Public Enemy

'Fear of a Black Planet' Turns 30: Rock Musicians Reflect on the Potency of Public Enemy's Third LP

Five years after serendipitously meeting while students at Long Island’s Adelphi University, Chuck D and Flavor Flav -- the dynamic duo behind Public Enemy -- would release what could be argued as one of rap’s most aggressive, most conscious offerings: 1990’s Fear of a Black Planet

Coming nearly two years after their formative landmark sophomore LP, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, expectations were high for Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet. And with tracks such as “Welcome to the Terrordome,” “Burn Hollywood Burn,” “911 Is a Joke,” “Can’t Do Nuttin’ for Ya Man,” and “Fight the Power,” Chuck and Flav -- together with Terminator X and Professor Griff -- more than delivered.

Fear of a Black Planet, which was released 30 years ago on April 10, captured Public Enemy at its conceptual and artistic acme, and the album is regarded by many to be the pinnacle of political hip-hop. Propelled by the production wizardry of The Bomb Squad (Chuck D, Eric "Vietnam" Sadler, and brothers Keith and Hank Shocklee), the album was an innovative, hour-long collection of 20 versatile tracks punctuated by the potent, one-two punch delivery of Chuck and Flav, who spit wisdom over a barrage of poignant, layered samples and sweet, satisfying beats. 

Utilizing both humor and gravitas, Public Enemy’s third opus was a record with a point: to entertain and engage, to provoke and inspire. Fear of a Black Planet was an album that promoted ideas of Afrocentricity, but also had an overall message of understanding that is perhaps more relevant now than ever before -- one that continues to resonate with all listeners.

To commemorate Public Enemy’s classic third album, which peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard 200, we reached out to artists -- all fans of the group who openly acknowledge the rap icons’ influence on their own material -- to get their thoughts and insights on Fear of a Black Planet and its legacy. 

The following reflections are in the artists’ own words.

Ben Harper

Fear of a Black Planet was an outpouring of genius. What is amazing to me is “Fight the Power” is the last song. You show me a better final track on a record than that in music history and I’ll pay you $100. What Public Enemy, I think, did was they also put the black community under a magnifying glass. They didn’t just look authority dead in the eye and say, “We’re bringing you down,” they were introspective towards the black community to say, “Hey, we’ve got our own work to do here.”

People talk about the second record, but for me, the most important record you can make in your career is the third record. There are very rare exceptions; you can be Jeff Buckley and put out Grace with the artistry of a 10-record career … that happens every once in a while. The third record, for me, was the most important to me. To have three records that are all equally as artistically accredited and have that gravity and urgency … you are talking about, at that point, 30 songs. Anyone funky can write three decent songs in a lifetime. But to come up with three albums’ worth of material, all equally as weighted and powerful and potent. And to come out with Fear of a Black Planet as your third record … it’s like, “For those of you who didn’t hear us the first two times, you are now going to hear us forever.”

We are talking about a time when music still represented the reflection of the pulse of a time, of a people, of an era -- and we needed it. We needed it, and it was one thing to be cutting edge hip-hop, but it was another thing to be cutting edge hip-hop that didn’t flinch in the face of authority, and to actually say, “Oh, you thought you were the authority? Joke’s on you, because we are.” And you can dissect it word for word, syllable for syllable, and you just get that much more out of it. 

To this day, they are one of the most important groups of my experience. And it reminds me … the vehicle that music can be for social consciousness and awareness and socio-political proactivity in one’s life. They’re just a permanent reminder that you can't sit still. The music of Public Enemy has meant as much or more to me than any music I’ve ever heard.

Jonathan Davis, Korn

I remember when the first Public Enemy album dropped, I was in high school and I was DJing and I heard Fear of a Black Planet, and I was like, “What in the flying f--k is this?” It was a great time for music anyway, because that’s when there was Public Enemy and N.W.A just came out, so there was just really hard s--t going on. With Public Enemy, it was a whole completely different thing. It wasn’t anything about being gangster -- it was more political and just talking about the inequality African Americans face. I don’t know; me as a little f--king white kid in my bedroom with headphones, DJing, I was like, “Holy s--t, this is amazing!”

We covered “Fight the Power.” That song is so sick. And “911 Is a Joke.” When I first saw that on MTV, I lost my s--t. It’s just good music. ... It’s nice to see a group that has a message, that is talented. It’s real, it’s tangible. I know they’ve had s--t tons of members, but it’s always been Chuck and Flav. ... But I loved that they had a message, and it wasn’t about just blatant, showing off how rich they are.

That whole era of rap had an influence on me. Let’s put it this way: When my band was all listening to hair metal and s--t, I was listening to East Coast rap, mixed with the new wave stuff of the ‘80s. I was a total New Romantic kid, but I liked both. Such polar opposites, right? When I heard Public Enemy, and that heavier style of hip-hop, it pushed me into more heavy music, a harder thing. ... Public Enemy is definitely one of the greats. Trailblazers, man.

Scott Ian, Anthrax

They became my favorite rap group from the moment I heard [Public Enemy’s debut] Yo! Bum Rush the Show at the Def Jam office back in ‘86, I guess. I had a friend who worked there, so I got to hear an advance of the first record. And as soon as I heard Chuck’s voice -- and I believe it was the song “Rightstarter (Message to a Black Man)” -- there was just something about it for me that clicked in the same way AC/DC and KISS and Iron Maiden and Judas Priest and Motörhead clicked for me.

[Fear of a Black Planet] had an aggression and it had an energy that, even though as a rap fan -- a big rap fan at the time -- there was something about that was better than everything else. I think my opinion and my great taste in music was proved as the years went by, because Public Enemy became the best rap group of all time. It was obviously a combination of so many things, but the main thing I can say is … they changed the game. They were the game changers back in ‘87, ‘88, ‘89, ‘90. Everything they did didn’t sound like anything that came before it. Sonically, they created something completely original and new. ... Public Enemy took an existing musical form and completely changed it into something that still, you hear Public Enemy’s influence on rap that comes out now, whether it’s sonically or lyrically.

Nation of Millions is one of the greatest albums ever made in the history of music. So then, of course, you’re wondering, “How do you follow that?” And they didn’t try and make Nation of Millions 2 or Nation of Billions, they wrote a new record, and they came up with new sounds and new ideas and just took it to even another level. I am still in the camp that Nation was their best, but Fear would be a close second. “Welcome to the Terrordome” may be my favorite PE song -- it’s even better than anything they did on Nation of Millions, and I know that’s like heresy to some people. But “Terrordome,” for me, is like their “Ace of Spades” or their “Reign in Blood.” That song is so goddamn hard, it kills me.

Vernon Reid, Living Colour

The thing about Fear of a Black Planet, from 1990, and now, look at 2020 … it’s deep. It’s such a remarkable record. I mean, The Bomb Squad were firing on all cylinders. When you think about from Yo! Bum Rush the Show to It Takes a Nation to Fear of a Black Planet, it’s really remarkable -- the revolutionary evolution of the group -- and really, it shifted all of hip-hop in a way that … everything is different now. 

Flavor Flav embodies the values of the street and the everyday, and he’s also the character that Chuck D is trying to reach, in a kind of meta example. And then, his own tracks, his tunes … they became the tunes everyone would look forward to. Like “Cold Lampin’ With Flavor Flav” or “Meet the G That Killed Me.” It’s like, “This cat … what happened?" Because he’s rhyming, but it’s like a hustler-slash-playa rhyme. It’s like a Doriella Du Fontaine type of pimp line, and so when he jumps in with “911 Is a Joke,” it’s connected. Or “Meet the G That Killed Me,” it’s hectic.

That record is an absolute classic. The cameo by Ice Cube on “Burn Hollywood Burn” … interestingly enough, it’s a perfect record for the age of Trump. It was a record that made no apologies for the things it said -- and it upset a lot of people at the time -- but it was also a record that was, in a way, a reaction to the reaction to Public Enemy because of the success of Nations. Chuck and Flav are two of my heroes. Terminator X is like the MVP -- his cut-ups on that record are epic.

Kevin Shields, My Bloody Valentine

I just loved the production [on Fear] -- Hank Shocklee, in particular -- because it’s very midrange. It’s very guitary, but not in the way the Beastie Boys were doing it. It was more … it could be seen as pastiche-y. What Public Enemy were doing was brand new. I hadn’t heard that stuff before. People forget, but that wasn’t around before, that kind of attitude. From a guitar-world perspective, most of the stuff at that time, what was going on was pretty traditional in its approach -- stereo mixing, chorus, guitars, big snare drums. That hadn’t changed; we were part of that change, but that was the Public Enemy sound.

To me, it’s a bit like Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s. A lot of people go, “Revolver’s the best one,” but in a way, like Fear of a Black Planet, the tempos are more intense on Sgt. Pepper’s, it feels like now. Fear of a Black Planet actually suits the mood we’re in now -- the tension dial’s been turned up three notches higher. It’s all continuous -- it’s a continuous record -- and I think as a production, it was a statement -- a kind of an attitude statement. I think with Fear, they did actually manage to surpass what they did before, even though it was the record before that turned everyone on to them.

What seems really radical to me was the dryness and the upfrontness and the fact that it sounded like it could be on the street -- it could be anywhere. We were in the era of stadium rock production, and everything was all about sounding like it was in a club, but it could’ve been at a street party -- it was all dry and close with no particular reference to anything. That really affected me -- that attitude -- because even though we have a reputation for all that stuff, there is no reverb on our records to make things sound nicer.

Hank Shocklee was definitely the Brian Wilson of hip-hop. He’d stay at home and make the records while the other guys were on tour, and it was really f--king influential. And it didn’t get old. That record doesn’t sound old at all. It’s timeless.

Ed Robertson, Barenaked Ladies

Absolute seminal hip-hop band. Like, the golden age of hip-hop, for me, begins with It Takes a Nation of Millions. And Fear of a Black Planet was like the “Holy f--k!” follow-up. It was The Bomb Squad going, “Actually, we can do this,” and it just made hip-hop so much more musical. It took it from, like, one sample and a drum machine and a guy rapping over it to this sonic collage that was confusing and exciting and kind of deranging, in a way. I had never heard anything like it. 

The record hit me in so many ways: It hit me politically, educationally, but it also hit me sonically. It’s just so f--king exciting, and it has this cacophony -- it’s the only way I can describe it -- these layers and layers of samples going on and it just produces this tapestry of noise that is just … there had never been anything like it. They completely changed the game.

The first time I realized there was a disparity in emergency services was “911 Is a Joke.” I hadn’t heard that on the news. I hadn’t read an article about that. When I first heard “911 Is a Joke,” I went, “What? What do you mean? You call 911 and emergency services comes.” And I was like, “Wait a minute -- that doesn’t happen in some communities? What the f--k?” So, like, that record is where I learned that s--t. In my privileged existence growing up in suburban Canada, I learned from Public Enemy that there is this massive injustice gap, and it was f--king eye-opening and confounding. The message wasn’t for me, but it taught me so much.

Amon Tobin

It’s difficult to overstate Public Enemy’s effect on me over the years. I could go on and on, to be honest. By the time Public Enemy came around, I was 15 or 16, and that was the first group in hip-hop that I really dove into pretty religiously. They were also my first concert.

We would drive around in my friend’s Mini Cooper when we should have been in school, just listening to [Fear of a Black Planet]. We knew the lyrics to all the songs. The political messages and the samples from all the speeches that were interwoven into the music that were charged, and a lot of the references Chuck D was making, went well over my head. It was more a sonic connection for me -- this real visceral connection to the production, the mad noise and mayhem, and the way they used samples and the energy of it all.

Their use of samples really got me into using samples in my own music later on -- that is the one thing I drew from them creatively more than anything, even though my music has nothing to do with hip-hop. It really wove in for me. 
I remember wanting to have the appreciation for the nuance of it -- and the lyrics and what was being said.

But growing up as a kid in England, we didn’t know about civil rights in America and what all of that signified. You can say what I had was a superficial connection to the music, but it was anything but that. It was so visceral, and -- I didn’t even know I’d be making music at that point -- but it was so important, sonically, to me what was going on. It really shaped a lot of my feelings towards music production and all that.