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A Tribute Fit for a King

[whitespace] Hip-hop generation honors Martin Luther King Jr. on 'Living the Dream' album

By Nicky Baxter

Not that long ago, I was hunkered down at a local bar when the subject of great men came up. The accomplishments of FDR, Harry S. Truman, John and Robert Kennedy--and even Richard M. Nixon (!)--were discussed. But when someone mentioned Martin Luther King Jr., the discussion turned ugly.

"That guy was no good; a commie who just wanted to stir up trouble!" declared one middle-aged woman. Another, older barfly insisted that King was a hateful individual who wanted "colored" people to "take over" America.

That crowd probably won't rush to purchase this musical commemoration of his life and legacy. For others, Living the Dream--A Tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. (Hip-0 Records) is a timely reminder of the lofty ideals for which MLK stood.

On April 4, 1968, those ideals were blasted into near-oblivion when an assassin's bullet took the life of the civil rights activist. But if you think today's hip-hop/R&B generation has turned its back on King and his dream, take a look at the artists represented here: Mary J. Blige, Blackstreet, Erykah Badu and other young bloods all "represent." Not that soul stateswomen are left out: Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle pitch in as well.

Tribute commences with few words from MLK's famous "I Have a Dream" speech, followed by new vocal ensemble Fa Sho's "Living the Dream." Unfortunately, neither the melody nor the lyric is particularly distinguished.

It's one thing to believe in the man's quest for social justice, quite another to make a convincing musical statement about it. A half decade after the beating of that other King, "Can't we all just get along," the song's main refrain, comes off too trite to ring true. That the unit quotes extensively from Martin Luther King's 1963 speech does not necessarily make moving music.

Contemporary gospel group God's Property's "You Are the Only One," on the other hand, is a head-bobbin' pressing peppered with machine-gun bursts of staccato rap and ragamuffin. The lyric is clever, and the lead vocalist is a top-notch singer/rhyme boss who sounds so hip you can almost imagine God popping his fingers to the groove.

Behind him, the backing choir veers between traditional call/response interjections and jazzy shoo-bopping.' As the tune draws to a close, the vocalist rips loose with a tirade to get us on God's good side.

Written two years ago, "It Was All a Dream" has little to do with Ml's; it is one of the few questionable selections here. To be sure, the message is positive, but I'll wager a buck that Shaq's track was chosen because of his stature as a pop icon.

Bilge checks in with the affirmative action of "Keep Your Head." With a nifty hook bolstered by a bumping two-note bass figure, a laconic guitar and a chorus line lifted from Earth Wind & Fire supplying the foundation, Mary J. coos for us keep on keeping' on. Although the lyrics are not all that profound, Bilge's attractive '90s classic soul style makes you a believer.

Blackstreet's "Happy Song (Tonight)" is, characteristically, smooth as chocolate and just as sweet-sounding. Unparalleled harmonicists, the members of this group have a proven record of making hits, and it doesn't much matter that once again, the tune is not God- or King-centric. "Happy Song" makes you smile and tap your foot, and surely Martin would nod his assent if he were here with us today.

Finally, while you might wonder why just three of the 20 songs here were cut for the occasion, most of this collection sounds as fresh and vital as Dr. King's message.

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Web extra to the April 16-22, 1998 issue of Metro.

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