ONCE YOU HEAR the soft, yellow glow of muted horns, the soulful rambling of a jangly guitar, and the blue-collar poetics on Cold Fact, you won’t believe that the 1970 debut of Sixto Diaz Rodriguez almost slipped into total oblivion.

Softly psychedelic and socially astute—inside, no less, the high-energy, late-’60s Detroit landscape that included Marvin Gaye, MC5, and Iggy Pop and the Stooges—the record just didn’t hit. Not in America, anyway. Throughout the next decade in the Southern hemisphere, however, the recordings were passed among romantic malcontents via illegally dubbed cassette tapes (remember the world before the Internet?). Even as Rodriguez—who’s billed by his last name—figured himself a failure and returned to workaday life in the Motor City, his album went multi-platinum in South Africa. Without a penny in royalties or the pleasure of knowing about his success, he became that country’s Bob Dylan.

Meanwhile, stateside, dusty 45s turned up in record store bins and got play in back-alley joints where a sly voice backed by dirty backbeats could turn a night on its head. Little by little, folks started to wonder who this cat was. On 1994’s Illmatic, the rapper Nas borrowed from Rodriguez’s “Sugarman,” a sleepy, symphonic love letter to the Man that asks for the return of “colors to my dreams.” Soon, the most influential urban DJs began throwing the track on mix tapes and compilations. Last year, the rerelease specialists at the Seattle label Light in the Attic gave Cold Fact an official second—or would that be third?—chance.

What the record didn’t get in terms of buzz, airtime, and sold-out worldwide tours in the ’70s, it’s making up for in the new century. This fall, Rodriguez made a guest appearance at a party thrown by the überhip New York mag The Fader. Video of his performance proves he’s still the coolest dude in any room.

How does it feel to cash in a 40-year-old check? “It’s sweet revenge,” Rodriguez answers. He’s just kidding: As true as his comeback has been, he’s still looking at life through ’60s-colored glasses. “I went around the world in three weeks,” he says, “and here’s my synopsis—there’s enough for everyone and, in fact, too much for anyone.”

Unless, of course, you’ve been waiting four decades for it.

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