Back to the '90s: Public Enemy's 'Fear of a Black Planet' ups the ante for hip-hop

Before Flavor Flav hawked cell phone plans for Sprint and got roasted on Comedy Central, before Chuck D debated Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele on CNN, before mainstream hip-hop was taken over by an endless stream of Auto-Tuned gangsta wannabes, there was Public Enemy.

“Yo! Bum Rush the Show” introduced Public Enemy to the hip-hop world in 1987. “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” upped the ante and irreversibly changed that world in 1988, but 1989 was the year P.E. broke through to the rest of the world when “Fight the Power” played over the opening credits of Spike Lee’s brilliant film “Do the Right Thing.”  By 1990 it seemed they could do no wrong.  In the face of such high expectations, it’s no small feat that their third album, “Fear of a Black Planet,” did not disappoint.

Like “It Takes a Nation,” “Fear” starts with a sonic collage of reactions to the group, black nationalist screeds and other incendiary samples to demonstrate that Public Enemy hadn’t lost its edge. “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” and “911 Is a Joke” display the lyrical prowess of Chuck D and Flavor Flav, respectively, and the latter a brilliant slab of funk with an irresistibly catchy, scathingly pointed chorus. The energy stays high on “Welcome to the Terrordome,” then dips on the unfortunately homophobic low point “Meet the G that Killed Me”.

Never ones to skirt controversy, they go from AIDS conspiracy theories to interracial romance on “Pollywannacracker,” police brutality on “Anti-Nigger Machine” and Hollywood’s history of racism on “Burn Hollywood Burn,” which features furious rhymes from Ice Cube and Big Daddy Kane. The first half is rounded out by fast paced populist rave-up “Power to the People.”

The second side starts strong with “Who Stole the Soul?” leading in to title track (and sonic masterpiece) “Fear of a Black Planet.” No track in any musical genre has so perfectly crystallized the insanity of white fears of contamination by other races. As Chuck D says: “All I want is peace and love on this planet (ain’t that how God planned it?).” The meditation on racism is quickly followed by a one on sexism, “Revolutionary Generation.” When was the last time you heard a hardcore hip-hop artist express an unapologetically feminist sentiment like “forget about me/set my sister free/R-E-S-P-E-C-T my sisters, not my enemy.”

Flavor Flav takes over on his second iconic jam of the album “Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man,” exhorting those who abase their dignity by living on hand-outs. Next comes the reggae soaked “Reggie Jax”, another sample heavy instrumental “Leave This Off Your Fu*kin Charts”, and two tight tracks about the power of music: “B-Side Wins Again” and “War at 33 1/3.”

“Final Count of the Collision Between Us and the Damned” is a brief respite before P.E. serves up a potent slab of the purest hard-core hip-hop on “Fight the Power.” Like “Satisfaction,” “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Fight the Power” was a bona fide anthem for a generation simultaneously expressing frustration and celebration (damn … they even got Listen, Dammit, rhyming now).

More than anything, “Fear of a Black Planet” leaves the listener dumbfounded by how quickly the lyrics flow, how sharply DJ Terminator X samples and scratches and how much noise the Bomb Squad manages to pack in to a single record.

After Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog slowed the tempo down in 1992, it would be nearly a decade before such intensity resurfaced in the hip-hop world with the breakthrough of OutKast’s masterful “B.O.B.,” featuring another dynamic duo of MCs in Big Boi and Andre 3000.

Aside from the 1991’s equally strong “Apocalypse 91 … the Enemy Strikes Black,” Public Enemy never quite recaptured the vitality and cultural relevance of their early work, though they never stopped trying and they never sold out. (Flavor Flav’s clowning around on VH1 doesn’t count, because he remained true to his jokester self.) The ubiquity of rap music is in many ways their legacy.

Along with KRS-One, Ice-T, N.W.A. and the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy bridged the gap between the pioneers that came before them and the superstars that came after them. They also bridged the gap between music and politics, and in so doing became part of the long tradition of American protest music, a tradition that has sadly and inexplicably fallen on hard times in recent years.  But with a new decade before us, it just might make a comeback.  Young Turks might want to give “Fear of a Black Planet” a listen for inspiration.

— Nicholas Coleman

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