Fear of a Black Planet
It's difficult to listen to Public Enemy's third album today without one ear on the fuss it caused upon its release in 1990, and another on the worship that it has inspired in recent years.
Probably Public Enemy's most commercially successful record, Fear of a Black Planet has become a classic not only of music by black artists or even rap, but of popular music in general. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it 300th on its list of 500 greatest albums list. In 2005, Fear of a Black Planet was accepted for preservation by the Library of Congress alongside John Williams' soundtrack for Star Wars, Nirvana's Nevermind and Muddy Waters' I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man.
Now the bad and the ugly. Shortly before the album's release, Professor Griff, the band's 'minister of information', made anti-Semitic remarks which were quoted in the Washington Post. The ensuing furor was furious enough for Public Enemy frontman Chuck D to fire Professor G (he returned some years after). The incident did inspire one of the group's finest and fieriest moments, Welcome to the Terrordom, which pours a little oil on the fire: 'Crucifixion ain't no fiction/So-called chosen frozen/Apologies made to whoever pleases/Still they got me like Jesus.'
Welcome to the Terrordome isn't alone in the scandal stakes. On Meet the G that Killed Me, Chuck D is guilty of a rare lapse in judgment when he indulges in some homophobic nonsense worthy of Axl Rose: 'Man to man/I don't know if they can/From what I know/The parts don't fit.' These are the exceptions; the rest is exceptional.
Chuck D (above left), Public Enemy's driving force and main MC, has never been better. His lyrics are impassioned, clever and crystal clear when expressing the rage and frustrations of the African-American community. Each song takes aim at a specific subject and usually hits a bulls-eye.
On Burn Hollywood Burn, Chuck is joined by NWA's Ice Cube and Big Daddy Kane to attack the portrayal of black Americans in cinema: 'So let's make our own movies like Spike Lee/Cause the roles being offered don't strike me/There's nothing that the black man could use to earn/Burn Hollywood burn.' On the album's title track, Chuck confronts the white population's fear of interracial relationships: 'Are you afraid of the mix of black And White?/We're livin' in a land where/The law say the mixing of race/ Makes the blood impure.'
Fear of a Black Planet is also the moment when Flava Flav (above right), Chuck's often comic sidekick, comes into his own - especially on the seminal 911 is a Joke, his sardonic valentine to the New York Police department: 'Now I dialled 911 a long time ago/Don't you see how late they're reactin'/They only come and they come when they wanna/So get the morgue embalm the goner.'
As always Public Enemy are driven by the endlessly innovative and inventive musical masterminds, the Bomb Squad. On Incident at 66.6 FM, they sample irate callers to a talk radio show all complaining about Public Enemy. Elsewhere, they offer a history lesson in black music, especially funk: James Brown, Parliament, Isaac Hayes and Sly and the Family Stone are cut with The Beatles, Michael Jackson, and even Uriah Heep. On Brothers Gonna Work it Out, Public Enemy even sample themselves: Don't Believe the Hype and Rebel without a Pause are spliced alongside Malcolm McLaren and Prince.
Danceable, inflammable and durable, Fear of a Black Planet truly is, as Chuck D noted recently, 'a turning point for rap music being accepted'. Perhaps its greatest achievement is that it sounds as fresh today as it did 21 years ago.