Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Kill Your Idols: Public Enemy

(This piece first appeared as a chapter in Kill Your Idols: A New Generation of Rock Writers Reconsiders the Classics [Barricade 2004].)


Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
(Def Jam/Columbia, 1988)

Several weeks into the 2003 pro football season, the Reverend Al Sharpton and other notoriously inflammatory avatars of racial demagoguery pressured the conservative radio talk-show titan Rush Limbaugh into resigning from his guest-commentator position at ESPN. Limbaugh’s sin? Saying that the sports media, in its zeal to see a "black quarterback do well," had over-hyped the accomplishments of the Philadelphia Eagle’s Donovan McNabb. Debate over the merits of Limbaugh’s contention immediately ensued and, given the self-perpetuating nature of sports arguments, will probably continue for years. It’s too bad there’s never been—and, given our hypersensitivity to that chimera "hate speech," may never be—an equally public debate about the validity of that notoriously dimwitted genre of aural graffiti known as rap, the artistic merits of which the music media, in its zeal to see young black radicals do well, has been over-hyping for two decades now.

Rap can be great fun. At its early best, before it became overrun by gangstas, thugz, pimps, hoez, and other types you wouldn’t want to bring home to your grandma (or spelling teacher), rap was the closest thing to a revival of the loose goofiness of Leiber-Stoller-era Coasters that any pop-musical subculture, black or white, had generated in a quarter of a century. As such, early rap was primarily, and ideally, a singles genre, its best albums collections of greatest hits. Like many rock bands in the mid-to-late ’60s, however, rappers eventually came to be seen by major record companies as potentially huge moneymakers and, as a result, had a significance thrust upon them replete with the expectation that they would now take what they’d formerly done in fun-sized bits and expand it into full-length masterworks. As was the case with many ’60s rock bands (most notably the Beach Boys, but that’s another chapter), such fixing of what wasn’t broken was the beginning of an end.

Since then many rap albums have had their meager merits exaggerated by the press, but none more so than Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Released in 1988, it found itself atop many critics’ best-of lists at year’s end, eventually winning album-of-the-year honors in the Village Voice’s annual "Pazz and Jop" critics’ poll and establishing Chuck D, Flava Flav, and their DJ Terminator X as hip-hop alchemists who would finally bring about rap’s transformation from novelty into art. "It’s a like-it-or-not, wake-up-and-listen album," wrote Armond White in his "Pazz and Jop" comments, "like Aretha’s I Never Loved a Man or the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks." "It’s the first record in ages to rise out of the New York rap scene with enough of that confrontational attitude that alternative programmers love so much," added Scott Byron. "When I say ‘confrontational’ I’m not just referring to words but to music—[Public Enemy] test their limits at every turn." Eventually, Rolling Stone would rank Nation of Millions number twelve among the best albums of the ’80s: "Virtually every track contains repeated shrill noises that are both irritating and riveting; its agit-prop sound communicates as much rebellion as the lyrics."

In retrospect, the album did no such thing. Both its noise and its lyrics, while an innovation in rap, were hardly new to the music world at large. Non-rappers, for instance, had so established "repeated shrill noises that [were] both irritating and riveting" as sonic staples that as far back as 1981 Lester Bangs could fill a piece titled "A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise" with praise for music that he loved primarily for its "wretched squawl." Other than the air-raid siren on "Countdown to Armageddon" with which Nation of Millions begins, most of the album’s celebrated "noise" is the result of tightly looped samples repeated over and over. The similarities to Chinese water torture are obvious, but the approach is actually much closer, in both technique and in affect, to Philip Glass’s minimalist exercises on Einstein on the Beach and Glassworks. As such, Terminator X’s aural assault could be seen as simply the latest example of the sort of cultural cross-fertilization that had been going on between whites and blacks since Europe met Africa in jazz and the blues met country in rock and roll. Clever? Yes. But rebellious? If you really want something irritating to clear the guests out, you’d be much better served by Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music or the Shaggs' Philosophy of the World, albums so rebelliously irritating that even those who love them often hate themselves for doing so. (At least one "Pazz and Jop" voter numbered Chuck D’s voice among Public Enemy’s irritating noises. "His vocals are sexless, and always do the same thing," wrote Frank Kogan. "This is boy rock, no girly mush—boys acting IMPORTANT." Kogan was right. With no variation in volume or timbre, with no perceivable vocal texture other than "hard," with absolutely no sense of play, Chuck D would be utterly unendurable were it not for the commotion going on around him and the comic relief of his foil-jester-sidekick Flava Flav, whose "Cold Lampin with Flavor" steals Nation of Millions the way his "Can’t Do Nuttin’ for Ya Man" would later steal Fear of a Black Planet.)

Equally over the top were the hosannas heaped upon Public Enemy’s "message." Compared to the Black Panther propagandists of the ’60s with whom Chuck D claimed common ground on the album’s most explicitly political track, "Party for Your Right to Fight," Public Enemy’s own pugnacious, paranoid, Afro-centric rhetoric came off both redundant and second-hand. "The community," wrote the Panther Huey Newton from prison in 1969, "is now seeing that our fight on the campuses is more than just a fight for ‘freedom of speech’ on the campus, or Blacks gaining a knowledge of our heritage;

it’s also showing the direct relationship between the reactionary government and the agencies and institutions that are only an arm of these reactionaries. Until we penetrate the community and make them aware and plant the seed of revolution, we will never have freedom at our schools. The community now is being mobilized by the Black revolutionary forces and along with them are our white revolutionary comrades.

Substitute "white rock critics" for "white revolutionary comrades," replace "penetrate the community" with "get widespread radio airplay," work in some rhymes, and add some riveting noise and a smattering of profanities, and you’d have Public Enemy nineteen years before the fact.

Of course, anyone still delivering rants such as Newton’s in 1988 would’ve probably been seen as delusional and more likely would’ve wound up as a mental patient or a tenured professor of African Studies than as a prisoner. In other words, echoing Huey Newton in 1988 required a lot less courage from Chuck D than being Huey Newton required from Huey Newton in 1969. Besides, Chuck D was rapping on a major label (Def Jam was a Columbia subsidiary at the time) and therefore making money (or at least a living) from his shtick. Yet critics insisted that in Public Enemy the world had something innovatively political and socially significant, a genuinely hegemony-threatening music if ever there’d been one. Eventually such opinions hardened into dogma, relegating comparatively lightweight rap pioneers like Grandmaster Flash, Kurtis Blow, and even Run DMC to the category of rap known (sometimes affectionately) as "old school" and exposing the likes of Schoolly D and 2 Live Crew for the unsavory lowlifes they were. From Nation of Millions onward, rappers who wanted to be taken seriously—who wanted to be considered authentically "black" (more on that farther down)—would need to ratchet up their anger-at-oppression quotient and, thus transported, go for the jugular of the nearest oppressor.

The problem was, Public Enemy’s oppressors turned out to be straw men, and straw men have no jugulars. For one thing, by 1988 there was no nation of millions trying to hold Public Enemy or any other rap group or black musician or athlete or film star or politician or comedian or plumber back. Even the now-ubiquitous "white fright" explicit-lyrics parental warning sticker, which many believe has ended up having the unintended effect of boosting rap sales anyway, was not yet in use. Perhaps most significantly the Aerosmith-Run DMC version of "Walk This Way" had exposed (or forged) the link between rap and metal, officially miscegenating America’s two most popular forms of rebellion-oriented youth music.

And it’s not as if the country’s more conservative citizens—the ones most likely to be rubbed the wrong way by Public Enemy—weren’t in a protesting mood. Earlier that year Martin Scorsese’s cinematic interpretation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel The Last Temptation of Christ had engendered numerous high-profile protests and boycotts aimed specifically at crippling its box-office success. One year later there would be headline-grabbing controversies over taxpayer-funded displays of the contemporary art of Andres Seranno (whose Piss Christ consisted of a crucifix submerged in urine) and Robert Mapplethorpe (whose graphically homoerotic S&M photography remains controversial: opponents of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2003 gubernatorial campaign cited Schwarzenegger’s past as a Mapplethorpe model as one proof of his unfitness for office). Simply put, Nation of Millions’ failure to rise higher than forty-two on Billboard’s Top 200 and the failure of its four singles to crack the Top Forty were not the result of censorship or of radio’s fear of controversy. A nation of millions simply liked Run DMC better.

Or, to put it another way, while Nation of Millions made itself felt in big East Coast cities (wrote the Providence, Rhode Island Pazz-and-Jopster Jim MacNie, "You couldn’t buy ice cream, shoot hoops, or have sex without Terminator X’s distillation of racial tension ... reverberating down the street"), it barely registered in a whole lot of flyover country. The multi-racial, rock-and-rap-loving Louisiana junior-high-school students to whom I taught English in those days, for instance, who did as much as the radio and MTV to keep me musically well informed, had hardly even heard of the group. "Are they the ones with that guy who wears a big clock around his neck?" one girl responded when I asked her what she thought of them. She had, it turns out, seen pictures of Flava Flav in a magazine and remembered his image. But of his group’s music she hadn’t heard so much as a beat and was in no hurry to. She was a big Tone Loc fan, and the notion that there could be any rap better than "Wild Thing" and "Funky Cold Medina" struck her as preposterous.

Living in Louisiana, my interest in Public Enemy was not entirely musical. By 1988 the former Ku Klux Klansman and then-Louisiana resident David Duke had exchanged his Grand Wizard’s robe and hood for the conservative attire of a serious politician and—first as a Democrat, then as a Republican—begun gaining support among white Louisiana voters. (He was eventually elected as a member of the state legislature and in 1991 ran an impressive but ultimately unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign.) I was convinced that racial conflicts were about to play a larger role in American society than they had at any time in my twenty-six years and that an understanding of the complexities involved would be necessary for me to think and act wisely should the need to do so arise. (Public Enemy would later single Duke out as a special nemesis as well, caricaturing him on the cover of their 1994 album Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age; ironically, by that time Duke himself was a straw man, having already ridden out a wave of public support that ended up vanishing almost as quickly as it had appeared. Both he and the man to whom he lost the governorship, Edwin Edwards, are currently in federal prisons.) In retrospect my crash-course in racism awareness was na├»ve, as if merely by reading Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X, John Howard Griffin’s Black like Me, and William Stringfellow’s My People Is the Enemy I could develop heroically virtuous sympathies overnight. But I was sincere and open-minded both, and it was in this spirit that I read the aforementioned glowing reviews, bought the hype and Nation of Millions, put the record on, and awaited revelation.

What I got instead was David Duke in blackface. Not only was there anti-Semitism once removed in the form of endorsements for the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan ("Don’t tell me that you understand / until you hear the man" [...] "Farrakhan’s a prophet and I think you ought to listen to / what he can say to you"), but there was also a crackpot theory of racial superiority, only this time it was blacks who were the Master Race. And "[t]o those that disagree," rapped Chuck D in "Party for Your Right to Fight,"

it causes static
For the original Black Asiatic man
Cream of the earth
And was here first
And some devils prevent this from being known
But you check out the books they own
Even Masons they know it
But refuse to show it—Yo
But it’s proven and fact....

I don’t know whether liberal sports writers exaggerate Donovan McNabb’s athletic accomplishments because he’s black or not. But I do know that music critics exaggerate Public Enemy’s intelligence. Surely many of these critics know that the "original Black Asiatic Man" theory to which Chuck D was alluding in "Party" is the repugnant and explicitly racist Nation of Islam teaching that a wicked black scientist named Yacub created the white race through biological experimentation that left the newly created "white devils" without pigment and soul. Would the same critics who treated these ideas as harmless eccentricities when coming from Chuck D. have shrugged off equally explicit white racism from a white act? If not, then the toleration of such notions from Chuck D. amounts to nothing more than patronization, a patronization that is itself a form of racism in that its tolerance stems from the assumption that the black man in question is too unsophisticated or downright foolish to know any better. So while it might be stretching things to say that it took the patronization of millions to put Chuck D forth as an icon of enlightenment, the patronization of a few hundred music critics certainly didn’t hurt.

An interesting footnote: In what was almost certainly its version of what’s known in sports as the "make-up call," Public Enemy eventually dismissed its most outspokenly Yacubian (and anti-Semitic) theorist, its "Minister of Information" Professor Griff, shortly before the release of Fear of a Black Planet, their 1990 follow-up to Nation of Millions. (Griff had told the Washington Post in 1989 that Jews were responsible for "the majority of the wickedness that goes on across the globe.") That Griff was dismissed in the face of pressure resulting in part from the group’s increased visibility suggests not so much a change in Public Enemy’s attitude toward white people as its fear of a white boycott. An even more interesting footnote: Griff rejoined Public Enemy in 1997. The group’s official website currently describes him as "[n]otorious for his uncompromising stances that the media finds offensive." The implication: there’s nothing wrong with his manifestly false, unspeakably hateful, and laughably stupid ideas—how can there be, when they’re ours and Farrakhan’s as well? It’s the media that has the problem. Hey, maybe Rush Limbaugh was right about the media after all! Besides, wasn’t it T.S. Eliot who once said "humankind cannot bear very much reality"? And wasn’t Eliot himself a little, you know, suspicious of Jews...?

Besides smuggling the Nation of Islam’s harebrained racism into the hip-hop mainstream, Nation of Millions brought into the open a topic that, admittedly, lay just beneath the surface whenever discussions of popular black-identified music styles arose—namely, what does "being black" really mean? Or, perhaps more accurately, in what does genuine "blackness" inhere? The blackness of tormented jazz geniuses such as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, for example, was never in question. Neither was the blackness of such archetypal bluesmen as Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters. Viscerally affecting soul singers like Otis Redding and James Brown were definitely black, and so for that matter were their refined stylistic opposites at Motown and anyone connected with the Harlem Renaissance (i.e., Duke Ellington). Eventually the concept would be stretched to include the likes of Ella Fitzgerald (jazz), Lou Rawls (nightclub), Mahalia Jackson (gospel), Paul Robeson (Negro spirituals and Broadway), the Fifth Dimension (AM ’60s), and Earth, Wind and Fire (all things to all people) (Dyke and the Blazers’ 1969 hit "We Got More Soul" stretched it to include Nancy Wilson), leaving blackness far too large and plastic a concept to be useful in any seriously political sense.

Practically speaking, by the time Nation of Millions came out, pop music was arguably more integrated—racially, culturally, stylistically—than it had ever been. Of the twenty-six performers who scored number-one singles in 1988, only five (Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Billy Ocean, Terence Trent D’Arby, and Bobby McFerrin) were black, but in comprising nearly twenty percent of the number-one-hitmaker crowd they were almost twice as significant, demographically speaking, as blacks were in the population at large. "Blackness" began to appear even more influential if one took into account such unmistakenly black-influenced chart-topping songs as UB40’s "Red Red Wine" (Neil Diamond done reggae), George Harrison’s "Got My Mind Set on You" (Rudy Clark done Wilbury-style), and Steve Winwood’s "Roll with It" (blue-eyed soul, yes, but soul all the same). The year’s album chart looked similar. Two of the ten number one LPs (twenty percent) were by black musicians (Tracy Chapman’s eponymous debut, Anita Baker’s Giving You the Best That I Got), and another, U2’s Rattle and Hum, featured high-profile cameos by B.B. King and the New Voices of Freedom as well as songs honoring Billie Holliday ("Angel of Harlem"), Martin Luther King, Jr. ("Pride [In the Name of Love]"), and the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa ("Silver and Gold"). Even MTV, which prior to Michael Jackson’s Jackie Robinson-like breakthrough had been accused of deliberately "bleaching" its playlists, was scrambling to make room in its heavy rotations for black acts old (Tina Turner), new (DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince), borrowed (Milli Vanilli), and blue (Robert Cray).

None of this "blackness," however, meant anything to Public Enemy. "I declared war on black radio," rapped Chuck D in "Caught, Can I Get a Witness!" "You singers are spineless / as you sing senseless songs to the mindless. / Your general subject, love, is minimal. / It’s sex for profit." Leaving aside Chuck D’s anachronistically puritanical attack on sex-commodifying music (cf. Elvis Presley circa 1955 and The Copulatin’ Blues, circa 1929-1940), what’s really mystifying about these lines is that the man calling others "mindless" is the same man who believes that white people are descended from evil mutants created by Yacub and is willing to proclaim as much from the housetops.

Worse yet (far worse yet), by insisting throughout Nation of Millions that "blackness" is a quantifiable reality, Chuck D kept alive the very possibility of the racism against which he had allegedly declared war. For only when something undesirable—the apparently disproportionate propensity of the young black male, say, to join gangs and commit drive-by shootings—only when an undesirable characteristic can be identified as an ineradicable component of a minority people is it possible to mobilize a nation of millions against them. Convince people, on the other hand, that a black male can become as decent, educated, virtuous, and loving as anyone else, perhaps even more so, and—well, let’s just say it’s then and only then that hate crimes like "strange fruit" lynchings and James Byrd dragging deaths begin to appear every bit as stupid as hate rhymes like Chuck D’s.

(Stanley Crouch on the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan:

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