The slain civil rights leader was seldom talked about in the decades following his 1965 assassination; just the mention of Malcolm X could be polarizing in those times. But by the late 1980s, Malcolm X was starting to penetrate Hip-Hop culture: snippets of his speeches were being injected directly into the music, and his image was now being featured in trendy fashion.
In 1983, Keith LeBlanc, drummer for Tackhead and the Sugar Hill Records house band, became the first to combine Malcolm X speeches with Hip-Hop beats on an official release, with "No Sell Out" on Tommy Boy Records. LeBlanc combined snippets of famous speeches "The Ballot or The Bullet," "You Can't Hate The Roots of A Tree and Not Hate The Tree," and "By Any Means Necessary." LeBlanc told ROCK THE BELLS that he was influenced to create "No Sell Out" by witnessing Grandmaster Flash insert spoken word pieces into his groundbreaking 1981 release "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on The Wheels of Steel."
"The first time that I heard spoken word with a beat was "Grandmaster Flash on The Wheels of Steel,'" he remembered. "He cut in some spoken word by The Hellers, and I thought that the combination of spoken word and a beat was really striking."
LeBlanc says that he was dead broke and that Sugar Hill Records wasn't doing well as a label. "I remembered there were some Malcolm X records up in the old studio (Sugar Hill's founder Sylvia Robinson's All Platinum Records once owned the rights to Malcolm's speeches), and I went upstairs and got some of the records and put them over a DMX drum machine beat that I programmed. Reggie Griffin, (who was part of the Sugar Hill house band as well), played bass and rhythm guitar and mini-moog on it. I didn't know much about Malcolm X except that my parents told me that Martin Luther King was good and Malcolm was bad. I'd played the Audubon Ballroom where he was assassinated, but didn't know anything about him at the time."
"I knew nothing about Malcolm X, so I called my friend Harold Sargent of Wood, Brass And Steel and he told me to get Alex Haley's autobiography of Malcolm, and he loaded me up with every Malcolm X record that he had."
- Keith LeBlanc
LeBlanc says that Tommy Boy loved "No Sellout", but that not many others wanted to touch it.
"Malcolm was a taboo subject in 1983; people were afraid of the record," he said. "Before Tommy Boy released the song I found Malcolm's widow Betty Shabazz and played the song for her and she loved it. I set it up for her to get 50 percent of the publishing and she had a big giggle about it. She said, 'Someone could have done something with her husbands voice on a record a long time ago and it took this little white boy from Connecticut to do it.'"
"No Sell Out" was a hit for Tommy Boy Records, even appearing on their first greatest hits album 1985's Tommy Boy Greatest Beats. It also made Malcolm X a little less taboo and introduced his words, voice and theories to a generation whose parents were still reluctant to discuss him.
l-r Betty Shabazz, Keith LeBlanc photo credit: Keith LeBlanc
Three short years after Keith LeBlanc merged Malcolm with drum machines rap music was undergoing its first "Golden Era" and conscious period. The teachings of the 5 Percenters, later known as The 5 Percent Nation of The Gods and Earths, an offshoot of the Nation Islam (of which Malcolm X was once a member) had been a part of rap music since The World's Famous Supreme Team used elements from the Supreme Mathematics and the nations national anthem "Allah & Justice" on their radio show. But it was Rakim's declaration that there were "No tricks in '86 it's time to build" and that he blessed the mic for the God's on 1986's "Eric B is President"/"My Melody" that ushered a new era of awareness in rap music. Public Enemy front man Chuck D told The Foundation that the goal of Public Enemy was to raise 5000 potential Black leaders based on Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad's philosophy that Black Americans should seek leadership from within and be leaders themselves. "Rightstarter" from Public Enemy's 1987 debut gave a glimpse of what they had in store as a group.
MalcolmX. Getty Image
1987's "Bring The Noise" by Public Enemy was originally featured on the soundtrack of the motion picture Less Than Zero and was released as a single in between P.E.'s debut album Yo! Bum Rush The Show and the follow-up It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. The introduction of "Bring The Noise" is a snippet of Malcolm's speech at the Northern Negro Grass Roots Leadership Conference held in Detroit, Michigan on November 10, 1963. In the speech, Malcolm states:
"It's just like when you've got some coffee that's too black, which means it's too strong. What you do? You integrate it with cream; you make it weak. If you pour too much cream in, you won't even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it'll put you to sleep."
Public Enemy uses only the words "Too Black, too strong" repeated before the beat drops, giving the song a powerful start before Chuck's famous "Bass! How low can you go?" opening declaration.
1988 was arguably rap's finest year for album releases, and It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold us Back leads the pack as the year's best album. Public Enemy flaunted the once taboo imagery of The Nation of Islam proudly. On "Bring The Noise" Chuck proclaims that (Nation of Islam Leader) "Farrakhan's a prophet and I think you ought to listen to, what he can say to you." The group's DJ Terminator X's name has a direct connection to Malcolm and Nation of Islam members who use an "X" to symbolize their last names, until they are supplied with a "righteous name" to replace their given "slave names." Public Enemy's "Show 'Em What Ya Got" featured excerpts from a speech of The Nation's late Minister Ava Muhammad and "Night of The Living Baseheads" features the famous intro: "We were robbed of our names, we lost our religion, our culture our God," which originates from a lecture by the late Khalid Muhammad.
Public Enemy - It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold us Back
Public Enemy sampled and represented Malcolm proudly, but many groups from the late 1980s reflected his work and represented the reach of his message as well. On the album cover for 1988's By All Means Necessary by Boogie Down Productions, KRS-One recreates the popular photo of Malcolm standing in his window with a shotgun after his house was firebombed in 1965. The album's title is also homage to "By Any Means Necessary," one of Malcolm's more popular speeches. 5 Percent emcee Lakim Shabazz utilizes Malcolm's "The Black Revolution"speech on 1990's "Black is Back" from his album Pure Righteousness; while "Self Destruction" by The Stop The Violence Movement uses Message To The Grassroots in its intro. Countless artists from The Intelligent Hoodlum and KMD to Gang Starr, Immortal Technique and Yasiin Bey have used excerpts from Malcolm's speeches over the years, and he is still referenced by artists as varied as Nas, Ghostface Killah and Killer Mike.
Boogie Down Productions - By All Means Necessary
By 1990, the word of a Spike Lee produced and directed Malcolm X film was spreading, and Malcolm's likeness was featured on clothing, medallions, murals and other urban forms of expression. Artists like 2Pac, X-Clan and Brand Nubian were continuing to keep Malcolm's likeness and ideologies alive. It could be argued that the Malcolm X film could not have been successful without the awareness that Hip-Hop brought to Malcolm almost a decade before.