How important was the politics of Public Enemy’s “Fear of a Black Planet”? Where has the political rap message gone in 2010 and what is its legacy?
It’s been twenty years since Public Enemy’s Hip Hop masterpiece “Fight the Power” exploded onto the music scene. Controversial and political, it would later form part of their defining album “Fear of a Black Planet”. It soon became the benchmark album of activist rap. Many would say it was the best the genre has ever produced.
Combining the lyrics of Chuck D and sidekick Flavor Flav, backed by a series of the finest East Coast producers (including The Shocklee brothers), Fear of a Black Planet was a rallying cry against African-American communities for their political indifference and built upon 1988’s It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.
With help from Spike Lee (who would use the “Fight the Power” throughout his film Do the Right Thing), Public Enemy and their message helped scare the hell out of white middle America, insulting a few Elvis and John Wayne fans along the way.
Now, two decades later, “Fight the Power” is seen as one of the best Rap tracks ever made, while so significant is “Fear of a Black Planet” to American popular culture, it was one of 50 recordings chosen by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry. To date it is the only Hip Hop album in the collection.
Radio 4 listeners of a more sensitive disposition be warned. Thursday morning’s documentary is a 30-minute blast of Public Enemy in all their abrasive, white establishment-baiting, crazy theorising glory.
A bold commission from Mark Damazer, Radio 4’s outgoing Controller, the Jazzi B-fronted programme races through Chuck D and the gang’s impact on white America, the history of black oppositional music in the US and examines the decline of politically-motivated rap in favour of “gangsta” cliches.
Rather than take a cool, analytic approach, the doc is edited in the quickfire overload-style of a PE album, with black history professors and Chuck D himself delivering soundbites over clips of Public Enemy classics, including the “Elvis was a hero to some, but he never meant shit to me” line.
The thesis is that before the internet, rap was the swiftest means of informing and radicalising disenfranchised black youth – a black CNN. Chuck D explains how he tried to cram every idea he could into “micro-seconds”, hence the sonic overload of PE’s music.
But as the group’s popularity spread, ironically it was white kids who became the premier market for politically-conscious rap.
Jazzi B explains how the “anger” of Public Enemy motivated Soul II Soul, although their musical style reflected a different black experience. But B asks why modern rap has largely descended into “gangs, girls and gangster” negativity.
The current breed have turned rap into “a missile of mass distraction”, says Chuck D, who accepts that the impact of peak period PE might have paved the way for President Obama by showing white suburban US kids that they need not fear African American culture.
The doc features a lot of Chuck D’s wife – Black history professor Gaye Johnson – and skates over the questionable areas of Public Enemy’s manifesto – the Nation of Islam proselytising and accusations of anti-semitism that forced “information minister” Professor Griff out of the group.
But its a bracing 30 minute blast and probably a first for Radio 4 to give such prominence to hip-hop – even sceptics might be impressed to learn that Fear of a Black Planet is the only hip-hop album chosen by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry.
What radio cannot do however is deliver the riot of sound and colour that was Public Enemy at their finest in the Spike Lee-directed clip for Fight The Power.
The Akh is currently away, and will try to update every few days as time and web connection dictates.