By: Scott Alic
“1989 the number, another summer…”
In 1990, sales of compact discs very nearly equaled that of cassettes (45.8 percent market share vs. 46 percent), and I decided that for my 15th birthday I was going to make the leap: I asked my parents for a CD player. No more tape hiss for me – from now on, a laser beam was going to deliver my music with pristine, digital purity. This was the future, and I knew what I wanted my first CD to be: Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, which had been released on April 10 of that year. A quarter-century ago.
By 1990, a near-decade of conservative governments in the United States (and Canada and the UK) had succeeded in leveraging the stock markets to shift huge amounts of wealth and power away from the people, towards corporations and the plutocracy who owned them, and employed their media channels to sell an image of affluence that a slimmer percentage of the population could live up to. On the sly, in the mid 1980s, the Reagan government sold arms to Iran in order to fund the anti-socialist Contra militia in Nicaragua, and the CIA allowed the Contras to flood American inner cities with cheap cocaine, which entrepreneurs cooked into addictive crack, which effectively acted as a scourge to the predominantly black urban poor. Gang violence escalated as local gangs fought over turf. Incarceration rates exploded as prisons became increasingly privatized, a lucrative way to keep black men off the streets.
Despite the US government’s complicity in attempting to decimate a generation of black men, voices of dissent were hard to come by in the decadent, complacent culture of the late 1980s. Rock and roll, once the voice of youth rebellion, had become neutered, a miasma of hairspray; the only rebellion here was against the ozone layer. Otherwise, rock was looking back to itself, with artists like Lenny Kravitz and the Black Crowes selling serviceable retreads of classic sounds. Debbie Gibson, New Kids on the Block, Tiffany and Paula Abdul shifted units of fresh-faced, synthetic pop. Milli Vanilli happened. “Kokomo”. And in late September 1988, immediately after “Sweet Child O’ Mine” had its one-week turn at the top of the Billboard chart, Bobby McFerrin got his turn, telling everyone to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”.
This clearly struck a nerve with Carlton Douglas Ridenhour, by then known as Chuck D. Public Enemy had released their game-changing sophomore LP, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, three months prior, and it didn’t see a lot to be happy about.
Even in his earliest days, DJing at Adelphi University radio station WBAU, Chuck felt persecuted by the rival MCs of the local scene; in 1984, he distributed a cassette single called Public Enemy #1 (featuring William Jonathan Drayton, Jr. who assumed the name of his graffiti tag, Flavor Flav). This cassette made its way into the hands of Rick Rubin, who signed Chuck D to his fledgling Def Jam label. Ridenhour, a graphic design student, created the iconic Public Enemy logo, showing a b-boy caught in a rifle’s crosshairs, and assembled a crew from his Spectrum City DJ-for-hire service that resembled a militia: Richard Griffin, aka Professor Griff, became the group’s Minister of Information and led the Unity Force crew, who were renamed The Security of the First World (or S1Ws for short), and acted as security and dancers, performing a mix of martial arts, military drill and “step show” dances lifted from black college fraternities.
If Public Enemy had their arresting image down in the early offing, its sonic presence was no less startling. The Spectrum City production team, now redubbed the Bomb Squad, filled 1987 debut album Yo! Bum Rush the Show with strikingly abrasive, almost industrial clangor. Rubin, architect of hip-hop’s crossover to a white audience, added rock elements to the mix – Vernon Reid’s molten guitar on “Sophisticated Bitch”, Suicidal Tendencies samples. Simon Reynolds, in his review for Melody Maker, called PE “a superlative rock band”, and parallels to Sly and the Family Stone’s somber 1971 masterwork There’s a Riot Goin’ On (its original title, Africa Talks to You, was changed in response to Marvin Gaye’s prettier What’s Goin’ On). Chuck D’s stentorian voice projected an anger that not even Grandmaster Flash had mustered at that point; although the source of his anger was not yet made explicit, the message running along the bottom of the album held a clue: “THE GOVERNMENT IS RESPONSIBLE…”
Although Yo! Bum Rush the Show made a strong opening salvo, its sales were modest compared to Def Jam’s other acts, namely LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys.
It was the followup, 1988’s Nation of Millions, that upped the ante on every level. The Bomb Squad provided a dense sonic wall of samples – squalling JBs horns, paranoiac funk deep tracks, Slayer — which was shredded into a noisy, unsettling black punk; the tempos were quickened, adding to the vertigo, and Chuck D’s lyrics featured a new political bent, name-dropping the leader of the Nation of Islam within the first verse of leadoff track “Bring the Noise”: “Farrakhan’s a prophet and I think you oughta listen to, what he can say to you…” Followup track “Don’t Believe the Hype” continued: “The follower of Farrakhan / Don’t tell me that you understand / Until you hear the man…” “Party for Your Right to Fight” refers explicitly to the Black Panther Party, while in “Rebel Without a Pause”, Chuck D declares himself to be a “supporter of Chesimard”, aka Assata Shakur, co-founder of the Black Liberation Army, who was convicted of killing a New Jersey State Trooper in 1973, and escaped from prison in 1979 (New Jersey’s Kean University cancelled a commencement by Common after police voiced concerns over a song he wrote in about 2000 about Shakur). “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” describes a similar escape from a systemically racist prison system, similar to the one which still had Mandela in a cell.
In a September 1988 SPIN magazine interview, Chuck D claimed, “Rap is black America’s TV station. It gives a whole perspective of what exists and what black life is about.” This quote morphed over time into “Rap is the black CNN”, but a similar point is made – in a pre-Internet era, a media system owned by rich white men was not adequately giving a voice to black America, its history and long trials. I was a kid who spent long hours in libraries, but Public Enemy not only opened my ears to a rich musical past and an exciting, vital present, but opened my eyes to a history and an existence which had not been adequately represented in the media available to me. No mind that Public Enemy blamed the plight of America’s black population on “devils” (the founder of the Nation of Islam, Wallace Fard Muhammad, preached that the original peoples of the world were black and that white people were a race of “devils” created by a scientist who instilled them with a culture of lies and murder to attain genetic supremacy), of which I was presumably one. Other than the well-intentioned (but often tone-deaf) “let’s help Africa” charity concerts and singles of the mid-80s, this was music with a perspective, a cause, and some palpable anger behind it, and I was fascinated.
A personal aside: a couple of years on, my first girlfriend told me that she saw me as a feminist. I replied that I thought of myself more as an equalist, wanting a level playing field for everyone. Yes, you can argue that such magnanimity comes easily to a white male of reasonably comfortable upbringing, who has been denied far less opportunities than most (“FREEDOM IS A ROAD SELDOM TRAVELLED BY THE MULTITUDE”, was the aphorism running along the back cover of Nation of Millions – a quote from Bar-Kays saxophonist Harvey “Joe” Henderson at the 1972 Wattstax music festival). Public Enemy helped me begin to understand and empathize with the depth of injustice faced by people of colour, and did so in a manner that I found undeniably thrilling.
I bought the Nation of Millions cassette with my first Burger King paycheque (along with Soul II Soul’s debut), and proceeded to memorize dense swaths of Chuck D’s flow. (It should be noted that the nascent gangsta rap of N.W.A., who released their debut LP Straight Outta Compton five weeks after Nation of Millions, left me cold, striking me as nihilistic and reveling in violence and misogyny, without insight into the causes or solutions. Ice-T struck me us a “happy” medium between the two acts.)
Public Enemy were just about to begin recording their followup when Professor Griff suggested that “Jews are responsible for the majority of the wickedness in the world” in an interview with the Washington Times in 1989, raising a media firestorm of controversy. Russell Simmons, president of Def Jam, issued a statement in June that Chuck D had disbanded Public Enemy “for an indefinite period”; that month also marked the release of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, and the electrifying Public Enemy rallying-cry single from its soundtrack, “Fight the Power”.
The sheer volume of sampling on the track marked an advancement for the Bomb Squad’s sound, and Chuck was as defiant as ever, kicking “Don’t Worry Be Happy”’s platitudes in the balls, decrying beloved American icons Elvis and John Wayne as “straight up racist… simple and plain”. Chuck D refuted Public Enemy’s breakup in August, announcing that Griff, who had been dismissed from the band, had been reinstated. The video took the form of a block-party concert-cum-community rally, showing that Public Enemy were not just a fringe militant group, but had a popular backing behind them. (It doesn’t look so dissimilar to the #blacklivesmatter protests across North America in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, but more on that later.)
“Fight the Power” was said to have incited black riots at Virginia Beach on the Labor Day weekend that year, and the song was played to celebrate the guilty verdict that December for a police officer who shot a black motorcyclist, killing him and his passenger, and inciting riots in black Miami neighbourhoods.
The second advance single from Fear of a Black Planet was “Welcome to the Terrordome”, released January 1990; it addressed the Griff controversy and Virginia Beach riots of just months prior, but also the August 1989 murder of 16-year-old Yusef Hawkins at the hands of a white mob in the predominantly Italian-American neighbourhood of Bensonhurst in Brooklyn.
“911 is a Joke”, released on March 22, was perhaps PE jester / hype man Flavor Flav’s finest moment, taking paramedic crews to task for poor response times in black neighbourhoods. Surprisingly, it got considerable airplay on MuchMusic, but the track’s levity was likely seen as less threatening than Chuck’s harder line.
Finally, on April 10, 1990, Fear of a Black Planet was released; my birthday came around, and I was eager to hear the Bomb Squad with crystal clarity on my new Sony. (My dad remarked that he had “gotten strange looks” when he bought the CD.) I pressed play, and after some dusty piano chords, the album sprung to life. Public Enemy wasted no time in reiterating their distrust of the media, with short opening track “Contract on the World Love Jam” featuring a collage of soundbites reporting the group’s imminent breakup (“And they played Enemy music!”, decries a voice.) This track leads into “Brothers Gonna Work It Out”, and I’ll never forget the shards of noise from that track’s opening embedding in my eardrum – it sounded like the funkiest horror show on earth.
Fear of a Black Planet hit hard, with virtually every track featuring enough soundbites and samples to make the best Black Pride mixtape ever. Chuck and Flav found plenty of targets for their anger (“Burn Hollywood Burn” another highlight), but also struck a conciliatory tone, as regards mixed-race relationships; where Yo! Bum Rush the Show’s “Sophisticated Bitch” took a woman to task for seeking out lighter-skinned partners, “Polywanacraka” acknowledges that love can be colour-blind; in the title track, Chuck talks down white male fears of the perceived loss of “racial purity” through miscegenation.
I was far from the only white kid to take something from this rich cauldron of black revolutionary history and social theory. I had a “Welcome to the Terrordome” t-shirt, which I can’t help but think of my mom ironing dozens of times without question. Pitchfork recently published a somewhat flippant article describing how white boys rocking Public Enemy t-shirts was a look of sorts in 90s pop culture – as Anthrax’s Scott Ian’s stage t-shirt of choice (PE and Anthrax toured together in 1991, and remade “Bring the Noise” together that year as well), in skate videos, in an 1990 New Kids on the Block video, worn by Edward Furlong throughout Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Sinead O’Connor also performed “Mandinka” at the 1989 Grammys with Public Enemy’s logo painted on her head, to decry the lack of hip-hop nominees. (I’m still conflicted over Chuck D’s appearance on Sonic Youth’s “Kool Thing” from 1990; Kim Gordon asks the MC to use his newfound starpower to liberate young women from “male white corporate oppression”, but Chuck just sounds confused.)
Public Enemy was by no means finished; Fear’s followup, Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black, spawned the group’s greatest chart success, “Can’t Truss It”, and a handful of other solid tracks.
I actually reverted back to buying the cassette of Apocalypse, and while it made heavy rotation on my Walkman, there was a slow creeping sense of “been here before”, and I was getting pulled into new directions, with the rising tide of alternative music, and albums like Nevermind, Goo, Pretty Hate Machine and Faith No More’s The Real Thing offering a soundtrack to my pubescent confusion. PE kept releasing albums, albeit with less frequency, and to increasingly mixed reviews, decimated sales and critical arguments about the group’s relevance in the millennial era. It seemed that the only press that PE got was related to Flavor Flav’s crimes and misdemeanors, and his ridiculous and degrading forays into reality TV. When PE appeared on Fallon in September to perform “Public Enemy #1” in honour of Def Jam’s 30th anniversary, it seemed like they’d come out of retirement, but in reality, they’d never broken up.
In 2012, NPR Music got a young intern to listen to Nation of Millions for the first time; an admitted fan of Rick Ross’ Maybach Music, 808s-era Kanye, Drake, Hudson Mohawke and Clams Casino, the intern found Chuck D’s flow martial where he expected melody, and the production disorienting, thin and “cartoonish” rather than atmospheric. His favourite track, the instrumental “Show ‘Em Whatcha Got”, with its dark ambience, reminded him of Burial. He found the Slayer-sampling “She Watch Channel Zero?!” to be laughable rap-rock. Acknowledging that the album highlights how much hip-hop has evolved in 25 years, he admitted that he was going to choose Drake’s “infectiously triumphant“ jams over Nation every time.
This is perfectly understandable in some ways: Public Enemy were never meant to rock the party, and protest music hasn’t been cool since, well, Public Enemy. But look at the world in 2015: it’s chaos, ignorance, bigotry, endless war. Race relations in America show how little has changed since 1989, or even 1963. The high-profile police murders of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and now Walter Scott are showing how little black lives continue to matter. Now more than ever, we need Public Enemy, or at least an angry voice speaking truth to power.
I would argue that critically adored duo Run the Jewels is the closest analog to PE today, with Killer Mike combining eloquence with a fierce presence, backed by El-P’s assaultive, paranoiac production. One can’t fault Kanye’s ambition with Yeezus, whose industrial sounds and acidic lyrics tackle institutionalized racism, but the critical adulation surrounding the album was not met by popular audiences.
Kendrick Lamar definitely gets timely / political in recent release To Pimp a Butterfly, but the album feels too unwieldy, dense, prismatic and expressionistic to qualify as “simply” protest music. It will be interesting to see if this age will produce an artist brave and accessible enough to energize the masses out of their complacency.
Until then, I still have my Public Enemy CD.