Welcome Back To The Terrordome

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As Public Enemy’s ‘Fear Of A Black Planet’ turns 25 it couldn’t be more relevant. It stands as a masterpiece of righteous anger and furious energy. Lyrically, tragically, tracks like ‘911 Is A Joke’ and ‘Fight The Power’ returned to the forefront of the cultural discourse last year after the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown at the hands of the American police. Musically, The Bomb Squad’s ability to create order from a white noise chaos of sampled loops, stolen riffs and radio chatter foreshadowed the coming technological overload of the 21st Century.

Yet the year leading up to the release of their third record had been the most difficult in Public Enemy’s already storied history. Having formed on Long Island, New York in 1982, the band’s sample-heavy production style and Chuck D and Flavor Flav’s politically-charged lyrics quickly made them one of the most revered rap groups on the planet. Their debut record ‘Yo! Bum Rush The Show’ was named the best album of 1987 by NME critics, beating the likes of Prince’s ‘Sign O’ The Times’ and The Smiths’ ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’. They repeated the trick the following year, when ‘It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back’, which included hits like ‘Bring The Noise’ and ‘Don’t Believe The Hype’, was named NME’s best album of 1988 ahead of records by REM, Morrissey and The Pogues.

Yet in 1989, the group found themselves embroiled in an ugly controversy. Professor Griff, the group’s ‘Minister of Information’, told Melody Maker that: “If the Palestinians took up arms, went into Israel and killed all the Jews, it’d be alright.” When grilled on this point by David Mills, of the Washington Times, Griff went further still, saying: “Jews are responsible for the majority of the wickedness in the world.” Chuck D first apologised for him, then called a press conference to announce that Griff would be suspended from Public Enemy. A week later, the group’s label boss, Russell Simmons of Def Jam, announced that Chuck D had disbanded Public Enemy “for an indefinite period of time”.

Within a couple of months, Chuck D returned to deny that the group had disbanded, but by now a shadow had been cast over the band. This was the context in which they wrote ‘Fear Of A Black Planet’ – knowing that their next release could make or break them.

Predictably, they didn’t back down. ‘Welcome To The Terrordome’, released ahead of the album in January 1990, saw Chuck D rapping lines that many took to relate directly to the anti-Semitism controversy: “Crucifixion ain’t no fiction/So-called chosen frozen/Apology made to whoever pleases/Still they got me like Jesus”. Later, Chuck said that he wrote the song over the course of a two day road trip to Allentown, Pennsylvania in the midst of the controversy. “I just let all the drama come out of me,” he told Billboard magazine. “‘I got so much trouble on my mind/I refuse to lose/Here’s your ticket/hear the drummer get wicked”. That was some true stuff. I just dropped everything I was feeling.”

Although rightly apologetic for Griff’s anti-Semitism, Public Enemy didn’t let the controversy stop them writing angrily and graphically about the social problems they’d witnessed in American culture. Most withering of all was ‘911 Is A Joke’, in which a scornful Flavor Flav highlights differing police response times in black and white neighbourhoods. The song is a classic example of the symbiotic writing relationship between the group’s two frontmen: Chuck D wrote the incendiary title and then passed it to his partner to build a song around. “It took a year, but Flavor was saying he had a personal incident that he could relate that to,” Chuck said. “At the end of the year when it was time for him to record he was ready. Keith [Shocklee, Bomb Squad] had the track, and it was the funkiest track I heard. It reminded me of uptempo Parliament/Funkadelic.”

After skewering the police, Public Enemy then reset their sights and took aim at capitalism as a whole. ‘Who Stole The Soul?’ was their furious attack on the commodification of black culture, and Chuck D has called it one of their “most meaningful performance records”. They weren’t just calling for words or token apologies: they wanted action. “We talk about reparations,” he remembered later. Whoever stole the soul has to pay the price.”

The album closes with the incendiary, insurrectionary rage of ‘Fight The Power’. Like the best protest music, it is a song written with a specific political target in mind, which has now become a universal anthem of political resistance. On a recent European tour, Chuck D told NME that the song grows stronger as it takes on the historical context of wherever it is played. “In Belgium, we dedicated ‘Fight The Power’ to the Democratic Republic of Congo,” he said. “The memory of Patrice Lumumba [first democratically elected prime minster of Congo, who fought for independence from Belgium] will not be in vain. You always have to be aware where you’re going to when you step into somebody’s home. That’s the thing that sets us apart as different. We’re not the normal rap group.”

Sonically, too, they were no normal group. Sprawling over 20 tracks, ‘Fear Of A Black Planet’ is hip-hop at it’s most musically ambitious. Having toured as a support act for the Beastie Boys (as referenced in the radio phone-in samples that make up ‘Incident At 66.6 FM’), they were inspired by the sample-laden ‘Paul’s Boutique’, released in 1989, to add soul and jazz influences without dialling down any of the anger of their earlier recordings.

Beastie Boys were in turn equally inspired by a band they considered their heroes. Adam Yauch later said: “Public Enemy completely changed the game, musically. No one was just putting straight-out noise and atonal synthesizers into hip-hop, mixing elements of James Brown and Miles Davis; no one in hip-hop had ever been this hard, and perhaps no one has since. They made everything else sound clean and happy, and the power of the music perfectly matched the intention of the lyrics. They were also the first rap group to really focus on making albums – you can listen to ‘…Nation of Millions…’ or ‘Fear Of A Black Planet’ from beginning to end. They aren’t just random songs tossed together.”

It’s a testament to Public Enemy’s vision as songwriters that out of the controversy of uncertainty of 1989 they were able to forge a masterpiece of both social commentary and musical innovation. Echoes of their anger and ambition can still be heard, 25 years on, in the verses and activism of Kendrick Lamar, Run The Jewels and Young Fathers.

‘Fear Of A Black Planet’ continues to challenge and provoke listeners, precisely because it doesn’t offer easy solutions to society’s ills. Reviewing the album for Melody Maker in 1990, Simon Reynolds summed it up: “Public Enemy are important, not because of the thoroughly dubious ‘answers’ they propound in interview, but because of the angry questions that seethe in their music, in the very fabric of their sound; the bewilderment and rage that, in this case, have made for one hell of strong, scary album.”

Originally published in NME, 11 April 2015.

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