It’s pretty obvious by now, from the list of albums we’ve picked so far, that Robby and I are basically rock and roll guys. Nevertheless, we can enjoy good music in other genres, and in my estimation Fear Of A Black Planet has some damn good music on it. That said, I don’t know the terrain as well as when I’m writing about rock, so apologies in advance if I screw up in describing something.
Even a hip-hop civilian like me knows “Fight The Power,” thanks to its inclusion and repetition in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. For my money, this is still PE’s best song (though “Welcome To The Terrordome” is a close second). It’s the pinnacle of Public Enemy alchemy, all the elements that make for a great PE song: samples layered into a slammin’ beat by the Bomb Squad and Terminator X, Chuck D’s fierce, thundering vocals, and occasional jump-ins by Flavor Flav for, well, flavor.
Most importantly, its lyrics are both inspired and inspiring. Or, as the song itself puts it: “As the rhythm’s designed to bounce / What counts is that the rhyme’s / Designed to fill your mind.” There could hardly be a better manifesto for Public Enemy’s music overall, and Fear Of A Black Planet in particular.
Frustratingly, though, “Fight The Power” is censored for some reason on this album. Even worse, the interference happens at the climactic third verse, the high point of the song:
Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me
Ya see, straight out racist the sucker was
Simple and plain
Motherfuck him and John Wayne
Cause I’m Black and I’m proud
I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped
Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamp
Sample a look back you look and find
Nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check
The version of “Fight The Power” that appears on Fear Of A Black Planet drops the audio on “shit” and straight-out bleeps the last part of “motherfuck.” This is especially weird because both of those words appear multiple times throughout the rest of the album, unscathed. Cursory research on my part didn’t turn up any definitive information on why this is, just some speculation that one of the artists sampled on the song maybe didn’t want to be associated with cursing?
In any case, these changes kind of vandalize the song and blunt its attack, especially combined with a few other odd alterations like Terminator X looping Chuck D’s part a few times on “Elvis was a hero to most,” and the removal of Wynton Marsalis’ awesome horn part. It’s still great, and I still love hearing it, but for the definitive version you absolutely have to turn to the Do The Right Thing soundtrack.
There are three basic types of songs on Fear Of A Black Planet. The first, and most dominant, is the “Fight The Power” mold — Chuck D in front, Flav in back. Then there are the instrumentals, though that’s kind of a weird term for this sort of hip-hop. There are some instruments played, and a drum machine frequently in the mix, but for the most part the “instrumentation” is samples — of beats, sounds, spoken words, other vocals, even previous PE songs. This record was released in that brief window where sampling technology had matured but the laws hadn’t caught up, so The Bomb Squad was able to layer dozens of sounds in a single song without worrying about credit, copyright, payment, and so forth. Making an album like this today would be financially and legally prohibitive.
Finally, there are a couple of songs with Flavor Flav in front, and Chuck completely absent. Now, for me a little Flav goes a long way, and I much prefer the dominant mode, but I have to say he comes into his own on this album. “Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man” is genuinely funny — I laugh every time I hear “Flavor Flav got problems of his owwwwwn!” and “You want six dollars for WHAT?!?” But much better than that is “911 Is A Joke”, a bona-fide strong political statement, where for once Flav’s clowning has a bite all its own rather than just leavening the intensity of Chuck D. By lambasting the slow response times of ambulances in poor black neighborhoods, Flav highlights a type of institutional racism that would otherwise be invisible to the white world.
As for the instrumentals, my favorite is “Incident at 66.6 FM.” The unique nature of these kinds of instrumentals means that they can actually be about something rather than just purely musical. In this case, the samples frame the scene of a radio call-in show, a real show hosted on WNBC in 1987 by Alan Colmes, in which various callers chime in about PE, from articulate defenses to baldfaced racism. Hearing the clips swirled together gives a sense of the chaos of that kind of show, and of the overwhelming context of racial bias against which PE was fighting.
Wait, I take it back — there’s a fourth type of song on Fear Of A Black Planet: “Pollywannacracka”. This tune is spoken (drawled, really) rather than rapped, with no sign of Flav. For that matter, it might not be Chuck D speaking, but if it’s somebody else, that person isn’t credited. Anyway, “Polly” is one of a few songs that take on interracial relationships. The first verse is about a black woman who “wants a lover right now / but not no brother”, while the second verse reverses the first, taking on a “brother who only wants blue eyes and blonde hair.” In both cases, their community’s anger at this perceived desertion is reflected in the chorus, and in the acted interludes that follow it, in which the abandoned one lashes out at the other. Then in the third verse, the narrator himself argues for the validity of interracial relationships, causing that same community to turn on him with the same anger, singing once again, “Pollywannacracka.”
“Fear Of A Black Planet” (the title track) takes a different tack, with Chuck D mocking white fear of racial mixing. While he rejects a different kind of white woman in each verse (“your daughter, nope she’s not my type”, “I don’t need your sista”, “I don’t want your wife”), he also challenges the notion that those relationships would be harmful. “Are you afraid of the mix of Black and White?” he asks, and later, “What is pure? Who is pure? Is it European? I ain’t sure,” and, “What’s wrong with some color in your family tree?” Interspersed through the song is a telling sample from Dick Gregory, who points out that the American “one drop” definition of blackness, dating back to slavery days, is also what feeds that white supremacist fear of racial dilution: “Black man, black woman: black baby. White man, white woman: white baby. White man, black woman: black baby. Black man, white woman: black baby.”
These songs seemed like opposing viewpoints at first, but the more I thought about it, I began to see them as reflections of each other. In “Polly”, the black community wants solidarity, and shuns its members who date outside their own race. Then in “Fear”, Chuck as the representative of that community affirms his own commitment to that solidarity. But just as the narrator in “Polly” argues that “there should not be any hatred / for a brother or sister / whose opposite race they’ve mated”, so too does Chuck make the case that while white racists may be afraid of racial mixing, there’s no reason why black people should be.
While much of this album is great, there are some low points too. I found “Meet The G That Killed Me” the most disappointing, as not only is it outright homophobic (and samples the homophobic Frances Cress Welsing), it also builds on her speculation that AIDS is “chemical and biological warfare” against the black community by tracing a line of disease from gay people right to our hero Flavor, who speaks the title line to indict the “gay germ”. There are also some lines in “Terrordome” that, while maybe not outright anti-Semitic, come way too close to defending Professor Griff’s then-recent statement that Jews cause “the majority of the wickedness” in the world.
On the flip side, Public Enemy upends the misogyny that’s endemic to so much hip-hop in “Revolutionary Generation,” a full-throated defense of black women, placing their oppression within a historical context of general black oppression, and committing to stand alongside them, joining forces in the revolution. They call back explicitly to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” twice in the song, first with “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, my sister’s not my enemy,” and then with “She needs a little respect / I would say she needs a lotta.”
This is an epic album — over an hour long — and so packed with musical and lyrical content that I could go on for ages about it, but I have a sense that might become tedious if it hasn’t already. So I’ll just end by saying that for me, Fear Of A Black Planet is not only the best Public Enemy record by a mile, it’s one of the best albums of the 1990s, and an essential work of art overall for the late 20th century.