MEMOS FROM A MUSIC FIEND
BY ALEJANDRO MAGAÑA
Public Enemy: Fear of a Black Planet
Def Jam, 1990
This is one of the albums that inspired this entire list, as it was one of a “10 most influential records, no explanation only covers” early quarantine challenge. One of the first albums I ever owned, bought on cassette right when it came out.
So, what can one say about this unique beast of an album? It’s an awesome work of early hip-hop, filled with razor sharp socio-political observations similar to the record that preceded it but there’s a dark sense of humor at play that is a little more obvious and striking than “Nation of Millions,” exemplified by the song “911 Is a Joke,” which was a popular single and video at the time. Public Enemy have said numerous times they were attempting to make a more unified thematic album, what Chuck D called, “more deep and complex.”
Sonically, the record still possesses that Bomb Squad signature kitchen-sink sound, a sculpted cacophony with blades of funk guitar and brass spiked intermittently, beats like a martial barrage of perfectly aimed bomb blasts. In a 1990 interview Chuck D said, “We approach every record like a painting…We used about 150, maybe 200 samples on Fear of a Black Planet.” This was before the real legal crackdown on sampling, before legal limits and clearance costs. As Chuck D said in reference to this in an interview later, “Public Enemy’s music was affected more than anybody’s because we were taking thousands of sounds. If you separated the sounds, they wouldn’t have been anything — they were unrecognizable. The sounds were all collaged together to make a sonic wall.” Therein lies one of PE’s great contributions to music, they legitimized such sonic collage work in popular music, no longer simply the province of academic aesthetes who simply theorized about the virtues of ‘musique concrète.’ Here it was being used for a confrontational philosophical battery, songs that confronted national notions of white supremacy, institutional racism, and oligarchy.
Filled with pummeling hardcore songs that are as punk as anything made with guitars, drums and bass, these Afro-futuristic assaults such as “Welcome to the Terrordome,” “Burn Hollywood Burn,” and “War at 33 1/3,” are not only hip-Hop classics, but also unfortunate reminders, as they are still as relevant now as they were back then. Not content to leave on a note of disappointment however, PE ends this record with one of the greatest Black Power anthems ever, an inspiration to me and anybody who has fought their whole lives for social justice, a song that I know by heart, both literally and figuratively, “Fight The Power.” Forever.