It certainly hasn’t seemed that way recently, but there was a time when hip-hop was an agent for much-needed social change. The children of the civil rights movement were empowered, they wanted what was theirs, and they were going to get it by any means necessary. This attitude spawned groups like the legendary rap crew Public Enemy, who delivered music that was as enlightening and powerful from a lyrical standpoint as it was from a musical standpoint.
A lot of people call 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back P.E.’s magnum opus, but to me, 1990’s Fear of a Black Planet was the moment when their sound and message was at its most powerful. While Nation of Millions found the group expanding their sound and attempting to find their audience, Fear marked the moment P.E. realized how big that audience was, and unlike most musicians experiencing the first flush of success, they decided to push the envelope even further. By making their sound even more forceful — lyrically and musically — Public Enemy wound up creating a landmark record, not only within the genre of hip-hop, but in music period.
While a big part of Fear’s success came from the principals wanting to push the creative envelope, an equal amount of the piss and vinegar that went into making Fear what it was came from the media firestorm that P.E. (and specifically Chuck D., the group’s focal point and mouthpiece) found itself under in the year or so leading up to the album’s release.
Chuck D’s lyrical stance was considered extreme even in an era when most hip-hop had a strong sociopolitical flavor (with the exception of the poppy strain of rap popularized by the likes of Tone Loc or DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince). Educated and articulate (and a few years older than the average hip-hop fan), he pulled no punches-calling out mainstream media (who were quick to take P.E. lyrics out of context and label them as racist) and evils within the black community with equal amounts of venom. His forceful vocal delivery (somewhat comically inspired by sportscaster Marv Albert) made his words sting twice as hard. Despite P.E.‘s success with Nation of Millions, Chuck didn’t find himself facing serious media heat until P.E. member Professor Griff made anti-Semitic comments to a Washington Post reporter in the spring of 1989. The blowback from those comments caused Chuck to fire Griff, then re-hire him, then completely disband Public Enemy, then reform the group without Griff. This frustration undoubtedly fueled “Welcome to the Terrordome,” 5 ½ minutes of undiluted anger, musical claustrophobia and defiance that remains a stunningly powerful musical moment in the discography of a group that did not lack for powerful musical moments.
While “Terrordome” forms Fear’s musical and emotional center, the rest of Black Planet is no mellow stroll through the park. Chuck brought intensity to every other topic he explored on the album, railing against the entertainment industry’s treatment of black performers (“Who Stole the Soul?”), popping off against police brutality (“Anti-Nigger Machine”), and questioning the concept of “racial purity” on the album’s title track. Even when the intensity is wrongheaded (the unchecked homophobia of “Meet the G That Killed Me” is not easy to take) While Flav’s two solo shots provide a little more comic relief, “911 is a Joke” and “Can’t Do Nuttin’ for Ya Man” still managed to make pointed observations regarding emergency services’ lack of urgency in the black community and people looking for handouts, respectively. Flav’s spastic delivery was the equivalent of swallowing a bitter pill with a hearty teaspoon of sugar, but ultimately, his messages were just as important as those delivered by Chuck D.
Fear also contains “Burn Hollywood Burn,” a song that pairs Chuck with Big Daddy Kane and Ice Cube (who was being produced by the Bomb Squad around the same time period), forming something of a hip-hop All-Star Team circa 1990, as well as featuring the first appearance of “Fight the Power” on a Public Enemy album. “Fight” was released the previous summer as the theme song from Spike Lee’s classic film Do the Right Thing, and it perfectly summarized (well, actually, it predicted) the anger that wound up galvanizing the Black community during a period of extreme racial unrest in New York City during the summer of 1989. This sweltering three-month period culminated in the death of black teenager Yusuf Hawkins at the hands of a bat-wielding mob of white youths in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst. “Fight the Power” became a rallying cry of sorts and has earned a rightful spot as one of the most (if not THE most) important hip-hop songs ever recorded. My only gripe with this version of the song is that Branford Marsalis’s batshit-insane solo isn’t included.
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While the lyrical content of Fear is certainly important, it can be argued that the album would pack just as much of a punch as an instrumental work. Fear of a Black Planet was a landmark work in terms of the creative usage of sampling. Production crew The Bomb Squad (consisting of Chuck D., Gary G. Wiz, Eric Sadler and Hank & Keith Shocklee) were among the most forward-thinking beatmakers in hip-hop, inspiring future legends like Dr. Dre and DJ Muggs with their work. These days, when most sampling consists of lazily adding a drum machine beat or keyboard embellishments over a loop, the sonic collages that the Bomb Squad created come off as even more eye-popping than they did twenty years ago. This was “noise” in the most inspiring, creative sense of the word-musical deconstruction and reconstruction, using everything from police sirens to Vincent Price’s laughing at the end of “Thriller” to the guitar solo at the end of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” to create a sound that was undoubtedly funky, but still as aggressive as any rock band was during that time period.
Sometimes when I complain about hip-hop today, I sort of feel like the old man in Bermuda shorts screaming at the kids to “get off my lawn!” The unfortunate fact of the matter is, though, that hip-hop has become too much of a commodity to produce another work like Fear of a Black Planet. While a certain amount of modern-day hip-hop does indeed aspire to “drop science”, artists with positive messages are generally marginalized as “conscious rappers,” kicked aside in favor of marginally talented, lyrically vapid emcees like Lil Wayne and Young Jeezy — “artists” who promote the very things that Chuck D. and company were railing against. While modern-day rap music occasionally seems like a cross between Comedy Central and the Playboy Channel, albums like Fear of a Black Planet remind us of a time in the distant past when hip-hop (to paraphrase Chuck himself) was Black America’s CNN.