Thursday, December 26, 2013

My Top Ten Hip Hop Albums - #7

Public Enemy - Fear Of A Black Planet

Song TitleTime
Contract on the World Love Jam1:49
Brothers Gonna Work It Out5:03
911 Is a Joke3:17
Incident at 66.6 FM1:38
Welcome to the Terrordome5:22
Meet the G That Killed Me0:45
Anti-Nigger Machine2:39
Burn Hollywood Burn3:04
Power to the People3:48
Who Stole the Soul?3:52
Fear of a Black Planet3:42
Revolutionary Generation5:43
Can't Do Nuttin' for Ya Man2:47
Reggie Jax1:36
Leave This Off Your Fuckin Charts2:31
B Side Wins Again3:46
War at 33⅓2:08
Final Count of the Collision Between Us and the Damned0:49
Fight The Power4:37

    Debuting on Def Jam Records in 1987, Public Enemy had a political angle to their lyrics and music almost from the start.  Their sophomore effort from 1988, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, was an intentional effort to produce a politically themed album.  PE front man Chuck D has stated this album was intended to be the hiphop version of What's Goin' On, Marvin Gaye's timeless album that signified his shift to socially conscious music.  After the release and success of It Takes A Nation..., the band recorded their biggest single to that point, "Fight The Power", which was featured as part of Spike Lee's Academy Award nominated film Do The Right Thing.  While excellent exposure for Public Enemy, the film was actually panned by many critics (and their publications) as something designed to incite race riots from Black viewers.  This, along with an interview by band member Professor Griff that was generally acknowledged as homophobic and anti-Semitic, classified PE as producers of anti-white "hate music" in the eyes of most mainstream media.  When Fear Of A Black Planet, the band's third effort, was released, it was generally acknowledged as their strongest musical effort.  Rather than an attempt to move in the same direction as It Takes A Nation... had gone, Fear of A Black Planet was an undoubtedly anti-establishment concept album, with an undeniable focus on race relations.  It was a very angry and political recording. 
    Despite its political and racial content, Fear of a Black Planet was released at a time when white folks started discovering more and more about hiphop music.  In addition, the controversies that surrounded Public Enemy were more in the vein of a "highbrow" debate about politics, whereas controversy generated from acts such as 2 Live Crew and NWA were more about violence and sex - and thus received heavier mainstream coverage; more people watched Nightline and 60 Minutes than read the Washington Times.  So, as Public Enemy became more popular among the Black audience, more and more whites discovered it, realized how good it was, and helped make Fear of a Black Planet a massive commercial success.
    Public Enemy had a unique sound, which was akin to a hiphop version of Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound".  The sound was engineered by the Bomb Squad (Chuck D, Hank & Keith Shocklee, and Eric Sadler), the production crew that developed what was called the "sonic wall", where layers and layers of unique sounds were laid down over each other to create something completely different and unique.  This sample-heavy style would soon become obsolete, as more and more publishers began to go after acts sampling their recordings. 
    Right from the gate PE goes for the jugular, with perhaps the hardest hitting and guitar heavy side of an album up to that point in hiphop history.  "Brothers Gonna Work It Out" is probably the ultimate example of the Bomb Squad's "Sonic Wall", as Chuck D drops aggressive rhymes on top of an amalgam of sounds so rich that it is impossible to tell what is what in the instrumentation.  Chants, Prince Guitars, James Brown drums - the track is perfect to dissect to look at what exactly the Bomb Squad was all about.  Then the music goes in the complete opposite direction when Flava Flav grabs the mic for "911 Is A Joke".  A catchy hook by the enigmatic Flav actually somewhat overshadows the political target of the song, which is the often lengthy response times for emergency responders in Black neighborhoods.  "Welcome to The Terrordome" is an amazing song, with the sonic wall providing the perfect background noise, almost like an air raid warning siren, to Chuck D's lyrics, which were often labeled as anti-white and anti-Semitic.  Terrordome was a single that generated a massive amount of controversy, with many in the media responding to Chuck D's reference to the band's media persecution to that of Christ, negatively. 
    In general, the entire album is a plea for Black unity.  The reason that the album is often misunderstood by critics (particularly the white ones) is because the album is not designed for consumption by the mainstream.  Like on any topic, there is room for disagreement with, or debate about, the views expressed by PE on this album.  The theme of the album is reflected in the title - Fear of a Black Planet.  The album is a piece meant to provide empowerment for the Black community that the product is targeted to.  Essentially, Public Enemy is saying that the white establishment's greatest fear is an empowered Black man, and then uses the band's struggles with the media to demonstrate the fear that mainstream America has of a successful, politically active hiphop group. 

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