Back and Black
With 1988's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Chuck D and Public Enemy positioned hip-hop as "the CNN of black culture," raging against the machine while bringing a noise as revolutionary as it was intense. The first true hip-hop masterpiece, it placed second, behind The Ramones' self-titled debut, on Spin magazine's list of Top 100 alternative albums. And unlike most other important alternative albums, it managed to change the game and fight the power while selling a boatload of copies.
These days, when hip-hop acts challenge the system, their records are usually relegated to the sidelines, or, in Kanye West's case, they're bitch-slapped by pundits for having the nerve to suggest that George W. Bush doesn't care about black people (news at 11!). Meanwhile, 50 Cent goes mega-platinum.
Chuck D blames the bottom-feeding media. "When it comes to corporations, they just want to see what sells," he says. "And when you judge an art form by the quantity instead of quality, you're gonna have a problem. I tell people all the time: Dog food sells a hell of a lot more than fine cuisine. That doesn't mean it's on my plate."
But revolution did sell back when Public Enemy was following It Takes a Nation with a rabble-rousing single, "Fight the Power," and two even bigger (and no less revolutionary) albums, 1990's Fear of a Black Planet and Apocalypse 91 . . . The Enemy Strikes Black.
As D sees it, "It was a smarter America. We'd seen eight years of devastation under Reagan and another four with George Bush Sr., so obviously, my discussion could float to the forefront as something where they could say, 'Okay, we see what you're saying.' But it was harder for that discussion to be recognized under Clinton because they'd say, 'Well, Clinton's almost black. Shouldn't you niggaz be happy?'"
The closest Public Enemy's come to regaining the profile they had in the pre-Clinton era was a Spike Lee soundtrack, He Got Game, in 1998. But they're still making records. Last month's Beats and Places was their fourth new album in a year's time, and another new one drops in the spring.
Just don't expect to hear a bunch of new stuff live. They'll be bringing the hits. "Public Enemy live," says D, "is like a combination of Rage Against the Machine, Run-D.M.C., and The Roots. It's the greatest show on Earth, and I'm glad to be part of it."
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