Radio DJ: Yes, hello?
Caller: Yes, I think that white liberals such as yourself have difficulty understanding that Chuck’s views represent the frustrations of the majority of black youth out there today–
Radio DJ: I do understand that.
Caller: Yeah, but before he came on, you were–
Radio DJ: If you had read the stuff I had read about him, and the way he’s been portrayed in the American press–
Thus ends ‘Incident at 66.6 FM’, a heavily edited series of snippets of a real interview given by Public Enemy frontman Chuck D on WNBC in New York. The radio DJ was Alan Colmes, the soon-to-be ‘Fox News liberal’ who would go on to play sparring partner (and second fiddle) to rabidly rightist Sean Hannity on American TV. That Colmes’s liberal leanings are inaudible in ‘Incident’, a track on which Public Enemy’s production team the Bomb Squad state their agenda by revealing the agenda of the whites that run the show, is indicative of the rap collective’s stance. It’s clear PE’s sense of reality is more Michael Moore – indeed, more Spike Lee – than Frederick Wiseman.
Biases aside, the record remains almost as relevant as it was when it hit shelves in the spring of 1990. Millions still share the opinion that ‘911 is a joke’. In some ways, the song doesn’t sound radical enough if not historicised; it doesn’t capture liberal America’s current fury at the wave of racially skewed killings by policemen – a wave that has only accrued force since the album’s release. The Chuck D of today is surely incensed by the Trayvon Martins, the Kimani Grays, and the Kendrec McDades of today; though given the album’s regular criticisms of the brother-man, it’s likely he’d be even more infuriated by the Ervin Jeffersons.
It’s true – Chuck’s perspective on this album has moved on from his stance on the previous, superior album It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back. OK, so “check my chromosome” has now turned into “all I got is genes and chromosomes”, but in general Fear of a Black Planet seems more urgent, more threatened, with Chuck D’s braggadocio more on the back foot – as if institutional white superiority were quickly becoming a disease of the heart rather than an affliction of the skin. With a handful more songs than its predecessor, it takes aim at more targets: the police and emergency services, broadcasting corporations, brothers not being brothers. Its usual targets are, in some cases, inverted or expanded: ‘She Watch Channel Zero?!’ from A Nation Of Millions finds a more comic cognate in ‘Burn Hollywood Burn’, in which the onus is on the producers, not the viewers; on a specific institution, not on generically detrimental output. The race relations from the previous album are now infused with inter-race sexual politics; the faceless litigious lawyers suing the collective for sampling are now specific radio presenters who openly undermine or suppress black voices. “Our story is history,” bellows Chuck. “Not ‘his story’!”
Like a planet, this album is fastest in the middle, specifically from track eight (‘Anti-Nigger Machine’) to track fourteen (‘Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man’). Also like a planet, it seems circular. The opening track – a gentle anti-overture – claims that “the future of this group… is in doubt”. The album ends with “Well, the future of Public Enemy got a…”. It’s a deliberately polemical structure: they set up a hypothesis only to disprove it vociferously over the course of an hour, with the climactic ambiguity really smacking of unequivocal self-confidence.
They begin demolishing their ‘our future is in doubt’ hypothesis with the defiantly optimistic ‘Brothers Gonna Work It Out’, keyed to a corrosive guitar sample that channels mid-’70s Pete Cosey, a guitarist who played in the band of one of the few black musicians as paranoid, articulate and volatile as Chuck D: Miles Davis. The track repeats the lyrical themes from previous albums – “The rhythm, the rebel”, “Yo! Bum rush the show”, et al. – and as references to Marvin Gaye, Janet Jackson and Sly & the Family Stone crop up as the tracks pass, you get the impression that Chuck is planting himself squarely within a black tradition while furthering said tradition.
Their militant pacifism is so thorough that a convincing case could be made for ‘peace’ being an acronym for ‘Public Enemy – ACE’. The wordplay comes thick and fast on this album; despite (or perhaps because of) the newfound urgency, the jokes – 911 notwithstanding – are more apparent. ‘Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man’ is Flavor Flav at his least political, while affectionate nods to P-Funk are expanded in ‘Reggie Jax’, a brief homage to danceable funk. (Naturally, this track, in a neat illustration of the importance of juxtaposition in hip-hop, is followed by ‘Leave This Off Your Fu*kin Charts’.) And though Hollywood has come a long way since 1990 in its representations of black people, ‘Burn Hollywood Burn’ is still an amusing listen.
This review started with a vocal sample, and might as well end with one, since Fear of a Black Planet is stuffed with them. ‘Burn Hollywood Burn’ was their funniest song to date, thanks in no small part to its coda:
Casting Director: Now, we’re considering you for a part in our new production. How do you feel about playing a controversial negro?
Flavor Flav: Yeah, I’m with it. You mean somebody like Huey P. Newton or HF Brown, right?
Casting Director: Well, it’s a servant character that chuckles a little bit, and sings.
Should you get this new Deluxe Edition?
This album is essential if you’re a hip-hop fan, or into politically conscious music of any sort. It isn’t perfect though, and in this new remaster, Chuck D sounds less stentorian than on A Nation of Millions. Fear of a Black Planet isn’t quite as melodically or rhythmically insidious as its predecessor, probably because it’s more musically complex, and more aurally challenging despite being less grating. Thankfully, this remaster enhances each sonic thrill of the Bomb Squad’s dense, phenomenal production – though the whole mix could have been a little louder, with Chuck’s vocals preferably closer to the fore.
As for the bonus disc of remixes: well, they’re inessential. We could be grateful to Def Jam for not stuffing the original album disc with bonus tracks, but although the remixes on the second disc sound as clear as an azure sky of deepest summer, they rob the originals of their momentum, complexity and context. They’re too angry to serve as dance tracks, and too disjointed and remix-y to serve as effective polemic; and so they are consigned to being unnecessary curios.
If you can get it cheap, buy this edition – it sounds clean, and is accompanied by a booklet containing photos of recording notes and some explanatory track-by-track liner notes from Wax Poetics editor Andre Torres. If not, you can be happy to settle for the original 1990 CD. But without one or the other, your hip-hop collection isn’t complete.
This article originally appeared in Glass Magazine, December 2014