The Great Albums

Public Enemy, Fear of A Black Planet

Public Enemy's shot heard 'round the 'Planet'


August 25, 2002


Crafted by a group of artists at the peak of their creative powers, Public Enemy's third album arrived in the spring of 1990 amid considerable controversy, and its impact was incendiary: Musically and lyrically, it was the most revolutionary disc since "Never Mind the Bullocks, Here's the Sex Pistols," and it stands as a work that is every bit as important and influential.

A graphic design student at Adelphi University, Carlton Ridenhour (better known as Chuck D.) formed Public Enemy in 1982, after meeting fellow hip-hop fan Hank Shocklee (soon to be known as the leader of the Bomb Squad) while DJing on the student radio station. Strongly influenced by Afrocentric politics, the Nation of Islam and the writings of Malcolm X, Chuck D. envisioned a group that built on the hard-rocking, streetwise sounds of Run-D.M.C. while addressing political concerns with the authoritative voice of self-described "edutainer" KRS-One, whose Boogie Down Productions pioneered gangsta rap's first-hand reporting of life in the ghetto.

P.E. elbowed its way onto the music scene in 1987 with "Yo! Bum Rush the Show," but it first won widespread attention with its provocatively titled sophomore effort, "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back." Here the group perfected its musical formula as the production team of the Bomb Squad (Hank and Keith Shocklee, Carl Ryder and Eric "Vietnam" Sadler) paired relentless rhythms (P.E. always rocked more than it bounced) with incredibly dense musical backings. (Unlike many rap groups, P.E. generally avoided long, easily identifiable samples in favor of complicated white-noise collages fashioned from dozens of short, often altered snippets of other records.)

Meanwhile, Chuck D. challenged listeners to question their assumptions about white America and the black community with a booming baritone voice (he said that his biggest vocal influence was sports announcer Marv Albert), while his friend and comic sidekick William Drayton (who became Flavor Flav as he donned ridiculous sunglasses and hung a giant clock around his neck) deftly tap-danced through the mix, cracking wise and seconding his pal's heaviest pronouncements ("Yeee-ah!").

Hardcore hip-hop fans tend to hold "It Takes a Nation of Millions" as the group's masterpiece. But the follow-up was just as powerful, and its impact was even greater.

In 1989, director Spike Lee used a new P.E. track "Fight the Power" as the theme music for "Do the Right Thing," a politically charged work whose impact in the film world was as potent as P.E.'s on the music scene. The song is the one that Radio Raheem plays on his giant boom box to initiate the climactic confrontation with the owner of Sal's Pizzeria. Chuck D. has just pronounced the infamous line, "Elvis was hero to most but he never meant s--- to me" when Sal takes a baseball bat to the radio, starting a fight that sets off a riot and results in Raheem's death at the hands of police.

Lee had chosen the perfect match of music and movie images: The gripe with Sal was that he only hung pictures of Italian-American entertainers on his wall, refusing to honor any African Americans, even though nearly all of his customers were black. In several recent interviews timed to the 25th anniversary of the King's death, Chuck D. (an ardent student of musical history) made clear that he always respected Elvis' talent, but he was trying to question white America's embrace of him as an idol while slighting or ignoring the contributions of the many black artists that the King built on.

The rapper dealt with the same subject in "Who Stole the Soul?" "Like I wanna know who picked Wilson [Pickett]'s pocket/After he rocked it/Fact he shocked it," he rapped. "Same thing they threw at James [Brown]/And what they did to Redd [Foxx] was a shame/The bigger the black get/The bigger the feds want/A piece of that booty."

Often prone to hyperbole--Chuck D. had earlier claimed that hip-hop was black America's CNN--his lyrics were often taken out of context and misinterpreted by critics anxious to call him a racist, a charge that had earlier been leveled at Malcolm X. In fact, with a few noticeable missteps, Chuck usually expressed his most controversial thoughts as questions, even if he didn't raise his voice at the end of a slogan to indicate an interrogatory. He pointed out problems and challenged assumptions, but refused to provide easy, canned answers--knowing that with issues of race, nothing is easy.

Unfortunately, some of those associated with the P.E. camp weren't quite as deep. Before the release of "Fear of a Black Planet," spokesman Professor Griff (listed on the album as "the last Asiatic disciple") gave a controversial interview to The Washington Times in which he echoed a discredited notion by some extremist Muslims who blame Jewish people for "the majority of the wickedness that goes on across the globe." As a result, P.E. was branded as anti-Semitic, a charge that made Chuck D. recoil. For once, his eloquence failed him, and he completely mishandled the situation, firing Griff, then bringing him back, then temporarily breaking up the group, all without ever adequately addressing the subject.

The brouhaha colored the reception of "Fear" at the time, galvanizing fans and cultural pundits into pro- and anti-P.E. factions. But like the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams," another great album mired in political controversy when it was released, the passage of time has made it much easier to hear and appreciate the disc's real accomplishments.

Clocking in at 63 minutes and boasting some 20 tracks, "Fear" is a long and uncompromising album that requires several listens before you can begin to get a handle on it. But the Bomb Squad and the legendary DJ Terminator X propel you through it with relentlessly moving beats and soundscapes that shift and vary constantly, like the scenery in a crowded cityscape during a high-speed, late-night joy ride.

Early on, Chuck D. urges us to look at "real history, not his story." Then he and Flavor Flav begin to fearlessly push society's hot buttons, examining racism in the entertainment world ("Burn Hollywood Burn"), the contrast between poor black neighborhoods and wealthy white ones regarding vital city services ("911 Is a Joke"), and the problem of miscegenation (the title track and "Pollywanacraka" are equally harsh on black men and women, questioning their own inbred biases).

Effectively book-ending the disc are its two strongest tracks. Following a brief instrumental, the album opens with the catchy and rousing "Brothers Gonna Work It Out," a defiant promise that the community will rise up and fix its problems. It closes with "Fight the Power," a much angrier pledge, and nothing less than one of rock's most memorable calls to arms. (The alternating emotions recall the ambiguous ending of "Do the Right Thing," in which Lee contrasted quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.) That both songs still sound vital, relevant and necessary speaks to how little things have changed in society over the last 12 years.

Playing on the "black CNN" claim, commentators and newsreaders interject dour-voiced criticisms of P.E. throughout the album. Eminem has done something similar with his recent albums and concerts, but his condemnations have arisen from his transparent, simplistic attempts to shock, while P.E.'s rose from a much stronger and braver tradition of artists raising profound questions about the social ills around them.

In recent years, it is a far less ambitious form of gangsta rap that has ruled supreme in the mainstream. But Public Enemy stretched the genre's potential artistically and intellectually. It is only a matter of time before younger musical revolutionaries pick up the gauntlet and carry on the fight.