Perhaps no other act besides the living Madonna and the dead Elvis has managed to create such a constant flow of headline-hogging controversy as Public Enemy. At its best, the Long Island hip-hop group sends chills up your spine, through your heart and into your brain with its passionate calls for justice in a society it believes is out to repress blacks 24 hours a day. At its worst, it takes The Autobiography of Malcolm X, throws it on a turntable and mass-markets it with all the finesse of Andrew Dice Clay on steroids.
If Public Enemy were to keep its mind solely on promoting black nationalism and creating the most cutting-edge hip-hop to ever hit the streets, the group probably would be modestly popular and critically renowned. Lead rapper Chuck D is as inspiring an orator as James Brown, Marvin Gaye, or Jesse Jackson. His sidekick, metal-mouthed Flavor Flav, blurts out improvisations on Chuck's raps, finishes his sentences and provides surreal comic relief. They rap over industrial-strength scratches and beats--created by deejay Terminator X and a behind-the-scenes group called the Bomb Squad--that sound like the breakout of inner-city warfare. The songs are disturbing, chaotic and funkier than any music has a right to be.
But PE doesn't sell millions of albums because of its art. The group has been accused, at one time or another, of being sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic and antiwhite. Whichtends to overshadow Public Enemy's often inspiring black nationalist message and create the kind of controversy that makes curious onlookers buy their albums.
Chuck D pooh-poohs the hype. Reached backstage before a recent show in Little Rock, Arkansas, the rapper maintains his critics don't have a clue. "I give them an F," he says, "because if I gave them a test, they would fail my test of what Public Enemy is about. Public Enemy is about what I say it's about or what my followers and audience say it's about. It's not for somebody from the outside to correct an educator."
Chuck doesn't say this angrily. It's as if he's retired to his living room for a pleasant after-dinner chat. He punctuates the conversation with a series of downright bizarre titters. It's almost as if Chuck is short for Chuckles. Chuck maintains that people have just dumped on Public Enemy because they aren't used to hearing his point of view.
"It's a misunderstanding of the black community and definitely a misunderstanding of the black man, who basically got the low end of the totem pole in this society," he says. "A lot of people in this establishment have been trained [chuckle] as a certain type of American by the media or the history books or the educational system in one particular way. So as soon as another side comes to light, it's offensive, because it's coming from another area, another perspective."
You'd think the rapper would do more than chuckle, considering that critics have been slamming Public Enemy since its 1987 Def Jam/Columbia debut Yo! Bum Rush the Show. The group quickly drew notoriety for being sexist (the song "Sophisticated Bitch"), violent (PE's drill-cum-dance team, the fatigue-clad Security of the First World, totes fake Uzis), and anti-Semitic (Chuck calls the controversial Louis Farrakhan "a prophet").
The furor escalated last year when S1W leader Professor Griff, the group's Minister of Information at the time, declared in an interview with the Washington Times that Jews are responsible for "the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe." Chuck's reaction was panic. He fired Griff, rehired him, fired him again, disbanded the group, then reunited it.
Chuck allows that he would've acted more decisively if he had known what he does now. "I would do some different things," he laughs, "but only to squash it and squelch it."
Chuck tried to put down the controversy, but ended up only creating more. A single called "Welcome to the Terrordome," from the group's new album Fear of a Black Planet, referred to the Griff controversy with the line, "Still they got me like Jesus." Again, Public Enemy was accused of being anti-Semitic. And thanks to a questionable line here and there, critics also dissed the group for sexism and homophobia.
And just when the group was growing all too predictable, it found yet one more way to piss off the public. PE's Director of Enemy Relations Harry Allen was behind this one, distributing to journalists copies of a pamphlet called The Cress Theory of Color-Confrontation and Racism (White Supremacy). This work contains the theory that whites feel inferior to other races because they lack the genetic ability to produce skin color.
On that same album, Chuck's disgust with the white status quo spilled out in "Fight the Power." In the angry anthem, the rapper let it be known that America's heroes aren't African-America's heros: "Elvis was a hero to most/But he never meant shit to me you see/Straight up racist that sucker was/Simple and plain/Mother fuck him and John Wayne/ . . . /Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps."
"Every time black people have a hero," Chuck elaborates, "it's criticized, whether it be Marcus Garvey, Minister Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson. Our heroes are always criticized unless they're hand-picked [chuckle] by white society. See what I'm saying?
"But white society's heroes and icons are always held up. And that's why I picked on two of them, Elvis and John Wayne. You know, personally I've got nothing against them. It's just that they don't mean shit to me. And they don't mean shit to most black people in America. But they're always being shoved down our throats. Marilyn Monroe, George Washington, Ronald Reagan. They don't mean shit."
"Fight the Power" is one of the latest installments in a series of songs on Chuck's favorite theme. He's written songs about how nearly every facet of society works against blacks. The media ("Don't Believe the Hype"), the FBI and CIA ("Louder Than a Bomb" and "Party for Your Right to Fight"), the courts ("Caught, Can I Get a Witness!"), the prisons ("Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos"), the movie industry ("Burn Hollywood Burn"), and, of course, the IRS ("Who Stole the Soul?").
Paranoid conspiracy theory or African-American reality? "Black people live within a racist system," Chuck says. "And nobody understands racism in America more than black people, which means that experience is the best teacher. You're living The Cress Theory."
Actually, Chuck D is often harder on blacks than whites are. "Night of the Living Baseheads," a song from It Takes a Nation of Millions, has got to be the most powerful antidrug song ever because it's not just a politically correct, public-relations, crack-is-bad song. With a radical chanting, honking mix screaming behind him, Chuck looks into the eyes of black drug-users with disgust, and tries to shame them into quitting. Likewise, Chuck's songs about the evils of TV ("She Watch Channel Zero?!") and buppie abandonment ("Pollywanacraka") can be just as embarrassing, like you've walked into the middle of a messy domestic dispute. He goes after his people the way white liberals wouldn't dare.
Chuck's willing to air the dirty laundry of his community because, he says, "I see myself as an adult. I have a responsibility as an adult to tell people what it takes to be an adult sometimes."
He has a different message for white people. Hip-hop, born on urban streets, is now firmly entrenched in suburbia. And Chuck the capitalist is no doubt well aware that PE's last two records wouldn't have gone platinum without the white mall market to boost sales. But Chuck the idealist wants white listeners "to realize what's going on with the black community, what caused the situation now."
He brags that the mixed crowds at Public Enemy shows are nothing less than proof of hip-hop's invinceability over the critical system that's tried to squash it.
"It's the strongest-growing music around. A lot of people in the establishment are trying to subdue it, but they can't because it transcends not only the black audience, it goes right into the white community just as well--as far as the youth. And what I'm trying to get across is that it's the best form of communication right now . . . to accelerate their education on the total situation--at least more than the establishment or their parents."
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Public Enemy will perform at Veterans' Memorial Coliseum on Tuesday, August 21. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.
The songs are disturbing, chaotic and funkier than any music has a right to be.
He goes after his people the way white liberals wouldn't dare.
"Our heroes are always criticized unless they're hand-picked by white society.