“The future of the group is in doubt.”
For the hip-hop group Public Enemy, the summer of 1989 brought controversy (“controversy in the rap world”), unwanted publicity, and public apologies. It also saw the group dismiss one of its original members, the minister of information, Professor Griff. Griff served as a public mouthpiece for P.E. and led the charge of the group’s faux military security force, the S1Ws. He had made a few anti-Semitic comments that the American press (“If you had read the stuff I had read about him, and the way he’s been portrayed in the American press”) picked up on immediately and spread like wildfire. For those of us who were weaned on MTV, the story broke most relevantly here. For others, it may have been picked up by U.S.A. Today or in the pages of the New York Times (Public Enemy’s hometown newspaper). Regardless of where you first heard the news, the backlash among those whose job is to make news out of quotes was swift and brutal. So much so that there was even a brief period immediately after the controversy broke that Public Enemy’s future as a collective was indeed “in doubt.” Professor Griff’s status in the group always appeared to be based more on aesthetics than functionality. He didn’t write, perform or produce any of the music. From an outsider’s perspective, the dismissal of Griff from the group could have understandably been met with a shrug but disbanding of Public Enemy completely? The thought was ludicrous…and frightening as a massive fan of the group in 1989. The silver lining in this whirlwind cloud of negative mainstream press and public opinion was a galvanized sense of focus for P.E.’s upcoming third L.P., Fear of a Black Planet.
Recorded during the summer and fall of 1989 and released in April 1990, Fear of a Black Planet opens with the sound of a barely audible swirling wind. This audible cue provides the listener with the immediate imagery of Public Enemy caught in a literal controversy storm, something I imagine Kanye West perpetually lives. For the next hour, you’d listen to their attempt to make sense of what had happened over the past nine months while facing that storm head-on. Musically, the album sounded like Public Enemy, or specifically Chuck D, the group’s lead rapper, songwriter, and co-producer was standing in the middle of a tornado. The Bomb Squad, Public Enemy’s production team, had manufactured a staggering array of musical & audio snippets layered one on top of the other as the base sound of Fear of a Black Planet. This created a dizzying effect for the listener during the song’s intros, outros and choruses while allowing for decompression during the verses, giving the listener a chance to catch their breath and absorb the lyrical content.
In some cases, songs relied on layers upon layers of samples, some taking multiple listens to connect to the song’s central theme (“No, we won’t have any of that”). In contrast, others took a more minimal approach of a dominating drum beat to execute the style (“Complete the beat for your feet, check out the drum kick”). For most of the album, the beats swirl around your ears, entering and exiting quickly, or in some cases, lasting much longer than what felt comfortable. Take, for example, the myriad of samples that kick off the side two opener, “Who Stole the Soul?” They come in so fast and frantic that you barely have time to register what’s happening before the “soul, soul, soul” chant brings you back to focus. On the flip side, you get Flavor Flav’s looped answer to Morris Day’s rhetorical question, “what time is it?” at the end of “Power to the People.” “Right about now” is repeated and chopped for a full minute before the entire sample is allowed to present itself to the listener. The Fear of a Black Planet era Bomb Squad, comprised of Chuck D, Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee, and Eric “Vietnam” Sadler, never surpassed the technical brilliance on display here.
The aggressive tone that Chuck D takes throughout the entire album should not have surprised anyone familiar with Public Enemy’s previous two efforts. Yo! Bum Rush the Show and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back were both filled with aggressive, confrontational, and authoritative lyrics. Public Enemy built the foundation of its style and sound from those two albums. Defiance. Pride. Empowerment. Black culture. Afrocentrism. These topics are what Public Enemy is about. Songs like “Pollywannacracka” and the title track most directly tackle the topic of interracial dating, marriage, and family rearing, which is the overarching theme implied by the album cover. However, with 20 tracks, including several skits and some bangers that have nothing to do with the album’s central theme, Fear of a Black Planet never feels preachy. Even Flavor Flav, the P.E. hype-man and secondary vocalist, had his best solo track on Fear. “911 Is a Joke” remains one of P.E.’s most memorable and recognizable tracks to this day, which is something you can’t honestly say about Flav’s other solo songs. Flavor Flav always served the group best when he and Chuck would bounce off each other while Flav’s lyrics stayed on message. See “Party for Your Right to Fight” off It Take a Nation… or “Revolutionary Generation” off Fear of a Black Planet for two very excellent examples of this. Unfortunately, the album’s weakest track, “Can’t Do Nuttin’ for Ya Man,” is a Flav solo song that could have been left on the soundtrack to House Party instead.
“Welcome to the Terrordome,” the album’s lead single and one of the most memorable hip-hop songs of all time, didn’t come without its own controversy. Created not just as a response to the Griff situation but also addressing several recent newsworthy events (Yusef Hawkins & Huey Newton murders, Virginia Beach riots), Chuck D raps like a man possessed and, frankly, pissed. Chuck even throws a few pointed jabs toward other cultures and religions that could be considered mildly offensive (“Crucifixion ain’t no fiction. So called chosen frozen”). The black community isn’t safe from criticism on “Terrordome” either (“Every brother ain’t a brother ’cause a black hand squeezed on Malcolm X the man”), so the song never feels like an attack on anyone specifically. Instead, these attacks include critics of Public Enemy, socio-economic inequality, institutional racism, and the self-hate that can sometimes plague any oppressed community. Thanks to a grinding beat and drum track, “Terrordome” is hard as fuck, to put it bluntly (look it up…the official designation has been assigned), and an unquestionable classic. Included with “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” and “Fight the Power,” the level of quality of these three songs would complete an epic 1989-1990 era Public Enemy trilogy that should convince anyone that Chuck D/P.E. belong on a hip-hop Mt. Rushmore. Speaking of “Fight the Power,” the album closes with this previously released song off Spike Lee’s impactful 1989 film, Do the Right Thing. The Fear of a Black Planet version is musically only slightly different than the soundtrack version, but instead, it ends with a reporter asking Public Enemy about their future. Chuck D’s response is cut off abruptly, leaving the listener to ponder a question that the album presented at the very start, then seemingly answered throughout the track listing (P.E. wasn’t going anywhere!), then planted that gut-punching seed of doubt at the conclusion.
“Talk to me about the future of Public Enemy.”
Memory Bank Withdrawal
By the summer of 1989, Public Enemy was my favorite group, period. Yo! Bum Rush the Show and especially It Take a Nation of Millions were touchstones to my adolescence, and I played them incessantly. Early appearances on Yo! MTV Raps, such as their in-studio performance of “Rebel Without a Pause” and the official video for “Night of the Living Baseheads,” cemented their status as the coolest & most fascinating hip hop group I’d ever heard and seen. I didn’t 100% understand what they were always talking about; throwing around references to Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton, H. Rap Brown, among others, plus the vernacular was something I was still learning. What did “cold lampin'” mean? It didn’t matter. I could either decipher it myself using context clues, or else I would create a meaning which may or may not have been its intent. Regardless, Public Enemy was “it” for me as a hip-hop fan, not unlike I imagine The Clash, another group that deftly mixed politics with music, were, to punk fans of the 70s/early 80s – the only band that mattered.
When the controversy broke, as I previously alluded to, I was worried that it spelled the end of the group. I feared their creative force was being snuffed out too soon because a secondary member said something offensively flippant. Thankfully I was proven wrong when the “Welcome to the Terrordome” cassette single showed up in stores in late 1989 with the promising sentence, “Taken from the upcoming Def Jam/Columbia release Fear of a Black Planet,” written on the back. Now I had anticipation for a P.E. project beyond soundtrack and compilation features. Anticipation can be an S.O.B.; it was all I could do to wait patiently for the L.P.’s full release in 1990. I bought the cassette single at the mall as a stopgap using my paper route money (at 14, I was too young to have a part-time job and too old not to need money to buy things I wanted). Needless to say, I was mesmerized. Even the instrumental on side B got repeated listens on my tape deck, thanks to the searingly hypnotic beat by the Bomb Squad.
Once released, Fear of a Black Planet was quickly the most played cassette on my bedroom boom box and my Walkman in 1990. My dad hated rap, so there was no way I was allowed to play this anywhere else but where he couldn’t hear it. I listened to Fear in its entirety over and over and over. I pored over the lyrics, memorized guest verses from Big Daddy Kane and Ice Cube, and I tried to identify samples (Holy shit, that was Prince’s guitar freak out from “Let’s Go Crazy” as a looped sample on “Brothers Gonna Work It Out”!). I was just generally entertained from beginning to end. After “Terrordome” and “Fight the Power,” the other songs I was instantly grabbed by were “Brothers Gonna Work It Out,” “911 Is a Joke,” “Burn Hollywood Burn,” & “Who Stole the Soul?” It would take repeated listens before I would appreciate “Pollywannacracka,” “Revolutionary Generation,” & “B Side Wins Again,” but then they became and remained highlights.
Maybe it’s because of the nostalgia of listening to and being obsessed with this album as a 9th grader and beyond, but Fear of a Black Planet never gets old. I listen to this album more than any other from the golden age of hip-hop, and I have memorized the track listing and could play the entire album in my head from memory. Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Terminator X, and the Bomb Squad’s 1990 masterpiece will always be the high-water mark that I judge other hip-hop artists against, even if albums like Fear of a Black Planet are no longer being made.
“Music hittin’ ya hard cause you know I got soul”
My personal order of preference of Fear of a Black Planet tracks from favorite to least favorite.
- Welcome to the Terrordome 5/5
- Fight the Power 5/5
- Brothers Gonna Work It Out 5/5
- Who Stole the Soul? 5/5
- B Side Wins Again 5/5
- Burn Hollywood Burn 5/5
- 911 Is a Joke 5/5
- Revolutionary Generation 5/5
- Power to the People 5/5
- Fear of a Black Planet 4.5/5
- War At 33-1/3 4/5
- Pollywannacracka 4/5
- Can’t Do Nuttin’ for Ya Man 3.5/5
- Reggie Jax 3.5/5
- Anti-N****r Machine 3.5/5
- Contract on the World Love Jam 3.5/5
- Leave This Off Your Fuckin’ Charts 3.5/5
- Incident at 66.6 FM 3/5
- Meet the G That Killed Me 3/5
- Final Count of the Collision Between Us and the Damned N/A
Overall Score: 5/5