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20 Years On: Remembering Public Enemy's Fear Of A Black Planet
David Stubbs , April 12th, 2010 07:03

David Stubbs takes a look at Public Enemy's classic LP Fear Of A Black Planet, which was released 20 years ago

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"1989!" roars Chuck D at the beginning of 'Fight The Power', which shimmies and seethes with all the controlled, incendiary rage and intent of Public Enemy at their height. It's set in the immediate future tense, a condition of permanently impending insurrection, as signified by that steampipe loop, not unlike the kettle-at-boiling point squeal of 'Rebel Without A Pause' two years earlier. And, of course, it's a hostage to calendar fortune. Even when it appeared as the concluding track on Fear Of A Black Planet, it sounds unfortunately dated. Yet 20 years on, Public Enemy still feel closer to the Afro-future than whoever or whatever is left of their descendants in 2010.

Perhaps, in retrospect, Public Enemy were a one-band revolution. Subtract them from the cultural equation back around 1990 and you're left with KRS-1, Ice T's 'Cop Killer', the appallingly scatological Geto Boys and the nascent gangsta delinquency of NWA's 'Fuck Tha Police'. But back then, in tandem with Spike Lee, for whose Do The Right Thing was the theme tune, and the political likes of Louis Farrakhan, Public Enemy felt like a full-on, troubling resurgence of African-American militancy. They brought enough noise to make it feel that way, came on like the equivalent of 20 or 30 crews.

Many people rate It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back as their greatest album but Fear Of A Black Planet is the one that truly catches them at the top of the world. The cover sleeve sees Chuck D, Griff, Flavor and The Bomb Squad poring over a globe as if planning a campaign of pan-continental domination. The concept that drove the album was that of Afro-centricity, which as re-applied by Chuck D meant simply this; all of humanity is of African origin – blackness is the condition to which all humankind will eventually return. The white race was merely an offshoot of that. "Caucasians only make up 10 per cent of the world's population. So why should the Eurocentric worldview be so dominant?" Chuck D remarked, when I interviewed him in 1990. He dismissed as "irrelevant" the "European aristocratic point of view" and suggested that its extinction was inevitable. Hence the mooted Fear. Public Enemy were scornful of Martin Luther King's "dream" - they promised reality. "We're going to come to town with rallies, information and press conferences!" threatened Chuck. It was time to lay low those citadels of misrepresentation, the government, media, Hollywood ('Burn, Hollywood Burn' was a keynote track on Fear Of A Black Planet), time for African-Americans to wrest back their destiny.

As well as this supposed historical impetus and radical intent, Public Enemy were embroiled in controversy. White liberals were energised by their emancipatory rhetoric but alarmed by their homophobia ("the parts don't fit!" reasoned Chuck D, contemplating male homosexuality when I questioned him about this, while he also repeated the story that AIDS was created deliberately as part of a biological warfare project – hence the track 'Meet The G That Killed Me'). Then there were Professor Griff's remarks in an interview that the Jews were "responsible for the majority of the wickedness across the globe", which saw him suspended from the group by Chuck D. That said, 'Welcome To The Terrordrome' still made the album, with its unfortunate, Christ-killing connotations ("Crucifixion ain't no fiction . . . they got me like Jesus"). In addition, there were suspicions, in the wake of tracks like 'Sophisticated Bitch', that Public Enemy's attitudes towards women were a touch unreconstructed, and that their emphasis on male dominance of the hip-hop struggle reduced women to the second rank. PE addressed this concern to an extent on 'Revolutionary Generation' ('I'm tired of America dissin' my sisters') but it was never possible for the average left/liberal to feel entirely comfortable about PE, though, perversely, this added to their frisson, the un-easy listen they represented.

Still, PE did drop some direct bombs on Fear Of A Black Planet. '911 Is A Joke' saw Flavor Flav drip scorn on the less than rapid response of emergency services to black neighbourhoods, while 'Who Stole The Soul?' was an angry post-mortem/inquisition into the commodification, marginalisation and ruin of black popular culture.

PE were white hot in 1990 – and yet, their decline was precipitate and somewhat ironic. I recall, following our interview, Chuck D enthusing about how hip-hop was developing in strongholds all over America ("they've even got Atlanta hip-hop!") I nodded politely but, staggering to recall, this all seemed to me to be delusionally sanguine in 1990. He was right, of course. Not only did hip-hop saturate America, it went global. However, Public Enemy themselves were not to share in much of this success. Instead of insurrection, the 90s brought the relatively tranquility and uneventful prosperity of the Clinton years, a temporary End Of History. Nothing much changed for African-Americans, for better or worse. Granted, in 1991 there were the LA riots that followed the acquittal of the cops caught on camera beating up Rodney King but these didn't prove culturally pivotal. PE were supplanted in favour of gangsta, Gin & Juice, Snoop, Dre and a hip-hop fantasy narrative in which tales of obnoxious murder, misogyny and bling worship were explained away as 'telling it like it is'. The increasingly, remotely opulent video world of hip-hop and r&b was exclusively peopled by African-Americans but this represented no black planetary racial triumph or emancipation, merely a disinclination to engage with the white hegemony the way PE had. As for Chuck D & co, they continued in the 90s and Noughties to ply their message. But whereas in Birmingham in 1990 I'd seen them play to a largely black crowd (who were very receptive to Chuck D's Afrocentric message), their appeal dwindled over the years to a point where in 2005 they were playing in Sweden to an audience of 250 – all white.

But – whose loss is that? What was proven by all this? Play Fear Of A Black Planet now and it still hits you like a hip-hop hurricane. The power of the Bomb Squad production team, Terminator X, Hank Schocklee, remains undimmed, gathering up and bundling in loops all the funk and metal flying about in the 80s/90s air, from the squally metal riffs of 'Brother's Gonna Work It Out' to the 'Funky Drummer' backbeat that motors practically every track, tangled with ripped off rhythm fenders, restored and looped shards of JB brass, amid a white noise chaos of fragmentary media chatter, phone-in shows, garish incidental music, circuit bent samples hurled at you and impacting like the exploding cathode of a TV set tossed to the street during a riot. This should have happened, outside the speakers and the headphones. For a few years, Public Enemy didn't just take the temperature, they raised the temperature. It's simply a shame others didn't rise with them. That was what time it was, that's the time it is now. Never mind some of the bollocks they talked, PE were essentially right. Fight the power in 1990, fight it today.

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Apr 12, 2010 3:43pm

A great album. Easily their best after 'Millions'. And, yes, some of the groups outpourings can be hard to swallow, but, this album - in my opinion - shook white America harder that their predecessor. Both 'Millions' and 'Planet' sit happily amongst the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. It's odd to look around and see what has become of hip-hop (and PE) since the '90s.

He got game? Sellaband? New Whirl Odor?

Bring that beat back.

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Apr 12, 2010 7:27pm

excellent article!

the last paragraph especially nails it for me: the Bomb Squad's sonically saturated production seems to predict our 21st century information overload

when i was a teenager It Takes A Nation Of Millions was the one i always played, but these days am more likely to put on Fear Of A Black Planet as it's one of those records where there's so much going on you can never fully absorb it (well i haven't, yet)

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Chris Perry
Apr 12, 2010 9:45pm

A fine overview. I've always found it ironic that one of my favorite albums of the '90s begins with a shout-out for 1989; I like that you started the piece with a similar comment. I with all who find Planet to be the group's finest hour.

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Tim Russell
Apr 14, 2010 4:17am

The moment when "Contract on the World Love Jam" drops out and the HUGE beat of "Brothers Gonna Work it Out" is one of the most thrilling moments in hip-hop, nay, popular music itself. And the excitement levels don't drop from that moment on. Sounded amazing in 1990 and still sounded amazing today, and their set at Reading in 1992 remains the most exciting live show I've ever seen.

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Apr 15, 2010 9:54pm

I saw tha Reading show and remember thinking, they're a bit crap actually. And I so wanted to be blown away. But I think it was the setting.

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Johnny Nothing
Apr 15, 2010 9:58pm

Me, see above. (To the tech guys: when you are logged in and go away and then come back you can post but your name goes missing. Please sort it cos it is actually quite annoying.)

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John Doran
Apr 16, 2010 6:30am

In reply to Johnny Nothing:

I don't know whether I find it charming or hilarious the fact you think we have 'tech guys'.

We don't even have a tech guy at the moment.

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Johnny Nothing
Apr 16, 2010 1:56pm

In reply to John Doran:

Seriously, is that an employment opportunity?

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Luke Turner
Apr 16, 2010 2:12pm

In reply to Johnny Nothing:

We are actually looking for someone who knows Ruby On Rails, which is what the site is built in. So yes, in a way.

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Johnny Nothing
Apr 16, 2010 5:41pm

In reply to Luke Turner:

Ah. I'm the Dreamweaver/Photoshop type. For example:

Was tempted to say, how hard can it be, but that has gotten me out of my depth before.

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Carolyn Grady
Sep 19, 2010 1:13pm

I covered the Public Enemy's show in Atlanta...Fear Of A Black Planet 20th Anniversary tour. The show was legendary!!


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Oct 11, 2010 2:41am

Just caught P.E. in concert in Orlando for the 20th anniversary tour.

An absolute blast and reminded me, although I didn't need to be reminded, exactly what that album meant to me.

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Sam Kanu
Feb 8, 2015 9:24pm

"....Perhaps, in retrospect, Public Enemy were a one-band revolution. Subtract them from the cultural equation back around 1990 and you're left with KRS-1, Ice T's 'Cop Killer', the appallingly scatological Geto Boys and the nascent gangsta delinquency of NWA's 'Fuck Tha Police'. ..."

I suspect the author's grasp of this era is not as deep as he thinks. For example:
- This was Marley Marl's prime years from 1988-1993 ish
- Quest? need we say more?
- X-Clan dropped their first album in 1990
- Pete Rock came out with first EP in 1991
- De La Soul's 2 Epics, 3 Feet High in 1989 and De La Soul Is Dead in 1990
- Kane's first three albums from 1989-1990
- Kool G Rap & DJ Polo's Wanted dead or Alive in 1991
- Main Source, Breaking Atoms in 1991
- Rakim's classics In the Ghetto" and "Let the Rhythm Hit ’Em
- K-Solo's "Tell the world my name in 1990"

This could go on and on and on...

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