Saturday, April 10, 2010

20 Years in the Terrordome

Public Enemy dropped Fear of a Black Planet 20 years ago today. I still believe it's the most exciting album ever recorded.

Fear of a Black Planet surfed in on a wave of hype from SPIN and the few other outlets interested in hip hop at the time, and it's one of the few records--maybe the only record?--that I've ever been so caught up in the pre-release hype of that didn't turn out to be a complete disapointment. Their previous album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, had been a massive hit. Not among the record-buying public, but surely among critics, hipsters and hip hop heads. I was nuts over Nation of Millions, but it seemed far from a perfect album. Its flow keeps being interupted by filler instrumental tracks like "Security of the First World" and "Mind Terrorist," and by stage patter from a live show in London. Fear is solid and seamless, every moment of it contributing to an overall experience, and each individual song fully satisfying, but also part of a greater whole, a maelstrom of funky snap-beats, layered noise and Chuck's brutal rhymes punctuated by Flav's court jester routine.

There was a lot of other stuff happening in early 1990, so I'm not sure to what extent PE can take the credit, but it was around that time that I made a real shift in how I considered this music. I'd been listening to rap for, what, 4 years at by then? But up until that point, if someone had asked me if I listened to rap, I would have said "Well, I like Run-DMC, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, NWA and De La Soul." But by mid-1990, I would have just said "Hell yeah!" I can remember writing in my notebook about this album, something about how it was "as harsh and challenging as anything Sonic Youth have ever done," which seems like such a weird point to have to make. I can't imagine having to compare PE to a white rock band to make people understand that they should be taken seriously now, but back then it was a regular occurance to have to defend hip hop as a whole from the charge that it wasn't "real" music.

Public Enemy had managed to get some attention in the mainstream press over the summer of 1989. First of all, they had recorded "Fight the Power" for Spike Lee's movie Do the Right Thing, and released it as a single and video. I've always thought of Spike's movie and PE's disc as companion pieces. Can you imagine any other song in that movie? The film almost feels like it grew out of PE's music.

The other incident that got them some press coverage was an interview that Professor Griff, the group's Minister of Information (nobody seems to be able to properly explain what his job in PE was, but he did give interviews)gave with the Washington Times, wherein he went off about the International Jewish Conspiracy and shit. A media shit storm, an apology from Chuck D and the firing of Griff followed. "Why do you think they call it the Jew-elery business?" isn't a place anyone wants to find themselves, but I'm not sure how you avoid ending up there when your starting point is "Farakahn's a prophet." What happened to Public Enemy was a rare thing among political musicians: they got called on their bullshit.

I don't think pop music is really the best medium for getting across a substantive political message. (In terms of actually making a coherent political expression, I actually think Ice-T does a better job than Chuck, KRS-1 or Ice Cube, but that's a post for a different day.) But that's not really what political music is about. It's about expressing the urgent fury of a cause, and no one has ever expressed that fury more vividly than Chuck D. There's a reason they call themselves "Prophets of Rage," not "Prophets of political reform."

This situation must have seriously fucked with Chuck, clearly not prepared to be on the defensive, especially not at such an early point in their career. Chuck's whole thing was so tied up in being unapolagetic that it must have driven him nuts. And from this confused, tormented mind state was born "Welcome to the Terrordome."

"Welcome to the Terrordome" was dropped in advance of the album, and my expectations immediately went through the roof. This was by far the best thing they'd ever recorded. More or less in the same vein as "Bring the Noize" and "Night of the Living Bassheads," but on those songs you could see the seams where the whole thing was stitched together, you could sense the hand of the craftsman. "Terrordome" was seamless and organic. It was an unrelenting blast in the face for 5:40, from the opening fanfare to Flav's "Boiiiing" ending.

Chuck's inner turmoil, trapped between righteous fury and self-examination, is expressed from the two opening lines: "I got so much trouble on my mind/ReFUSE to LOSE!" Contradiction is one of the recurring themes of the album, and Chuck circles back on himself again and again, the most obvious example being "Polly Wanna Cracka," where he spends two verses attacking the mentality of black people who date outside their race, only to have his narrator flip the script in the last verse and basically tells himself to shut the fuck up.

As "Terrordome" continues, Chuck starts spitting out two-syllable jabs like a boxer working the speed bag: "The CREW to YOU to PUSH the BACK to BLACK/AtTACK so I SAT and JAPPED/Then SLAPPED the MAC." Tyson used to come out to this song. Think about that: this was the song Mike Tyson used to make himself seem SCARIER. Jesus, I could go through line by line, but just take this one: "Snakebitten." One word jutting out at the front of it's bar, delivered with a whiplash. Or this: "Check the record and reckon an intentional wreck/Played off as some intellect." Who can match that?

The second verse starts off with the reckoning over the Prof. Griff situation, with no apparant desire to let the flames die down, starting off with two troubling rhymes: "Crucifixion ain't no fiction/So-called Chosen frozen." I take the first line to be more "I got crucified by the press" than a Christian rebuke of Judaism, but I'd bet he made the calculation that it would get under people's skin. The second line, I have no defense.

Apology made to who ever pleases
Still they got me like Jesus
I'd rather sing, bring, think, reminisce
'Bout a brother while I'm in sync
Every brother ain't a brother cause a color
Just as well could be undercover
Backstabbed, grabbed a flag
From the back of the lab
Told a Rab get off the rag
Sad to say I got sold down the river
Still some quiver when I deliver

That last line really does make me quiver, the way it drops out of the narrative to just let out a well-earned brag about his rhyme skills.

When I finally got the CD, I was pissed off just reading the track sequence. How could you have a song like this, and not start the album off with it? It was track 5, as if it were just another track. For the first few days, it annoyed me to death, but in the end I realized that PE were smarter than me. The whole album is constructed as a series of peaks and valleys, and "Terrordome" is the first peak. From the opening sample montage "Contract on the World Love Jam," through the mid-tempo "Brothers Gonna Work It Out," Flav's upbeat hit "911 is a Joke," The taut beat of "Incident at 66.6 FM" (a recording of Chuck on a surreal radio call-in show), and THEN into "Terrordome," which itself builds up steam as Chuck's verses go by. By the last third of the song, my blood is racing through my veins.

Caught in the race against time
The pit and the pendulum
Check the rhythm and rhymes
While I'm bendin' 'em
Snakes blowin' up the lines of design
Tryin' to blind the science I'm sendin' 'em
How to fight the power
Cannot run and hide
But it shouldn't be suicide
In a game a fool without the rules
Got a hell of a nerve to just criticize
Every brother ain't a brother
Cause a Black hand
Squeezed on Malcom X the man
The shootin' of Huey Newton
From a hand of a Nigger who pulled the trigger
Come on DOWN!

By the time it gets to the final stretch, if I'm listening to the whole thing in sequence in my car, I am literally compelled to scream. There's just no other way to express the excitement it gives me. There is one other point on the album that I have the same response to, the segue from "B-Side Wins Again" into "War at 33 1/3."

It's weak to speak and blame somebody else
When you destroy yourself
First nothing's worse than a mother's pain
Of a son slain in Bensonhurst
Can't wait for the state to decide the fate
So this jam I dedicate
Places with racist faces
Just an example of one of many cases
The Greek weekend speech I speak
From a lesson learned in Virginia (Beach)
I don't smile in the line of fire
I go wildin'
But it's on bass and drums even violins
Watcha do gitcha head ready
Instead of gettin' physically sweaty
When I get mad
I put it down on a pad
Give ya somethin' that cha never had controllin'
Fear of high rollin'
God bless your soul and keep livin'
Never allowed, kickin' it loud
Droppin' a bomb
Brain game intellectual Vietnam
Move as a team
Never move alone
Welcome to the Terrordome

Two related notes: last summer, in honor of the 20th anniversary of Do the Right Thing, Matt Zoller Seitz created this video essay on the film. It's well worth watching.

I'm also reminded that this week marks the 20th anniversary of David Lynch's singular TV show, Twin Peaks. Which, I now remember, I first saw on the same day that I first heard Fear of a Black Planet.


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