It must’ve been good to be Public Enemy in 1990. Just two years before, they’d released It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, as brilliant and influential a hip-hop record that’s ever been released. For maybe the first time ever, the general public was taking hip-hop seriously as an artistic medium, and It Takes A Nation played a large part in this awakening. Critics loved them for their insanely dense production and uncompromising lyrics, and the hip-hop community loved them because they said what many had wanted to say for a long time. So what do you do for an encore? In Public Enemy’s case, they created an even harder, even denser, and even more controversial album, Fear of a Black Planet, and became even bigger as a result.
It Takes A Nation is rightly famous for its sample-laden production, but Fear of a Black Planet takes things to a whole new level. I remember reading an article about the Bomb Squad where they talked about their beatmaking style – they’d set up a bunch of samplers in a room somewhere, turn them all on, and let them rip. The results speak for themselves. Every beat seems to surge, packed to the gills with funky drums, blasting horns, and a million sound bites that you know you’ve heard somewhere but can’t quite put your finger on. Listen to a track like “Welcome To The Terrordome” – a guitar sample strung so tight it sounds like a pulsating electric current, random voices floating in and out of the mix, a James Brown drum beat (of course) holding everything together. Just take a look at the album’s Wikipedia page – there’s an astonishing list of samples used, and it’s not even complete!
At though responding to the monstrous brew cooked up by the Bomb Squad, Fear of a Black Planet‘s lyrics are even more militant, challenging, and angry than the previous album. Chuck D fires away at just about everything in his bulldozer emceeing style, not caring about offending anybody; this works sometimes to his detriment, and sometimes to his credit. He offers encouragement to his fellow African-Americans (“Brothers Gonna Work It Out”), takes shots at the movie industry with Ice Cube & Big Daddy Kane (“Burn Hollywood Burn”), and even reveals a homophobic streak (“Meet The G Who Killed Me”—one of the songs best left on the cutting room floor). Flavor Flav gets his own screed, with the famous “911 Is A Joke,” a dead-on harangue against EMTs slow to rescue ghetto patients. Everything leads back to Public Enemy’s well-known militant stance for African-Americans, pointing finger after finger at the white establishment that’s held them (both the race and Public Enemy themselves, in the form of DJs that wouldn’t play their records) down for years. And the music churns away behind Chuck’s oratory, with a passion matching Chuck’s angry words.
The album closes, seemingly as an afterthought, with “Fight The Power,” the lynchpin of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. “Fight The Power,” in four and a half minutes, serves as the prototypical PE song, with Chuck’s powerful exhortations to effect change (and potshots at famous white men) backed with one of the Bomb Squad’s best beats. It fits in perfectly with the rest of the album, and serves as a classic finale to a classic album – and closes with an odd interview snippet, as Chuck begins to muse about “the future of Public Enemy” before the tape cuts off. The future of Public Enemy would not be rosy, as the group would slowly be usurped by gangsta rap and descend into cultural irrelevance. But oh, how bright the future looked back then. And we have the classic album to prove it.
Similar Albums/ Albums Influenced:
N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton
Rage Against the Machine – Rage Against the Machine
Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music