One Random Single a Day #2: “The Jungle” (1972) by Black Heat

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Today’s random single comes from a group who comes from the influx of topical funk that emerged in the early 70s. Coming off the heels of The Undisputed Truth, Sly & the Family Stone, James Brown, and “Ball of Confusion”-era Temptations is Black Heat, a New York funk act whose sound really kicks. Their only hit single is “No Time to Burn”, which came out in 1973. This single is a bit more tighter and catchier, incorporating some synthesizer sounds atop of the classic hi-hats, driving bass, and intense harmonies. This song is definitely one of the most understated funk/R&B songs of this era and one that everyone should give a listen to.

But we’re not talking about “No Time to Burn Here” – rather, we’re checking out a bit of an earlier single from their debut self-titled album, this single being “The Jungle”. Right away, this feels and sounds like it would fit right in with the rest of what was circulating around this golden age of soul. It immediately devotes itself to the bombastic sounds of its horns and electric organ, true staples of the genre that Black Heat implement so well. The title gives off the implication that this is in the vein of Civil Rights anthems like Edwin Starr’s “War” and the ilk, with the jungle itself being the rough terrains of the depraved urban landscape (like Grandmaster Flash heeds a decade later, “It’s like a jungle, sometimes it makes me wonder / How I keep from going under”). Yet, the vocalist begins the track with lines like, “My baby left me… She left me cryin’; I’m so hurt”, indicating that this is of a much more simpler, universal theme. It’s a heartbreak song that shakes it up with its empowering sound and mood.

But maybe the implication of the former is there? The main hook states that the speaker was left “way down yonder in the middle of the jungle”. So the metaphor of the jungle as the real life world in which these characters live still stands. Perhaps he only found hope and joy in the one he loves, who stood as a shining beacon amidst the corrupt world, and now that she’s gone every bit of thrill he once felt leaves with her. Perhaps this is parsing the lyrics far more than they had ever intended to be, but the vocalist’s repetition of “I’m so tired” really echo a painfully relevant sentiment of people of color in an urban setting, who are constantly beaten down by forces against them that they cannot control. Especially given the driving influences of their sound, it’s connotations like these that can’t really be simply passed over.

Overall, this song really kicks. It is tied together masterfully by famous producer Joel Dorn; even though his most successful work would be with his Grammy-winning productions of simpler, softer works from Roberta Flack, the mixing of the numerous sonic elements at play here effectively stand toe-to-toe with the greats. Granted, it doesn’t have the poetic realism of work produced by the likes of Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield, and the lyrics are a bit too simple and repetitive to be anything outstanding on that front. But if you are looking for a neat slice of culture from a lesser-known artist successfully falling in line with all the groovy, popular stuff of its time, you can do much worse.

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