In his lectures at City College and SF State, music historian and author Ricky Vincent likes to point out that, "you can learn about the ideas and arguments of black identity by listening to the music." So today -- in honor of the MLK Holiday -- we're taking a little trip into civil rights music history.
First up: Say it Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud -- James Brown
In 1968, civil rights activists were running out of national leaders. Huey P. Newton was in prison (the case was later dismissed), Malcom X had been assassinated, and on April 4th, Dr. King was shot while standing on his motel balcony. In this environment, black musicians and artists became de-facto spokesmen for civil rights. James Brown stepped up to the plate with, Say it Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud!
For more on this, check out the excellent documentary The Night James Brown Saved Boston. But for now, let's just watch James do what he did best:
2. The Revolution Will Not be Televised -- Gil Scott Heron
Perhaps one of the most borrowed phrases in hip hop history, the poem has been sampled, remixed and referenced by artists like KRS One, Public Enemy, Common and even Snoop Dogg.
Gil Scott Heron's message of non-commercialism and commitment to the cause is still relevant today, perhaps even more so. "The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox, in 4 parts without commercial interruptions..."
3. The Message -- Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
James Brown's legacy didn't end in the 60s. He was also a direct inspiration for the artists who created hip hop. Pioneers like Kool Herc rapped over James Brown's funky beats, and the original b-boys danced to the "breakdown" section of James Brown records. But until The Message dropped in 1982, hip hop was known more for rocking parties than political consciousness.
Ironically, Flash himself never wanted to do the song. He thought the beat was too slow, the gritty street tales were too depressing, and that people wouldn't dance to it. According to Dan Charnas in The Big Payback, the The Message was conceived by Sylvia Robinson at Sugar Hill Records, who did an end run around Flash to Melle Mel when he turned her down.
4. You Must Learn -- KRS One and Boogie Down Productions
While he never received the mainstream recognition that Public Enemy did, KRS One was an important figure in the early days of conscious hip hop. The Temple of Hip Hop founder is considered by many -- including Grandmaster Caz -- to be the greatest live emcee of all time. Known as "The Teacher," among hip hop aficionados, his raps focus on storytelling and education, but still rock the house.
5. Fight the Power -- Public Enemy
No way could this list be complete without a shout to PE! While they got in a little hot water over some of Proff Griff's comments about Jews (he later said the tape was doctored), the group defined the political hip hop sound throughout the 80s and 90s. Chuck D played the professor, Flava Flav mocked the minstrels of old, and Griff brought that militant feel to their stage shows.
These days Chuck D is known more for his books -- and Flava more for his tv show -- but here they are at the height of their fame.
6. The Coup -- Dig it
Ok, I admit it, I added this one partly to get some Bay Area up in here. But the city that brought you the Black Panthers is well served by Boots Riley and company. Known for funky hooks, marxist lyrics and killer DJ Pam the Funktress, The Coup proves that not all hip hop on the west side focuses on guns, drugs and misogyny. Here they are with a track from their first album, Kill the Landlord. Tell 'em Boots!
Bonus video: I Have a Dream
And, of course, the one ring to rule them all. If you've never seen the whole thing, it's worth all 17 minutes. Rest in Power Dr. King.
Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments section.