Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered one of his most pivotal, most iconic speeches in 1963 before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., sweltering in the August heat. King shared his dreams before a crowd of 250,000, with not one dream making reference to hip hop — understandably so, as it wasn’t born yet.
But that was over 50 years ago. Not only is hip hop now alive and well (even if that “well” part is contentious, and probably even the “alive” part if we ask Nas his opinion), but it has undeniably solidified its place as the music of present day youth culture. For more reasons than I can explain or even understand, hip hop is important — hip hop as a culture that is, because to solely condense all that is hip hop into a musical genre is to trivialize the Black brilliance that brought it into being. But rapping, an element of hip hop, is important as well. And by that logic, so are rappers, those who come up with and carry out the messages within the music.
But for some reason (it’s actually a specific and easy to understand reason), rappers generally aren’t taken seriously, much less respected. Often times they’re instead played as pawns by upper-level executives in the music industry, chewed up and spit out after they fail to deliver any more hits.
A hit usually requires rappers to fulfill cliché ideals of Blackness because, as Tricia Rose explains in “The Hip Hop Wars,” in the post-civil rights era America has developed an especially rife appetite for stereotyped entertainment. So maybe I take that back. Hip hop is alive, but maybe it’s not doing so well. In some senses, the state of hip hop is quite toxic. Since we’re keepin’ it real, let’s acknowledge the other factors Rose insists have synergistically created these toxic conditions. We’ve got new technologies, crazy corporate consolidation, a culture where violence and misogyny are valued, the never-ending expansion of street economies and the industry manipulation I briefly mentioned. Oh, and racism — that’s still a thing. Damn.
Weren’t things supposed to get better post-Civil Rights Act? Interestingly enough, hip hop’s legacy isn’t the only one subject to distortion, which brings us back to Dr. King. Posthumously, things are going pretty well for King. In the only industrialized nation without paid maternity leave, having a day off of work is kinda like a big deal, but that’s what happens every third Monday in January when we celebrate the esteemed orator’s birthday. On a more serious note, though, Dr. King is widely regarded and revered as one of the most skilled, strategic activists of the Civil Rights Movement — a leader ahead of his time. Now for a disclaimer: I’m about to draw some similarities between both the treatment and views of Dr. King and those of a few dope rappers, but don’t dismiss me yet, it’s with the best of intentions. My last hope is to in some way smear King’s legacy, which like that of rap is precisely what happens way too often.
King made his way, rightfully so, into our history books, but unfortunately he can also be found in the mouths of some of the most downright disrespectful dons of derailment. I’m talking about the people who have the audacity to ask why protesters are “rioting” instead of following King’s doctrine of nonviolence every time concerned community members join forces and flood the streets after another unlawful and uncalled for police shooting. Tamir Rice. Tanisha Anderson. We should keep saying their names. And these derailment virtuosos do and ask a bunch of other bothersome things too, but they’re not the focus here. If you’d like to further discuss the difference between enacting violence on disenfranchised peoples and those peoples’ reactions, you can personally email me. But back to King. And back to hip hop — where rappers are often manipulated, both from the jump when signed to major record labels and through the twisted use of their lyrics as explanation and justification for the hopeless poverty they find themselves in. Ahem, fuck Bill O’Reilly. (Snoop said it, not me.)
Nonetheless, like King, many of these rappers continue to produce powerful music in which they continue to share their dreams. And many of these dreams resonate with those of Dr. King.
Let’s start in the South, as it’s the most overlooked. People really front everything from the drank in their cups and gold in their mouths, to the screwed-up-and-chopped sounds of their music that didn’t all originate in the third coast. But I digress and will save that topic for another column. Dreams in the South stank like gasoline. Off the futuristic, funkadelic, unique utopia that is Outkast’s Stankonia, nothing about “Gasoline Dreams” is dreamy. This shit sonically hits hard: an explosive beat, over which Andre screams “burn motherfucka burn American dreams” — fitting. It samples Geto Boyz’s “Crooked Officer,” also fitting, as Big Boi breaks down the relationship between racial identity, drugs and the law in his verse: Rich white kids inherit wealth, while poor Black ones inherit racial profiling and incarceration, often times due to drugs which didn’t end up in the hood on accident. “Fuck the Holice.” Dre can’t cope in his verse, while Khujo finds hope not in America, nor in Africa, but in death and Judgment Day. The American Dream has been corrupted by crooked cops, gluttony and greed for Dre, Big Boi and the people of Atlanta. Let that shit burn then.
While we’re on the topic of explosions, in Nas’s video for “Street Dreams,” the Illmatic rhyme-slayer gets blown up in the final scene, a Hype-Williams-directed take on “Casino.” But before his flame-filled, fictitious death, Nas spends the track doing what he does oh so proficiently — storytelling. This track, and the album (It Was Written) itself, is still a source of contention: It’s Nas’s most commercially successful release to date, “Street Dreams” being his only hit single to go gold, but some fans and reviewers alike feel it was lacking. Maybe it was too drastic of a shift in sound, too pop, too palpable. But that palpability expanded Nas’s reach, giving newfound fans a taste of street dreams, a taste they otherwise wouldn’t have come across. Nas raps, “Growing up project-struck, lookin for luck, dreamin / Scoping the large n****s beaming, check what I’m seeing / Cars, ghetto stars pushing ill Europeans.” His dream is centered on the luxuries of life, like Beamers and other “ill Europeans,” usually only afforded to white Americans of European descent. He just wants the shit to come full circle. And he’s willing to do whatever, including dabble in the drug game. The glamorization of the crack business may not appeal to MLK, but what I’m trying to stress with “Street Dreams” is Nas’s relentless resolve to fulfill his dream “without the FBI catching feelings.”
While Outkast set fire to the conditional, crooked American dream, and Nas gave his all to fulfill the well-known, widespread street dream of making it out of the hood, the final dream we’ll look at is MC Breed’s, a dream fulfilled — unbelievably though. The late, great Breed hails from Flint, a city that’s at the center of the nation’s attention at the moment (has Gov. Snyder resigned yet?) but was virtually unknown in the rap game before Breed hit the scene. With the debut release of MC Breed & DFC in 1991, the MC put the Midwest on the map, but his sound would grow to be more reminiscent of the West, g-funk grooves, piercing synths and all, due to his move out to L.A. and constant collaboration with Too Short, D.O.C. and the like. In fact, Too Short’s staple producer, Ant Banks, was behind “Dreamin’,” the lead single from his 1997 album Flatline. Breed had been in the game for a handful of years at this point, finally asking, “40-ounce-drinkin, wearing links and riding Lexus coup — am I dreamin?’ ” Nas convinced us he’d give his all to see his dreams come to fruition, but it seems like Breed has victoriously done just that, and now needs a moment to reflect on all he’s overcome to achieve such a feat — making it out. Breed declares, “Either roll with me or get rolled on,” as he’s come too far to risk the progress he’s made. The last minute of the song is purely instrumental, giving Breed plenty of time to look back on his accomplishments as the track fades.
Dreams are important — whether it’s the deconstruction of deceitful ones, the tireless pursuit of transformative ones or the reflection upon the painstaking accomplishment of purposeful ones. Whether they’re expressed by Civil Rights activists or local rappers, their validity stands and resonance in respective communities is real. Above all, if I’m going to spend a semester writing a biweekly column on hip hop, I felt it was in order to affirm the importance of hip hop and an integral part of hip hop — its dreams.
Bajgoric is The Daily’s new hip-hop columnist. To contact her, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.