Animadversions.

The weblog of Joshua Drescher

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“With ‘Fight the Power’ Comes Great Responsibility.”

August 16th, 2007 · 1 Comment · Art

For those who don’t know, there’s a new Public Enemy album out and about. If you’re short on time, the capsule review is this:

Go buy it. It’s great.

I was a bit too young/rural southern to get into PE when they first hit big in the late ’80s. My first exposure to them came at a backyard camp-out at my friend Chris’ house when I was around 13. We were sitting in the tent we’d pitched outside his house, eating junk food and listening to an Orioles game on a battery-powered boombox. When the game ended, Chris switched it over to the FM dial and caught the tail end of “911 Is a Joke” wrapping up on a DC station we could sometimes pull in if the stars aligned Just Right.

Ignoring for a moment the ramifications of potential celestial intervention, I distinctly remember a profound sense of confusion washing over me as we sat listening to Flavor Flav bemoan the performance of emergency services in inner-city America. We lived in a town full of amateur firefighters and EMTs. You couldn’t swing a dinged-bumper and not hit somebody with vehicle equipped with a police-scanner and a town-sanctioned set of emergency lights. Life was so calm and dull where we lived that the best option for most guys above the age of 18 was to join the volunteer fire department and sit around hoping they’d be close enough to an accident to have a shot at laying down some CPR.

So hearing a song that suggested that calling 911 wasn’t a total guarantee of a massive rescue effort in 5 minutes or less seemed utterly foreign to me. But here was a top-40 band with a multi-multi-multi-platinum album with a marquee track all about it.

Stop for a minute and think about that - a major pop-music act writing songs about the failure of a socialized program to provide for our nation’s poor. What were they overshadowed by at the time? M.C. Hammer’s Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em - which came out a week prior to Fear of a Black Planet. THAT was the “urban” music that had managed to reach the America I grew up in. Songs about… well… hammers not hurting people. And Jesus. Lots and lots of JESUS.

Public Enemy felt like an aberration to me. I didn’t know it at the time, but that night in the tent I’d gotten my first taste of one of the truly great social and musical forces of the modern American age.

A year or so after that, I listened to the REST of Fear of a Black Planet and it immediately started to poke at a part of me that was to become increasingly suspicious of the odd environment I’d grown up in.

I noticed that I had only one black friend. It wasn’t really my fault - he was one of TWO black kids in our school and if he hadn’t happened to live on my block, I might never have met him at all.

Was this a symptom of something sinister? Or simply a fluke of regional demography?

When I’d occasionally be taken into Washington D.C. to see football games, my grandfather insisted that we never make eye contact with anyone on the street as we drove through the city.

Was this ruthless pragmatism or subtle bigotry?

I remember a couple of people showing off N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton when I was in middle school, but that message was too raw for me at the time. Too aggressive. Too brutal. I could ignore it because it was so visceral that it could easily be brushed off as being simply profane.

But listening to Public Enemy was different. It was a nearly perfect cerebral presentation. Chuck D’s indomitable will and relentless commentary were cut perfectly by Flavor Flav’s (seemingly) comic antics. It was catchy, it was passionate, it was honest, it was funny, it was troubling. It was nearly impossible to ignore.

They presented a significant indictment of the world I knew and had faith in. I’d grown up worrying vaguely about Communism and believing that “Hands Across America” had ended poverty in America (and Live Aid had taken care of the rest of the world). Was that world a lie? Were there people suffering for reasons beyond their control?

If that was true, what did it mean about our government? About my community? About my country? Public Enemy filled my head with seeds of doubt and concern. It took years for me to process it completely, but the seeds took root and slowly grew. By the time I’d graduated from High School, the world had abandoned M.C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice and gangsta rap had corrupted the potential of early-90s political hip hop.

But Public Enemy stayed with me.

All through college, I listened to the first four Public Enemy albums religiously. I became obsessed with politics and it was Chuck D’s voice I heard whenever I was struck by a bout of socio-political outrage.

Unfortunately, the Public Enemy message got pretty muddy during those years. They’d pop up every now and then, but it would be to do things like the soundtrack to He Got Game. By the turn of the millennium, it seemed that a once-bold voice had been exhausted.

Terminator X was raising ostriches in South Carolina. Chuck D wound up on “Air America Radio” with Al Franken and Jeanine Garofalo, complaining about Dubyah and neo-cons to a minuscule audience of suburbanite NPR refugees. Flavor Flav was having sex with the evil Russian lady from Rocky IV on VH1.

Albums still came out, but they just felt flat. I think part of the problem might have been that, at a time when Public Enemy’s long-time criticism of the mechanisms of social and political control in America SHOULD have been especially relevant, the message just felt… OLD. Maybe if they’d just released an album called “WE TOLD YOU SO DURING BUSH THE FIRST,” albums like New Whirl Odor could’ve worked in some fashion. But part of the problem was that the albums just SOUNDED weaker than earlier offerings. Hip hop has evolved and improved since the early 1990s. Tastes have matured and Public Enemy wasn’t keeping up.

HOWEVER…

Regardless of the preceding ten years of weak Public Enemy offerings, they’re back in SPADES with How You Sell Soul To A Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul. In a lot of ways, this album is like a “best of” tour of the Good Ol’ Days of Public Enemy.

We get everything from the broad thematic flavor of Fear of a Black Planet (”Black is Back,” “The Enemy Battle Hymn”) to soulful, Dylan-inspired retrospectives (”Long and Whining Road”) to flashes of Public Enemy’s collaborations with Anthrax back in the day (”Frankenstar”) to positively Hendrix-esque apocalyptic declarations (”Eve of Destruction”).

Significantly, Flavor Flav manages to largely redeem himself after a decade of ever-increasing clownishness with an impressive bit of autobiography on “Bridge of the Pain” in addition to his strongest and most coherent display of hypeman antics in recent memory.

Chuck D and KRS-One get together on “Sex, Drugs and Violence” for one of the album’s high points - a blistering (but utterly melodic) critique of modern hip-hop’s decline into decadence and the amoral glamorizing of violence and sexism. The seemingly clich├ęd use of a choir of children to accompany the two legendary hip hop icons works better than it has any right to. It’s a track that’s completely in line with Chuck D’s career-spanning advocacy of socially conscious art, but it represents an interesting and poignant maturation of KRS-One’s outlook. It feels more than anything else like an evolution of the frustrations he voiced in “Hush” on his 2001 album The Sneak Attack.

And to top it all off, the entire album SOUNDS great. It is - by a significant margin - the best album of 2007 so far.

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1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Steve // Aug 18, 2007 at 2:49 am

    Hmm. Damn well said. Makes me want to go listen. You should write more.

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