“Blessed are they who strive in the way of peace, for they shall be called Children of the Father.”
― Norman “Saleem” Hylton (via Matthew 5:9)
This is a guest post by Washington D.C. music historian Logan K. Young
In June of 1981, Dischord Records released catalog number 003―the Minor Threat EP. Its eight songs, including track four’s “Straight Edge” clarion, lasted a total of eight minutes.
Talk about economy.
Some thirty years later, and for a lot of Washington, D.C. insiders even, that’s all the District hath wrote. It’s almost fitting: Nothing ever gets done on Capitol Hill; why would it be any different inside the Dischord House? You could make a case, I suppose, for the plethora of post-hardcore memes like The Dismemberment Plan that followed in Fugazi’s wake. But The D-Plan’s leader, the doe-eyed doyen Travis Morrison, works for HuffPo now. As for Ian MacKaye, he’s taken to playing silly love songs with his wife-cum-drummer, Amy.
Regardless, Washington harDCore always seemed a tad too emo for me.
Predating that fury by at least two decades was the District’s one true sound―go-go. A spicy, mid-Atlantic blend of funk and R&B, with those ever-present dancehall congas, you still don’t hear much from proto-go-go groups like Rare Essence, Trouble Funk, E.U., or the genre’s godfather, the late Chuck Brown, in the white-washed books of history. And while Ward 8’s infamous Marion Barry can be cited as the godfather himself of straight-edge punk―during his first mayoral term, Barry extended seasonal employ to youths, essentially paying people like Henry Rollins (né Garfield) to start bands―go-go never had such a champion, much less a dole, in Washington, D.C.
What, then, to make of a group like Father’s Children? They weren’t go-go, and they sure as heckfire weren’t straight-edge punks.
No, they were something different entirely.
Re-listening now, it’s kind of eerie just how different they were. Of course, were it not for soul-saving historians like Kevin Coombe (a.k.a. DJ Nitekrawler), we might never have known. Moreover, if not for a highest-fidelity reissue from the archival saints at Chicago’s Numero Group, Father’s Children would be as altogether lost as John Boehner’s Congress.
1972 was an eternity ago, really, and plenty of great records have been buried by the legislation of time―especially in the District of Columbia, where ignorance has its own blissful lobby. If you know Father’s Children at all it’s probably for their compromises made elsewhere later in the decade. (Or, to borrow a term from the HxC kids, their ‘sell-out’ stuff.)
Here’s a quick refresher: After years of both member and manager turnover, the funky, Islam-ified ensemble finally signed to Mercury Records and manifested west for a gold grab with The Crusaders’ Wayne Henderson behind the console. These gilded sessions would end up bearing the s/t decalogue, Father’s Children. Watered-down by Tinsel Town, that album’s torpid single, “Hollywood Dreaming” b/w “Shine On,” ultimately failed to chart in July of ‘79.
Another reminder: Things only got worse. Mercury soon relinquished rights, forcing the roughshod soul-Futuros to slouch it on back to Norman Hylton’s People’s Center in rough-hewn Adams Morgan. Abandoned and old enough, Father’s Children eventually divorced.
It was time to take sides. Whereas disco got custody of the America’s capital, Dischord would soon overtake her capitol city.
It wasn’t always like that, though. The would-be Children were birthed as a doo-wop/skiffle outfit called The Dreams at Western High School (now Duke Ellington School of the Arts) in the late ‘60s. And everything was jive.
Well, almost. After a Volkswagen accident outside Petersburg, Virginia killed their gear but left every Dream alive, the boys fell prostrate before Allah and rechristened themselves accordingly: Ted “Skeet” Carpenter became “Hakim,” Billy Sumler choose “Qaddir,” Nick Smith became “Nizam,” Michael Rogers assumed “Malik,” Steve Woods went with “Wali,” and Zachary Long was called “Sadik.” Norman “Saleem” Hylton had convinced the boys that they weren’t meant to die on I-95 that night.
The Dreams now deferred to a celestial Father. But once again, all was seemingly jive. And on stage anyways, Father’s Children grew up quickly. The kids would play jook joints (Ed Murphy’s Supper Club, The Other Barn, Motherlode Wild Cherry) and ivory towers alike (Howard University, American University, University of the District of Columbia). Like any father figure should, Hylton taught the Children not to discriminate; a gig was a gig. Sooner than later, he promised, life on the Beltway would pay off at home.
Writing in the liners for this reissue, Numero’s Rob Sevier and Ken Shipley tell the truth thusly:
“In fall 1972, Saleem was introduced to local studio magnate Robert Hosea Williams, who owned and managed a small network of Beltway studios. Jules Damian at D.B. Sound Studios had recently brought Williams in as a partner to right the debt-heavy ship. He wouldn’t disappoint. Williams had built his rep behind the boards at Edgewood Studios on 1539 K Street and by freelancing at Track Studios in Silver Spring, Maryland. His engineering experience included work for Gil Scott-Heron, Hugh Masekela, the Soul Searches and Van McCoy, but he always managed to find time on his schedule for locals.”
For Father’s Children, their time was September ‘72, just a few weeks after this fateful meeting. Stationed at D.B. Sound, the seven-piece ensemble ran down a voodoo equal parts lament for D.C.’s earlier race riots and their newfangled, moon-unit take on Islam. Again, it’s near scary just how good they were.
But there was a problem.
As so often happens, the Children never got the master tapes because Fly Enterprises―the fly-by-night hucksters these callow kids from Meridian Park hired to replace Saleem Hylton―didn’t pay the time tab. (Were Hylton still at the helm, it’s hard to imagine such a scenario.) Regardless, those originals sat collecting dust on producer Robert H. Williams’ shelf until 2006, when Coombe griped them tight, and with Numero’s blessing proper, raised them from perdition.
Four more years still, their combined ransom has proved more than bountiful. Hence, we finally have thee definitive question come unto the Children―Who’s Gonna Save The World[?].
But in northwest D.C., especially in the early ‘70s, that question was hardly rhetorical. In fact, it was downright dangerous. As per Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, the most convincing lines, the most insatiable rhythms here are the ones that play the most urgent. And as far as shared sentiments, anyways, this could easily be 2012.
Lead-off cut “Everybody’s Got a Problem,” written and wrought by Nizam Smith, looks not at Richard Nixon’s White House, but instead the silent majority Tricky Dick had resigned to either side of Pennsylvania Avenue: “Oh man, you talking about the Watergate, man? Man, I’m so broke, I can’t even pay attention.” Given a GOP CEO, it rarely pays to be poor.
“Dirt and Grime” is a skeletal study, almost menacing by comparison. In a strained but palpable tenor, Smith dutifully rebukes his own Adams Morgan. “My dirty, filthy habitat is where I got my habit at,” he admits. Apropos, Wali Woods’ high-pass guitar adds some extra-brittle filth atop. It’s a fragile, yet classic case of nature versus nurture. Smith’s ‘AdMo’ neighborhood, now, has surely been swagger-jacked, but on the right Saturday night, it might be alright for fighting. Still.
Meanwhile, “Linda”―the lone, legit love song of the lot―succeeds in spite of Robert Williams’ 101 Strings schmaltz. It’s actually a quite beautiful tune. Re-recorded as a later one-off for D.C. Valentine’s D.C. boutique Arrest, the original suburban reading sparkles still. After all, sometimes the new isn’t also the improved.
In retrospect, Father’s Children’s Islam never was as hard-lined as Elijah Muhammad’s Nation. Thus, their own eschatology was hardly dogma ‘n’ brimstone. Perhaps it’s because the Children were so young a band. Take side two’s opener “Kohoutec,” for instance. Kohoutek, the doomsday comet 150,000 years late even in late ‘72, had been anticipated in song by everyone from Sun Ra to Kraftwerk to Journey. Swaddled in warm, Red Line reverb here, the Children aren’t so much waiting idly for some cosmic Godot as they are bustin’ loose during His interregnum. But just like that, it’s glorious noise of wind, brass and percussion comes to a psychedelic halt; it seems their “Kohoutec” was our Hale-Bopp.
Undeterred, the shimmering harmonies of “In Shallah” follows. Arabic for “god willing,” it’s the weakest link only because it’s unfettered optimism sounds a bit like the airport Krishna’s proselytizings. That said, it’s not a bad-meaning-bad song.
Clocking in at just under eight minutes, “Father’s Children” is probably the best, most representative Father’s Children track recollected. Tempo-wise, it’s got to be their fastest as well. Kicking off with the Biblical boilerplate atop, it simultaneously anticipates and obliterates the coming go-go sound. Not bad, indeed. Here, the Children dial down the Arabic rhetoric and summon forth a pure groove clinic. Nearly every member of the flock gets a featured workout, with Wood’s deft wah-wah leading the charge of his brigade’s light. It’s a true joy, a genuine blessing to behold.
Were “Father’s Children” made available on wax in 1972, even as a single, methinks the entirety of hip-hop and rap would have sounded a lot different. Yes, the breaks simply are that infectious, the beats just too obvious not to sample. I’d wager it’s only a matter of time now before some enterprising crate-digger mashes the funk out of this one.
Come August of 1974, Nixon was gone, leaving his fellow Americans firmly on the losing side of the War on Poverty. Especially in the District, it was a struggle just to keep the lights on. A last-ditch salvo was launched locally to save Norman “Saleem” Hylton’s ecumenical Center at 17th Street and Kalorama, but alas, the citizens of Suffragette City would lose that, too. And Hylton was a Vietnam veteran!
To this day, in a city of some 700,000 people, not a single resident of Washington, D.C. has a Congressional vote that actually counts. Making matters worse, go-go got its first bona fide Billboard-er that year with Black Heat’s “No Time To Burn.” With head songwriter Nizam Smith having defected to Miami for a solo shot, wagons ho!, Father’s Children made that ill-advised, career-ending trek to the City of Angels.
The rest, well…you already know by now. There is a post-script, however.
As late as 2007, a reunited Father’s Children self-financed an album called Sky’s the Limit and distributed it via their own FC Music imprint. (In D.C., D.I.Y. neither starts, nor ends, with one Ian MacKaye.) But honestly, from what I’ve heard of Sky’s the Limit, like most musical reunions anyways, it’s only a cheap simulacrum―a gold-plated calf cast to former glories and youthful follies (i.e. this new D-Plan record).
Eternal thanks be to Numero Group, et al. for finally putting out the real thing. We can now call off the search.
Who’s Gonna Save The World is a national treasure, worthy every bit of Jeffersonian pomp and Honest Abe’s circumstance. For once in the life of our nation’s capital, here lies a legitimate bipartisan record. And in a town littered with monuments to men passed, the seven in Father’s Children remain but a few of the ones truly worth revisiting.
Blessed were they, each one, indeed. Let us all come unto the Children once more.
This is a guest post by Washington D.C. music historian Logan K. Young