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

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The power of Fear of a Black Planet’s central messages is driven in large part by Chuck D, who, at the risk of stating the obvious, is one of the most charismatic lyricists of all time. Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot once suggested that “What Bob Dylan did for rock in the ’60s, what George Clinton did for funk and Bob Marley for reggae in the ’70s, Public Enemy’s Chuck D has done for rap: given it legitimacy and authority far beyond its core following.” High praise among rarefied company, and totally warranted in Chuck D’s case. Revered for his commanding presence and impenetrable flow on the mic, his bulletproof voice has always been the linchpin of Public Enemy’s sound, and nowhere is this more evident than on Fear of a Black Planet.

But while Chuck D is unquestionably the most prominent voice on the record, Flavor Flav garners a good share of the spotlight and makes the most of his time to shine. On “911 is a Joke” and “Can’t Do Nuttin’ for Ya Man,” Flav injects some humor-filled levity into the predominantly heavy affair, making for a more balanced listening experience overall. “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” is one of the album’s strongest tracks largely due to the call-and-response, yin and yang-like chemistry between the two emcees, which is wonderful to behold.

Sonically, Fear of a Black Planet is one of the most multifaceted, dense, and electrifyingly innovative albums you’ll ever hear. With production helmed by The Bomb Squad, the album takes inspiration from the “Wall of Sound” paradigm introduced by legendary producer Phil Spector in the 1960s, and updates it for the hip-hop generation. In fact, Chuck D has previously referred to Bomb Squad co-founder Hank Shocklee as the “Phil Spector of Hip-Hop.” Indeed, the Bomb Squad’s inventive production work on the album is the kind that you cannot possibly grasp upon a single listen alone. Repeated, focused listens are required in order to uncover all of the many intricacies, layers, complexities, and nuances contained therein. The musique concrète production technique is another obvious reference point, as the album incorporates a calculated potpourri of scratches, audio clips, samples, and sound effects galore.

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Conceptually, The Bomb Squad’s ambitious approach was a tough trick to pull off, and seemed destined to produce a chaotic, distracting, and uneven cacophony of a record. But in practice, the opposite proved true. The Bomb Squad meticulously executed upon their vision of creating a cohesive and infectious album that reveals hidden treasures upon each subsequent listen. Instead of diverting the listener’s attention, the various noises actually operate harmoniously to produce a clarifying effect, enabling the listener to focus more squarely on Chuck D’s voice and lyrics. Sure the album contains a handful of memorable and successful singles, but the totality of the album’s compositions is truly more thrilling than any one single alone.

When you consider the breadth of sampled material that The Bomb Squad integrated throughout Fear of a Black Planet, it boggles the mind. In a 1990 interview with Keyboard, Chuck D explained how samples fit within the sonic context of the album:

We approach every record like it was a painting. Sometimes, on the sound sheet, we have to have a separate sheet just to list the samples for each track. We used about 150, maybe 200 samples on Fear of a Black Planet. “Fight the Power” has, like, 17 samples in the first ten seconds. For example, there’s three different drum loops that make one big drum loop: One is a standard Funkadelic thing, another is a Sly thing, and I think the third one is the Jacksons. Then we took some sounds from a beat box. The opening lick is the end of a Trouble Funk record, processed with doubling and reverb. And the chorus is music going backwards.”

Such liberal use of samples would never fly today, due to the landmark 1991 Grand Upright Music, Ltd v. Warner Bros. Records Inc. copyright case, which involved Biz Markie’s unauthorized sampling of a Gilbert O’Sullivan song. The court ultimately ruled that Biz Markie and Warner Bros. infringed upon O’Sullivan’s copyright, and the ruling established the precedent that artists and their record companies are legally required to secure proper clearance from the original copyright owners before selling records that contain sampled material. Fear of a Black Planet was released 20 months before the ruling was imposed, and therefore avoided such legal constraints altogether.

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As the 1980s concluded, hip-hop was still a relatively fledgling musical phenomenon and had not yet achieved the mainstream acceptance that defines the genre today. It may seem crazy to contemplate now, but if we refresh our memories to 25 years ago, many people were skeptical that hip-hop possessed any potential for longevity, and instead considered it an ephemeral fad that would eventually fade. Through Fear of a Black Planet’s cross-genre, cross-demographic appeal, Public Enemy not only solidified their own global popularity, but more broadly and importantly, they ultimately helped to cultivate more widespread respect for hip-hop music. In distinguishing Fear of a Black Planet from its revered antecedent, Chuck D remarked to Billboard that “It Takes a Nation was our nation album, Fear of a Black Planet was our world record.” Whether or not one agrees with the group’s political convictions, afrocentric foundations, or social rhetoric is not the paramount point. Instead, what’s most important is that PE’s music and message introduced more sophisticated, substantive, and universal dimensions to hip-hop, beyond the party raps and braggadocious boasts that characterized most acts at the time. And the world listened.

Twenty-five years and eleven albums later, Public Enemy are now cherished elder statesmen of the hip-hop game. As evidenced by their deserving 2013 induction into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the group’s relevance still transcends hip-hop alone. They continue to record solid album after solid album, and Chuck D’s voice remains as fresh and vital as ever. And while the debate concerning whether It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back or Fear of a Black Planet is the pinnacle of their recorded output will likely rage forever, the reality is that both LPs are equally pivotal works within the broader context of America’s musical legacy. Fear of a Black Planet may be the lone Public Enemy album currently preserved in the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry, but it’s only a matter of time until room is made for one more.

My Favorite Song: “Welcome to the Terrordome” (1990)

Bonus Videos:

“Fight the Power” (Full 7-Minute Version) (1989)

“Burn Hollywood Burn” (1990)

“Do the Right Thing” (Clip) (1989)

“911 is a Joke” (1990)

“Brothers Gonna Work It Out” (1990)

“Do the Right Thing” (Opening Credits) (1989)

“Can’t Do Nuttin’ for Ya Man” (1990)

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