What Public Enemy taught me about policy

An ode to some of hip-hop's most urgent, political and important MCs.


Flavor Flav, left, and Chuck D. of the rap group Public Enemy, pose for photographers upon their arrival for the MTV Music Awards at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, Sept. 8, 1994. (Malcolm Clarke/AP)

Not Springsteen –  In this series, we’ll discuss policy and politics as reflected in music and popular culture. The only requirement: absolutely no Bruce Springsteen references. Ever. 

I don’t remember the first album I stole. I think it was either Ice Cube’s “Amerikkka’s Most Wanted” or 3rd Bass’s “The Cactus Album”.

The key to my short period of petty larceny in seventh grade was puffy jackets. A kid in my middle school had a Charlotte Hornets Starter jacket, and it always seemed like he could steal anything with that thing.  I wore hand-me-down down. My friends and I had just enough sense to know where we could steal and where we’d be eyed instantly. For a brief time, we stole anything we could. We didn’t know what was happening to us. We thought we were a crew.

We’d head to the back of Sam Goody, after perfunctorily leafing through the Pink Floyd records and the soundtracks. The goal was to make it slowly over to the back, where the rap tapes were kept.

All of the store’s tapes were kept in long, plastic frames to prevent kids like us from slipping the rock music into our coats. In our affluent, homogeneous town on the Gold Coast of Connecticut, the store placement of rap albums was almost designed to make it easy to steal them. They kept the rock records in the front, near the guitar tab books in a book rack, and they kept the local concert tickets behind the desk in a tin box with a lock on it, where a wiry, mulleted man in his 30s was always disinterestedly thumbing through a copy of Guitar World. He was always there and never wanted to be.

In 1990 something was happening to my predominantly white, over-privileged classmates: N.W.A. In sixth grade, a friend’s brother had a tape of N.W.A.’s studio debut “Straight Outta Compton,” and it was passed around like a profane bible, cited as a new dictionary in cursing and slang, and just as we were hitting pubertriy, it opened a window into what we didn’t recognize was a particularly brutal form of misogyny.

In hip-hop’s Golden Age, rap became a signifier of difference for white kids in the suburbs — a broad, ill-fitting representation of the kind of anger young men feel. Kids from slightly rougher upbringings in town started wearing black Raider hats. People broke into the Running Man at recess. There was a short, exciting period of dance-offs. Wearing overalls, always with one strap unbuckled, was a sign you were tough. There were even murmurings of “gangs,” kids with cousins in Bridgeport who knew the Latin Kings, or least someone Latino.

I wanted Ice Cube’s debut album because he’d been a member of N.W.A., and I heard someone on the bus repeating the slow, hypnotic lyrics of Cube’s “Who’s the Mack?”, a kind of begrudging ode to pimping that morphs into a warning against predatory men. The Mack sounded important, but also not really the kind of person you’d want to be. Cube was clearly telling women to avoid The Mack — though macking, generally, seemed like a good thing to do.

I wanted to steal 3rd Bass’s album because of the song “Gas Face.” I had to know what the Gas Face was, who would get it (Would I ever get or give out the Gas Face?), how it related to flatulence (which was also a big topic in seventh grade). All I knew was the Gas Face was funny.

Mostly, I wanted to know how these white rappers in 3rd Bass landed on the fabled Def Jam Records. You see, Public Enemy was on Def Jam. And Public Enemy, it seemed clear, was different.

****

The first album I ever bought was the “Ghostbusters” soundtrack on vinyl. The “Footloose” soundtrack came first in my household, but my sister and I had a complicated timeshare situation with it. I preferred Kenny Loggins’ “I’m free (Heaven helps the man),” she liked “Almost Paradise (love theme from ‘Footloose’)” by Mike Reno and Ann Wilson. The first cassette I ever bought was Guns N’ Roses’ “Appetite for Destruction.” I’d listen to it on my mom’s Walkman and stomp around the house in a fugue I didn’t understand. I didn’t know where Paradise City was, but I knew it was hard to get there, and it was probably not in Connecticut. I also knew Nightrains probably weren’t reliable forms of public transit; I preferred to bike around town, thank you very much.

But the first album I ever cared about was Public Enemy’s “Fear of Black Planet”. Most days in 1990 and 1991, my friend, one of the few black kids in my school, and I would get off the bus, walk to his house and watch Yo! MTV Raps — followed by our personal favorite, BET’s Rap City with “The Mayor” Chris Thomas. Around this time the video to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” came out.

“We rolling up with seminars, press conferences and straight-up rallies …” Chuck D said into a microphone in the beginning of the video. And then the song began:

My God, what was this? This was something different. That much, I knew.

I think I bought the album — I don’t remember stealing it. I remember unfurling the lyrics sheet, thin, white and crackly like typing paper. I remember the cryptic line, “The counter attack on world supremacy” that appeared on the poster on my friend’s wall; it sounded like something from a bizarre X-Men subplot. The obvious racial politics of the album’s title weren’t immediately obvious to my seventh-grade mind. Neither was the incongruity of my obsession with it.

Up until that point, rap had been fun, even blatantly positive. I loved De La Soul, and their oblique absurdity, their conscious cheeriness and love of donuts and roller skating. Brand Nubian warned me about drug usage on “Slow Down”: ”There’s a girl named Tropicana, she’s always juicing” (still my favorite song about temperance).

 

Rap had also even presented Afro-centric imagery: X Clan was cool and black nationalist, but I really couldn’t see myself wearing one of those hats. Being a Poor Righteous Teacher sounded fun but exhausting.

But nothing hit me like Public Enemy. Even outside of rap, I’d never heard music this political, positive, and hard, but not at the same time. Hip-hop aside, popular music in the early 1990s could be devoid of history. (The most historically-engaged song remember from that time period was the high-cheese of The Scorpions ode to Glasnost “Winds of Change”).

Public Enemy was something much more urgent and visceral. Years later, Ta-Nehisi Coates would describe the experience of growing up listening to Public as a black teenager in West Baltimore:

“Before then, the music was escapist and fun — some beats and the dozens, fat chains and gilded belt-buckles. But Chuck D pulled us back into the real. Here in Baltimore, brothers would put on the Enemy and recoil. We had never heard anything so grating — drums crashed into whistles, sirens blared off-beat. But the cacophony was addictive and everywhere.

His style was baffling, but within it we beheld a recovered collective memory.”

Public Enemy was uniquely animated by politics. It’s something of a musical miracle to get a seventh grader — of any race -— singing along to a lyric like, “What we need is awareness, we can’t get careless.” “911 is a Joke” is perhaps the funkiest song about fixing public services in music history.

“Brothers gonna work it out”, the second track, especially blew me away. It was more than that baseline, which sounded like a robot was playing a one-stringed electric base, or that slicing guitar track.

Chuck raps;

“Teach a man how to be father
To never tell a woman he can’t bother
You can’t say you don’t know
What I’m talking ’bout
But one day … brothers gonna work it out.”

This was not Hammertime, which even 3rd Bass ridiculed as an impure commercialization of hip-hop. This was angry music that was positive; a cool, highly coded message, full of allusions, wrapped in layers of samples — including a radio show bashing Public Enemy — and historical speeches. “Brothers Gonna Work It Out”, like so many PE songs, was an unrelentingly positive call for action, it was Chuck D calling “to the brothers and the streets and the prisons” to organize. It made my head spin.

Finding out what all of this meant — that was my main concern. I remember hearing the lyric “First, nothings worse than a mother’s son/slain in Bensonhurst”, on “Welcome to the Terrordome,” and sifting through newspapers to find out the story of the 1989 slaying of Yusef Hawkins, who was shot by a mob of white, bat-carrying youths in Brooklyn. New York was rocked by racial tension at this time.

There was also tremendous emphasis on self-reliance, which was a decidedly new thing for a seventh grader to hear in music. “It was you that chose to do, you built a maze you can’t get through … I can’t do nuthin’ for ya man” Flavor Flav rapped about handouts and self-imposed poverty. On “Burn Hollywood Burn,” Big Daddy Kane rapped: “So let’s make our movies like Spike Lee, cause the roles being offered don’t strike me, there’s nothing that the black man can use to earn”. On Terrordome, Chuck writes “It’s weak to speak and blame somebody else/when you destroy yourself.” Self-empowerment, somehow, became cool.

At some point around this time, I stopped stealing things. I stopped vandalizing. I thought maybe it was a good idea not to get arrested again. Or sneak out of the house late at night to destroy property. I started to read a lot and pay attention in school. I began to try at things, rather than affect a kind pathetic diffidence at the world. Public Enemy redrew my boundaries of knowledge. School drew me to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but Public Enemy drew me to the “Autobiography of Malcolm X,” and Richard Wright.

Something changed in the way I approached the world. Our crew disbanded, even before white kids stopped wearing Raider hats. There were fewer dance-offs, and even fewer when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came out in eighth grade and all the Roger-Rabitting stopped. Still, for me, Public Enemy had been the beginning of a period of listening. I used to be a bit of bully, and I turned into someone who identified with underdogs. If I could miss “War at 33rd and ⅓” what else was I missing?

It’s tempting to say that Public Enemy changed me, or that its message has been really just resonant to liberals. But the group’s message wasn’t easy to categorize, and neither are their politics. Their emphasis on self-empowerment and self-reliance had echoes of conservatism; their call for action to address the legacy of racism is much more classically liberal. Their connection with the Nation of Islam around this time was also not simple.

In school we learned the principles of checks and balances, tyranny of the majority, and even the outlines of America’s terrible racial past. Public Enemy was a lesson in the incomplete and impersonal nature of this story — and it was a lesson in how poorly this story connected with real policy. It was a lesson in the individual’s role in shaping policy, in addressing inequities and fighting back against the forces of history.

For a gawky kid in the suburbs, it was a lesson in how rich and urgent the world’s concerns were. It’s the difference between Paradise City, where the grass is green and the girls are pretty, and the Terrordome. There is so much more going on than you think and we can fix this, Public Enemy seemed to say. Harry Belafonte, inducting Public Enemy into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, hailed the group for portraying “ordinary citizens tackling the seemingly intractable problems of our day”.

That basic first principle — that our social and political life was roiling and terribly unfinished, and that policy and personal responsibility were needed to fix it — was not something they taught you in school. That history and policy are unequal — and can be fixed — was something I’d been told but not shown. And it’s still a premise that’s far too rare in public discourse.

“Fear of a Black Planet” still sounds revolutionary to me — the samples are so thick that one estimate suggested that producing it under today’s copyright law would lead to a $5 loss on each album sold. It also still sounds just really cool. Stealing rap albums felt like a rebellious policy for a mostly lost white kid in the suburbs of Connecticut. (Let’s be clear: it wasn’t). The listening was the revolution for my small part of the world. Listen if you’re missing y’all.”

Ryan McCarthy is the assistant business editor for The Washington Post. He oversees Storyline, Wonkblog and other digital projects.
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