How Public Enemy Taught a Generation Black History

No group had it locked like Public Enemy the year Mandela was finally let out of prison. In 1990, when their momentum-grabbing third album dropped, its songs and the band’s logo — a defiant, beret-adorned B-boy in the crosshairs of a gun — were as ubiquitous as the African medallions worn by Black folks in virtually every North American city. If 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is Public Enemy’s brilliant bedrock, Fear of a Black Planet represents their all-encompassing apex. This Black History Month is the perfect time to reflect on a seismic album that hipped a whole generation to the extraordinary richness of the African-American experience.

“Fight the Power” may be the only song in the canon to immortalize a year with its opening line: “1989, the number, another summer.” Before Chuck D’s epoch-making verse, though, the first words we hear are from a 1967 speech by Thomas “TNT” Todd, a civil rights attorney who, at the height of the Vietnam-era anti-war movement, warned that “our best-trained, best-educated, best-equipped, best-prepared troops refuse to fight.”

The song’s archival flavor is appropriate, seeing that “Fight the Power” — an all-hands-on-deck anthem originally commissioned by Spike Lee for Do the Right Thing the previous July — is intended as a post-soul update of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the 1900 hymn by James Weldon Johnson that’s been dubbed the Black National Anthem.

What Chuck D, Flavor Flav, and the band did on Fear of a Black Planet was indeed make the planet “jump along to the education.” “Public Enemy sent you to the bookstore just as easily as they sent you to the dance floor,” author Cheo Hodari Coker told NBC News in a 2020 discussion on “Fight the Power.” Up in Ontario, Ed Robertson of the Barenaked Ladies heard what Chuck was saying: “In my privileged existence growing up in suburban Canada, I learned from Public Enemy that there is this massive injustice gap, and it was fucking eye-opening and confounding,” Robertson recalled in another interview that year commemorating the 30th anniversary of Fear of a Black Planet.

Back in the inner city, barbershop discussions about disrupting the powers that be began to flourish. It was a given that, as you waited for that fresh new fade, you were going to get — along with the usual banter about Michael Jordan, the medicinal properties of rum, or whether Laura Winslow was all that on the latest season of Family Matters — an earful of opinions on the heady ideas found in such Black nationalist tomes as Frances Cress Welsing’s The Isis Papers or Elijah Muhammad’s Message to the Blackman in America. So much of this was due to the militant precedent that Fear of a Black Planet set.

If the music seemed humorous, even a bit absurd at times, that’s just a testament to the brilliant Everyman appeal Public Enemy tapped into, thanks to Chuck’s tongue-in-cheek approach to weighty, concept-based songs, and, especially, the court jester antics of Flavor Flav. The bottom line is that the culture demanded substance and in 1990, Public Enemy delivered.

What was in the air at the beginning of the decade to make the climate receptive to socially conscious music? Start with the incredibly high bar Public Enemy had set two years earlier with It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. (Earlier in 1988, Boogie Down Productions released their own mindful masterwork, By All Means Necessary.) The brewing fervor over what crack cocaine did to the Black community; the rage in the streets over the extrajudicial killings of Eleanor Bumpurs and Yusef Hawkins; and the gross miscarriage of justice that led to the wrongful conviction of the Central Park Five all meant that enough was enough. Young Black listeners in 1990 wanted their art to empower them. And, 26 years after the passing of the Civil Rights Act, they yearned for songs that spoke to the injustices they continued to experience.

That year, regarded as the zenith of Black nationalist rap, there were also legions of faux fellow travelers. No need to name names. But the climate got so contrived that, three years later, the Chris Rock vehicle CB4 would brilliantly satirize kufi-wearing conscious rappers whose entire lyrical output amounted to “I’m Black, y’all!”

It was impossible to spoof Public Enemy. Their absurd factor was already, ingeniously, built-in thanks to Flavor Flav. Where all the also-rans and fake-conscious revolutionaries — as phony as their fake-gangster counterparts — failed was in their insistence on a deadly serious stance that was at odds with the folks in the barbershop, let alone the Black historical experience.

“History shouldn’t be a mystery,” Chuck insists on “Brothers Gonna Work It Out,” one of Fear of a Black Planet’s highlights. And it isn’t on “Revolutionary Generation,” which synthesizes a doctoral thesis–worthy range of ideology from the Black intellectual past into five-odd minutes of fury. Suitably, a sample from the same Jesse Jackson speech utilized on “Rebel Without a Pause” is paired with a fiery snippet of a Mary McLeod Bethune slogan popularized in the Seventies by the radical Combahee River Collective: ”The true worth of a race must be measured by the character of its woman.” It’s a bold pro-womanist stance from a group who’d been accused years earlier of misogyny by critics like the late Greg Tate.

Lesser-known cuts like “Meet the G That Killed Me,” “War at 33 1/3,” and the truculent title track  — which sample the words of Welsing, Louis Farrakhan, and Dick Gregory, respectively — loom like some aural Schomburg archive, and feel like urgent dialogues with some of Black America’s most provocative voices.

On the blistering “Burn Hollywood Burn,” Chuck, Ice Cube, and Big Daddy Kane play the streets’ Siskel and Ebert. Long-festering concerns about Black representation in the movies — call it the poetic piggybacking off of Buggin’ Out’s “How come you got no brothers on the wall?” demand in Lee’s masterpiece — lead to a skewering of stereotypical maids, nannies, and foot-shuffling chauffeurs when these rap superheroes crash the multiplex.

“911 Is a Joke” turns the ongoing plight of unresponsive emergency services in Black neighborhoods into a danceable tragicomedy. And “Welcome to the Terrordome” kicks off with a Richter-breaking blast of Dennis Coffey’s flanged-out guitars — a psychedelic dose of wah-wah that makes you relish getting the wind knocked out of you. Chuck’s verse is both arresting and world-weary. It’s as if he’s living with the weight of 40 million Black Americans on his shoulders. He’d been criticized for a line where he seems to compare himself to Jesus in the song. But it still stands out as one of Public Enemy’s best and most musically adventurous expressions.

It’s a truism that Fear of a Black Planet is a companion to It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. By most accounts, Public Enemy’s classic sophomore offering is the grander achievement. It’s the first rap album to be taken seriously by critics, à la Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And what the Bomb Squad accomplished with its dissonant, wall-of-sound production echoed through an entire decade.

In his interview with Chuck D, the late podcast legend Combat Jack talked about first hearing songs like “Night of the Living Baseheads” blasting from expensive cars and thinking that the group must be made up of drug dealers. It spoke to Public Enemy’s relevance in the streets, he later suggested, that their music perfectly mimed the manic vibe of the Eighties crack trade they were denouncing.

It’s hard to fathom, now, that It Takes a Nation was an underdog album. Chuck has said that the intro and all those crowd snippets on his tour de force were recorded overseas because the U.S. was still sleeping on P.E. In that same Combat Jack interview, the self-proclaimed “rhyme animal” admitted that the group had to step up its game after hearing Big Daddy Kane’s “Raw.” They’d made some waves with their 1987 debut, Yo! Bum Rush the Show. But after hearing what Kane did with words over the hyped-up BPMs of his breakout single, the band had to retreat to the lab and make sure their second album afforded them a space in rap’s burgeoning Golden Age.

Fear of a Black Planet is where everything gelled. No longer playing catch-up, Public Enemy asserted their dominance, telling us they’d been to the future and that it was Black. The culture responded in kind, like, “Let me find out Sun Ra and Milkman Dead are somewhere eating hog maws on Mars!” With pathos, humor, and fury, the album celebrated Blackness in all its otherworldly, multidimensional glory. There’s no greater gift than that.

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