Hell up in Harlem is an oddity among black cinema soundtracks of the early 70's. Whereas the classic Curtis Mayfield score (Superfly in case you asked) was filled with a socially conscience undercurrent that made the songs relevant, this Edwin Starr sung and Freddie Perren/ Fonce Mizell produced soundtrack to the entertaining- if flawed sequel to Black Ceaser, is almost devoid of the cautionary messages that made its aforementioned rival a timeless classic. Hell up in Harlem instead seemed intent in presenting 70's gangster life in its raw unfiltered glory by not delivering a profound message, but a surface reality in which there are no consequences nor any attempt to find answers for its actions. This approach may have gone over the heads of many listeners at the time since the early 70's was a socially conscience time- which probably explains the limited appeal and success of the soundtrack. Not to mention the movie was a relative disappointment at the box office compared to its predecessor -further detracting listeners from the score.
That being said, the Hell up in Harlem soundtrack is one of the shiniest gems of its era for a couple of reasons. One, the production is marvelous, giving listeners a well rounded glimpse into 70's criminal life in the inner city, while doing it with a great sense of humanity that makes it easy for mature listeners to absorb (none of the cheap exploitation that you will find in the worse hardcore rap albums). Second, the soundtrack has lived on as a sampling source and reference for dozens of rappers. Since the subject matter is something a lot of rappers can relate to, it's easy to see why they would gravitate towards this album as a source of musical inspiration. If Ice T, Ice Cube, and 2Pac were 70's soul singers, they would've most likely made an album that sounded like this.
Highlights include the adrenaline pumping ghetto soul of the title track in which a picture can be painted of Tommy Gibbs covering the city in red as he rise to the top of New York's underworld. Easin' In with its sneaky and slinky bass line is equally as gangsta as it's the fitting soundtrack for someone looking to snatch someone's criminal turf when they least expect it. Also worth mentioning is the sugar daddy anthems "Big Papa" in which middle age players are having fun but are reminded of the perils of playing a young man's game.
There are also standouts in its soft moments. "Don't it Feel Good to Be Free" will bring a sense emancipated bliss as you think about chains being broke that bonded you to obligatory helplessness (unemployment, imprisonment, bad marriage, etc). "Like We Used to Do" is one of the best Father and Son songs you'll ever hear with its warm floating groove and Edwin's nicely refrain plea to reunite with his son (you won't find too many songs like this in today's jaded black music atmosphere). "Mama should be here Too" is almost as good as it could qualify as the "Dear Mama" (that 2Pac record) of its day. Then there's the necessary slow jams of" Our Love Will Never Die" and "Jennifer" which showcases the reflective and intimate side of thug love respectively- but can also be universal in its own merit.
While there are a few filler cuts that don't go anywhere musically- namely "Runnin", "Airport Chase", and an unnecessary instrumental of the title track, it doesn't detract from the overall experience.
Next time you come across a used copy of "Hell up In Harlem- the Soundtrack" don't hesitate to pick it up rather you a 70's soul lover, beatdigga, or a soundtrack buff. The album succeeds in not only capturing a spirit of the conflicted world of a gangsta (which is Tommy Gibbs in these movies if you ever saw it), but also crossing boundaries by venturing into a world that few were bold enough to travel and has became influential in hip hop as a result- making it one of the most endearing black cinema soundtracks ever produced. I would say this album is a stone cold classic with a bullet. While hell can very well be in Harlem, the songs and its influence will make this a heavenly addition to your collection.