While it is great to recognize the indomitable character and racially empowering vision of Malcolm X on his birthday, I don’t think it is a stretch to recognize Malcolm’s singular impact on the creation of what we now call hip hop music.
Malcolm X changed the way black people saw themselves, and gave black folks an insoluble pride to express themselves on their own terms. Before Malcolm, the sound of Black America was based in The Blues, and the swaying emotions of sorrow and survival were a part of a collective past that spoke to every Negro alive at that time. Those emotions were expressed through Gospel music, through jazz and blues, and through the emerging soul music of the day. Malcolm changed everything. Malcolm’s voice and direct delivery created a new music – funk – that spoke the truth, locked in a syncopated rhythm.
Just think James Brown in 1968 – raw rhythm, raw soul, Black and Proud, freestyling rhymes about “we’d rather be dying on our feet than be living on our knees.”
If you believe that the Last Poets were some of the first “rappers” those guys will tell you that they formed as a group on Malcolm X’s birthday, May 19th, 1968 at Mount Morris park, only weeks after Dr. Martin Luther King had been shot, and the times were exploding all around them. They had been writing love poems and other fluff, but the event that day demanded more, and Abiodun Oyewole David Nelson and Gylan Kain did a “freestyle” cipher on the black revolution.
Malcolm changed the way black folks use language. Of the many distinctions between Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X during their rise to prominence in the early 1960s was the differing oratorical styles. Dr. King came from the Southern Baptist tradition of preaching/singing sermons that roused his followers with grand rhetoric and imagery of hope and transcendence. Much of the problems facing his audience were referred to in biblical terms such as “down in the valley,” and the possibilities were also referred to in metaphors such as “been to the mountaintop”.
Malcolm on the other hand was practical and precise about what he saw as the problems and the possibilities facing black people. Malcolm did not use religious metaphors in his speeches, and his words did not sway, sing or moan as he delivered them. His phrase “things wont start getting better until you make them better” was a slap at the Negro leaders who kept saying in vague platitudes that “things are getting better.” Malcom told the truth directly, with forceful diction and a catchy rhythmic cadence that Barack Obama clearly emulates.
So when you listen to BDP’s “By All Means Necessary” or Dead Prez’ “Lets Get Free” just think we might all still be singing “we shall overcome” if it weren’t for Malcolm X.