The Album List: #62 Public Enemy “Fear of a Black Planet”

To those who proclaim that sampling is the refuge of the criminal and the creatively bankrupt, let me introduce you to a little album called Fear of A Black Planet.

Honestly, hip hop was crucial to my musical development, particularly in the Wild Wild West early years of sampling. The genre introduced me to soul and R&B and disco that never got played on the radio. It also lead me to rock and roll and pop songs I never heard of either. I went searching when I heard that bass line, or that piano, or that sliver of a guitar.

Hip hop showed me just how narrow radio playlists are. We complain about hearing the same song over and over. The answer was always in front of us. Hip hop made sampling an art form, but it’s dated back to the beginning of time.  And no one has done it better than Public Enemy on this record.

See, Public Enemy used so many samples and structured them in such a way that some of the samples sound nothing like their original source material. How very often just a sliver was used buried under the main hook.  But even then, the focus remains on Chuck D’s amazing, pointed, controversial lyrics, which is the goal of a great hip hop album. The genre is MC based, after all.

Take the title track, built around samples from Mountain, the Bar-kays, Billy Stewart, Eddie Murphy, Sly and the Family Stone, Kool and the Gang… while Chuck and Flavor Flav lament that white men continue to be paranoid about white women entering relationships with “The Others”.  Somehow, black men are still being painted as predators, and women need to be protected from them.

Considering I heard two men talking about this very topic at the mall the other day, we have not progressed at all.

The album is a time capsule, a document of its time and place. At least you think so at first. But a song like “911 Is A Joke” still feels current, and it still feels angry. A song about how emergency services ignore inner city neighbourhoods, there by increasing the cycles of violence and mistrust? Flavor Flav is right. I see it in my transient, working poor inner city neighbourhood everyday.

The contempt and anger that run through the album is the type of emotion that teenagers inevitably identify with when they no longer believe in what their parents tell them and grow weary and frustrated in the narrow world view they are exposed to by thanks to the fear of their own communities. Hip hop is the music of the adolescent, but good hip hop is layered in a way that it even becomes more profound when you’re an adult.  As a teen I understood the basic concept of a song like “Burn Hollywood Burn”- the video is laced with Hollywood’s racist legacy. But it was as an adult where I got just how deeply ingrained this racism was. It was also around the time I discovered the name Oscar Micheaux and had watched enough Spike Lee. A biting commentary over Hollywood’s attitudes to race, it remains probably the most relevant song on the album.

I always loved the juxtaposition between Chuck D and Flavor Flav. Chuck is a powerful speaker, and a serious-minded man. Flav is the court jester, using an over the top persona and humour to pound the truth into our brains. Songs like “911 is a Joke” and “Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man” are amusing while songs like “”Welcome To the Terrordome” and “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” are based in a raw seriousness. Although every once in a while, Flav’s voice peeks through and you still chuckle.

The entire album is incredibly strong, but the masterpiece is the famed last track. Part protest song, part rallying cry, part historical document, part song from a Spike Lee movie, it is still as powerful now in 2011 as it was to me in 1989. Widely considered the greatest track in hip hop history, the amazing “Fight The Power” is a song that hits you square in between the eyes. The powers that be exist, but the key is to fight the ones who abuse their power. And the lesson remains is that absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s up to the populace to keep the powers that be honest. And we are still failing that, all these years later.

It’s a song that will never lose power, not as long as the majority of people stay complacent.

Thanks for that realization, Public Enemy. Fight the power.


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