#LongPlayLove: Celebrating Public Enemy’s ‘Fear of a Black Planet’

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#LongPlayLove: Celebrating Public Enemy’s ‘Fear of a Black Planet’
By Justin Chadwick

Happy Anniversary to Public Enemy’s third LP Fear of a Black Planet, originally released April 10, 1990.

In retrospect, growing up in Oakland during the last two decades of the twentieth century meant that exposure to hip-hop music was a foregone inevitability. And in my case, when I heard and took serious notice of hip-hop for the first time at the age of 10 – in the form of Eric B. & Rakim’s 1987 single “Paid in Full” – this initial discovery was a personal tipping point for me. I wasn’t just exposed to hip-hop, I was transformed by it. The energy, the poetry, the melody. Man, I was all in. I mean, all in. And my passion for hip-hop would continue to grow exponentially throughout my pre-teen and teenage years, right into my early adulthood.

Now, granted, a middle/upper-class white kid from the East Bay who listened to hip-hop was no anomaly. My love for hip-hop was certainly not unique for my demographic and geographic. However, while many of my white friends were listening to hip-hop’s more playful, crossover-friendly acts like Run DMC, the Beastie Boys, Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock, Too $hort, Tone L?c and Young MC, I found myself gravitating toward the more politically and socially righteous artists that my black friends were championing like Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, Paris, X Clan, and Poor Righteous Teachers, among others. Don’t get me wrong, I listened to and appreciated the full spectrum of hip-hop styles, and tried not to discriminate. But there was something far more stimulating to my ears about the acts that had more meaningful and provocative things to say. The acts that challenged me, as the listener, to think differently and analytically about America’s complex and interconnected social, political, and racial dynamics.

So why did this particular strain of hip-hop resonate so profoundly with me? On a fundamental level, my socially liberal upbringing had a lot to do with it, as I was nurtured by parents who possessed a broad worldview and taught me to value and respect other people, regardless of – or more accurately, because of – their respective backgrounds. Thanks in large part to my parents, I’ve always been interested in hearing – and inclined to empathize with – the perspectives of people whose life stories are different than my own. But more than my own predispositions, I think I gravitated toward so-called “conscious” hip-hop artists because I was able to discern a great deal of truth and insight within their music. And perhaps surprisingly to some, the experiences and ideas they explored were not completely foreign to me. For despite my well-rounded upbringing and the socially progressive, culturally tolerant reputation that my hometown and other neighboring East Bay cities are known for, I witnessed plenty of racism during my adolescence.

Mind you, the racism that I observed was not necessarily revealed in conspicuous ways. Instead, it was a more subtle manifestation of white privilege, one that resided just below the surface or on the tips of peoples’ tongues. Which, if left to fester for too long, can be just as dangerous and destructive as more overt, unequivocal forms of prejudice. And as a young white person myself, I believe that I had a unique window into much of this closeted racism because I was perceived neither as the object of nor an immediate threat to peoples’ secret biases. Nevertheless, I was always floored by the immorality and ugliness of it all, and felt justified in calling people out on their questionable ethics when warranted.

More than any other group at the time, Public Enemy’s music seemed to validate and expand upon my feelings of disgust and disillusionment. Albeit the power and pertinence of their messages operated on a significantly more amplified, elevated level than my very specific personal observations did. Arguably one of the most vitally important and iconoclastic acts in the history of hip-hop, Public Enemy has devoted their career to deconstructing and combating the racial hypocrisy and injustice inherent within our social institutions, political leaders, and mass media. And whereas the Beastie Boys encouraged all of us to fight for our right to party, Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Terminator X and crew flipped the sentiment to empower the black community to party for its right to fight, by embracing more action-oriented and militant approaches to conflict resolution, when passivity and diplomacy invariably fall short.

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PE’s sophomore album, 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, is widely regarded as their seminal masterpiece, one of the greatest hip-hop albums – if not the greatest – ever recorded. And while it is impossible to deny the brilliance and far-reaching influence of their second long player, I’m convinced that their follow-up LP Fear of a Black Planet deserves just as much praise and recognition. If any group has room in its repertoire for not one, but two masterpieces, it’s Public Enemy. And Fear of a Black Planet is a masterpiece, by any stretch of the imagination.

Following the critical and commercial acclaim that accompanied the release of their 1987 debut LP Yo! Bum Rush the Show and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Public Enemy and their production partners The Bomb Squad set out to orchestrate a more focused and unified concept album, both thematically and sonically. With respect to the former, Fear of a Black Planet draws thematic inspiration from psychiatrist Frances Cress Welsing’s 1970 essay The Cress Theory of Color-Confrontation and Racism (White Supremacy), which contends that the psychological roots of racism run deep. More specifically, Welsing suggests that the historical subjugation of the world’s non-white majority is the result of the white minority’s lust for power, which derives from the latter’s own feelings of inadequacy. And it is whites’ inferiority complex and insecurity that compels them to protect their global dominion by exacting complete control – of the mind, body, and otherwise – over non-whites. Indeed, whites’ fear of non-white people goes far in explaining racism, both on the micro interpersonal level and macro institutional level.

Fear of a Black Planet’s incisive title track acutely encapsulates these inextricably connected notions of white fear and black persecution, and the entirety of the album revolves around this thematic thread. To be sure, it’s an angry, frenetic, and tension-filled record. But not superficially so. Instead, PE’s – and specifically Chuck D’s – vitriol is delivered methodically and cogently. On the opening verse of “Welcome to the Terrordome,” when Chuck D reflects that “I got so much trouble on my mind / refuse to lose / here’s your ticket / hear the drummer get wicked,” you cannot help but accept the invitation into his agitated psyche and absorb what he has to unload.

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Across the not-so-silent protest album’s twenty tracks, Public Enemy exposes many and spares few in their relentless diatribe against those who undermine black dignity, whether the perpetrators are white or black. Most notably, the group denounces the film industry’s discriminatory traditions (“Burn Hollywood Burn”), emergency crews’ notoriously slow response in black communities (“911 is a Joke”), the Police (“Anti-Nigger Machine”), the misogynistic treatment of black women (“Revolutionary Generation”), and the perpetuation of black self-destruction (“Welcome to the Terrordome”).

It’s not all biting critique, however, as a handful of songs advocate for empowerment and unity, encouraging black people to mobilize against the crimes and injustices that continue to victimize their communities. “Brothers Gonna Work It Out,” “Power to the People,” and “Fight the Power” are all powerful rallying cries that discourage complacency and call for individual and collective action.

The latter is the album’s most instantly recognizable track, as Spike Lee wisely selected it as the anthem for his classic, incendiary 1989 film Do the Right Thing. To say “Fight the Power” was a logical choice is an understatement. It is the film’s omnipresent musical centerpiece and Radio Raheem’s constant aural companion, appearing in the Rosie Perez-blessed opening credits, and continually resurfacing during the most poignant scenes. With powerful rallying cries like “Fight the Power,” Fear of a Black Planet helped to fuel the fire of hip-hop’s growing commitment to afrocentrism, a movement that became ubiquitous during the early 1990s. Hip-hop’s afrocentric sensibility regrettably faded over time, due to its inevitable commodification and the emergence of a more narcissistic, bling-obsessed contingency and commercial machine within hip-hop. But the music spawned by the movement was fantastic while it lasted.

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