Few cities in the United
States have as rich, and still vital, African-American musical tradition as
Philadelphia. Powerful, inspiring music emerged from the city of brotherly love
(and sisterly affection) for decades, from the days of Harold Melvin & the
Bluenotes to Jill Scott’s soulful expressions.
A key figure in this
legacy is Kenny Gamble, one of half of the producing/writing team of Gamble
& Leon Huff, chief architects of TSOP (the sound of Philadelphia), who
created hits for the O’Jays, MFSB, Lou Rawls, the Three Degrees, Teddy
Pendergrass and The Jacksons among so many. But this Rock & Roll Hall of
Fame inductee is more than a master music maker. Years ago Gamble wrote the
anthem, “Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto,” but he did more than write a song. He’s
lived out his song.
Gamble was raised in the
tough streets of South Philly and, in the early ‘90s, moved back to his poverty
ridden old ‘hood and made changes. He founded Universal Companies and over time
has taken over scores of vacant, abandoned buildings between Broad Street and
18th Street, and Christian and South Street.
Take a stroll around the
once crime ridden area and you’ll see the Universal Institute Charter School,
the Universal Employment Training Center, as well as a mosque, retail
businesses and renovated housing. So Gamble took the philosophy of black up
lift that he advocated in so many records and made it a reality.
After you’d checked out
this very tangible black success story stop by the offices of Gamble-Huff-Bell
Music at 309 Broad Street, where there’s a store that sells CDs, sheet music
and other memorabilia associated with the music made on Philadelphia
Another manifestation of
Gamble’s vision is his advocacy of a Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame being
built in Philadelphia. While he pushes that dream forward Gamble is a big
supporter of the Philly based Rhythm & Blues Foundation, a non-profit
organization that raises money for aging and ailing r&b stars from the
1940s to the ‘70s, who recorded when the exploitation of black entertainers was
at his height. Once a year the foundation holds its Pioneer Awards dinner in
Philadelphia to raise money and honor the greats of this genre. For more info
on the organization and for tickets to their next event go to www.rhythm&bluesfoundation.com
In a similar spirit of
entrepreneurship is Kevin Parker’s Miss Tootsie’s, a very elegant soul food
emporium on South Street near Broad. This two level bar/restaurant has a down
home name, but a very stylish décor. The second floor dinning room is dominated
by huge photos of Philly associated black female vocalists (such as Floetry)
artsy chandeliers, and lime colored cushions. There is also a more laid back
ground floor take out section on the ground level, which serves a devastatingly
sweet iced tea in large plastic bottles. For more info to go
South Street, which has
been a pedestrian strip since the ‘60s, has undergone a nice revival in recent
years. After a big meal at Miss Tootsie’s you can walk if off if you walk in
the direction of the Delaware River. Along the way you’ll past boutiques,
dessert spots, and nightclubs. A popular club, just off South Street, is Fluid
(613 South 4th Street, 2156293686), which has many big name DJs and
a cool crowd.
In fact Philly has a very
soulful, smart, and progressive contemporary music scene. There are a lot of well-known
recording artists who call the city home (Scott, Musqui, Kindred, the Roots,
Ursula Rucker) and often perform in Philly.
But Philly is also known,
in the U.S. and around the world, as a breeding ground for great DJs. Among the
brand names DJs based of out the city are Jazzy Jeff, Rich Medina, King Britt,
and ?uestlove, the drummer/mastermind behind the Roots, who’s busy these days
playing weeknights on Jimmy Fallon’s show.
Many of these Philly based
DJs play regular or semi-regular nights in town. Medina, who’s well known for
his Jump & Funk Afro-beat parties, has been working out of the Arts Garage
(1535 Ridge Avenue) most of the summer when he’s in town.
My favorite Philly club is
Silk City (435 Spring Garden, 2155928838), which is located in the North
Liberties section, an area that has become a Mecca for young artists. You’ll
see noted record producers, DJs and singers riding their bike, shopping for
groceries or stopping into Silk City for a bite.
Half of Silk City is a
diner that serves up a tasty brunch and is also open late for club goers. That
makes it a busy space at night since the other half of Silk City is a club,
where Britt and ?uestlove have worked the 1 & 2s and local musicians get up
an jam, sometimes playing along with the DJs.
Another great way to
experience the city’s contemporary sound is to attend the Roots’ Picnic, held
in June the last two years at Penn’s Landing, the long waterfront area that is
filled with restaurants, vintage ships and a surprisingly scenic view of New
Jersey across the Delaware. At the last Roots Picnic I got my first look at Kid
Cudi, caught sets by black alternative bands, Santo Gold and TV on the Radio,
as well as the Roots backing Public Enemy in a performance of the entire ‘It
Takes A Nation of Millions’ live. To keep up with the Roots, progressive black
music, and plans for the next picnic go to www.okayplayer.com
Lots of movies are shot in
Philly, which has a cinematic mix of skyscrapers, historic sites and funky
hoods. M. Night Shyamalan has shot all his thrillers (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable,
The Happening) in and around the city. But, for me, the most visually arresting
part of Philadelphia can be viewed for free.
Philadelphia has the most
ambitious public mural program in the U.S. and, perhaps, the world. Since 1984
the city has encouraged and supported local artists to create wall size murals
on the sides of buildings all over town. There are over 2,500 of them with
Julius Erving, Sonia Sanchez, Joe Frazier, John Coltrane, and Patti LaBelle a
among the many hometown heroes immortalized. Truth is that some of the most
remarkable murals celebrate ordinary Philadelphians in vibrant color. There are
mural tours every day that cover different areas (www.muralarts.org)
and on line listings (www.cml.upenn.edu) where you can find your
favorites and create your own tour.