This may seem like sacrilege to a lot of Public Enemy purists out there but "It Takes a Nation of Millions" was not my first P.E. album. In fact I got around to it in an entirely bass-ackwards way. The internet was not that widespread when I was still in high school, and the world wide web hadn't even been invented yet. For those of you who have never known a world without search engines, try to imagine figuring out the order albums were released without being able to look it up in less than two seconds. Even though cassettes (yes I bought tapes back then) usually had a copyright date on the label, store price stickers often seemed strategically designed to cover the exact part you'd need to read. Eventually you'd just say fuck it and if you liked an artist or group you'd buy one of their releases, and go back for the others later on. As such I got "Fear of a Black Planet" first and "Millions" was either second or third - "Yo! Bum Rush the Show" was in there somewhere.
You could certainly do worse than starting with "Fear of a Black Planet" though. In truth, you almost couldn't do better. Even though "Millions" is generally the first album a hip-hop historian will mention when the subject of all time greats is raised, there's little question that "Fear of a Black Planet" deserves equal stature. My initial exposure before purchase was thanks to the song and video for "Fight the Power." Again it's helpful to remember this was a world before YouTube, Tivo and DirecTV. Living in the rural midwest things tended to be behind the curve to begin with, and not having access to even basic cable made staying current that much more difficult. Thankfully the publicity surrounding Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" was enough to propel the P.E. song to a somewhat mainstream level, even if the media of the day tended to take a negative slant towards Chuck D's outspoken rhetoric. Far from turning me off though the lines and rhymes in "Fight the Power" blew my mind wide open
Chuck D: "Elvis was a hero to most
But he NEVER meant shit to me you see
Straight out racist the sucker was simple and plain"
Flavor Flav: "Motherfuck him and John Wayne!"
Chuck D: "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"
It wasn't just the words they said, it was the way that they said it. Chuck D's baritone voice and the firm conviction of his words reached out through the music to put a firm grip on your mental. The Bomb Squad production of "Fight the Power" only upped the ante. It doesn't sound flattering at first to say the track has background noise like the whine of a power saw, but somehow the way the Squad used it was intense as opposed to irritating. Combine that a chunky funk backdrop, powerful drums, and the expert scratching of Terminator X, and the overall effect is that the song makes you feel more hyped than 10 straight cups of coffee. Later on I learned to appreciate Flavor Flav as comic relief, but even he seems serious as cancer on this track, and the song became indelibly burned into my brain. I had to hear more, I had to know more, I had to learn more.
Public Enemy's music was a revelation - I had already been tuned in to rap since the age of 9 but there was nothing near that revolutionary to be found on your typical Run-D.M.C. or LL Cool J album of the day. Every once in a while they'd drop a song about black pride, but even when the music seemed violent enough to incite a riot it was always a singular experience. James Todd Smith said "I'm Bad," not "WE BAD." P.E. was not just a force as a group, they were a counter culture response to American hypocrisy. Listening to "Fear of a Black Planet" provokes powerful feelings in me even today, which is proof of it's potency. You get the sense that the whole world is on the brink of chaos, and that Chuck D has made it his personal mission to lead you to the side of righteousness. The album calls you to arms - don't be bad all by yourself, join up with us and we'll all tear this motherfucker up together. Powerful music meets powerful words time and again throughout the album, and whether hearing it for the first or the 100th time you can't help but be struck by their conviction. "Burn Hollywood Burn" is a case in point. Even though Ice Cube and Big Daddy Kane made stellar guest appearances on the track, it's the opening salvo from Chuck D that makes you want to take up arms and track down every racist filmmaker since D.W. Griffith and give 'em what they've got coming:
"Burn! Hollywood burn, I smell a riot goin on
First they're guilty now they're gone
Yeah I'll check out a movie
But it'll take a black one to move me
Get me the hell away from this TV
All this news and views are beneath me
So all I hear about, is shots ringin out
About gangs puttin each other's head out
So I'd rather kick some slang out
Alright fellas let's go hang out
Hollywood or would they not
Make us all look bad like I know they had!
But some things I'll never forget
Yeah - so Stepin Fetch' this shit!
For all the years we looked like clowns
The joke is over smell the SMOKE from all around!"
Even though the words themselves smolder, the Bomb Squad is once again responsible for fueling the fire and making Chuck's strident rhymes burn even hotter. The backdrop whistles and sizzles, pulsing away at a quick pace while not forgetting to lace in the bass. Although the Squad has a formula for success on "Fear of a Black Planet," they never fall into the trap of being formulaic. They are famed for the layered sound of their tracks for good reason - an endless variety of different sources were merged into a seamless whole on each song, giving them all an identity that makes it very difficult for the average listener to pinpoint individual samples - but then who would want to anyway? Once they've put their stamp on it, the Bomb Squad producers own it - it's become something entirely their own. You won't hear a "Between the Sheets" loop with little to no variance whatsoever on "Fear of a Black Planet." From the opening instrumental of "Contract on a World Love Jam" onward you're taken on a verbal musical journey through a masterpiece, though not one without controversy - said opening above admits as much. Much of the controversy for "Planet" came from the booming jam "Welcome to the Terrordome." Professor Griff had recently been excised from the group for making anti-Semetic remarks, but to critics some of Chuck D's lyrics on the song were in the very same vein:
"Crucifixion ain't no fiction
So-called chosen frozen
Apology made to whoever pleases
Still they got me like Jesus"
It's an irony of history that many of the critics who had a problem with these lines failed to take Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" to equal task, a potentially far more provocative work of art. It's even more ridiculous that so many who lambasted Chuck D stopped right there without continuing the verse, where as he is frequently prone to do Chuck turned an eye of derision on his own community:
"I 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
Sad to say I got sold down the river
Still some quiver when I deliver"
Public Enemy fears no topic on this album, and since they've always got the beats to back it up you can't help but hear what they've got to say. Flavor Flav lambasts how emergency services respond to the inner cities on "911 is a Joke." Chuck digs into interracial issues on "Pollywanacraka." They'd both like to know how a brother can get his without whitey jacking the dividends on "Who Stole the Soul?" Chuck even claims the U.S. "Ain't, no, different than South Africa" in the song, which was a rather shocking statement when you consider that apartheid was still the law and policy of the South African government when this album was released - you could say the Afrikaner Nationalists really did live in "Fear of a Black Planet." The same revolution that fuels the fire of Public Enemy's music swept aside apartheid in short order, although the war against all forms of racism is never-ending. As such songs like "Revolutionary Generation" are just as relevant today as when this album was released. So too are comedy songs like Flavor Flav's "Can't Do Nuttin' for Ya Man." Whenever P.E. was in danger of getting too serious on a song, Flavor Flav was on point with his impeccable comic timing, and left entirely to his own devices on the solo tip he could be even more entertaining:
" Flavor Flav is the sun
Public Enemy number one
Gotcha runnin from the gun (pow)
of a brain that weighs a ton
Can't face my facts that's on the shelf
Cause you want a hand out for your wealth
Eatin welfare turkey out of the can
I can't do nuttin for ya man
I can't do nuttin for ya man - you want six dollars for WHAT?!
I can't do nuttin for ya man - you better maaan, kiss my butt"
If there's an ill-conceived song anywhere on "Fear of a Black Planet," I have yet to find it. Even the short tracks that fill gaps in the album like "Reggie Jax" and "Meet the G That Killed Me" are 100% on point. Even when Terminator X is just flexing his turntablistic skills on "Leave This Off Your Fuckin Charts" it's still fresh as hell. It's rare for any artist or group to release a near perfect album, let alone flawless, but for a brief run from the late 1980's through the early 1990's P.E. did it EVERY time. "Fear of a Black Planet" rocks like no other album did before it and very few have since. It's inspiring to hear hip-hop done so masterfully, with every cylinder and piston firing in a beautiful symphonious harmony that keeps the audible engine running start to finish with each listen. The revolution was not televised, it was sold by retail, and P.E.'s music proved that the "B Side Wins Again" as we all became "rebels without a pause." Even though time passes and we all get older, "Fear of a Black Planet" remains powerfully timeless. 15 years later the fire still burns.
Music Vibes: 10 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 10 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 10 of 10
Originally posted: February 14, 2006