Bringing the noise: Public Enemy on the front lines | Music Review | Chicago Reader

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Bringing the noise: Public Enemy on the front lines

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If you want to talk contributing factors, the Public Enemy mess has three of them. Those who would participate in the debate about the group ignore them at their peril, so it's probably worth spelling them out at the beginning:

(1) Professor Griff, the group's former minister of information, is an anti-Semitic dickhead--a somewhat tragedically styled one, to be sure, but a dickhead.

(2) Chuck D., the group's leader, chief rapper, and lead writer, is a controversialist on a scale not seen since the heyday of Malcolm McClaren and Johnny Rotten.

(3) Public Enemy blows every other rock 'n' roll band on the planet away.

The first explains how the controversy got started in the first place; the second explains why it has not yet died down. But the third explains why you should care nonetheless. The band's latest album, Fear of a Black Planet, is a sprawling and unrelenting work, as ambitious and powerful a record as has ever been made: It's Born to Run and London Calling and There's a Riot Goin' On and Highway 61 Revisited all rolled up into one. And the band's recent appearance in Chicago, at the UIC Pavilion, was a jaw-dropping concussive assault of sound and propaganda. You can't overstate the band's importance: suddenly, the best rock 'n' roll band in the world doesn't even have a drummer (and lacks a guitarist as such as well). Where, in the mid-80s, synth-pop bands like Depeche Mode, whose instrumentation consisted entirely of keyboards, made serious challenges to our understanding of what a rock band could be, P.E. takes it a step further: the band's work is entirely pastiche, constructed in the studio out of drum programming, extravagant sampling, record scratching, and snippets of speech, slogans, stage announcements, and ominous stuff like sirens. People have been saying that rock 'n' roll is unmusical for decades; rap, of course, has a bad, um, rap for the same reasons, and P.E. has become the epitome of almost literal unmusicality.

But even this is secondary; suddenly, the best rock 'n' roll band in the world is all black, and (more to the point) doesn't give a fuck what anybody white thinks about anything. "Black to the bone," raps Chuck: "my home is your home." Not since the Sex Pistols has music been so deliberately exclusionary, and never before has a black act so uncompromisingly abandoned black music's traditional role as a force seeking unity in a fractured world--a world, that is, where the most celebrated white acts, from the Pistols back to Elvis, have created disunity. It's strange territory for all of us, and this is what's causing the problems.

Public Enemy began in suburban Long Island, when a graphic design student named Carlton Ridenhour met the other two components of what would become the P.E. brain trust: a student entrepreneur named Hank Shocklee, who ran private rap parties; and Bill Stephney, who was the program director of the campus radio station at Adelphi University. Stephney gave Shocklee and Ridenhour their own rap show, and they started scratching turntables and making their own tracks as well. At the station, they also met a wild-man DJ with a high, comical voice, William Drayton.

Ridenhour became Chuck D., and Drayton became his clownish sidekick, Flavor Flav, who has a mouth full of gold teeth and wears outlandish clocks around his neck. Shocklee, who shares ownership and directorship of the group with Chuck, became Public Enemy's producer, heading up a production team called, in all seriousness, the Bomb Squad. Stephney gets executive producer billing on albums and heads up the group's business concerns. The band, such as it was, originally consisted of Chuck, Flavor, a scratcher called Terminator X, and a changing group called the S1Ws, which stands for "Security of the First World." (One of Chuck's ongoing strategies is to challenge biased terminology; here he's trying to wrench away the concept of "first world.") The S1Ws are P.E.'s dancers, basically, except that they dress in uniforms and do military drills onstage, brandishing plastic Uzis. (They look kind of silly, to tell the truth.) The leader of the S1Ws (and the band's road manager) was Richard Griffin, who the band met when he was running a combination Islamic study group and martial arts school. For the second album, he took the name Professor Griff and was given the grand title of minister of information. (Chuck's was "messenger of prophecy.")

Griff's propensity for making chancy remarks was known to the group--after a series of minor incidents with British music papers involving (Spin said) remarks about Jews and gays, Chuck took him out of the press loop. But a dumb chain of circumstances put him alone in the same room with a Washington Times reporter and produced--the reporter says he gave no prompting--Griff's depressing sociopolitical views about Jews, including the now famous comment that Jews are responsible for "the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe." The predictable uproar ensued, but Chuck, with a tendency toward macho stonewalling, (perhaps) an inaccurate feeling that it wasn't a big deal, and (not least) residual loyalty to a friend, or at least the group, stonewalled. All that did was turn an embarrassment into a rout, and this at the hands of the devils (P.E.'s word) in the white media. Chuck eventually threw Griff out of the group, and then disbanded it, for a day or two. Then he let Griff back in, thoroughly muzzled. Griff later left to form his own band, the Last Asiatic Disciples, and now records for Luke Skyywalker, the man behind 2 Live Crew.

The affair has branded P.E. as "that anti-Semitic group." I hear it today still--from friends and even critics and industry bizzers, who should be paying closer attention. Someone I know baselessly charged that Chuck D. refers to Jews as Hebes, and Greil Marcus boycotted last year's Village Voice Pazz & Jop Poll because critics nationally had not been sufficiently condemnatory of the band. It puts people like me, who like the group, on the defensive; but after some years of resistance and a great deal of thought, I think far too much of the criticism has been unfair.

It seems to me that Professor Griff is a figure much more poignant than scary or hateful. Of all the members of the band, Griff was always the most enthusiastic follower of Louis Farrakhan. Deeper discussions aside, the least that can be said about Farrakhan is that some of his more sophisticated distinctions ("Hitler was a great man, but wicked"--said, fairness compels one to note, with a certain sarcasm only after he was called a black Hitler) may be lost on certain tender buttons, Professor Griff apparently among them. This sort of thing is a serious problem, and like other manifestations of black anti-Semitism--and black conflict with other races as well, as the ongoing shenanigans in New York City point out--is plainly worrisome and more than vaguely sickening. But I also think that the people who equate l'affaire Griff with the systematic social racism directed against blacks--I know this sounds like rhetoric from another era, children, but stay with me--are exploiting the issue. Griff isn't part of a power network that enthusiastically builds and manipulates mechanisms to deprive another group of rights, power, and money; he's a victim of such activity. Whatever his faults, Griff has to be put in context: as another fucked-up manifestation of black pathology in contemporary America.

And, as a consequence, Griff--and Chuck--gets hit both coming and going. Not only is their thinking screwy (Griff for making the remarks, Chuck for being far too tolerant of them) in the first place; at the same time they lack the sophistication to "pass"--that is, to cloak their words in relatively acceptable language, the way other religiously inspired creeps in American life do, from Jerry Falwell to New York's Cardinal O'Connor. It's pretty obvious to me that what Griff was attempting to communicate in his Washington Times interview was an attack on Israel rather than Jews per se; it was inspired, obviously, by Israel's continuing arms sales to nogoodnik regimes around the world, most notably the one in power in South Africa. You might not think that that's "the majority of wickedness that goes on around the globe," but for a radical black like Griff South Africa looms large. Spurred on by stupid anti-Semitic tracts like (again according to Spin) the International Jew, which Griff later allowed was flawed, he let hyperbole and a lack of sophistication turn a defensible point into anti-Semitism. If he'd substituted the word Israel for "the Jews," the public would have been free to speculate about anti-Semitic motivations but the brouhaha probably wouldn't have occurred. Now, it may seem perverse to attempt to excuse hate mongering (if that is what you think it is) on the grounds that it was not done with the necessary PR sheen; but to ignore this disparity is only to confirm the worst fears (and charges) of blacks like Griff and Public Enemy: that there is a double standard in effect.

Finally, however, what makes the entire affair--and the residual bitterness--so sad is that lost in the noise was what Public Enemy really sings about. The band's political philosophy, muddled and confrontational as it is, has far more to do with black self-help, empowerment, and solidarity than it does with whites or anything else. Chuck is far harder on blacks, in both his interviews and lyrics, than he is on whites; P.E. records are first and foremost carefully detailed reports from the front (Chuck calls them "the news"), all wrapped together with his own pained commentary. What comes out of the record--what blasts out of the record, pinning your ears back--is not hate or loathing but pain, confusion, and pleading:

People, people we are the same

No we're not the same

Cause we don't know the game

What we need is awareness

We can't get careless

My beloved, let's get down to business.

The words on paper seem almost boilerplate, but on record, out of a magnificently grungy swirl of wrenching samples and beats, they're shattering. Chuck's mind just whirls--he contradicts himself, roars out on tangents. The words "my beloved," of course, are so naked and moving that they have to be clothed: he and the Bomb Squad cover the phrase with a sound from the maw. His stentorian voice is as strained as it has ever sounded. What makes the band--gives it the dimension that puts it in the pantheon--is that while Chuck may want to be, and sometimes sounds like, a separatist (and more power to him if he wants to), he's too smart, and too obsessed with finding a workable, productive way of making life better for their audience, to traffic in revolutionary rhetoric, nihilism, or dead ends. "It's weak to speak and blame someone else / When you destroy yourself," Chuck hollers, and he hollers it not in the midst of one of the antidrug songs that clog rap albums these days, but in his elaborate self-justification and arguable masterpiece, "Welcome to the Terrordome." Homilies didn't work for the hippies, and hate didn't work for the punks. Chuck's the most levelheaded of them all. It's not that he's incapable of being an idiot, as his enthusiastic homophobia, antique paternalism, and (occasionally) political science attest. But the politics are getting better all the time, the paternalism is serious progress from the band's former gross sexism, and the homophobia will be beaten out of him soon by critics and anyone who's a friend. He's just the most exciting figure in rock, and not perfect yet.

Fear of a Black Planet is as unlikely a success as one can imagine. It was, of course, conceived and recorded under the worst possible circumstances, as Chuck and Shocklee watched everything they'd built up nearly fall. What you would expect to be a defensive and resentful response is instead uncompromisingly ground-breaking, casually, almost indolently virtuosic, and, most unlikely of all, relaxed and funny. First of all, this is the hardest rock you've ever heard; anything in the same league--Iggy and the Stooges, say, or even the Pistols or the Clash--just gets flattened by the audacious mechanical viciousness of the sampling. "Welcome to the Terrordome," which was the album's first single, starts out (after a hokily portentous horn line) with an amazing sample: it's some anonymous, high-pitched grinding noise created out of who knows how many other bits of sound. Once constructed, however, the sound is pulsed onto the record with all the thrust and forward movement of (no lie) "Brown Sugar." (It's a little harder to appreciate, but this is the 90s; get with it.) In "Fight the Power," the band's contribution to the sound track of Do the Right Thing, the materials include a scary women's chorus, a ghostly sprooiing! sound, the drum track from James Brown's "Funky Drummer," and snatches of someone singing "Let me hear you, baby" and (possibly Brown again) "Give it." Along with a housey bass beat, it makes one of the most astonishing dance tracks you've ever heard. Even if you're one of the surprisingly large group of people who still think rap sucks, spin "Fight the Power" three or four times, and then play your candidate for rockin'est song of all time. I've done it: everything else sounded tame.

That P.E. could have come this far seemed unlikely at first. Chuck and Shocklee's first successful recording was "Public Enemy No. 1," a single that is lyrically much less threatening than its title suggests--it's just a typical slice of rap braggadocio: "Known as the poetic lyrical son / I'm public enemy number one." Musically, however, the song is based on an enormously irritating sample of whining white noise; it's the first manifestation of P.E.'s unrelenting philosophical belief in the attention-getting powers of physically wrenching sounds. ("Bring the Noise," Chuck bellowed triumphantly a few years later.) Like quite a few of the more interesting rap acts of the decade, the band hooked up with producer Rick Rubin and impresario Russell Simmons's Def Jam Records for their first album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, released in 1987. Despite a handful of powerful backing tracks, the record is a bit embarrassing today. Its political consciousness is barely visible and, when it does appear, tends toward the banal: "The one who makes the money is white not black / You might not believe it but it's like that." (The last phrase is a reference to a Run-D.M.C. song.) The coolest grooves of all are reserved, sadly, for the most unenlightened songs. "Sophisticated Bitch," which lives up to its title's resentful sexism, nonetheless sports some groovy guitar fills by Vernon Reid and has the record's best hook. Similar viciousness is the subject of "Too Much Posse," and it quickly and pretty dumbly manages to ruin the bawdy pun of the title. But the album will still go down in history as the world's introduction to Chuck D. His voice is an unmelodious baritone that he uses to harangue as much as to rap, yet it also has a preacher's resonance. Like Dylan before him, Chuck D. took his unfortunate instrument and made it work: his rhythms and phrasings are amazing, and deep down inside you hear the same cadences and modulations of Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, and Farrakhan (he sprinkles bits of their speeches all over his records to make the comparisons easier). The band has always maintained a deglamorized, unsexual image (one of their ongoing campaigns is against the gold jewelry that drips from most rap artists); Chuck, short and round-faced, his voice anything but sexy, reinforces that image.

On It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the band's second album, Chuck displays an astonishing newfound political voice on record. (The band had always been outspoken in interviews.) The album's first two songs, the bluntest, most trenchant tracks rap had theretofore produced, were "Bring the Noise" and "Don't Believe the Hype." They're pretty shocking even today. "Radio stations, I question their blackness," blasts Chuck. "They call themselves black, but we'll see if they play this." (Sure, Elvis Costello pulled a similar move, but who else?) Farrakhan is a central figure: "Now they got me in a cell 'cause my records they sell / Cause a brother like me said, "Well . . . / Farrakhan's a prophet and I think you ought to listen to / What he can say to you, what you ought to do"' and "The follower of Farrakhan / Don't tell me that you understand / Until you hear the man."

On It Takes a Nation of Millions, Chuck goes after various addictions, from crack ("Night of the Living Baseheads," an even more graphic reworking of Yo!'s "Megablast") to TV ("She Watch Channel Zero") and makes a hilariously spirited, if not exactly coherent, defense of sampling in "Caught, Can I Get a Witness":

They say that I sample, but they should

Sample this my pit bull

We ain't goin' for this

They say I sampled this

Can I get a witness?

(The title, of course, is its own sample--one lifted from Marvin Gaye.) But there's nothing on it that could have prepared us for Fear of a Black Planet. Its basic setup--some 20 tracks, more than 65 minutes of music--is a hugely baroque melange of "instrumentals" (tape snippets and samples superimposed over backing tracks), song introductions, jams for Terminator X, Flavor Flav's moments in the spotlight, and Chuck's latest bulletins. The whole affair is almost intimidatingly sprawling and dissociative--the only albums I can think of that even approach its sense of tumbled depths are the White Album and Sandinista! The record starts out with "Contract on the World Love Jam," a grooving instrumental track that sounds as if it's about to break into "Brave and Strong" or "Africa Talks to You" from There's a Riot Goin' On. (Riot-period Sly Stone is one of P.E.'s most overlooked influences.) Thrown over the percolating track, however, are some sexy, fuzzed-out scratches from Terminator X and a building, ominous series of speech samples: "Some foreign power, some group of terrorists"; "Some individual concerns"; "The race that controls the past controls the living present and therefore the future"; "The future of the group is in doubt"; "Their lyrics have been rather controversial"; "The question is"; "What it is!"; and on and on. It's lulling, engaging, and strangely lyrical.

But the "Love Jam" is just the intro: "Brothers Gonna Work It Out," another viciously propelled rap track, follows, with some more of that wacky P.E. radicalism that everyone's so upset about:

To condition your condition

We're gonna do a song

That you never heard before

Make you all jump along to the education . . .

Teach a man how to be a father

To never tell a woman he can't bother.

Chuck and P.E. have little patience for people who don't take responsibility for their lives. Perhaps the album's most upbeat track is "Can't Do Nuttin' for Ya Man," a Flavor song with a scabrous, wrenching dance track; it turns out to have the darkest lyrics on the record:

You should've stuck with home

Your mind to blow your dome

It was you that chose your due

You built the maze you can't get through

I tried to help you all I can

Now I can't do nuttin' for you man.

Flavor, in a way, has a goofy street credibility that the rather more Apollonian Chuck lacks; it just makes the song all the more chilling. (His other song on the record is the right on "911 Is a Joke.")

Besides the social consciousness, the dutiful listener also has to plow through the band's rather cockeyed political science. A few months ago, the band's press office sent out a booklet originally published in 1970 called "The Cress Theory of Color-Confrontation and Racism (White Supremacy)," by a D.C.-based psychiatrist named Francis Cress Welsing. Its thesis, somewhat superficially put, is that racism is actually a product of whites' feeling inferior to blacks. Some have taken offense, saying that it's another manifestation of the group's own racism. I think it's amusing, and just the sort of provocateuring that any self-respecting rap band should be engaging in. Even if they really believe it, it's of a piece with their concern with white and black issues in general. Chuck's particularly upset about society's reaction to black-white romance, notably a law in Louisiana that decrees that a baby born to one black parent is classified black; that's the source of the sort of mystifying voice-over in the song "Fear of a Black Planet" ("Black man, black woman--black baby / Black man, white woman--black baby"). "What's wrong with some color in your family tree?" Chuck asks. "Pollywanacraka," an amazing song rapped slow and sexy by S1W James, is about blacks who go out with whites; it includes some killer dialogue bits (they sound like something out of a Spike Lee movie) and ends with a call for tolerance. And, finally, there's the ugly "Meet the G That Killed Me," which Chuck probably thought was an anti-AIDS song, but ends up being rather homophobic.

And Chuck and P.E. on the subject of feminism is a potential mine field as well. Chuck cares about "rebuilding the black male," and in the past has written stupid things about women; on Fear of a Black Planet, however, he's trying. "Revolutionary Generation" is the album's look at women; in its own way it's kind of touching with its nod to Aretha: "R-E-S-P-E-C-T / My sister's not my enemy." Elsewhere, of course, he's still a bit unreconstructed--"It takes a man to take a stand / Understand it takes a woman to make a stronger man / As we both get strong." But remember, he's working in a genre in which a song like "Let's Get Butt Naked and Fuck" is relatively enlightened. You can see what Chuck is reaching to say. This is what growth's all about.

At any rate the album's philosophical weaknesses are overwhelmed by the highlights ("Terrordome," "Fight the Power," "Can't Do Nuttin' for Ya Man") and the humor. "Terrordome," Chuck's version of the Griff brouhaha, flirts with new insults to Jews ("Crucifixion ain't no fiction / So called chosen frozen / Apology made to whoever pleases / Still they got me like Jesus"); certainly it's disrespectful, which is not a smart thing for Public Enemy to be right now. But I think that buried in there is a valid and typically outlandishly made point: He apologized eloquently for Griff's sins and his own screwups, and people are still screaming at him about it. The song is a steamroller, anyway; in about 120 lines he addresses his muse, slaps his Mac(intosh), makes the requisite statement of his own rap prowess ("Raw, metaphysically bold"), disses druggies and quitters, notes that blacks killed Huey Newton and Malcolm X, bows to Bensonhurst and Virginia Beach, and ends with a deep and funny statement of purpose that even as it skims dangerous ground is somehow moving and real:

I don't smile in the line of fire

I go wildin'

But it's on bass and drums even violins

Watcha do gitcha head ready

Instead of gettin' physically sweaty

When I get mad

I put it down on a pad.

Give you somethin' that cha never had . . .

It's all something that we've never had. P.E. live, at the Pavilion last month, was direct, crystalline, and loud. The band came on, in Motown review style, after three other acts, all of which were novelty outfits: Kid 'n' Play, the duo from the movie House Party, the sex clowns of Digital Underground, and the aptly named Heavy D. (Let's just say that if Heavy crooned "I'm in the mood for love" to me, I'd have one eye on the exit.) None of them were anything special. The kids rocked through all of them, but they stopped yelling and just watched in awe when Public Enemy hit the stage.

Unrepentant, Chuck opened with "Welcome to the Terrordome." The S1Ws marched, Terminator X scratched swimmingly, Flavor mugged heroically. Unlike most rap concerts, the sound was pristine, and you could hear every word as Chuck preached--about education, about black-and-white unity, about how "you the people can make a change," about how instead of "fucking killing each other we need to fight together," about how--get this--you should love your parents. Now that's radical. They played everything you'd expect, from Yo!'s "Miuzi Weighs a Ton" to Planet's "Who Stole the Soul?" The show closed with a bruising "Fight the Power" and Flavor Flav's hit, "911 Is a Joke," with Flavor bursting out from behind the stage dressed in bedclothes and holding his tiny daughter. Turns out that a P.E. concert is a family affair (right down to the introduction of Farrakhan's son). Any band that wants to be the best in the world has to prove itself onstage, and P.E. did it, warts and all. Chuck raged, and Flavor leered, and both spoke truth--Flavor sometimes more than Chuck: in an unintentionally funny ad-lib, he managed to capture the band's zen almost accidentally. Flavor was roaming the stage while Chuck was taking a break. "I back Chuck D. up 100 percent," he said."You wanna know why I back Chuck D. up? Because the brother be right a lot of the time."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin--Photo Reserve.

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