FEAR OF A BLACK PLANET
Fear Of A Black Planet
(from NudeAsTheNews website) Reviewed by Patrick Kastner
It would not be too much of a stretch to call Public Enemy's third effort, Fear of A Black Planet, the Sgt. Pepper's of hip-hop.
Don't get me wrong. It's not a term a music critic should throw around lightly. Like five stars or "album of the year," it's the type of silver bullet any critic worth his or her salt saves for very few works.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band was the culmination of a musical movement up to the point of its release. At the same time, it exploded in a new direction no one else had conceived. It deflated rivals, famously causing one to have a nervous breakdown from which he never quite recovered. Everything, from the album cover to the band's outfits to, of course, the music itself, created a new universe for the album to exist in, complete with its own characters, vistas, sounds and emotions. In short, it was the greatest work its genre would ever produce.
I'm telling you this because I want you to understand the weight behind my earlier statement. Fear of A Black Planet is the Sgt. Pepper's of hip-hop. It's not only Public Enemy's greatest, grandest statement, it's hip-hop's as well.
It takes everything produced in rap up until its time (including Public Enemy's previous masterpiece, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back) and synthesized it into a cohesive movement. Fear of A Black Planet is the collective conscious of an entire people at the time of its release. It touches on everything - race, sexuality, entertainment, war, disease, religion, philosophy, politics.
Frontman Chuck D is easily the greatest lyricist to come along since Dylan. With his booming voice, clipped phrasing and rapid-fire delivery, Chuck came on like a lyrical tommy gun, living every bit up to his billing as "the Lyrical Terrorist" in the album's liner notes. "When I get mad, I put it down on the pad / Give you something that you never had," he says on his musical manifesto, "Welcome to the Terrordome." It's no boast. Educated and extremely literate, Chuck D raised the bar for rappers everywhere.
At a time when gangsta rap was blossoming on the West Coast with its themes of sex, violence and power, Public Enemy presented a different message. On the album's opening track, "Brothers Gonna Work It Out," Chuck preaches "United we stand, yes divided we fall / Together we can stand tall," adding, "Brothers that try to work it out / They get mad, revolt, revise, realize / They're superbad / Small chance a smart brother's gonna be a victim of his own circumstance."
That was just the tip of the iceberg. On Black Planet, P.E. comes down hard on everything from bad 911 response times in black neighborhoods to black men who abuse their women, skewering (often hilariously) popular notions along the way. ("Did you know white comes from black? No need to be confused," the band taunts on the title track.)
But as later albums would prove, as great as Chuck was, it was the music that underscored his message and gave it weight. Coming at you like a sonic hurricane, Black Planet attacks your senses from the get-go, bringing on air-raid sirens, shrieking guitar solos and severely dope beats. The Bomb Squad, P.E.'s legendary production team, layered sample upon sample, producing a full-sounding musical soundscape. No one in rap had accomplished this before. Up until the Bomb Squad, rap music consisted of sparse beats, scratches and samples.
The Bomb Squad's crowning glory was the fury with which these sounds assaulted you. Much like psychedelic bands in the '60s created soundtracks for an entire generation's experimentalism, the Bomb Squad somehow tapped into the black rage that was seething under America's surface in the late '80s and gave it a sound. Along with NWA's "Fuck Tha Police," Fear of A Black Planet anticipated early '90s L.A. riots based around the Rodney King beating.
Like any truly great sprawling album, Black Planet wasn't one-dimensional. The rage wasn't the whole story. The album was funky, smooth and imminently danceable. (I counted at least seven songs that sampled James Brown's "Funky Drummer" and another five that sampled "Sex Machine.") As much as a song like "War at 33 1/3" made you want to go out and tear shit up, songs such as "Revolutionary Generation" and "911 Is A Joke" made you want to throw your hands in the air like you just didn't care.
As a whole, the album built to soaring heights, presenting listeners with a minor masterpiece followed by interludes segueing into another minor masterpiece. (There's just too many to talk about in one review.)
Deep into the second side, the stakes are raised even further, beginning with DJ Terminator X's intense scratch-fest, "Leave This Off Your Fu*kin' Charts," slamming sample on top of sample. "B Side Wins Again" and "War at 33 1/3," are each more intense than the last, leave you feeling as if Public Enemy and their dance troupe-cum-security force, the S1Ws, are literally marching across your record player, ready to go to war with the evil, racist forces of the world.
And then they do.
"Fight the Power," originally included on the soundtrack to the Spike Lee film, "Do The Right Thing," revels in all its glory here. If one song can sum up this album, this is it. Just the rousing call to "Fight the powers that be" sends chills down your spine. "Music hittin' your heart cause I know you got soul," Chuck D anticipates a few verses before delivering whitebread America a crushing blow: "Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant shit to me / Straight up racist that sucker was simple and plain / Motherfuck him and John Wayne / Cause I'm black and I'm proud. / I'm ready and hyped plus I'm amped / Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps."
After that, what's really left to say?
Fear Of A Black Planet
(from NME.com website) by Danny Kelly
PUBLIC ENEMY have made 'Fear Of A Black Planet' under the fiercest of pressure. As if having to follow up one of the great albums of all time ('It Takes A Nation Of Millions...') was not enough, they've been rent by internal strife, vilified by outside agencies and challenged by De La Soul (hip-wise), The Jungle Brothers (sound-wise) and NWA (badass-wise). Most groups would've buckled beneath the strains, but this isn't 'most groups' and 'Fear Of A Black Planet' is brilliant, a triumphal vindication and the best rap album since their last...
PE have often, and rightly, been compared to The Clash, and just like Mick 'n' Joe's lot did on 'Give 'Em Enough Rope', so Chuck D has used the aggro that his group invariably generates and attracts to drive it on. For 'All The Young Punks', 'New Boots And Contracts', 'Cheapskates' and 'Last Gang In Town' now read 'Contract On The World Love Jam', 'Incident At 66.6 FM' and 'Final Count Of The Collision Between Us And The Damned'. Public Enemy have taken all the negativity and hostility directed at them and have turned it, where it could have been terminal poison, into high-octane life-juice. And Public Enemy have made changes; not the quantum leaps that occurred between their first and second LPs, but significant ones nonetheless. The most noticeable alterations in the sound itself. Gone, to a large extent, are the screaming sonic nerve-lances and curtains of mechanical percussive ordinance; in their place are glinting flashes of horn and more naturalistic (dare one say it? tribal) swathes of drumming. Chuck D has wittered on a lot lately about Afrocentricity; if that continent is anywhere obvious on 'Fear...' then it's in the texture - the deep-seated hubbub - of the music.
So this record is perhaps less revolutionary sounding than its predecessors, but that may well be deliberate, for 'Fear Of A Black Planet', as well as confirming Public Enemy's place at the cutting edge of le rock moderne also seeks to nestle them more comfortably than ever before in the unfolding tableau of black pop. This group does nothing by accident, unconsciously, so the quotes from and allusions to, among others, Sly And The Family Stone, Sam & David, The Chi Lites, Parliament, James Brown, Isaac Hayes, Funkadelic, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, The Isley Brothers and Soul II Soul which litter these 20 songs can be nothing less than acknowledged markers on the road to the extraordinary place where PE today find themselves. Their respect for their musical roots are more obvious than ever.
All of which means that they can never again quite shock the way they used to and that some of their trademark ingredients are now familiar. But what thrills they remain! The enormous, unstoppable waves of music that they somehow build up, the sheer truth-to-tell authority of Chuck's vocal, the fearless pursuit of ideas - musical and otherwise - no matter how difficult to grasp. And the linguistic three card tricks continue apace. 'Who Stole The Soul?', for instance, is simultaneously about the appropriation of black culture and, dazzlingly, the hijacking of the human spirit by The System. Nobody does this stuff better.
To cases: while 'Fight The Power' and 'Welcome To The Terrordome' are fair indicators of the standards being set here, and 'Pollywanacracka' is the weirdest, most tense thing they've ever done, the heart of this marvellous record beats in ten minutes ('Fear's over an hour long!) of side two. The title track is a building beserk parrot jungle of babble that still manages to get across PE's answer to perceived Caucasian fears of racial adulteration, and the monster that follows it, 'Revolutionary Generation' is just the zenith of all that they've tried to achieve. Ferociously throbbing, and bristling with every trick in the Shocklee/Stephney compendium, it's a uniquely strong declaration in favour (note that, in favour!) of womanhood. Public Enemy have come a long way since 'Sophisticated Bitch'! My first hearing of 'Revolutionary Generation' left me shaking for fully 30 minutes afterwards; only a truly great LP could contain such a jewel.
And truly great is exactly what 'Fear Of A Black Planet' is. I honestly didn't believe that any current group could survive the slings and arrows that have rained down on Public Enemy and yet forge on at the suicidal artistic pace that they have always set themselves. I have been proved utterly and conclusively wrong, the original silly rabbit. Public Enemy - bless them and praise your particular god for them - continue to fight the power. And to power the fight.
It's been almost two years since Public Enemy released It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back - two long, hot years filled with controversies over Tawana Brawley, Yusuf Hawkins, Willie Horton, Do the Right Thing and rap's breakthrough on the pop charts. That doesn't even include Public Enemy's own crisis, which saw the group pitted against its "minister of information" - the loudmouthed Professor Griff - and the Jewish community. That's a lot to absorb, but Public Enemy has never aimed for anything less than a comprehensive view of contemporary black America. With their brave new work, Fear of a Black Planet, rappers Chuck D and Flavor Flav and DJ Terminator X complement this ambition with stunning maturity and sophistication.
Fear of a Black Planet - twenty tracks and over an hour long - opens with snippets of newscasts, speeches and screams that define the album's direction: "There is something changing in the climate of consciousness on this planet today." After this ominous intro, PE hits the ground slamming with "Brothers Gonna Work It Out," an unflinching call to arms that steamrolls over a sample of Prince's strangulated guitar solo from the end of "Let's Go Crazy."
It's immediately apparent that Public Enemy has taken a hard look around after its recent problems and come up with some potential solutions. The chorus of "Brothers" commands, "Go get it ... get involved," a sentiment echoed throughout the album. In "Revolutionary Generation," Chuck D claims that "some say we wasting time singin' a song," but his repeated arguments for the power of music demonstrate tremendous growth: "What counts is that the rhymes designed to fill your mind." The careening rage of Nation of Millions hasn't been diluted - it's been given focus and substance.
Public Enemy's sound has undergone a similar transformation. Terminator X has always had a masterful sense of how to construct dense, insistent accompaniment to Chuck's roar and Flavor Flav's goofy whine. The Terminator still brings the noise, but the noise is more varied - there's even a move toward melody. Chuck, for his part, has never sounded better; he speeds through a track like "War at 33 1/3" sounding like he might lose control at any moment but still articulating the labyrinthine internal rhymes perfectly. And Flavor Flav's chants - used to fine effect on "911 Is a Joke" - are more singsongish and less grating.
A half-dozen songs at the center of Fear stand as the most powerful work PE has done to date. Once we hit "Polly-wanacraka," a slow groove over which Chuck drawls observations on interracial dating, the intensity progressively builds. The first acceleration is "Burn Hollywood Burn," a scathing diatribe about the movie industry's treatment of blacks that features Ice Cube (formerly of N.W.A.) and Big Daddy Kane as guests. "For all the years we looked like clowns/The joke is over, smell the smoke from all around," Chuck sneers.
"Who Stole the Soul?" challenges the IRS - or "Intentional Rape System" - for its treatment of black stars like James Brown and Redd Foxx. The surgical thrust of Chuck's accusations moves this song beyond Nation of Millions' dismissal of whites as "grafted devils." Finally, Public Enemy pulls off its biggest surprise in "Revolutionary Generation," which turns out to be a feminist anthem. Though sometimes misguided ("It takes a man to take a stand/Understand it takes a/Woman to make a stronger man"), the song's passion and good intentions win out. It's inspiring to hear the men who wrote "Sophisticated Bitch" now saying, "I'm tired of America dissin my sisters."
A sample montage, a Flavor Flav musing on self-sufficiency and a quick reggae-style jam follow, and then Fear picks up for a breathless race to the finish. "B Side Wins Again," a manifesto about the power of dance music as "Food for the brain - beats for the feet," and "War at 33 1/3" fly by almost too fast to notice the bite of lines like "time to smack Uncle Sam." The album ends with last summer's "Fight the Power": Surrounded by the rest of this extraordinary record, the song takes on heft and becomes more a program than a mere slogan.
For all of Fear's seriousness, Public Enemy has also developed a kinder, gentler touch. "Ain't we all people?" asks Chuck; he claims that "all I want is peace and love/On this planet/(Ain't that how God planned it?)." And PE reveals a sense of humor in the chipmunk-voice chorus on the title song and the hilarious Driving Miss Daisy dis that ends "Burn Hollywood Burn."
Public Enemy may still be criticized for not renouncing Griff - who is no longer affiliated with the group - explicitly enough. And the antisemitic overtones of "Welcome to the Terrordome" (not to mention the "Elvis was a racist" charge on "Fight the Power") are no more acceptable now than before. But the new attitudes and more pragmatic worldview on Fear of a Black Planet say more than any apology could.
Public Enemy is looking to the future, not with apocalyptic despair but with fiery eyes fixed firmly on the prize. The group's determination and realism, its devotion to activism and booty shaking, make Fear of a Black Planet a welcome, bracing triumph. (RS 578)
If Public Enemy's two previous albums had ruffled feathers, Fear Of A Black Planet set out its stall to exploit mainstream fears. Again, the title spoke volumes. This time they raged just as hard, but their political consciousness had grown. The siege mentality only underscores the group's hard-nosed, cut-and-paste sample technique and the eloquence of Chuck D. 'Fight The Power' still bites harder than just about any other track in rap's history.