American Music Awards
20 Years of Public Enemy's 'Fear Of A Black Planet'
Twenty Years After 'Fear Of A Black Planet,' Public Enemy Members, Collaborators And Colleagues Celebrate Its Anniversary
Members of hip-hop's elite took the stage last September at Brooklyn's Academy of Music as part of VH1's sixth annual Hip-Hop Honors to celebrate the 25th anniversary of prominent hip-hop label Def Jam Records.
But one standout performance was by one of the label's legendary groups:
In addition to being featured in the film, the song continued to cement the group's political stance: "Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me, you see/Straight-up racist that sucker was, simple and plain / Motherfuck him and John Wayne / 'Cause I'm black and I'm proud," Chuck D raps atop the Bomb Squad's scratch-heavy, sample-layered beat.
"Chuck changed the game lyrically for recorded music the same way [Bob] Dylan brought poetry to rock-it was revolutionary," says Tom Morello, formerly of Rage Against the Machine, and now a member of SSSC. The 'Elvis was a hero to most' line is a highlight-I couldn't believe anyone was saying that out loud because it was exactly what I'd been thinking."
It was these types of racially charged statements that attracted a media firestorm shortly before the album's release. "The summer of 1989, leading up to the creation of 'Fear of a Black Planet,' was a rough time," recalls Adler, who worked at Def Jam from 1984 to 1990. "[PE member] Professor Griff gave an interview [in the May 22 edition of the Washington Times] where he said some anti-Semitic nonsense and created controversy. Partly, that's what fueled the writing of 'Fear of a Black Planet.' If you listen to the track 'Welcome to the Terrordome,' that's Chuck's direct response to the problems the group struggled with leading up to the album. It was a very wild time for PE."
The group was on the road when Griff's comments were made public, raising a host of issues for the tour. "We were touring and my insurance went from 55 cents a person to $1.55 a person," recalls Darryll Brooks, one of PE's early promoters. "Stuff was blown out of proportion, but they adjusted their ideal to accommodate their identity. Griff had to get out the group and it got real dark for a minute."
"I found that the people who were most excited by PE controversies were the ones who knew the least about Public Enemy's advanced politics, lyrical inventiveness and sonic brilliance," says Harry Allen, a hip-hop activist and self-professed media assassin who worked as PE's publicist.
But while the album was loaded content-wise, the production was a lot more "commercial," according to producer Keith Shocklee, who helmed the tracks "Fear" and "Terrordome." "Chuck D had a lot of things he wanted to get off his chest, but for me, I just wanted to get lots of interludes and bridges and B-sections in there," he says. "For 'Fight the Power,' I used a lot of light samples, not like what we did with ["Nation" track] 'Bring the Noise.' Because of that combination the album became more critically accepted."
Adding to the more lighthearted tone of the album was one of music's greatest hype men, Flavor Flav, who colored the group's songs with his witty ad-libs. "Flav's the hype man and Chuck's the rapper-they help each other out. I don't know if the message would be as powerful if Flav was hyping around alone or Chuck was rapping alone," Run-D.M.C.'s Joseph "Run" Simmons says. "The music is just so powerful, so amazing, and it just speaks for itself."
Former Def Jam staffer Adams agrees. "That's the thing that makes them special-it's a combination of Malcolm X and Martin Lawrence, with Flav there for comical relief and Chuck giving everybody a history lesson," he says. "One without the other would've meant they would've probably been over-people get tired of being preached on."
Still, it's Chuck D's vision that dominates "Fear of a Black Planet" and the place it holds in hip-hop history. "It all came down to Chuck-he's a genius," says former Bomb Squad producer Eric "Vietnam" Sadler, who helped create the album. "He's one of the few MCs that can really change cadence. The music is timeless and has so many layers to it. You can listen to it 100 times and hear something different every time."
"They are one of the greatest rap groups of all time and the only important breakthrough artist of their kind to have a significant political message," says Rick Rubin, who signed PE to Def Jam on the strength of Chuck D's radio show on Adelphi University's WBAU Garden City, N.Y., and an independent single. "No other rap artist has had their power musically, lyrically and with such conscience."
Adams adds, "Other than Run-D.M.C., no one had a three-album success rate at that time. The quality PE had as a band is what made them withstand the test of time. They delivered a serious message but didn't take themselves too serious-they still wanted people to laugh. Plus, you just couldn't deny those beats."