PUBLIC ENEMY: Fear of a Black Planet (Def Jam, 1990)
PERSONNEL: Chuck D (vocals, production); Flava Flav (vocals); Terminator X (DJ); Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee, Eric “Vietnam” Sadler (producers)
- Contract on the World Love Jam
- Brothers Gonna Work it Out
- 911 is a Joke
- Incident at 66.6 FM
- Welcome to the Terrordome
- Meet the G that Killed Me
- Anti Nigger Machine
- Burn Hollywood Burn
- Power to the People
- Who Stole the Soul
- Fear of a Black Planet
- Revolutionary Generation
- Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man
- Reggie Jax
- Leave This Off Your Fu*kin Charts
- B Side Wins Again
- War at 33 1/3
- Final Collision Between Us and the Damned
- Fight the Power
My infatuation with rap was relatively brief. While I do enjoy the driving beats associated with hip-hop, my most intense listening and enjoyment took place between c. 1988 and ’93. Coincidentally, this was also considered by many to be Rap’s Golden Age.
Like many others at the time, I saw Rap as a fad, something that would eventually fade away like so many other musical trends. And like many others, I was way off-base! Not only was the genre not some fly-by-night fad, but it had begun to entrench itself on the popular charts. That point was driven home when Run-DMC joined forces with Aerosmith to re-imagine the legendary hit “Walk This Way.” What struck me and my fellow rock lovers as heresy soon became tolerable, and even fun (for me, anyway).
The vast majority of hip-hop I was hearing was geared around party anthems from artists like Kool Moe Dee, Big Daddy Kane, LL Cool J, The Beastie Boys, and MC Hammer. It was all well and fine, but it was just so much background noise to me, because there was no real there there. I preferred songs with more substance (it can’t be a coincidence that I was in to bands like U2 around this time). There were exceptions, of course, like Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” which carried some pretty powerful social commentary. KRS-One’s raps could also make you think. But I hadn’t heard that one artist or group yet.
But everything changed the first time I heard Public Enemy.
I wasn’t looking for this New York-based rap group. But once I heard them, there was no ignoring them. They got my attention via the opening credits of Spike Lee’s then-incendiary film Do the Right Thing. Rosie Perez danced to the song, creating more than a little stir of her own. And while I enjoyed watching her, I couldn’t help but hear the song she was dancing to. It was more than an ear worm. It was a sonic brick upside the head.
The vocalist had a sound unlike any other I had heard in my limited Rap experience. That voice belonged to Chuck D, who instantly became — and remains to this day — my favorite hip-hop MC of all time. His voice commanded your attention and demanded your respect. As far as I was concerned, he had both. Backing him up was his “hype man,” Flavor Flav. It struck me as a silly name, and seeing his hyperkinetic dance moves, gold grill where his front teeth should’ve been, and large clock around his neck didn’t help. But soon I would learn that Flav’s getup was both beside and part of the point.
It didn’t take long to realize “Fight the Power” was a modern day protest song, every bit on par with what Woodie Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen prided themselves in. But this was protest music from the streets. What PE had to say resonated in the streets of New York City, the south side of Chicago, Detroit, the north side of St. Louis, southeast Washington, D.C., and other downtrodden and impoverished areas. This was not lightweight singalong music designed for mass consumption. This was music with a message. And let’s face it: it scared the hell out of Conservative America, which was still in the throes of the post-Reagan renaissance.
It scared me a bit, too, given my suburban upbringing. Nevertheless, I was intrigued. I had to know where this sound came from. “Fight the Power,” it turned out, was the closing track of Public Enemy’s third album, Fear of a Black Planet. The group had already generated quite a buzz with its first releases Yo, Bum Rush the Show and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. The first two albums established the group’s presence and allowed them to crack open the door to fame. Fear of a Black Planet blew the door off its hinges.
The American Heartland was not happy with Public Enemy. While Chuck D and company created songs based around Afrocentric empowerment and self-reliance, most of the mainstream element heard misogyny, anti-semitism, and the threat of violence. (My white friends and I lived in this heartland, and I got an earful from their parents more than once.) And while that admittedly was a problem from time to time in the past (group member Professor Griff was fired from the group after making seriously anti-Semitic remarks during an interview), Fear came at us from a slightly different angle, relatively free of these issues. It was still unapologetic, still Afrocentric, still self-reliant, but with a sense of earnestness that couldn’t be simply brushed off.
Fear also represented both the beginning and the beginning of the end for two eras of Rap music. It was among the earliest of the message albums that paved the way for the movement to come, which peaked with the “Gangsta Rap” of the early to mid-90s. It was also the apex of the free “sampling” era, as artists who’s material was being used were starting to catch on to what hip-hop artists were doing and how rap songs were being created. The original artists began demanding to be compensated for the use of their sounds, which could be quite expensive.
With this album, Public Enemy created a sonic soundscape drawing sounds from music bits, films, comedy shows, sound effects, and who knows what else. That being said, the audio brick wall that came forth was still highly accessible and, frankly, it kicked ass. My friend Jimmy Griffin once called Public Enemy “the Led Zeppelin of hip-hop.” Yeah … that sounds about right.
The album’s highlights come early and often, alternating proper songs with dynamic interludes. Each track is compelling in its own way. Setting the tone with “Contract on the World Love Jam,” a nice collection of samples with a driving beat announcing the album’s destination, things get real with “Brothers Gonna Work it Out,” a song reminding America that the history of African-Americans is just as important any being taught in most schools, where black history was largely being marginalized.
As a student in a suburban high school during the ’80s, I can completely understand where Chuck D was coming from. History, it is said, is written by the victors, which often means the majority. Public Enemy insisted in the song that “History shouldn’t be a mystery / Our stories real history / not HIS story.”
That was heavy. And Public Enemy was just getting warmed up.
Flavor Flav’s image kept a lot of people from actually hearing what he was saying (aside from the occasional “YEAH, BOY!!!”). But his words could be just as heavy as Chuck D’s. “911 is a Joke” is a prime example. Here, Flav expresses the frustrations of people in poorer neighborhoods, where it is much more difficult to get quality emergency services. Being a first responder myself, I have heard this complaint more than once over the past 25 years. It’s definitely an issue.
Clearly, Public Enemy had a lot on its collective mind. But NOTHING could have prepared me for the sonic onslaught that is “Welcome to the Terrordome.” After a quick horn sample, the downbeat kicks in, and what I can only describe as a musical tsunami overtakes every part of the listeners being. It is spectacular! It was 5.1 surround sound coming through just two speakers! And then Chuck D kicks things into the next gear. This song is, without question, my all time favorite hip-hop moment. It must be heard to be believed.
The group rails about the dilemmas of interracial dating (“Polywanacracka”), the absence of minority representation in major American films (“Burn Hollywood Burn”), the injection of diversity throughout the country (“Fear of a Black Planet”), and the disrespectful treatment of elder black superstars (“Who Stole the Soul”), among many other sociopolitical topics. By the time we get to “Fight the Power,” the album’s closer, listeners find themselves with more than a little to think about.
Credit must also be given to DJ Terminator X, who shows off his remarkable skills both underneath the vocalists and on his own during the interludes. Thanks to him, there is never a dull moment on this album. And to this day, there is always something new to listen to. I can only wonder what someone like Steven Wilson would do to these tracks. Then again, he may not be able to do anything whatsoever.
Fear of a Black Planet was mostly well-received both critically and commercially. Over time, I found most of the people railing against it had never even heard the album. They had simply decided “Rap is crap,” and moved on without a second thought. Or it was simply their … well, fear of being seen as subtle or overt oppressors. Rap may not be my default musical position, but I recognize brilliance when I hear it. And this is it.
Fear was the second album in a legendary trilogy of Public Enemy recordings, after … Nation of Millions and before Apocalypse ’91: The Enemy Strikes Black. While the rest of the group’s catalog is well worth exploring, these three albums will more than do the trick if you just want the highlights.
Most importantly, this 30-year-old (!) album still sounds as fresh as the day it was released. And many of the social issues remain as well. Chuck D and company made a statement that will resonate through the ages. It will only fade when true changes are made.
The first thing Flavor Flav says on this album is “Don’t believe the hype,” a reference to the song on … Nation of Millions. Well, in this case, I find I must contradict Public Enemy’s renowned hype man. This is an album everyone should at least hear and consider adding to their collection.
Believe the hype. Fear of a Black Planet is perfect.
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