The fact that Common speaks of King in the present tense is telling of the personal and conversational flow to the rhymes he applied to the song “A Dream” (from the soundtrack to “Freedom Writers”). “In between the . . . hustle and the schemes / I put together pieces of a dream / I still have one,” he coolly and reverently raps before King’s voice returns to the mix.
Lately, you’d be forgiven for thinking hip-hop has always mentioned King this much — and this reverently. Since Common’s posthumous collaboration with King, MCs have been all over MLK. Sometimes it’s 50 Cent just citing his name, but others have equated King’s dream with the election of the nation’s first black president (rapper Jay-Z: “Now that that’s that, let’s talk about the future / We have just seen the dream as predicted by Martin Luther”).
Even Common was at it again a few months ago. At the White House (an invitation that caused apoplexy among certain pundits over the rapper’s controversial song about a cop killer), he performed a song from his album due in November, “The Dreamer, the Believer,” using more of King’s dream speech between verses.
But it wasn’t always like this.
“King was invisible in the early days” of hip-hop, says Michael Hill, a professor at the University of Iowa who researches racial identity and African American literature. “He wasn’t ‘sampled’ widely, even though his speeches were readily available. . . . He just wasn’t making his way into hip-hop songs. But that changed as agitation for a Martin Luther King holiday began in the 1980s.”
Stevie Wonder cited King in his cheery 1981 R&B song “Happy Birthday” (“There ought to be a law against / anyone who takes offense / at a day in your celebration”). The federal holiday for King’s mid-January birthday was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, and the first holiday was observed in 1986 — but some states hesitated, which prompted Public Enemy’s scathing attack in “By the Time I Get to Arizona” (“The whole state’s racist / Why want a holiday? / [Expletive] it, ’cause I wanna”).
King’s voice was introduced, years before hip-hop, by an iconic DJ, Joe Gibson, known as “Jack the Rapper.” Throughout the late 1980s and the ’90s, though, the most frequent civil rights icon cited by Public Enemy and other rappers was Malcolm X.
“Once they bring out Malcolm X, King goes away again for 15 to 20 years,” Hill says. “That Public Enemy sample [of] Malcolm — ‘Too black, too strong!’ [in ‘Bring the Noise’] — it’s one of the most iconic samples in hip-hop. They patented Malcolm X as the voice that should be associated with this particular hard-edged framework, connecting the music with the notion of militancy.”