Sharp Darts: A Blast From Blaxploitation's Past | Music Column | Chicago Reader

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Sharp Darts: A Blast From Blaxploitation's Past

A Chicago band you never heard of recorded a smokin' soundtrack for a movie that never got made.

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It's not hard to imagine why the Chicago soul outfit the Final Solution would have jumped at an offer to record the soundtrack for the blaxploitation film Brotherman in 1975. They'd worked the Chicago club circuit for years as a vocal group called the Kaldirons, recording a lone 45 but never attracting much attention outside the area, then relaunched shortly before the Brotherman project with a new, unfortunate name (apparently oblivious to its genocidal connotations). At the time the blaxploitation boom was helping make superstars of acts like Curtis Mayfield, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Isaac Hayes and tapping huge names like James Brown and Marvin Gaye, but the simple fact that someone was going to pay the Final Solution to record a full-length album must have been exciting in its own right.

Alas, the Brotherman film was never completed—its script may never even have been finished—and neither was the soundtrack. The Final Solution played occasional gigs over the years but never recorded again. But now, thanks to the soul maniacs at the local Numero Group label, the Final Solution's attempt at a blaxploitation masterpiece has been plucked from the closet and given a proper release.

The key to the record is songwriter Carl Wolfolk, who'd supplied tunes for other Chicago acts, including "Can I Change My Mind" for Tyrone Davis. Since he didn't have a script to work from, Brotherman lacks the strong narrative thread that held together more cohesive efforts like Curtis Mayfield's Superfly. But he guessed at some stock elements of the genre—a love scene, some romantic frustration, several action sequences—so there's enough happening on Brotherman to inspire listeners to create their own mental movie to accompany it. (That's what Minneapolis design firm Burlesque of North America must have done to create the cover for the release.)

It's probably a better movie than Brotherman would've actually been: the production group that attempted to make the film might never have come up with anything worthy of these hook-laden melodies, gliding falsetto harmonies, and solid interpretations of genre tropes like the classic wah/hi-hat combo popularized by "Theme from Shaft." (For a real-world example of extreme film/soundtrack disparity, check out the only blaxploitation film shot in Chicago, Three Tough Guys, where Isaac Hayes's psychedelia-tinged jams make up for his performance in front of the camera.)

In 2007 Numero included the Kaldirons' 1970 single, "To Love Someone" b/w "You and Me Baby," on Eccentric Soul: Twinight's Lunar Rotation, an anthology of Chicago's Twinight label. Wondering if the band had recorded anything else, the Numero guys located a former manager, but he didn't even remember any of the members' names—until he happened to run into a brother of singer Darrow Kennedy on the street. Through him they eventually tracked down Kennedy, Wolfolk, and the tapes.

"Carl Wolfolk had always believed that this is his life's work, that this is the greatest thing he'd ever done," says Numero cofounder Ken Shipley. "He wrote every song, he mapped out everything, and he believed in his heart of hearts that it would be a shame to throw this out. I mean, he'd thrown out tons of other stuff along the way, but this was something that he felt like he desperately needed to keep, these three two-inch tapes. He hauled them around from house to house for years....It's not so much the Final Solution's record. It's Carl Wolfolk's record and they just got to play on it."

You Can't Kill Kill Hannah

"I want to do a documentary deglamorizing the whole music industry," says Greg Corner. You might be tempted to take this with a grain of salt from a guy who's currently getting paid to ride around the country in a tour bus and headlining venues several steps up from your average rock dive. But Corner plays bass in Kill Hannah, who were dropped by Atlantic last year after a disappointing five-year run; they're currently out on a tour they organized to support an album they put out on their own label.

"We never had a lucky break," says singer Mat Devine. "We never had a video that by some freak of nature made it to TRL."

The band's two-album big-league career was pretty unspectacular. Despite a respectable amount of radio play for their two biggest singles, opening slots on stadium tours, and a generous promotional push by their label, they never reached the critical mass an act needs to break out in the mainstream. Apparently the general public isn't as into fey, gothy electro-glam as Atlantic's A and R department had hoped.

But a certain subset of the population is nuts for it. The personal and financial stress of blowing it in the majors has broken up a lot of bands, but Kill Hannah are doing fine, probably because they never stopped cultivating their grassroots following, even when they had Atlantic's promo machine behind them. (You might be surprised to learn that Kill Hannah has twice as many MySpace friends as another tour-bus-level Chicago band—Wilco.)

"A lot of our fans, I don't know what's going on in their personal lives," Devine says, "but I doubt that they relate to their teachers and parents in the same way that they relate to us. We get some pretty interesting letters from fans about how much our music means to them. But the truth is that they're keeping us alive as much as they think we're saving them."

This isn't the usual lame doin'-it-for-the-fans speech that arena rockers like to hand down from the position of megafame and big money when all they really want is to be worshipped. Kill Hannah needs that small but devoted fan base to keep going, and like good salesmen they make a point of trying to keep their customers happy, including sticking around after shows to casually hang out with fans. "It's kinda ridiculous when we're spending hours after every show now, but we stick to that," Devine explains.

In January they signed a contract with the midsize Warner subsidiary Roadrunner Records, but they're still TCB like their fate was in their own hands. Corner still runs the merch operation out of his Wicker Park apartment, sending out T-shirts, necklaces, and posters himself, often with a personal note included. They didn't just put together a tour—they put together a package tour, with four-band bills and DJs before sets, then presented the whole shebang to Hot Topic as a sponsorship opportunity. And they released Hope for the Hopeless—an odds-and-sods collection—themselves, in both digital and physical form.

"That's completely familiar to us because that's what we did with several EPs and albums before we got in the major-label game," says Devine.

Because they've always done their own fan-base building, Devine thinks the band is in a better position than artists still counting on labels to do it for them. "I wouldn't say we predicted the collapse of the music industry or anything, but we worked too long and too hard to leave it all up to chance or to ever put our entire careers in the hands of some stranger at a record company."

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