Of all of the hip-hop albums I will listen to during this journey, none is more familiar or personal than today’s pick, “Fear of a Black Planet” by Public Enemy. It may seem odd that a privileged white kid from the relatively affluent suburbs could relate to and fully appreciate this album, but in addition to being as empathetic and hopefully conscious as I can be about the inequities and injustices faced by black Americans, I channeled much of the defiance and resistance of this album personally in the early ‘90s as I struggled to conform to the daily rigor and bureaucracy of working for a massive corporate entity. Each day as I drove into work in these earliest days, I would put on this record (cassette, specifically) and leverage the intensity of the opening tracks “Contract on the World Love Jam” and its follow-up, “Brothers Gonna Work It Out”. I cranked up these tracks in order to sharpen my own resistance and as much as possible, be successful while still taking as little shit as possible from anyone as I silently clung to my independence. Even now when I hear these songs or some of the other music on this album, and I mean this in the most constructive manner possible, I’m ready to start busting things up. It is intense, powerful, and fully captures the anger Public Enemy built their entire sound on top of, and the end result is a masterful album that is rated as the #176 album on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
The obvious and primary theme on this record is the oppression of black Americans, and they take it on directly from a variety of angles. “911 is a Joke”, written and performed by Flavor Flav, mocks the lack of urgency of emergency services in black communities. “Pollywanacraka” confronts the ugly reaction in white and black communities to interracial relationships. “Burn Hollywood Burn”, with one of the earliest “features” in hip-hop, brings in Ice Cube and Big Daddy Kane to take on the racial stereotypes of legacy Hollywood. “Who Stole the Soul” addresses the historical abuse in the music industry where white businessmen used and took advantage of black recording artists. The title track questions the puzzling reality that any offspring of white and black parents are automatically relegated to minority status. This is an angry album that takes on very real issues, including the controversial reputation the group had developed. Even as social activists, Public Enemy was not above their own prejudices and gaps. One of their lead members, Professor Griff had recently been removed from the group for anti-Semitic commentary, and like many other hip-hop and artists of music and comedy of this age, they were fully insensitive to the rapid spread of HIV & AIDS and its unfair association with the gay communities of America.
For all of their imperfections, I still love the collective work of this album, including their willingness to bring the public reaction to their issues into the record through a variety of soundbites and talk-radio samples. The Bomb Squad does more amazing work producing this record, and back in the age when sampling was unbound by legal challenges that would eventually follow, the album emits a massive kaleidoscope of sounds from all genres. Listening to the intense bass and beat of “Reggie Jax”, you understand how well they immersed their message in really powerful music. Tracks like “Welcome to the Terrordome” and “Fight the Power” have the same militant intensity of the two opening songs, and I don’t know how you wouldn’t be compelled to fight back against all injustice with this great record as your soundtrack.