Public Enemy: Power to the People and the Beats

Goran M, after interviewing the famous Black American hip hop band Public Enemy, wrote this analysis of their background, how they emerged as a band, how their lyrics evolved, and what they generally stand for. He puts everything within the context of the struggles of the Afro-American community for their rights. Public Enemy clearly expressed, and continue to express, a growing radical mood among blacks, but also among all the youth.

Power, equality!
And we're out to get it
I know some of you ain't with it
This party started right in 66
With a pro-black radical mix
Then at the hour of twelve
Some force cut the power
And emerged from hell
It was your so called government
That made this occur
Like the grafted devils they were"

["Party For Your Right to Fight" - Public Enemy]

The famous Civil Rights movement, which began in the fifties with Martin Luther King and reached a climax in the late sixties with the spread of the Black Panther Party, in reality failed to bring a significant improvement in the living standard for the oppressed black minority within the United States. The reformist current inside the movement eventually took over in the early seventies (mostly because of the typical Stalinist mixture of ultra-left and reformist policies of the Black Panther leadership) and directed the movement towards the Democratic Party. The ultimate achievement of this reformist course over the years was the creation of a tiny layer of black petit-bourgeoisie through affirmative action (positive discrimination), which integrated itself into the American white middle class. Most of the Afro-Americans however, remained stuck in the lowest parts of the social ladder to this very day, living in the poorest neighborhoods of the big cities. The economic crisis that hit American capitalism in the seventies and the movement of industry out of the big cities devastated the living conditions for the black minority. From the year 1967 until 1987 Philadelphia lost 64% of it’s industrial jobs, which had been traditionally occupied by blacks. New York lost 58% and, the well-known working class center, Detroit more than 50%. Minority neighborhoods in the heart of the most advanced capitalist country in the world began to resemble third world communities.

From the mid seventies, the state also sharply cut the money invested in the infrastructure of these communities (the New York city government announced bankruptcy at one moment). On top of this, in the early eighties (around the same time the US was fighting undercover wars in Latin America) the streets began to overflow with "crack" (a cheap byproduct from cocaine manufacturing) whose distribution became the main economic branch in these forgotten communities. The economic decline brought these minority cities to the edge of a precipice by the late eighties. Places like South Central Los Angeles, Cabrini Green in Chicago, North Philadelphia, and whole areas of New York became "ghettoes" - areas of mass unemployment, bad schooling, drugs…

Around this time a medical report was published in the New England Journal of Medicine which shocked the world declaring that the life expectancy for a man born in Harlem (NY) was lower than that of a man born in Bangladesh! Until this very day, one third of blacks in the US live below the official poverty line. Even though they make up to around 12% of the population of America, blacks represent almost 50% of its prison population. The black male has 6 times more chance of dieing of violent causes than his white countryman and the number of black youth stuck in the prison system outnumbers the ones attending higher education.

These unbearable living conditions provoked a series of wild riots in New York, Los Angeles, Miami… in the early nineties. Black working class people, fed up with the situation, poured out onto the streets and the ruling class was forced to use the US army against its own citizens for the first time since the sixties. What these riots clearly exposed (besides the terrible conditions in the ghettoes which were ignored by the media) is that the poor majority of Afro-Americans lacks its own political voice. There was no one to articulate these spontaneous outbursts of anger, no one to speak for the masses. During the sixties, black America was decapitated. The most progressive and most radical political organizations which came out of the civil rights movement were sabotaged by the FBI - which established a special program by the code name COINTELPRO - whose aim it was to "neutralise" the black and left movement at that time. The ruling class did not hesitate to use the most repressive methods to "neutralise" the black leadership, including assassinations - Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Fred Hampton (BPP)… The rest of the movement was bought off and directed towards the Democratic Party. The official Communist party infected by Stalinism had become a loyal sidekick of liberal democrats long time ago.

In this situation, the black masses were left without a clear leadership and things have not changed much since. This political vacuum created the conditions for an explosion and forced the masses to create very peculiar alternative channels of expression. Both the ruling class political parties and the corporate media pretended these places did not exist and closed their eyes in front of this "horror". Emotions and thoughts of millions of wretched ghetto inhabitants had to be expressed someway and somehow. That’s how the phenomenon of hip hop came into existence. The street culture, invented and practiced by the ghetto youth in New York during that period, served as a unique valve. This situation paved the way for one of the most exciting periods in the history of popular music. Rap in the late eighties/early nineties, went through its golden age, and along the way forever changed the way in which we look at music and the way in which it is being made. This fresh musical form brought and incorporated a series of revolutionary new techniques into the music making process, hence bringing popular music in line with the new technological advances of the time (elements like: rhythm machines, scratch, sampling…). Also, maybe even more importantly, Hip Hop re-introduced the power of socially engaged music and art in general. A Long Island based group called Public Enemy found itself at the helm of this cultural renaissance.

Hip hop, of course, existed before the breakthrough of Public Enemy (PE), however its emergence marked a historical milestone for this counterculture and black music in general. Before PE, Hip hop, although a street culture by definition, did not represent the real street, on which it had been conceived. Rappers usually spent their time on the microphone bragging about themselves, describing fancy cars and expensive parties. Their response to ruthless reality was an escape. When PE stepped into the scene everything changed. They turned rap music into a tool for social criticism. Not a single rap fan was caught by surprise when the wrath of the poor Blacks poured out into the streets of Los Angeles because they had already been introduced to police harassment and the pitiful life conditions through rapper rhymes. All of a sudden, a window was opened for the whole world to see the harsh realities of the American ghettoes, all the dirt that had carefully been swept under the carpet in the era of Reagan’s "free market economics". Chuck D, Public Enemy’s front-man, defined hip hop as "black CNN", a media through which those without a voice would be able to express themselves and exchange ideas. Still, PE did not play the role of simple "reporters" from the battlefields. They called for action as well - reminding the working class and youth of the glorious movement of the sixties and its heroes which the history books continued to hide.

Blacks, thanks to their specific historical position within American capitalism, traditionally represented one of the most vanguard layers of the North-American working class. By analysing PE lyrics we get a unique opportunity to view dominant ideas circulating within the Afro-American community at the end of 20th century.

An Explosion

"Who got the money betcha bottom
Dollar bill
Gonna find
Some rich ol' bloodline
But the blood is in the mud
Take the whack an attack it
Like a Skud
To the patriotic hater
That got paid off my people
I'm rude
Lookout, get out the way - Move!"

Something like PE had never been seen before. They represent the most aggressive and most eloquent product in the rich history of black music. The Afro-American music scene in the eighties was under the strong influence of the disco sound. Disco, with it’s pathetic love lyrics, fake glamour and simple melodies, reflected a final breakdown of the movement that had started in the sixties and a sharp decline in the creativity among black artists. Public Enemy represented a radical break with this heritage and disco influence in hip hop music. In this sense, PE can be seen as direct heirs of the vanguard black groups from the sixties such as Gill Scott Heron (famous for his song: "The Revolution will not be televised") or The Last Poets - artists who reflected the radicalism of the political struggle of that time in a musical expression.

By taking the technique of "sampling" (cut pieces of already existing songs which are incorporated to make a new sound) to the highest levels; PE created an exciting fusion of black musical heritage, Blues, Funk, Soul…and wrapped all that up in the traditional form of rebellious white Rock-n-Roll band. The music they created was very tough to swallow, ruthless as the reality from which it came from. PE’s music making team, known as "The Bomb Squad", made a revolutionary breakthrough in the world of music production by pasting thick layers of chaotic samples: pieces of political speeches, news broadcasts, police sirens, Led Zeppelin guitar riffs and plain noise, over hard drum beats, which gave the impression of a musical blitzkrieg crushing everything in sight.

Chuck D, stuck to the principle that "rapping" is the most effective method if you wish to express yourself on the microphone, because, unlike singing, you can pack more messages and say much more in a limited time given by a song. His powerful vocal bombed the listener with facts throughout the song restlessly while the choruses resembled protest chants. Just how revolutionary this band was, in a strictly musical sense, is proved by the fact that The New York Times enlisted "It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back" among the top 25 albums of the last century that shaped its music. Even though it was released in 1988, the sampling techniques used on this masterpiece album remain unchallenged to this very day.

Without drums or a guitar, PE made more noise than 90% of the rock bands of that time, so the white kids (raised on loud guitar music) were easily attracted to this concept. By transforming it, PE turned Hip hop into a global phenomenon. They were the ones who undertook the historical mission of revealing this culture to the rest of the world. Before them, this subculture was strictly limited to black parts of American urban ghettoes. White American youth and youngsters all over the world were searching for something loud and rebellious enough to satisfy their tastes and they found it in PE. All of a sudden it was no longer "cool" to wear expensive clothes and dance in the clubs. It became "cool" to think critically, read books and get into political discussions with your school teachers. PE politicised a whole layer of youth all over the world. If it weren’t for them, there wouldn’t have been any politically engaged bands in the second half of the nineties such as Rage Against The Machine or the Manic Street Preachers.

The Rhythm is the Rebel

"Excuses are weak! -That’s why my look is mean"

"I think that white liberals like
yourself have difficulty understanding that Chuck's views represent the
frustrations of the majority of black youth out there today"

Talking about PE, we must realise that for the black youth of that time they represented much more than an ordinary pop band. With the lack of any appropriate institution within society, they served as a substitute for a political party, which could speak up for the masses of young blacks. The appeal and even the inner structure of the group clearly showed this. Functions were introduced within the band and each member had a title - such as "minister of information". The most striking visual feature that stunned conservative America however was "the S1W guard" - so called Security Of the First World (name given out of repulsion for the term "third world"). Sticking to the principle that you cannot trust the police, the band brilliantly used the tradition of back up dancers in black music - "their dancers" were their bodyguards at the same time - following them constantly on and off stage, dressed in camouflage gear and black berets which reminded the public of the famous Black Panthers. With time, circumstances forced them to cross the boundaries of a traditional pop band more and more and engage in social activism.

Listening to "Yo! Bum Rush The Show" - their debut in 1987 - few people could predict what was beyond the hill. Themes featured on this album were more or less in accordance with the rap standards of that era. Chuck D rapped about his crew, cars and the album even contains a standard song which deals with "easy women" (Sophisticated Bitch). This was the first and the last time that Chuck D used the word "bitch" to describe a female in his rhymes. The lyrics themselves did not reveal much, even though one can notice glitches of more direct political commentary. "Message to a Black Man" opens up with a direct indictment of the role of the church within society.

You spend a buck in the 80's, what you get is a preacher
Forgivin' this torture of the system that brought 'cha".

Despite their hesitation to stand out with more open lyrics, PE focused the attention of the masses on themselves with their general attitude and image. On the album cover we find a picture of the band members in some basement under a dim flashlight, in a clandestine atmosphere, gathered around a record turntable (a symbol of the new musical expression) while the subtitles reads "The Government is Responsible". This record sleeve attracted much attention. It served as a sort of a manifesto - an assurance that this was a new generation of black fighters, which was not prepared for any compromises whatsoever.

Many claim that this dirty aesthetic and militant image served simply as a marketing scheme of the record company. There is no direct proof of this and it is also completely irrelevant to our story. What is relevant is that it was exactly this image, no matter what kind of motives stood behind it in the beginning, that sparked the imagination of the masses and that the best response was given to those songs that contained anti-establishment messages.

Panic

"And the sucker on the right gets cynical
'Cause the record's to the left and political
And you search the stores
Attack the racks with your claws
For the rebels without a pause"

Their next album "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" is considered a masterpiece of socially engaged music. The album came out with 16 anthems that inspire an action. The lyrics are still slightly abstract, however in comparison to Yo! Bum Rush The Show, this is a gigantic step forward. The group sensed the hunger of the masses and with this album they began their mission. The album opens up with the sound of air attack sirens over which the "minister of information", Professor Griff announces: "This time around - the Revolution will not be televised" and right after that a cut from the Malcolm X speech is inserted proudly proclaiming: "Too Black, Too Strong!" PE touch upon various subjects which occupy the black community. "Night of the Living Baseheads" warns about the crack cocaine epidemic in the ghettoes and at the same time brilliantly reverses the right wing sponsored criminalization of black youth in the media by taking a peek across the fence (in the video the PE camera crashes inside a Wall Street office where they discover a group of "respectable citizens" in suits and ties snorting cocaine). The media comes under attack twice. "Don't Believe the Hype" urges the working class not to trust the news the corporate media is serving them and "She Watch Channel Zero" draws attention to the negative effect that soap operas have on the minds of the masses ("nobody looks like that, nobody even lives like that").

"Show'em Whatcha Got" is one of the most inspiring and emotional moments on the album. Here, over a hard beat and a simple saxophone melody, we find a woman shouting names of great black freedom fighters from throughout history - from Martin Luther King to Steven Biko - while in the background a chant: "Show them what you got!" is repeated over and over again. One can only imagine the sense of importance and pride these lyrics awoke in millions of black kids who grew up at the bottom of racist societies (whether in the U.S. or South Africa) which were telling them on a daily basis that they were nobody and not worth a damn thing.

Another classic moment is found on the antiwar song "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos". Here, inspired by the antiwar movement of the sixties and the movement for prisoners’ rights (Attica), Chuck D describes a prison rebellion and makes fun of the patriotic propaganda. He allegedly found himself locked up behind bars because he refused to go to the army. The songs opens up with the lyrics:

"I gotta letter from the government the other day
I opened and read it and said they were suckers
they wanted me for their army or whatever
picture me giving a damn - I said never...
here is the land that never gave a damn about a brother like me...
they could never understand that I'm a black man
and I could never be a veteran".

The music here creates a very tense, almost scary atmosphere. Throughout the whole song Chuck D tries to get his hands on the guards’ pistol. Each chorus ends with the words: "I'm looking for that steel". Finally when our hero manages to grab the desired object and when you think the tension is finally going to decrease a bit, the music gets loud again. Chuck does not stop, instead he focuses on the next obstacle: "Now I'm looking for the fense!" The message is clear-no stopping till complete freedom.

Of course, it’s not necessary to mention how the conservative part of both white and black America reacted to such lyrics. Special panic was created over the fact that more and more white youth from the suburbs were starting to listen to rap music. Many radio stations refused to play Public Enemy and the first calls for the censorship of rap music started to appear, allegedly because of the vulgar language used in the lyrics. Stories about a "controversial" rap band kept popping up in the media. The group’s lyrics were dissected carefully in search of anything that could prove the presence of so-called "reversed racism" - the conservative media’s favorite oxymoron. Around this time, the first victim of the attacks fell. The "minister of information", Professor Griff, was expelled from the group because of anti-Semitic remarks he made in an interview.

Hijacking the Airwaves

"Ain't, no, different
Than in South Africa
Over here they'll go after ya"

Instead of bowing down to the pressure, the band skillfully turned the campaign against them to their own advantage. Their third album "Fear Of A Black Planet" opens up with caricatured sketches from the media. A conspiratorial radio voice announces: "some foreign power, a group of terrorists" while the other hits back: "there is something changing in the climate of consciousness on this planet today!". The whole album is very optimistic and moving. Music perfectly fitted to street protests. The titles reveal everything: "Brothers Gonna Work it Out", "Revolutionary Generation", "Fight the Power". The lyrics become more mature. On "Who Stole the Soul" Chuck D raps:

"Intentional rape system, like we ain't
Payed enough in this bitch, that's why I diss them
I learned we earned, got no concern
Instead we burned - so where the hell is our return?
Plain and simple the system's a pimp
But I refuse to be a ho
Who stole the soul?

Public Enemy try hard to cover all themes relevant to the black community at the moment. A good part of the album tackles the issue of relations between the sexes, racially mixed couples and the treatment of black women in American culture in general. "Burn Hollywood Burn" is a powerful indictment of the film industry. PE point out a shameful fact that the way black people on the big screen are portrayed has not changed much since the days of the racist minstrels at the beginning of the century. Of course, black people are present in the media much more than they were a few decades ago, but the role that is reserved for them is still the one of an entertainer - whether comedian, musician or sportsman. Chuck D is determined to put an end to this insulting treatment once and for all as he furiously raps:

"For all the years we looked like clowns
The joke is over smell the smoke from all around".

Around this time starts a renaissance of black movies with directors who screen films that paint themes from the everyday life of the urban black working class and their struggles. Directors like Spike Lee, the Hughes brothers, John Singleton brought some fresh air into a stale and hopelessly conservative Hollywood. Spike Lee’s movie "Do The Right Thing" represents a good picture of the dissatisfaction and tension that could be felt in the air in the ghettoes at that time. Unfortunately, with no proper political guidance, these unrests were often transforming into ethnic clashes between different minorities. The soundtrack for this movie was offered to none other than the "lyrical terrorists" and the main theme-song "Fight the Power" - brought them global exposure and fame. PE became so big and influential that even MTV could not ignore them any longer. At this time PE were certainly one of the most - if not the most - important bands in the world. A video for this song was aired on TV despite the lyrics which stepped on the toes of conservative white America. With the masses standing firmly behind them, PE felt strong enough to perform a public slap in the face to the racists by denouncing the country’s reactionary cultural icons:

Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant - to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Motherfuck him and John Wayne"

For the making of this video, Spike Lee and PE organize a march through the streets of Brooklyn in which the ordinary people join them raising their fists in the air chanting "Fight The Power". Borderlines between a musical event and social protest become thinner than ever.

An Institution

"We been livin' here
Livin' ain't the word
I been givin'
Haven't got
Classify us in the have-nots
Fightin' haves
Cause it's all about money
When it comes to Armageddon
Man I'm getting mine
Here I am- turn it over Sam
427 to the year
Do you understand
That's why it's hard
For the black to love this land"

By this time, PE has become a travelling institution which drags along a bandwagon of black activists, radical journalists and other conscious artists. PE toured around the U.S. visiting universities, prisons, working class neighbourhoods, rallies, holding concerts and lectures simultaneously. With the lack of a spokesperson for the black masses, the media focused on PE to let them make comments on everything but the music - from the new tax policy to America’s foreign interventions. Chuck D becomes one of the most sought after speakers on American universities. Their concerts become electrifying events which raise controversy and debate. It would not be unusual for a concert to evolve spontaneously into an open debate as people from the crowd would climb up on to the stage and get into a sharp debate with the band. In some cities, clashes with the police were reported after the concerts.

Aware that there is no turning back, PE decides to start practicing what they preach and engage themselves in the real life class struggle. This was the only logical step forward. The masses and the objective situation sucked them into the whirlwind. A chance for a real fight opened up soon. The governor of Arizona takes the traditional holiday for the black population - Dr. Martin Luther King Day - off the official state holiday list. Chuck D advises the governor to "take care" and reconsider his act cause PE is coming to town. The band starts a twenty-five day campaign and announces plans for a concert in Phoenix for the holiday which would be held at the campus of Arizona University as an act of support for the protests of the local students. Inspired by these events, PE write one of the most complex and emotional songs in their career. "By the Time I Get to Arizona" is a masterpiece in which a classic blues sample is drawn over a lazy trembling bass line combined with a gospel choir - which creates a very heavy, uneasy atmosphere. Chuck D speaks out a crucial line on this song: "Neither party is mine not the jackass or the elephant". Half way through the music stops suddenly and what remains is only the rhythm under which one can hear panic screams of women and children which send shivers down your spine. After almost two decades of shameless class collaboration politics of black leaders with the ruling class party, which is allegedly protecting the minorities, PE brings back the Malcolm X legacy into the consciousness of the black masses.

By this time, PE is already the most famous hip hop band of all time and the message in their music far surpasses the limits of the fight of one minority within the U.S. Their songs become a universal symbol in the struggle of the oppressed against the oppressors all around the world - from South Africa to Yugoslavia. In Johannesburg, the youth simply adore them and in Belgrade their songs are featured regularly as anthems for the student protests against the Milosevic regime.

The next two albums which came out are considerably shorter because they were made while constantly touring across the globe with all its internal turmoil.

Albums like "Apocalypse 91... The Enemy Strikes Black" and "Greatest Misses", even though they received less praise from the critics, represent an attempt to reach and tackle wider social issues which no other artist had dealt with before. This is the most mature phase of the band in which Chuck D focuses on concrete themes and penetrates right down into the source of the problem. Gone is the past habit of touching certain issues on the level of a chant in the chorus. That’s how we get a brilliant critique of the alcoholic drinks industry and their low quality versions of malt liquor made for the American working class on "1 Million Bottlebags":

"Bust your ass to pay the rent
and lets look at that word-project
another word for experiment
one side of the street is the church
across is a liquor store
both of them keeping us poor
keeping us down
my 'hood aint considered a town
and the jail packed back to back with blacks
brothers doing a bid for something, but did not think
and college-full of black thinkers who aint doin nothing collectively
and the negro-where the fuck does he go?
cause right here is the apartheid
he can run, but he can't hide"

These infamous "black racists" finally shut the mouths of evil intentioned critics by re-making their previous hit single "Bring the Noize" with a white metal band Anthrax and organizing a joined tour. Next single "Shut em Down" banged like a call for a general strike by condemning the big corporations which extract the money out of black neighborhoods and don’t give anything back:

"the corporations owe
they gotta give up the dough to my town
or else we gotta shut em down!"

"Who count the money
In da neigborhood
But we spendin' money
To no end lookin' for a friend
In a war to the core
Rippin' up the poor in da stores
Till they get a brother
Kickin' down doors"

"Can't Truss' It" deals with the historical genocide called the "middle passage". Karl Marx once said that each pore on the road of the development of capitalism was filled with the blood of the innocent. This song represents a strong poetical description of the genocide, which was undertaken against the inhabitants of Africa at the time of the initial accumulation of capital, in which more than 100 million human beings died under the decks of the slave ships. For 200 years blacks had been ripped from Africa and transported in bestial conditions to the new world where they would be forced into slave labour. Racism has its origins in this period, when the emerging capitalist class had to find some kind of justification for these atrocities and exploitation. Here we find Chuck D and his lyrical genius in full strength describing a trip overseas on a slave-boat. Chuck lies down at the bottom of the deck for months, sleeping in the leftovers of his people, waiting for the opportunity to get his hands on the wicked slave master.

"Gettin' me bruised on a cruise
What I got to lose, lost all contact
Got me layin' on my back
Rollin' in my own leftover
When I roll over, I roll over in somebody else's
90 F--kin' days on a slave ship
Count 'em fallin' off 2, 3, 4 hun'ed at a time
Blood in the wood and it's mine
I'm chokin' on spit feelin' pain
Like my brain bein' chained
Still gotta give it what I got
But it's hot in the day, cold in the night
But I thrive to survive, I pray to god to stay alive
Attitude boils up inside
And that ain't it (think I'll every quit)
Still I pray to get my hands 'round
The neck of the man wit' the whip"

This song was followed by one of the most memorable video clips of that year. The video begins with parallel pictures of a slave auction back in the old days and workers queuing for jobs today. Parallels are drawn during the whole song as it finishes with the scene of a slave lynching and a brutal beating of a black "suspect" on the street by the police of today - making clear a allusion to the Rodney King beating which served a s a spark for the LA rebellion in 1992.

PE continue with a tradition of picking up issues that nobody has the guts to touch. In "Greatest Misses" for the first time in popular music we witness a critique of professional sports as a "gate" out of the ghetto for the African Americans. Sparkling lights of the capitalist circus known as the NBA, often blind us and make us overlook the fact that only a small percentage of black players really finds their way to the professionals and gets rich, most of them end up on the streets all over the U.S. living in poverty. "Air Hoodlum" is a song in which we follow the life path of a high school basketball star called "Mickey Mack" - a guy who can score 52 points per game and grab 33 rebounds, but his classmates have to read him articles dedicated to his skills because this "wunderkind" could not read. At the end of the song this high school hero gets injured, his career goes down the drain and eventually he ends up in the street since even his own high school did not want to give him a job as a substitute coach.

"Hazy Shade of Criminal" is probably one of their politically most mature songs. Chuck D constantly poses the question "who is the criminal?" - questioning the whole concept of "criminality", pointing to the fact that most of the prison population in the U.S. comes from the lower classes who have carried out petty offences trying to survive while the managers of big corporations get away with frauds worth millions of dollars. Chuck raps:

"Never liked what I saw in the law
Indiana trees hanging us instead of leaves"

and asks how did the cocaine come into the ghettoes in the first place, giving us a hint along the way : "In fact - Noriega had back!". A video made for this song represents a climax of the PE visual aesthetic which is based on a shocking documentary style footage which corresponds in a great way with the music itself. In a matter of a few minutes, the viewer is put on a roller coaster as pictures of riots, police violence, corruption behind closed doors, American interventions overseas, officers lying under the oath, pass before his/her eyes and it all ends up with massive pictures of street protests and a zoom into a woman carrying the Palestinian flag! No wonder this video was banned on many channels!

Ebb Tide

"Vultures of culture
They like to exploit little suckers
A dollar a rhyme -- while we barely get a dime
Profit off the soul of black folks
Turn em into bitches, niggaz, and stupid ass jokes
Laugh with us? Or laughin at us? That's what I'm guessin'
I interrupt the program with that question"

History teaches us that the working class cannot be held in a state of constant ferment for years without a clear direction to the movement and without achieving any political gain. By the mid nineties energy had been burnt out and the American ghettoes become calm again. A "Million Man March" on Washington D.C. (described in Spike Lee’s movie "Get on the Bus") was probably the swan song of this movement. On one hand, this protest showed the potential strength of the movement, and on the other it revealed the complete impotence of the black "leadership" of the time. The idea of the organizers was to capitalize on the then state of ferment and bring black men (women were excluded) to the capitol in a way that Martin Luther King had done a few decades earlier. Faced with the complete corruption of the "black intelligentsia" and lacking a radical alternative, Louis Farrakhan and the reactionary Nation Of Islam were able to gain the limelight again. Unlike other "leaders" of the black community who sit in university halls and offices totally cut of from reality, Farrakhan kept his ear to the street and knew what was going on down below. Hence, he was bold enough to grab the initiative and call for the mass march on the capitol. Nobody took him seriously. However, the media and the black "intelligentsia" were left with their jaws wide open when they saw a few hundred thousand people arriving (according to some sources close to a million). The black masses were desperately looking for a way forward, however none of the speakers that day from various organizations, not even the radical sounding Farrakhan, offered a real way out. Black ghettoes burned but no concrete advancement was made and the masses started getting demoralised.

The end of ferment on the streets marked a slowdown in the impact of Public Enemy - a band which only a few years back had seemed powerful enough to crush the American establishment on its own. A mighty institution crushed like a tower of cards. After a series of revolutionary albums, PE enters a crisis and the band is faced with breakup. It is highly interesting to see how the downturn in the real life movement once again affected African-American art. Slowly but surely, the multinational record companies took total control over hip hop and made it tame. The industry managed to push through a series of restrictive laws in court which seriously limited the usage of samples in rap music making them very expensive, therefore reinforcing copyright. Corporations started to charge the black artists to distort their own cultural heritage. By negative selection, record labels made sure that the only artists who got media exposure were those who did not question the establishment. Rap music became big business and started to shift away from reality. Expensive cars and gold chains became fashionable again and MTV put so called "gangster rap" in the spotlight.

Escape From Reality

"The cracker over there
He try to keep it yesteryear
The good ol' days
The same ol' ways
That kept us dyin'
Yes, you me myself and I'ndeed
What he need is a nosebleed
Read between the lines
Then you see the lie"

Caught off guard by this new relation of forces, unused to such a sterile atmosphere, Chuck D disbanded the group for a period of time. PE felt like aliens in the culture they had created. Most of the artists from the "golden era" like Eric B & Rakim, Krs One, Ice T, Big Daddy Kane, Geto Boys, X Clan never really managed to recover from this shock. However, PE proves that it was not by chance that they were considered the most vanguard band of the golden period in 1994, when they managed to come together, regroup and make a brand new album which had a significant title, "Muse-Sick-N-Hour-Mess-Age". This release was an interesting attempt to shake up the whole rap scene. This time, instead of focusing on the white ruling class, PE direct their aim at the thugs within their own ranks. This album represents a unique act of "self criticism", exploring the state of hip hop in the mid nineties. But with no masses behind them, few were ready to broadcast or listen to what the veterans had to say. The same liberal white media which praised "It Takes a Nation…" cowardly turned their backs on them at a crucial moment. Without feeling any pressure, MTV did not feel any need to run their videos again. A new layer of youth barely recognised the famous PE logo. This ironic situation was best described by Spike Lee in his movie "Clockers" which opens up with a scene where a group of black youth sit and discuss who is the "toughest" rapper of all time. Someone mentions Chuck D out of the blue, but others discredit him by saying: "how can he be the toughest rapper when he never killed anyone?"

Spike Lee is the one who manages to bring these heroes "back from the dead" in the late nineties by hiring them to do a complete soundtrack for the movie "He Got Game, which deals with different aspects of basketball culture in America and the industry built around it. PE prove that they are still capable of creating highly original and interesting songs. One of them called, "Politics of the Sneaker Pimps" deals with the manufacturers of sports equipment:

"200 a pair but I'm addicted to the gear
They'll make me do things on the court to amaze ya
I heard they make em for a buck 8 in Asia"

Fed up by the limitations imposed on them by their publishing company and its unwillingness to promote their records, PE puts up their whole new album on the Internet for free in an act of defiance. Def Jam record company decides to break up the contract with the group and PE is finally free. Aware of the degree to which the music industry and its internal laws suppress creativity and freedom of expression, PE roamed deep into cyberspace from which they launched an open war against the "big 5" major corporations which control the music industry. Chuck D and the crew were enthusiastic to grab and utilise new technology and the possibilities it offered for the distribution of music behind the backs of the official corporate channels of distribution. They become the first major band in history to put up their entire album on the Internet in the MP3 format. Unlike some other big bands, such as Metallica, PE openly supported the free circulation of music and information on the Internet (Napster), arguing correctly that the only ones who might be hurt by this process are the big corporations which hold a monopoly over the distribution of music around the world.

Illusions

"Ain’t nothing changed-still down with Farrakhan"

Faced with such a fascinating career and history of struggle we might fall into the mistake of declaring Public Enemy for something that they are really not and never claimed to be. PE are artists, above all, not revolutionaries. They might be one of the bravest and socially most engaged major bands on the planet, however they do have their limits and illusions.

The political outlook of the band perfectly reflects the level of consciousness of the American black masses at the end of the 20th century. It shows us that the great achievements in political thought among the black liberation have not been forgotten and that black workers still represent an advanced layer within the American working class, but there is still a lot of confusion.

First and foremost, PE have not understood the importance and the real meaning of Malcolm X’s historical break with the Nation Of Islam in the early sixties. PE reflect a popular belief among blacks, that this split was the result of intrigue and manoeuvring of the government. This misconstruction flows from the failure to recognize the fundamental class differences which stood behind these events. Chuck D and most of the band grew up in the sixties and these are the circumstances that shaped their political understanding. In their best lyrics, you can clearly detect the influence of the progressive wing of the movement which was initiated by Malcolm X and later picked up and championed by the Black Panther Party and other black leftists of that time.

However, PE often give uncritical support to the Nation Of Islam and other radical sounding petit bourgeois leaders. Most liberal critics are quick to point the finger at the group’s open sponsorship of black nationalism in their lyrics. However, in this case nationalism is not the problem in and of itself. Black nationalism was a starting point for many, including Malcom X. Lenin explained long ago that there is a fundamental difference between the Nationalism of the oppressor nation and the nationalism of the oppressed. The main question is where are you going to take it? In his last months, it was clear that Malcolm X was moving towards the left and that "black nationalism" was becoming too "tight" for him. Louis Farrakhan, on the other hand, uses black nationalism to encourage black business and justify the tiny black bourgeoisie and its privileges within the white dominated system. Thus he stands not for the genuine liberation of the blacks, the overwhelming majority of whom are poor working class people, but simply for the right of a few to break out and make it rich, leaving the rest behind. So, PE often falls into the trap by failing to differentiate between these two.

As most of the politically engaged artists, the band moves on instinct. But no matter how good your instinct is you cannot always rely on it. As for as their first album, they recognise that the system is responsible. However the essential question remains unanswered, and that is "why has America been exploiting black people for centuries?" Inspired by the movement of the working class they usually hit right on target, but sometimes they miss as well. Because of the failure to recognise the nature of the capitalist system, with its internal laws and mechanisms which compel it to breed racism and oppression from generation to generation, PE often come up with superficial explanations which basically come down to conspiracy theories.

Another grave illusion that can be traced in their lyrics is a cry for "black unity". Blind insistence on abstract "unity" in reality represents suicide for the movement. That thin layer which has become integrated into the American middle classes and their political representatives, will never identify with the struggle till the end. The Nation of Islam and Jesse Jackson are just two sides of the same coin. They both speak for the "brothers that made it" within the white dominated capitalist system. By turning a blind eye to this fact, PE make a fatal mistake and sometimes find themselves defending these people and absorbing their reactionary ideas. Chuck D often talks about the necessity of preserving the black owned businesses in the ghetto and traces of anti-Semitism, (although clearly overblown by the media) can be found in their history. This is the direct influence of the Nation of Islam and of a tiny layer of black bourgeoisie which sees its main rivals in the Jewish run businesses in the ghettoes. By doing this, PE fall into the trap called "Divide and Rule" set up by the mainly white ruling class and allow themselves to be put in a position of backing their "own" upper class blacks in their scramble to pick up the crumbs which the American ruling white families throw into the ghetto. Because of a lack of a scientific outlook on society, unfortunately PE sometimes unconsciously find themselves backing those same "Uncle Toms" which they attack fiercely in their songs.

Conclusions

"You know the name, P.E.!
You know the game, P.E.!
We ain't for the fame
We for a change"

An example of this legendary band and hip hop culture once again clearly shows us the limited scope that counter cultural youth movements can have within the capitalist system. No matter how powerful and all-reaching they may seem in the beginning, they cannot change society by themselves. The hippie movement in the sixties was a perfect example of this. At one moment in the late sixties, to youth it seemed that the "old ways" and relations between people had been surpassed and that the younger generations were creating a "parallel universe". However few years later it all fell apart.

To believe that a subculture can change society is pure utopia. The mechanism functions in the opposite direction. Renaissance cultural movements, like the one in the sixties, punk in the seventies or hip hop in the eighties, are in fact reflections of the class struggle which is taking place within society. Each one of these counter-cultural movements coincides with a certain historical stage of intensification of the class struggle.

Great musical icons of the sixties, no matter if they belonged to the black cultural heritage - Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield - or "white", like The Beatles, started their careers with infantile catchy love songs. Then the content of their works developed as the anti-war movement started to gain momentum and they turned to more serious themes and created their more important and greater works. Public Enemy represent their equivalent today. They are among the most intelligent and most talented artists that are capable of sensing the slightest movement deep inside society and they enrich these struggles by giving them the colour, rhythm and sound of the times in which they take place.

Musical expression in the past 50 years has shown periods of incredible ingenuity and progress, whenever it has felt, even slightly, liberated from the chains of the present cultural order within capitalism. Enormous pressure builds up and occasionally erupts to the surface. It is like a time bomb waiting to explode. Therefore, the prime focus of the working class youth today should be the conquering of political and economical power in society together with the working class as a whole. Genuine freedom of expression in the arts will come once the oppressive shackles of capitalism have been broken, and the workers and youth have genuine control over their own destinies. And art, once it has been released from the shackles of the capitalist music industry which uses culture merely to make profits, will inevitably react by creating new forms. And the New York Times’ list of top 25 records of the 20th century will be dwarfed by what the new and free generation of artists will produce in this new environment. Under those conditions, someone may eventually create something that sounds even harder and more creative than Public Enemy. To each PE fan that may sound like pure utopia, but you never know!


September 2003.

See the Public Enemy website

See also: "We don’t care what color the oppressor is - It is the oppression that connects us for real" An interview with Public Enemy