Now they are teaming up with Vinyl Me to bring these rare records back into circulation. This month they will be releasing Experience Unlimited’s masterpiece “Free Yourself” with more releases to follow and a few already on the market.
Like those who came before, Jamal sees the direct link between preservation and pushing the boundaries today. His band Nag Champa is an ever rotating cast of musicians, DJs, and innovators, picking up the trail of Black Fire and the modern day hip hop crossover. Much like his father tagged along with his sister those nights at Bohemian Caverns, Jamal imbibed the jazz spirit through his father, recalling being “the only 5 year old at a bebop concert.” As Jamal prepares to carry on Black Fire’s legacy both through these rereleases and in his own art, it’s obvious that like his father, Jamal has found his calling, “Now it’s my exact mission to continue his legacy, adopt his ethos. And that influence reflects in the sound and the visual aesthetic we project.”