By Melissa Fossum
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It was a glorious moment in music-video history: Evan Mecham manhandled by terrorist "pickaninnies," shoved into a car and finally blown to bits. Inspired by Arizona's MLK Day dearth, Public Enemy's hip-hop fantasy about snuffing the governor, "By the Time I Get to Arizona," made the point that white folks, particularly Governor Ev, had turned this state into what they'd call one of those "places with racist faces."
With another vote on the MLK holiday only two weeks away, King is again in the spotlight. And those rays won't get any hotter than on Saturday when U2, Public Enemy and the Sugarcubes play Sun Devil Stadium.
A few months back, U2, now officially a group of Irish geezers who "just want to rock n' roll," wasn't in the mood to pontificate at the ASU Activity Center, and so let their King tribute "Pride (In the Name of Love)" speak for itself. Whether Bono develops an aching nostalgia on Saturday for the weight of the world is probably between him and the guy who helps him into his leather trousers. But even if the singer gets caught up in election fever and starts giving hell to Ev and like-minded Arizonans, he probably won't have the last word.
That's because U2, looking for ever newer ways to prop up its traveling dinosaur exhibit, is bringing along Public Enemy. U2's "Pride" may be more spiritually stirring than Public Enemy's King Day number, but anyone who's heard the rappers' song and seen the video knows it's way more fun, entertaining notions, as it does, of Ev's toupee being blown to smithereens.
"Muthafuckin' racist-ass state" was how P.E. leader Chuck D dissed Arizona in a 1990 show at Veterans' Memorial Coliseum. The question remains, though, what blowing up a politician and using certain four-syllable words has to do with King, who espoused nonviolent tolerance. Chuck has explained it by saying King would see it the rapper's way if he were around to see how far away his dream remains.
The truth is, Public Enemy's rant is much worse than its rap sheet. Because no matter how much Chuck D likes to rabble-rouse and fantasize about killing blue-eyed devils, he and P.E. have a soft spot in their hearts for white people. Consider this: Of all hip-hop's most strident Africentrists, Ice Cube, Boogie Down Productions, and X Clan among them, Public Enemy is the most likely to be seen jamming with whites.
Run-DMC made a revolutionary turn with Aerosmith back when hip-hop hadn't broken through yet, and KRS-One scored an alternative hit with R.E.M. on last year's "Radio Song," but Public Enemy has practically made a career of teaming up with white folks. Why this Sly and the Family Stone vibe from a group for which cracker-bashing is bread and butter?
To start with, money. Public Enemy's biggest fans are white; of the four Valley Zia Records outlets, the one that sells the most hip-hop is located in that urban jungle of Paradise Valley. Overall, P.E.'s iconoclastic instinct is stronger than any tendency toward isolationism. The group likes doing things that make people angry and/or confused. Either that or Chuck D believes something really dangerous--like music is uniquely qualified to bring down racial barriers.
Public Enemy's bizarre tales from the white side go back to the mid-'80s, when the group was still an unknown quantity from Strong Island. In a story that would give any Christopher Columbus fan chills, white record company minimogul Rick Rubin heard the group and decided it gave off a decidedly refreshing punk aroma. His black partner at the time, Russell Simmons, reckoned P.E. was just too hard-core for the Def Jam hip-hop label. Rubin pestered Simmons and the group until he eventually became the executive producer of P.E.'s first two classic albums, Yo! Bum Rush the Show and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.
It was in "Bring the Noise," the first song on P.E.'s second album, that the group first gave a shout-out to white folks by belittling Sonny Bono and fellow Strong Island misfits Anthrax. The second name-drop was serious, but more on that later.
In 1990, before the KRS-One/Michael Stipe duet, Chuck D's voice was all over alternative radio courtesy of his noisy downtown homies in Sonic Youth and their song "Kool Thing." On that tune, Sonic Youth singer Kim Gordon asks him, "Are you gonna liberate us girls from male, white corporate oppression?" "Tell it like it is," was Chuck's reply, "Fear of a Female Planet." The collaboration eventually led to a relationship solid enough to bring the two acts together for at least one live double bill. Last year P.E. mounted an unsuccessful tour with British Goth group Sisters of Mercy.
Not that P.E. is just into the white alternative scene. At the height of the Vanilla Ice phenomenon, P.E. rapper Flavor Flav burst onto the set of The Arsenio Hall Show to display his support for the beleaguered Elvis of hip-hop. Actually, Flav was probably there to show up Hall more than anything. Arsenio, who once made a parody album under the alias "Chunky A" mocking weighty rappers like Heavy D and the Fat Boys, had been notorious for shunning more controversial rappers like Ice Cube.