Malcolm McLaren may have boosted hip hop to the international stage, but it was redefined as a powerful vehicle for social commentary with the arrival of Public Enemy in the late ’80s. Their first album hinted to a sophisticated style of sampling using explosive tempos with elements of rock.
The concept was refined on the groups third album Fear of a Black Planet. The scattered social commentary of previous releases would be condensed into a concept built around Dr. Frances Welsing’s theory of “Color Confrontation and Racism”, other wise known as white supremacy.
The heavy subject matter got likewise treatment in the studio as various drum machines, samplers and Macintosh computers were needed to edit the dense wall of sound created by multiple samples. It’s difficult to tell what music was actual musicians and what was sampled. This was the beauty of the production led by Chuck D. The long list of contributors included high profile rappers like Big Daddy Kane and many lesser known DJs and hip hop artists.
The popularity of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing which featured the catchy “Fight the Power” raised Public Enemy’s profile far beyond the normal confines of rap. The challenging soundscapes of Fear of a.. were unlike anything else on the radio – be it rock or rap.
Much of the album’s structure could be compared to the jazz of John Coltrane (who is sampled) in its complex arrangement, but has the energy and angst of punk rock. It was intense enough that it might have made Sex Pistol era Malcolm McLaren proud.
Fear of a Black Planet re-introduces common issues in the black community in a most provactive way. Poor public safety (“911 is a Joke”) and the community’s need to work together to solve its own problems (“Brothers Gonna Work It Out”) were just a few issues addressed. Every song had something to say, even the non singles were powerful statements. The title song’s cartoonish commentary about race mixing suggests its dire consequences and “Who Stole the Soul” touches on the re appropriation of black culture by the Man. The sobering delivery by Chuck D. was often counterbalanced by the comic antics of Flavor Flav. Even with this dynamic, Public Enemy was the most explosive and controversial act of the day.
With the furor surrounding Professor Grift’s alleged anti-semitic remarks (said to have been taken out of context), Public Enemy’s music took on an heighten edge. Professor Griff left the band amidst the controversy, but Public Enemy’s influence was not lessened.
Ironically Public Enemy’s harsh critic of institutionalized racism initiated by white people might have led one to believe that their music would have had limited appeal beyond traditional rap circles, but the opposite effect happened.
During the time that Fear of a Black Planet was released, rap music was increasingly becoming the music of white suburban teens. It was still assumed that black kids did not buy albums, maybe the occasional cassette or CD single. Any trip to the ghetto were copied CDs (made by the one guy in the hood with a computer) were being sold would have confirmed this stereotype.
So the irony was that one of the most important black protest albums in America since Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On was being purchased by the very people it potentially alienated. Those buyers were no doubt drawn by the anger and angst that had become lost on most hard rock in the early ’90s. That punk rock dynamic became a Public Enemy trademark would open the door to rap-rock fusions and later a more mainstream acceptance of thinking mans rap from Tribe Called Quest, Common and others.