Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches not only turned the tide of American civil rights, they left an indelible mark on American culture — including popular music. Rock bands, rappers and R&B singers have sampled his singular voice for decades.
Today (Jan. 21), we remember Dr. King not only for his words, but his delivery — which was musical in its own right. “I Have a Dream” (1963), “How Long, Not Long” (1965) and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” (1968) aren’t just historically important, they’re furiously entertaining, full of assonance, alliteration and captivating repetition.
Around the mid-’70s, musical acts began to embrace the sound of his voice. The first recorded instance is “What the World Needs Now is Love,” an obscure medley by radio personality Tom Clay that used a snippet of “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” In 1976, the soul singer Billy Paul reinterpreted Wings’ “Let ‘Em In” as a black-pride anthem — driven by a sample of “I Have a Dream.”
During the hip-hop boom in the 1980s and continuing into the ’90s, DJs frequently sampled Dr. King, both reverently and with a dash of mirth. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The King” is a lucid tribute; Boogie Down Productions’ “Love’s Gonna Getcha (Material Love)” plays off Dr. King’s elevated language for a goofy satire of black materialism.
We still find artists tapping into Dr. King’s speeches in the 21st century, soundtracking Gwen Stefani and André 3000’s plea for tolerance regarding interracial relationships in “Long Way to Go” or Tyga’s introspective moment in “Careless World.” Whether used in a straightforward manner or as meta commentary, Dr. King’s public addresses have proved remarkably versatile sources for artists to draw from.
To celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s omnipresence in recorded music, here are 10 songs that sample the late civil rights leader.
Bobby Womack, “American Dream” (1984)
Bobby Womack enjoyed one of the most shape-shifting careers in 20th century music, fully inhabiting rock, country, R&B, soul and doo-wop before his death in 2014. On his ‘80s set The Poet II, he established himself as a socially conscious firebrand, especially on its closing track, “American Dream,” which liberally uses “I Have a Dream.” Dr. King’s words bolster Womack’s vision of rainbows, clear skies and a brotherhood of man.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, “The King (Extended Vocal Mix)” (1988)
“I come here tonight to plead with you,” stated Dr. King in a less-remembered speech about black self-emancipation. “Believe in yourself and believe that you’re somebody.” This simple-yet-elegant statement ended up kicking off Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The King,” an earnest ode to the icon. Get past the slightly dated production, and you’ll hear one of the most pure tributes to Dr. King that hip-hop would produce.
Heavy D and the Boyz, “A Better Land” (1989)
The late great Heavy D sampled “I Have a Dream” on his late-’80s deep cut “A Better Land.” It begins with a sample of Dr. King’s famous quote about America being a dream unfulfilled, before unspooling into a gently prodding laundry list of Reagan-era societal ills. A cheerful, Jackson 5-esque beat helps this period piece go down easy.
Paul McCartney, “The Fool on the Hill (Live)” (1990)
On his 1990 live album Tripping the Live Fantastic, McCartney punctuated a rendition of the Beatles’ “The Fool on the Hill” with a sample from “I Have a Dream.” It was a slightly confusing connection to make: was he trying to resell the loner in the Fabs throwaway as a misunderstood radical? Although Macca undoubtedly invoked Dr. King in good faith, when it comes to his civil rights commentary, “Blackbird” it ain’t.
Santana, “Somewhere in Heaven” (1992)
Released during a relatively fallow period for the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, “Somewhere in Heaven” uses a Dr. King snippet in a unique way: to illustrate Carlos Santana’s Christian beliefs. The sample in question is from “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” in which Dr. King describes the Promised Land. The ballad that follows isn’t about terrestrial concerns, but the Kingdom of Heaven.
Michael Jackson, “HIStory” (1995)
Michael Jackson’s half-new-album, half-compilation HIStory: Past, Present and Future remains something of a head-scratcher, in which a troubled celebrity responds to his legal problems by constructing a pyramid to himself. HIStory’s title track, which samples Dr. King as well as Malcolm X, Thomas Edison, Neil Armstrong and Muhammad Ali, plays like an attempt to seal Jackson in the pantheon of 20th century greats, as the ground was crumbling beneath his feet.
Gwen Stefani feat. André 3000, “Long Way to Go” (2004)
Gwen Stefani capped off her 2004 solo debut Love. Angel. Music. Baby. with “Long Way to Go,” a duet with André 3000 about interracial relationships that Outkast left on the cutting room floor. For its outro, the pair cut to the quick with their message, sampling “I Have a Dream.” They even posited themselves as the next evolutionary step from Dr. King’s dream: “It’s beyond Martin Luther/ Upgrade computer.”
Common feat. will.i.am, “A Dream” (2006)
While McCartney and Jackson may have fumbled their message a bit by sampling “I Have a Dream,” Common and will.i.am fared better by understanding Dr. King’s point. Their 2006 duet “A Dream” breezily probes the corners of black experience while envisaging better days ahead: “In between lean and the fiends/ Hustle and the schemes/ I put together pieces of the dream/ I still have one.”
Guns N’ Roses, “Madagascar” (2008)
Near the end of Guns N’ Roses’ infamous sixth album Chinese Democracy, we’re treated a sound collage assembled by Axl Rose. The bridge of “Madagascar” features a sea of disembodied sound bytes, in which “I Have a Dream” meets dialogue from the films Braveheart, Se7en and Cool Hand Luke. Here, when Dr. King makes his famous proclamation of “Free at last!”, it seems to apply to the $13 million Chinese Democracy finally coming out after two decades.
Tyga, “Careless World” (2012)
The rapper Tyga got pushback from the Martin Luther King, Jr. estate when he released “Careless World,” which features an uncleared sample of “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” It was a missed opportunity: “Careless World” is one of the outrageous MC’s most introspective moments. As with Common and will.i.am’s “A Dream,” Tyga uses a Dr. King sample to descriptive, personal ends: “I awoke from a dream / Filled of a world full of greed and hate / The world was my thoughts and my surroundings.” It’s just the beginning of an excoriation of his own mental state — and decades after Dr. King, artists of all stripes are still finding new ways to tell their story through his words.