Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Happy 20th to Fear of a Black Planet

Saturday April 10th marked the twentieth anniversary of the release of Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet. Recently, the University of Iowa held a series of events marking the occasion (shout out to Kembrew). I was sadly unable to attend the festivities at my most recent alma mater. But the buzz around these events through my still maintained Iowa channels prompted me to ruminate on the album.

1988's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back will no doubt be the Public Enemy album that goes down in history as the essential disc (honestly, it already has). But its follow up is not to be overlooked, for reasons I'll explain shortly. But first, I want to offer some personal reflections, because Fear is without a doubt the PE album that holds the most significance for me.

The year was 1990. Your old pal Gonzo was a mere 8 years old. These was the era of the hi-top fade, of Yo! MTV Raps. Of The Fresh Prince, 3rd Bass and Humpty Hump. Enter "911 is a Joke."

In the context of the comedy pop-rap that was so popular at the time, "911" was definitely on the radar of our white suburban ears. While the song is certainly comedic, the critique embedded within was of course lost on an eight-year old. But it was nonetheless an introduction.

To be quite honest, my exposure to Public Enemy was limited in the ensuing years. This is not doubt partially due to the fact that so few of their songs were suitable for airplay. We just didn't have access to it given our age and demographic. I do recall seeing the video for "Burn Hollywood Burn" on Yo! MTV Raps once though, and I clearly remember being taken aback by the all-around aesthetic assault.

Once again, the critique was entirely lost on me, but I just remember being struck by the video. Not necessarily liking it, but just finding it an awful lot to digest. The only other memory of Public Enemy from the era that I recall is watching the video for "Can't Truss It" off of 1991's Apocolypse '91: The Enemy Strikes Black. For a few years after that, Public Enemy May as well have not even existed in my world.

In fact, I had no interest in hip hop for quite a few years. Again, we're talking about predominantly white Pittsburgh suburbs here. Sure, white suburban youth were the dominant consumers of gangsta rap, but I was too mired in alternative and classic rock to care. In my early teenage years, I had become resistant to hip hop. Not for any social or political reason.

That gradually changed due to the guitarist in one of my high school bands, who turned me on to a number of artists that remain important to me (Bowie, the Police, the Pixies). He loved Public Enemy. Hearing various tracks in his car, I started to warm up to them. I then ordered Fear from one of those mail-order music clubs, figuring that was the album that at least had a few familiar songs. Long story short, it blew my mind.

The term "sonic assault" may be overused in discussions about Public Enemy, but it's such an accurate descriptor of their overall sound. It's aural chaos - particularly for a 15 year-old steeped in straightforward commercial rock. It sounded like a riot - sirens, layers and layers of samples, and a vocal delivery that was uncompromising to say the least. Public Enemy and Fear of a Black Planet was the point at which I changed my tune about sampling. Fear taught me that sampling could be more than lifting an old beat. This was the first moment at which I understood that sampling could be used in incredibly creative ways. To this day, I can't identify many of the samples the Bomb Squad utilized (sometimes embarrassingly so - like when it's a Prince track).

And those lyrics were eye-opening. I don't exaggerate in saying that the lyrics on Fear of a Black Planet were among the first media texts to stimulate my thinking about race. I'm not going to say that at 15 I understood every nuance of Chuck's lyrics or even that I had literacy in all of the cultural references. But songs like "Anti-Nigger Machine," "Burn Hollywood Burn," "Fear of a Black Planet" and of course "Fight the Power" (here in remixed form, but nonetheless my first exposure to the track) - raised issues about race, culture and society that were provocative, even to a white 15 year-old suburbanite.

Coming back to music more specifically, Fear was a gateway for me. It was the first hip hop album I ever purchased, and really opened up my mind and tastes to the genre. Shortly to follow were Tribe, De La Soul, Wu-Tang, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, etc. I don't consider myself to be a hip hop aficionado by any stretch of the imagination. Even so, Fear of a Black Planet opened my ears to an entirely new (to me) musical world.

And of course I went out and grabbed all of the other PE releases at the time. They made many great records, including the landmark It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. But I believe that Fear is where Public Enemy perfected their sound. Fear is a little more polished and focused (musically and lyrically) than what preceded and followed it. It's truly the high watermark in the band's catalog.

In closing, here's a video for "Brother's Gonna Work it Out," which I didn't even know existed until right now.

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