Public Enemy invades Iowa City

BY TOMMY MORGAN JR. | APRIL 01, 2010 7:30 AM

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Hip-hop group Public Enemy came under fire in 1989 for statements memberProfessor Griff made to the press that were considered anti-Semitic.

As if that pressure weren’t enough, Public Enemy had to record an album — the album, really — a follow-up larger and more innovative than its predecessor, the platinum It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.

“My vision for Fear was something that was bigger than anything that we’ve ever done,” producer Hank Shocklee said.

Amid the turmoil, the group managed to get it done. Fear of a Black Planet was well-received critically and commercially, and the work is hailed as innovative both lyrically and musically.

Public Enemy frontman Chuck D, along with producers Hank and Keith Shocklee and writer Harry Allen, will discuss Fear of a Black Planet in a University Lecture Committee panel today. The discussion, moderated by UI Associate Professor Kembrew McLeod, will take place at 7 p.m. today in the Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St. Admission is free.

After the panel, the two Shocklees will perform with their outfit, the Bomb Squad, at the Yacht Club, 13 S. Linn St. The show will also feature the Hood Internet and Database and will begin at 9 p.m. Admission is $10.

Fear of a Black Planet was released on April 10, 1990, following the success of 1989’s Nation, the group’s first platinum album.

“Hank [Shocklee] set the precedent very early on in the game and said we should never repeat ourselves,” Chuck D said. “Fear of a Black Planet was a total curve ball to the fastball that Nationpresented.”

For Chuck D, Flavor Flav, and the other MCs on the record, this meant broadening Public Enemy’s message lyrically. Chuck D said that while Nation focused on national problems, the goal of Fear of a Black Planet was to put the members’ ideas on an international level, in particular, the belief that the idea of race is merely a social construct (an idea supported by the American Heritage Dictionary and many scientists).

“There’s one race: the human race. Racism is concocted and created by people who think race is an advantage over others,” Chuck D said. “Our objective was to make those people look foolish.”

Even the album’s title attempts to do this.

“The words Fear of a Black Planet have a very specific meaning. It’s an idea that it has currency. It’s one that no one is unfamiliar with, [but] it’s one of those notions that you don’t see discussed on the evening news,” said writer Allen, who worked as the group’s “Director of Enemy Relations” when the album came out. “By making such a pointed album title, it really compelled people to say, ‘On what side am I?’ ”

That objective was asserted on many of Fear of a Black Planet’s songs, including the antiestablishment anthems “911 is a Joke” and “Fight the Power.”

In order to “fight the powers that be,” Public Enemy also sought to empower people with songs such as “Can’t Do Nuttin’ for Ya, Man!” that pointed out problems inside black life and society and encouraged people to help themselves.

“It was all about empowerment. It was all about winning; it was the rebels against the devil. It was that concept that we were going for,” Shocklee said. “We were going to build a revolutionary generation. We were going to take the youth of the nation and stick it up to the conservative adults.”

“Can’t Do Nuttin’ for Ya, Man!” and “911 is a Joke” were also notable for featuring Flavor Flav — seen as the jester of the group because of his over-the-top dress and style (and eventual reality-show stardom) — rapping about the same intensely political themes as Chuck D.

“ ‘911 is a Joke’ is a song that plays up Flavor’s over-the-top flamboyance,” UI Assistant Professor Michael Hill said. He teaches English and African American studies, including a course on hip-hop. “But as a piece of political commentary, it probably comes as close to a straightforward indictment of an institution or a system as you get with Public Enemy.”

The conservative adults, Shocklee said, come largely from the Reagan era, a period in time that Hill says is key to understanding Public Enemy’s ideas and outrage at the establishment.

“The black underclass is expanding at a rapid rate, and at the same time the black middle class is expanding fairly explosively. This is producing a rift in terms of the black community,” Hill said. His research focuses on African-American literature after World War II. “Public Enemy emblamatizes the anger, especially of the second generation after the civil-rights movement [and the] disenchantment that manifests itself there.”

While Public Enemy was trying to highlight the struggle of black people at the time, some viewed the album as discriminatory in itself.

“Unfortunately, a pro-black unification stance gets mistaken as reverse racism, when what they’re really trying to do is use music to bring together the community and speak a message of positivity,” UI Associate Professor Kembrew McLeod said.

On “Brothers Gonna Work It Out,” Chuck D raps “We’re gonna do a song / That you never heard before.” With Fear of a Black Planet, the group made several such songs, thanks in large part to the innovative production of the Bomb Squad, and it sought to build on It Takes A Nation while creating something entirely new.

In order to make the album pop, Shocklee was inspired by hip-hop mix tapes as well as classical music.

“Classical records have preludes, and they don’t make singles. They have movements,” the producer said. “Each passage kind of evolves into the next. That’s the thing that always attracted me. It engages the listener.”

Though the production of Fear of a Black Planet may have taken cues from the genre, it was far from classical music. Instead, Public Enemy and the Bomb Squad brought sampling to the forefront with the album, using a variety of song, media clips, and other sounds to create a background for the rappers’ words. Mixing those elements into Fear of a Black Planet led to a fragmented writing process for the Bomb Squad when producing the album.

“It became a thing where we had a pile of ideas, and our ideas would be the basic tracks,” Shocklee said. “We never worked on an album, per se. What we needed to make an album, we’d just pull out from the ideas and the tracks.”

The resulting songs, coupled with the politically charged lyrics, were a success that was even recognized by the U.S. government — one of the very institutions Public Enemy railed against — when the Library of Congress added Fear of a Black Planet to the National Recording Registry in 2004.

“I think you can put those albums [Nation and Fear] side-by-side with anything the Beatles, the Who, [or] Bob Marley have presented as statements,” Chuck D said.

Allen said the album was “a perfect storm of forces” coming together that had a major effect.

Because of the way in which Public Enemy used samples on Fear of a Black Planet, it’s unlikely that such music can be replicated and expanded upon. Tighter enforcement of copyright restrictions on the use of samples have made it “economically impossible for another album similar to Fear to come out,” McLeod said.

The sheer number of different elements that Public Enemy samples on the record, Chuck D estimated, would cost around 20 times as much to clear a song of that nature than it would a song that only samples of one piece of music.

Because of Fears release, hip-hop has changed immensely.

“Rap has been accepted. It’s today’s pop music,” Chuck D said. “It doesn’t need to go against any grain. It doesn’t battle anything. Now, it’s on the high ground.”

The main commercially successful rap of today, though, is mostly gangster rap — which, Shocklee said, has a negative effect on the very people that Public Enemy tries to empower.

“Why was Public Enemy put down for saying what it did, and you got Jadakiss on the radio talking about how he murdered this person and that person? That’s being allowed? Why?” the producer said. “Because it’s being targeted at the black youth. Now, the black youth are targeting each other, and we can send more of them to prison.”

Public Enemy continues to make music in the hopes of empowering listeners, and other rappers also try to send positive messages.

“When Kanye West isn’t saying stupid things, oftentimes his lyrics are kind of a continuation of Public Enemy. Not as overtly political and agitprop as what Chuck D was, but his lyrics are primarily positive, and they often speak about political issues,” McLeod said. Hill cited Mos Def and Talib Kweli, among others, as other examples.

Allen said that the issues presented in Fear have changed somewhat but are still problematic.

“People might say we’re in a post-racial nation, whatever the hell that means. We’re not. There’s a large misunderstanding of race even to this point,” Allen said. “Things have gotten better, but old tricks are played on younger people in a new way just to keep people at certain advantages and disadvantages.”

Twenty years after Fear of a Black Planet Shocklee no longer produces for Public Enemy, he said, though the Bomb Squad is preparing to release an album of its own.

“[It’s] all electronic-based,” Shocklee said. “A whole new style of music that is a mixture of hip-hop, dub, and reggae.”

The producer has also moved from hip-hop on to working on films and producing other audiovisual pieces, and he doesn’t view himself as a hip-hop personality.

“I think that everything that I’ve done before was always about doing something that’s cutting edge,” he said. “I never did hip-hop because I was a hip-hop artist.”

Shocklee no longer focuses on hip-hop, he said, because it has become pop, and traditional music is on its way out the door.

“If you look at the artists in the last 10 years, most of the artists that are breaking are breaking by multimedia situations,” Shocklee said. “The old paradigm is over with. We are now in the future, and music is taking a leap toward multimedia applications.”

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