Friday, May 3, 2013

PUBLIC ENEMY, Fear of A Black Planet
Melody Maker, 1990

by Simon Reynolds

Over the past three years, Public Enemy have made the single most concerted attempt to take rap's inchoate fury and sonic insurgency, and commandeer it for political ends. But there's only so far you can tamper with rap. The hip hop mindset is essentially paranoid: it flits between triumphalism and survivalism, invincibility and siege mentality. Public Enemy have successfully replaced rap's dictatorial "I" with the "we" of political discourse, but in the process they've collectivised rap's intrinsic paranoia. The result, we all know: delusions of grandeur and an
unsightly rash of conspiracy theories.

The first album rubbed our faces in some unpleasant racial truths about America. But by the time of It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, Public Enemy's subject matter seemed to have contracted to the shock waves generated by their impact. At this point, they were reminiscent of nothing so much as Morrissey in his late Smiths phase of paranoiac pseudo-statesmanship. Public Enemy just seemed to be announcing themselves over and over again, reiterating the urgency of their mission without explicating it further.

None of this would have mattered if they'd expanded on the musical avant-gardism of the first album. But the self-righteous self-referentiality seemed to have a deleterious effect on their sound, which ossified around the formula established by the brilliant "Rebel Without A Pause": a siren shriek of shrill, sampled sound, endlessly looped over a hyped-up R&B beat.

For a while, I thought they'd lost the plot completely. Then, the magnificently ominous "Welcome To The Terrordrome" restored faith. And the latest bout of furore over their alleged Anti-Semitism has made them a public phenomenon, worthy of the severest scrutiny.

The best way to understand Public Enemy is to realise that they're chaos theoreticians. Their loopy racial and historical theories may seem risible and offensive, but for Public Enemy they're steel handrails in the hour of chaos, a way of mapping the confusion of the contemporary political landscape and forcing it to make "sense". The plight of Black America demands simple, drastic explanations and simple, drastic solutions. It's this that makes Public Enemy more than a little fascistic (not to mention their partiality for paramilitary style, gestures, etc..)

Textually, Fear Of A Black Planet provides a fair amount of ammunition for the prosection. "Meet The G That Killed Me" sees Chuck D blaming AIDS on the "unnatural practices" of homosexuals. It's strange that for all their Afro-centrism, Public Enemy don't seem to be aware that in North Africa, AIDS is a heterosexual plague. But what's really exposed by lyrics like "man to man/I don't know if they can/From what I know/The parts don't fit" is a pathological fear of being penetrated and passive. This terror of the loss of male bodily integrity, plus the paradoxical combination of homophobia with homo-erotic male bonding, is something that rap shares with the military in general, and Fascism in particular.

But as well as "Meet The G", and other dodgy bits like the alledgedly Anti-Semitic lyric in "Terrordrome" concerning Chuck D's media crucifixion ("they got me like Jesus"), there's also a fair amount of acute finger-pointing. "911 Is A Joke" attacks the tardy response of hospitals and police to black emergency calls. "Burn Hollywood Burn" rages against the movie industry's presentation of only injuriously stereotypical images of blacks. And "Revolutionary Generation" is both a tirade against chauvinistic attitudes towards Black Women and a slightly dubious paean to the "sisters" ("it takes a man to make a stand/Understand it takes a/Woman to make a stronger man").

The lyrical bulk of Fear Of A Black Planet, though, consists of a livid, febrile jumble of self-aggrandisement ("Final Count Of The Collision Between Us And The Damned"), rallying cries, and turbid stream of consciousness. Fear Of A Black Planet shows that while Public Enemy on one level theorise as a bulwark against chaos, on another level their real forte is sculpting chaos. On Side A-90 in particular, Chuck D struggles to be heard through the clamour of garbled voices (excerpts from radio interviews with the group, political rhetoric, and random slices of uproar from funk records) and the blare of pulverised horn samples and shredded acid rock licks.

Fear Of A Black Planet is a work of unprecedented density for hip hop, its claustrophobic, backs-against-the- wall feel harking back to Sly Stone's There's A Riot Goin' On or even Miles Davis' On The Corner. For all its street-funk bustle, it's not joyous or liberating to listen to, but it does sustain a terrific pitch of stark, staring dread, something exacerbated by the lack of gaps between tracks.Particularly stunning are the eerie, futuristic "Pollywannacraka", with its backwards cymbals, and the evil-eyed funk of "Anti-Nigger Machine".

Side B-91 is more uptempo: "Who Stole The Soul", "Revolutionary Generation" and "Can't Do Nuthin For Ya Man" are propelled by much the same hyper-tense, hair-trigger beat, almost as fast as House. "War at 33-and-a-third" is another hectic trajectory, interrupted only by a "middle eight" that's a calamitous trough of free jazz bedlam and raised voices. And "Fight The Power" makes for a superb, clenched fist finale.

But overall, what we learn from Fear Of A Black Planet is not how singleminded Public Enemy are, but how fucking confused they are. 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.

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