WHITE THE POWER PUBLIC ENEMY'S COLORBLIND WHEN IT COMES TO MAKING MONEY
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.
White rappers apparently pose little threat to P.E. In late 90, Chuck helped out Young Black Teenagers, a very white hip-hop group whose claim to fame was its motto that being black is more a state of mind than a skin color. The group's debut album came out on a label run by P.E.'s Bomb Squad production team. Last year P.E. invited Y.B.T. rapper-deejay Kamron to do some scratching for its album Apocalypse 91 . . . the Enemy Strikes Black.
Also on that disc was a remake of "Bring the Noise," featuring more white people. Although it would've been more interesting to redo the song with Palm Springs Mayor Sonny Bono, who, remember, is mentioned in the lyrics, P.E. got Anthrax to back it up la the Run-DMC/Aerosmith deal. But one nation under a groove this wasn't. It's a tossup whether Anthrax's Scott Ian's duh-okay-George rapping or the band's clunky thrashing was more to blame for ruining this "Bring the Noise."
Even more queer was Chuck D's foray into public displays of affection for white musicians via a different medium: the love letter. A few months back, Chuck penned a paean to Bruce Springsteen for Spin magazine. Although you're more likely to find "Atomic Dog" than "Rosalita" booming on the D family sound system, Chuck did have to admit in the article, "All I got to say is: He's the Boss. He's the Boss--fuck it." A well-documented homophobe, Chuck had nothing to say, however, about Springsteen's habit of kissing his former sax man Clarence Clemons on the lips.
And the group's crossover career moves continue. It recently rocked a British festival that featured major white act Nirvana and a bunch of other lesser-known Caucasians.
Now that the group's out on the road sandwiched between U2 and white warm-up band the Sugarcubes, questions beg to be asked. Can a "Monsters of Hip-Hop and Light-Rock Tour" featuring Public Enemy, Crosby, Stills and Nash and Michael Bolton be far behind? What about capitalizing on that new hip-hop jazz thing? Check it out: Public Enemy, Harry Connick Jr. and Kenny G. Or how about a pay-per-view called, simply, "The Legends," featuring Minnelli, Sinatra and Flavor Flav.
Alas, if only Elvis were still on tour.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.