In the 50 years since the March on Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech, hundreds of artists have harnessed the “I Have a Dream” words at its center.
So loaded are the lines that featured within the proper track and set at the perfect moment, King’s voice echoes, recontextualized by rhythm and melody to create powerful, celebratory messages of hope and perseverance.
Early house and techno music in particular employed the March on Washington moment to bring raves to new peaks. Something about the freedom of the dance floor, perhaps. The worst are pretty cheesy, and suggest a mediocre producer plonking on a keyboard sampler in rhythm.
But at their best, dance music, along with hip-hop, pop and soul, have used the energy of “I Have a Dream” to fuel inspiration. Below are some of the best.
Chicago house music innovator Larry Heard’s classic dance jam as Fingers Inc. works King’s words into a propellant but smooth rhythm perfect for 3 a.m. on the dance floor. It’s pretty simple, yes, but when you’re on the dance floor basking in the glow of physical positivity, the way King’s speech builds toward crescendo, the way his enthusiasm and pace rises as the track progresses, makes for a thrilling ride when surrounded by sweaty bodies.
Gwen Stefani teamed up with Andre 3000 for one of the more frantic tracks on the former’s 2004 breakout solo album, “Love Angel Music Baby.” The track features the pair singing about a white woman and a black man going on a date, and the dirty looks that still arrive in some parts of America. “We’ve got a long way to go, people,” they sing. “The snow hits the asphalt to cold looks and bad talk."
Killer boom bap track from Boston rapper Ed O.G. featuring Masta Ace, “Wishing” uses King’s most famous lines in service of a beat that’s as comforting as the message.
“On the block with the nine cocked,” raps Masta Ace, not bragging as much as bemoaning the state of things. “I wish we try and stop, stop pushin’ for the prime box/I wish we wasn’t so obsessed with death/Tell me is it cuz we blessed with less?”
Kevin Saunderson is best known as one of the “Belleville Three” of Detroit techno producers (with Juan Atkins and Derrick May) whose work starting in the mid-1980s helped define EDM. His 1988 work as Reese and Santonio does something similar to Fingers Inc.'s track, but has an early synthetic vibe that’s all its own.
Four minutes into Billy Paul’s 1973 rendition of Paul McCartney’s eternally annoying song “Let ‘Em In,” Paul samples the “I Have a Dream” speech, and in one brilliant maneuver recontextualizes the lyrics.
Ground zero for all hip-hop samples of King is Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The King,” in which Melle Mel embodies the voice of the civil rights leader to create protest music. The song was featured on Melle Mel’s final record as part of the Furious Five, “On the Strength. “If you listen to his voice when you heard him speak,” raps Melle Mel, “He brought hope to the hopeless, strength to the weak.”
Brand Nubian rapper Sadat X offered a grimier, more raw take on the message in “Return of the Bang Bang” from 2010. Taken from the sequel to his acclaimed 1996 solo debut, “Wild Cowboys,” “Bang Bang” samples both Nancy Sinatra and King -- a rare coup.
New York lyricist Pharoahe Monch uses King’s speech as a springboard into an experimental (and raunchy) jam. Monch, who a few months ago released a burning protest song in response to the Trayvon Martin verdict, “Stand Your Ground,” has throughout his career created protest music that pushes King’s messages forward.
Not Michael Jackson’s best work by any means, but it sure is strange. Still, a very notable use of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech appears in “HIStory” twice, each time stressing the string of history that connects the past and present, connects dots on a time line to a bigger story.
Hold onto your hats: DJ Quicksilver’s rave-happy 1996 progressive house track is pretty cheesy, but if you listen closely, you can hear the seeds of the current superstar EDM sound of Tiësto, Swedish House Mafia and Afrojack.
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit