Twenty Years After 'Fear Of A Black Planet,' Public Enemy Members, Collaborators And Colleagues Celebrate Its Anniversary
Members of hip-hop's elite took the stage last September at Brooklyn's Academy of Music as part of VH1's sixth annual Hip-Hop Honors to celebrate the 25th anniversary of prominent hip-hop label Def Jam Records.
But one standout performance was by one of the label's legendary groups: Public Enemy. Backed by the Roots and members of Street Sweeper Social Club as well as PE's S1W group, Flavor Flav, wearing a white tuxedo, top hat and trademark clock, took the stage with longtime partner Chuck D and SSSC's Boots Riley for an electrifying performance of "Rebel Without a Pause" from PE's 1988 rap classic, "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back." The album has sold 722,000 copies in the United States since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking sales in 1991.
Today, PE is celebrating an anniversary of its own, as 2010 marks the 20th anniversary of the act's politically driven third album, 1990's "Fear of a Black Planet." The set has sold 561,000 units since 1991, according to SoundScan, but there are reports that it sold 1 million copies in its first week, which was before SoundScan began tracking sales. It debuted at No. 40 on the Billboard 200, peaked at No. 10 and was certified platinum by the RIAA for shipment of 1 million units.
"Chuck D had this concept for the cover of 'Fear of a Black Planet'-the idea was to have two planets eclipsing: the Public Enemy planet and the Earth," recalls Cey Adams, creative director for Def Jam from 1984 to 1999. He adds that a NASA illustrator was hired to create the cover. "It was so interesting to me that a black hip-hop act did an illustration for their album cover. At that time black hip-hop artists, for the most part, had photos of themselves on their covers. But this was the first time someone took a chance to do something in the rock'n'roll vein."
To match its wrapping, "Fear of a Black Planet" contained lyrical themes concerning organization and empowerment within the African-American community, while presenting criticism of social issues affecting African-Americans at the time.
To present this message-heavy concept, the group released tracks like "Fight the Power," which was first available in 1989 on the soundtrack to the Spike Lee film "Do the Right Thing" and arguably the group's biggest hit. (It reached No. 1 on the Hot Rap Singles chart and No. 20 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs.)
"I think that between the statement Spike was making with the film and the statement Public Enemy was making with the song, you knew it was beyond powerful," says producer Gary "G-Wiz" Rinaldo, a former member of PE's in-house production team the Bomb Squad.
Former Def Jam director of publicity Bill Adler concurs. "That song really enriched the movie and vice versa. That was a hell of a marriage right there-that was one of the greatest uses of a song in a movie in the history of cinema as far as I'm concerned," he says.
In addition to being featured in the film, the song continued to cement the group's political stance: "Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me, you see/Straight-up racist that sucker was, simple and plain / Motherfuck him and John Wayne / 'Cause I'm black and I'm proud," Chuck D raps atop the Bomb Squad's scratch-heavy, sample-layered beat.
"Chuck changed the game lyrically for recorded music the same way [Bob] Dylan brought poetry to rock-it was revolutionary," says Tom Morello, formerly of Rage Against the Machine, and now a member of SSSC. The 'Elvis was a hero to most' line is a highlight-I couldn't believe anyone was saying that out loud because it was exactly what I'd been thinking."
It was these types of racially charged statements that attracted a media firestorm shortly before the album's release. "The summer of 1989, leading up to the creation of 'Fear of a Black Planet,' was a rough time," recalls Adler, who worked at Def Jam from 1984 to 1990. "[PE member] Professor Griff gave an interview [in the May 22 edition of the Washington Times] where he said some anti-Semitic nonsense and created controversy. Partly, that's what fueled the writing of 'Fear of a Black Planet.' If you listen to the track 'Welcome to the Terrordome,' that's Chuck's direct response to the problems the group struggled with leading up to the album. It was a very wild time for PE."
The group was on the road when Griff's comments were made public, raising a host of issues for the tour. "We were touring and my insurance went from 55 cents a person to $1.55 a person," recalls Darryll Brooks, one of PE's early promoters. "Stuff was blown out of proportion, but they adjusted their ideal to accommodate their identity. Griff had to get out the group and it got real dark for a minute."
"I found that the people who were most excited by PE controversies were the ones who knew the least about Public Enemy's advanced politics, lyrical inventiveness and sonic brilliance," says Harry Allen, a hip-hop activist and self-professed media assassin who worked as PE's publicist.
But while the album was loaded content-wise, the production was a lot more "commercial," according to producer Keith Shocklee, who helmed the tracks "Fear" and "Terrordome." "Chuck D had a lot of things he wanted to get off his chest, but for me, I just wanted to get lots of interludes and bridges and B-sections in there," he says. "For 'Fight the Power,' I used a lot of light samples, not like what we did with ["Nation" track] 'Bring the Noise.' Because of that combination the album became more critically accepted."
Adding to the more lighthearted tone of the album was one of music's greatest hype men, Flavor Flav, who colored the group's songs with his witty ad-libs. "Flav's the hype man and Chuck's the rapper-they help each other out. I don't know if the message would be as powerful if Flav was hyping around alone or Chuck was rapping alone," Run-D.M.C.'s Joseph "Run" Simmons says. "The music is just so powerful, so amazing, and it just speaks for itself."
Former Def Jam staffer Adams agrees. "That's the thing that makes them special-it's a combination of Malcolm X and Martin Lawrence, with Flav there for comical relief and Chuck giving everybody a history lesson," he says. "One without the other would've meant they would've probably been over-people get tired of being preached on."
Still, it's Chuck D's vision that dominates "Fear of a Black Planet" and the place it holds in hip-hop history. "It all came down to Chuck-he's a genius," says former Bomb Squad producer Eric "Vietnam" Sadler, who helped create the album. "He's one of the few MCs that can really change cadence. The music is timeless and has so many layers to it. You can listen to it 100 times and hear something different every time."
"They are one of the greatest rap groups of all time and the only important breakthrough artist of their kind to have a significant political message," says Rick Rubin, who signed PE to Def Jam on the strength of Chuck D's radio show on Adelphi University's WBAU Garden City, N.Y., and an independent single. "No other rap artist has had their power musically, lyrically and with such conscience."
Adams adds, "Other than Run-D.M.C., no one had a three-album success rate at that time. The quality PE had as a band is what made them withstand the test of time. They delivered a serious message but didn't take themselves too serious-they still wanted people to laugh. Plus, you just couldn't deny those beats."