Counterbalance No. 131a: Public Enemy’s ‘Fear of a Black Planet’

Public Enemy
Fear of a Black Planet
Def Jam

Klinger: OK, Mendelsohn, the last time we talked about Public Enemy was way back near the very beginning of our little Counterbalance experiment, with the perennially iconic It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. As I recall, you were somewhat, shall we say, underwhelmed by that album. But now Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Terminator X, and (to a lesser extent) Professor Griff return to the Great List with their 1990 follow-up Fear of a Black Planet, and I have to say, Mendelsohn, that any underwhelmedness (underwhelmence? underwhelulence?) on your part will be looked at askance.

I never would have admitted it, because I apparently drank the critical Kool-Aid long ago, but Fear of a Black Planet is a far more focused work than its predecessor. Am I saying better? Maybe. But before I start saying things that I can’t take back, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts here. I suspect at least part of your previous ambivalence was that Nation of Millions was the first hip-hop album we covered on the Great List (still is, by the way), and maybe now that the pressure’s off you might be more amenable to whirligig of sound that is Public Enemy?

Mendelsohn: I’m just going to get this out of the way real quick—just because I feel like I have to say it: hip-hop is woefully underrepresented on the Great List. Seriously. This is the fifth hip-hop record and we are 131 records in? Disgraceful. I know—hip hop didn’t really start dropping proper LPs until the late ’80s; everyone thought it was more of a novelty than an art form; the upper echelon of the canon is essentially closed. And I’m going to immediately contradict myself, but the Great List is rockist at its best and racist at its worst. Be that a result of the people who are actually making music or the gatekeepers or the critics. More-than-likely it’s the result of all three in some sort of self-fulling circle. There is a book in there somewhere.

Klinger: And I for one would read the crap out of that book, although I should point out that hip-hop doesn’t have a monopoly on the black experience in America. But I do want to stress that the Great List is an amalgam of many different points of view, fed into a mathematical algorithm in an effort to bring empirical order to the chaos of opinion. And ultimately it’s a measure of critical acclaim, not some universally understood ideal of greatness (because no such thing really exists, I reckon). Are critics naturally predisposed toward accepting that certain albums are canonical? As someone who started buying into to critical assessments and whatnot at an unfortunately young age, I recognize that the answer is yes, and I’m sure that hive mind has meant that non-rock artists and album get short shrift.

Mendelsohn: Moving on. Fear of a Black Planet is the better album. Lyrically, thematically, and production-wise, it is far superior in almost every respect to It Takes a Nation. That said, I stand by my underwhelminocity. Public Enemy was never the type of hip-hop I really enjoyed. I appreciate and respect the message and the mode but after a while there is something grating about Chuck D’s incessant shouting and the bombastic production from the Bomb Squad. And that kills me because this record is great. The kind of Big Statement that transcends music in general—a real effort to document an Afro-centric view of the world—an airing of grievances, a peace offering of sorts and a way to cross a gaping divide in American culture.

Maybe it’s sensory overload. This record is dense, layered, and complex. Very much in-your-face—but then, without that forwardness, I’m not sure this record, and PE in general, would have the influence they seem to possess. They essential represent half of the hip-hop on the Great List thus far.

Klinger: Yes, this is clearly a Statement of Purpose on Public Enemy’s part, and it’s one that’s also fully earned. I can tell you that around the time Nation of Millions broke, the group really did become as controversial as tracks like “Contract on the World Love Jam” and “Incident at 66.6 FM” suggest. It was also a fractious time in race relations, especially in New York City (check out the excellent documentary Central Park Five for even more of the backstory). Even in liberal-flavored Hollywood, Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture the same year Do the Right Thing wasn’t even nominated—a slight that Public Enemy must have taken especially personally what with “Fight the Power” serving as an absolutely brilliant intro for the film and all. I can see where people might not fully get what was happening without the context, but this era marks the point where hip-hop became less of an option and more of a line in the sand.

Mendelsohn: I don’t want to downplay the cultural significance of this record but sometimes it seems a little silly. I look back at the controversy that surrounded PE and other rap groups and I find myself wondering why the establishment was so spooked. Were they really afraid part of America would rise up and fight the power? Or was it just some well-orchestrated political smoke screens to keep the populace on edge about the dangers of rap music? Seems like more of a diversion tactic than anything else. At one point you had President George H. Bush denouncing rap and the supposed social ills of hip-hop all because Ice-T was mad at the police. And now he plays a cop on TV. I think most of this is just theater, Klinger. Theater with real consequences, but theater nonetheless. Of course, hindsight, as clear as it may be, tends gloss over much of the important context.

Klinger: Look, I don’t want to sound like one of those old-timey hippies who overstate the sociopolitical importance of lying around in a field listening to Crosby, Stills and Nash, but in the late 1980s there really was a sense that there was something going on here. Even more accessible groups like De La Soul were espousing a racial consciousness with their dashikis and their black medallions (no gold). Whatever ended up happening to the participants (Ice Cube’s appearance on “Burn Hollywood Burn” is especially amusing given his recent string of Are We There Yet? family comedies), I really do think it was a heady time. Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now, as they say.

Mendelsohn: But are we even talking about the music anymore or the reaction to the music? The Great List is full of records that had an overarching cultural impact, but at the same time there was actually, honest-to-goodness music to back it up. I think PE, much like the Sex Pistols, is one of those groups who are more influential for who they were and what message they presented then for the actual music they recorded. Is PE really that influential or was their influence a product of the hype that surrounded the message?

Klinger: I might ask (and I really am asking here) whether Public Enemy’s influence is really all that overt today. How much political hip-hop is making its way into the mainstream these days? As for their music, I think it’s fair to say that Public Enemy broke the mold. Their approach—essentially manipulating noise into a sonic collage—seems to owe more to avant-garde composition than anything, and at their best they are absolutely thrilling. The noise becomes a massive swirl of sound that still manages to keep your synapses popping away, and Chuck D’s voice… well, you call it shouting, but to my ears it’s a dramatic boom that echoes straight back to the pulpit. And Flavor Flav here is both a perfect comic foil (“Flavor Flav’s got problems of his own”—heh) and capable of raising a few good points to boot (“911 Is a Joke” is, say what you will, surprisingly well thought-out). And again, let’s not dwell on what people become as they get older. Even the instrumentalish interstitial pieces sound more purposeful than they had previously, closer to sonic collage or musique concrete or whatever musicologists call it than just a break in the action. Anyway, my point here being that Fear of a Black Planet really does work as a collection of tracks, well beyond its status as a manifesto.