In Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), Mookie, the itinerant delivery guy played by Spike himself, hurls a trash can through the window of Sal’s Pizzeria, and all hell breaks loose. The cops have just killed Radio Raheem because he wouldn’t turn his boom box down. Mookie is angry and desperate. His neighborhood and his city are in crisis. This isn’t a movie about “race relations”; it’s a movie about trauma. It’s about communities destroyed by deindustrialization and urban renewal and Reaganite neoliberalism. By the crack epidemic and the draconian policing and mass incarceration that accompanied it. By the soul-deadening grind of everyday violence.
Last month in Minneapolis, where I live, George Floyd was strangled to death by police. The city raged and burned. All these decades later this crisis—call it systemic racism, call it white supremacy—has come home once again to America at large. We’ve seen police kill a man for selling cigarettes; we’ve seen them murder a twelve-year-old boy. Our culture has produced a president who locks children in cages, who brags about assaulting women, who threatens to unleash the military on American citizens, who produces, inhabits, thrives on a fear of brown-skinned human beings. Watching Floyd’s murder, I couldn’t get the image of Mookie with his trash can out of my mind.
Radio Raheem was blasting “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy, the first single off of Fear of a Black Planet, their third LP and their masterpiece. This was the music that enraged Sal, that brought police violence down on Raheem’s head, that inspired his neighborhood to resist. It also shook me deeply. I will never forget, at age twelve, lying next to the gray tape deck on my bedroom’s carpeted floor, hearing the five melodic chords that open the album and feeling hopeful for the melodic possibilities to come. I was quickly disabused of that hope. What followed was an hour of the noisiest, most sonically dense, most relentless music imaginable. This record—created by MC Chuck D, his hype man-cum-jester Flavor Flav, DJ Terminator X and the Bomb Squad, the production team comprised of Chuck, brothers Hank and Keith Shocklee and Eric “Vietnam” Sadler—was not remotely like anything I had ever heard. Which, I now know, is because nothing remotely like it had ever been made. I remember the urgency of Chuck D’s voice. But I also remember the collage of other sounds that swirled beneath and above and within every track, some rising to the top, some indecipherable and intertwined, a cacophonous pulse of voices, guitars, bass, drums and scratches. It was exhausting. I believe I fell asleep there on the floor next to the tape deck somewhere in side two; the overwhelm of information had shut down my brain.
In his memoir “The Beautiful Struggle,” Ta-Nehisi Coates describes his first encounter with Public Enemy:
Chuck D pulled us back into the real. … Here in Baltimore, brothers would put on the Enemy and recoil. We had never heard anything so grating—drums crashed into whistles, sirens blared off beat. But the cacophony was addictive and everywhere. …
His style was baffling. I caught disjointed phrases and images, times and places that did not cohere—“goddamn Grammys,” a “government of suckers,” “they see me, fear me.” By the tenth session, the sonic blur sharpened into a recovered collective memory. The story began in our glory years with the banishing of Bull Conner and all his backward dragons. Never had the mountaintop seemed so close at hand. But marching from victory we stumbled into a void. And now we were here in the pit, clawing out one another’s eyes. We were all—even me—so angry. We could not comprehend how it came to this. … Chuck was one of us, and once we got it, we understood that he spoke beautifully in the lingua franca of our time.
Needless to say, as a white prep-school kid, this was not my experience. Though I would go on to commit much of the record to memory, Fear of a Black Planet was, for me, an encounter with foreign cultural signifiers and a set of life experiences outside of my own. Chuck D’s was an explicitly sociopolitical, explicitly African-American self-articulation. It posed active resistance to the structures of life that had shaped me.
A lot of feelings accompanied this encounter. It’s fair to say that my experience was, in some sense, voyeuristic: I allowed myself the thrill of this anger and wild expression without being subject to the risks that they implied. But it wasn’t simply spectatorial. There was the visceral shock of exposure to this sonic, poetic and political radicalism. There was my bad conscience; I was twelve years old and I clung hard to an idea of my own innocence. But I could not escape understanding myself as a member of a privileged class. This truth was chastening, but it was easily turned outward, easily funneled into that adolescent desire for moral superiority. It was like an initiation into a select group: Only we “heads” knew how hypocritical and corrupt our society really was. Of course, for lots of kids in my general cohort, this aspiration played out badly. We embarrassed ourselves trying and failing to approximate the swag of the rappers we revered. I cannot claim to have been immune to that urge. But I also want to be generous with my younger self. I want to say that what I experienced was a burgeoning desire for justice, a desire, even or especially, for something like solidarity. Fear of a Black Planet moved me back then and it moves me now. As my city and the nation reckon with the violence that the state has inflicted on black people, I want to account for the record’s power, its anger, its noise. I want to know what, thirty years on, it has to tell us about the crisis we’re still living through.
Chuck D has referred to Fear of a Black Planet’s production aesthetic as an updated, Phil Spector-esque wall of sound. But that term has always been a little misleading: it implies something monolithic and impenetrable. This is different. As with much of Spector’s work, the noise in Fear is derived from sheer excess—the multiplicity of sounds piled together on every track. Drum breaks overlap and intertwine. Shards of guitar repeat, multiply and disappear. There is an almost unknowable depth to the sonic field; if you stripped away the top layer from any moment of music you would only uncover more layers, more sounds, more song.
Most especially there are voices. Some create a buzz that fills the empty space between instrumental elements. Many are used for their textual content. “This is a journey into sound,” an English-accented voice informs us matter-of-factly at the beginning of “Welcome to the Terrordome.” (And so it is.) Jesse Jackson hollers “Brothers and sisters!” on “Fight the Power,” making explicit the song’s intended audience. Others are taken for their pure aural value. The Bomb Squad warps and distorts Sly Stone’s “yeah, yeah, yeah!” on “Brothers Gonna Work It Out,” and a recognizably linguistic utterance becomes a texture, more like a synthetic sound than a sung word.
Because these sounds are human voices, they command the brain’s attention. Our brain never rests in its interpretative task, which accounts for the enormous amount of energy and attention the record demands. Public Enemy’s 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back similarly relied on sped-up drum breaks, tense, abrasive instrumental loops and sampled human voices. But Fear takes the noise to another level; by comparison, Nation of Millions sounds sparse and clean. In contravention of typical hip-hop production, the MC’s is just one of many voices on the track. Not until Kanye West would a producer situate the rapper’s voice in the context of so many others. Chuck’s voice, incredibly forceful and rich, is attenuated by the aural atmosphere it inhabits—as if he were straining to be heard in the middle of a crowded room.
The Bomb Squad assembled their songs in the studio, making use of thousands of samples unearthed from old LPs, TV shows and radio broadcasts. This itself was not a break with convention, nor was Fear the only masterpiece of the sampling era. De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising (from 1989, produced by De La Soul and Prince Paul), for example, is nearly as profligate in its use of samples as Fear. But although that record was unprecedented in its musical depth, it was still an extension of conventional hip-hop songcraft: recontextualizing sampled bass lines, drum breaks, guitar riffs and vocals to create a coherent whole, mirroring the MC’s lyrical intentions. Public Enemy does this too—think of Prince’s big finish guitar solo from “Let’s Go Crazy,” which the Bomb Squad reconfigures into a sinister drone on “Brothers Gonna Work It Out.” But PE went further too. As Chuck D has remarked, the group approached “every record like it was a painting,” layering sounds, creating textures and sonic colors, linking thematically compatible words and phrases. A single drum sound could be composed of multiple samples, creating a timbre distinct from its composite parts. It was a technique of improvisational assembly and disassembly. The songs would only emerge once the team heard musical resonances in the assemblage of sounds and then sculpted the track around those resonances. The group allowed their work to spill over the lines of sense-making. They allowed polyphony, incoherence and noise into a genre typically structured to showcase the MC’s discrete worldview. Fear of a Black Planet doesn’t simply underline Chuck D’s point of view; it situates it within a chaotic world of sound.
If all this makes Fear sound like an unlistenable sound-art project, it isn’t. Yes, the musical elements are often distorted beyond recognition—an anecdote, possibly apocryphal, has Hank Shocklee distressing a record by dropping it on the floor and stomping on it. (More often, he would simply lower a sample’s fidelity by first dubbing it to cassette, or by recording it at very low sampling rates.) But despite all the grit and hiss, these remain among the funkiest rap songs ever recorded. The Bomb Squad mined countless records for the breaks and hooks that could propel a track—James Brown countless times, Roy Ayers, George Clinton, Melvin Bliss and many others. These techniques allowed them to create a rare dynamic flexibility. By adding or subtracting entire tranches of sounds, they were able to instantly fire up or strip down a track’s intensity. Take the beginning of “Revolutionary Generation,” which begins as a compressed, mono R&B rave-up and then, at the twelve-second mark, explodes with the booming drum break from James Brown’s “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose.” Or the end of “911 Is a Joke,” when multiple layers of human voice are suddenly removed, exposing the empty spaces between the clacking guitar, bass and drums.
The result is noisier and wilder than its contemporaries, but also funkier and more musical than the vast majority of experimental hip-hop that came in its wake, and completely aurally distinct from the spacious, synthetic sound of contemporary rap. The same goes for Chuck D’s rapping. Although Chuck’s flow is looser and less disciplined than that of other great MCs, his verbal density and emotional energy remain astonishing. Fear of a Black Planet sounded radically ahead of its time back then, and it still does. It reflects the noise of its era and our own. When Chuck says “gear I wear got ’em goin’ in fear” or invokes the pain of black mothers mourning their murdered sons, when Flavor Flav lambasts 911’s failure in the black community, when Chuck and Flav exhort us to “fight the powers that be!”, the record also feels deeply prescient.
At the same time its politics are, in some ways, specific to their period. Public Enemy were at the forefront of a resurgence of black nationalism in hip-hop, largely centered around Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, and much of Fear of a Black Planet’s explicit political message reflects that organization’s concerns: a radical critique of U.S. imperialism and racism coupled with a brand of bootstraps cultural conservatism. Following this latter theme, much of the sharpest language on Fear is reserved for the black community. From “Welcome to the Terrordome”: “Every brother ain’t a brother/’cause a black hand squeezed on Malcolm X the man … it’s weak to speak and blame somebody else/when you destroy yourself.” From “Pollywannacraka”: “She wants a lover right now/but not no brother/a man got to have a lot of money/to get under her cover.” Chuck takes black America to task for what he sees as its parochialism and lack of self-knowledge, its factionalism and materialism and, above all, its willingness to play on white capitalist America’s terms.
Public Enemy were also deeply invested in the work of the African-American psychologist and philosopher Frances Cress Welsing. In her 1970 article “The Cress Theory of Color-Confrontation and Racism (White Supremacy),” Welsing theorized that white supremacy was a product of white male envy stemming from a comparative lack of melanin. The now-iconic album artwork—Public Enemy’s classic b-boy-in-crosshairs logo eclipsing a globe—as well as the titular song itself, a screed against white fear of miscegenation, were both inspired by Welsing. Welsing shared both the Nation’s essentialist, pseudo-scientific approach to race theory and its conservative gender ideology. She held a chauvinistic view of black masculinity and would later write that both homosexuality and HIV were white inventions aimed at effeminizing black men.
Many of the record’s more cringeworthy moments harken back to the social conservatism embedded in these influences: the homophobic sentiments in “Meet the G That Killed Me,” the focus on black masculinity, which occasionally devolves into a familiar paternalism, as when, on “Revolutionary Generation,” Chuck raps, “it takes a man to take a stand/understand it takes a/woman to make a stronger man.”
Most infamous are a pair of references to the Jewish community in “Welcome to the Terrordome.” “Terrordome,” one of two singles released prior to the recording of Fear, is nominally centered on a crisis that Public Enemy were facing in 1989. Professor Griff, the group’s “Minister of Information,” had made homophobic and anti-Semitic comments in Melody Maker and the Washington Times, notoriously claiming that “Jews are responsible for the majority of the wickedness in the world.” The band, already a magnet for the white media’s indignation, faced an uproar and was forced to part ways with Griff. Chuck was furious, sensing that the media had used Griff’s comments as an excuse to ignore the sociopolitical issues the band was raising. “Welcome to the Terrordome” was the outlet for that rage. Chuck raps: “Crucifixion ain’t no fiction/so-called chosen frozen/apology made to whoever pleases/still they got me like Jesus.” Seconds later: “Backstabbed, took the flag from the back of the lab/told the rab get off the rag.”
These moments are painful to hear and to write down. We want so desperately for our great artists to be better than the world that surrounds them, even as the naïveté of that impulse becomes more evident with each passing day. As it happens, nothing about Fear of a Black Planet is clean or easy. Which takes us back to the noise. Because if your aim is to fashion an unambiguous ideological statement, there are more direct ways to go about it. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is an abrasive record if ever there was one, but there is space between the sounds. We’re able to quickly grasp each song’s musical idea and focus our ears on its lyrical content. Fear is up to something else entirely. It isn’t simply a critique of the ideology of white supremacy. It is an embodiment of fear and paranoia themselves. It describes them, produces them, represents them sonically. The very first words spoken on the album are a sampled voice gravely intoning, “Some foreign power, some group of terrorists, some individual concern…,” words that resound with paranoia even more today than they did in 1990. On the title track, which Chuck has said crystallizes the group’s thematic intent, the word “fear,” sampled from different sources, pings around the stereo field and clusters like raindrops, accumulating like a flood.
That title track is an explicit illustration of Welsing’s theory of global white supremacy, but the strain and vehemence apparent in Chuck’s every word also speak to something more personal. On “Incident at 66.6 FM,” a cut-up recording of an interview between Chuck and Alan Colmes, callers assail the MC with racist vitriol: “Why do you even pay homage to these people by putting these monkeys on?”; “When I see somebody who’s wearing one of their shirts, I think that they’re scum too”; “Go back to Africa.” All the while, Colmes dutifully plays the part of the evenhanded white liberal, maintaining a stance of impartiality that never disavows the racist rhetoric.
This violence is not just present in direct verbal attacks or racist scenarios. It’s like an atmosphere that descends on the listener, which is encoded in the cacophony and verbal excess that permeate the record. This is perhaps most perfectly evoked on “Welcome to the Terrordome.” The song’s principal sample, apart from the drums, comes from a short guitar break on the Temptations’ “Psychedelic Shack.” The Bomb Squad transform what was a brief transition chord into a dissonant drone that pulsates and rolls throughout the song, panning from one speaker to the other. The chord begs for resolution but never receives it, creating a tension that doesn’t let up. A wide, hissy snare hit rings out on the two and four, louder than every other rhythmic element and slightly ahead of the beat, pushing the song forward, making it itchy and urgent. James Brown’s hollers and grunts, a shard of guitar squeal, a stray synth warble, all scattered unpredictably throughout the mix: all of these sounds reinforce the aura of anxiety. When Chuck hollers “I got so much trouble on my mind!” we believe it.
The lyrics in “Terrordome” respond to the Professor Griff controversy but also do much more than that. Chuck delves into the violence of American racial politics: “First, nothing worse/than the mother’s pain of a son/slain in Bensonhurst,” “Every brother ain’t a brother/’cause a black hand squeezed on Malcolm X the man,” “How to fight the power cannot run and hide/but it shouldn’t be suicide.” At times he verges on the apocalyptic: “Caught in the race against time, the pit and the pendulum/check the rhythm and rhyme while I’m bendin’ ’em/Snakes blowin’ up the lines of design/tryin’ to blind the science I’m sendin’ em.” “Lies, scandalizing, basing/traits of hate who’s celebrating with Satan/I rope-a-dope the evil with righteous bobbin’ and weavin’/and let the good get even.” Elsewhere, he approaches an almost psychedelic surrealism: “Lazer anesthesia maze ya’/ways to blaze your brain and train ya’.” Chuck constantly varies his cadence, sometimes landing hard on the downbeat, sometimes attacking the upbeat, filling space between the kick and snare. At times he threatens to fall out of rhythmic coherence and even traditional sense-making altogether and into something closer to a fevered, prophetic spoken word.
Heard in the context of this verbal excess and the breadth of “Terrordome”’s lyrical scope, it’s easier to understand—not to say excuse—the song’s most notorious moments. “Welcome to the Terrordome”’s sonics, its rhythmic force, Chuck D’s lyrical intensity and virtuosity are a document of terror and paranoia, a document of the state of being a public black person in the United States. The writer Dorian Lynskey observes that on It Takes a Nation of Millions, Chuck’s voice comes off as “superhumanly strong and wise. But on ‘Terrordome,’ he seemed backed into a corner, wildly swinging his fists at everyone who’d put him there. However hard he came at you, he had this tense, defensive quality. Not quite panic, but what precedes panic: a manic attempt to impose order on chaos.” Everyone is trapped in the Terrordome, even Chuck himself.
“Why are they treating human beings like aliens?” Chuck once asked in an interview. Fear of a Black Planet documents a crisis of dehumanization. We are treating humans like aliens and it is absurd and insane. But this raises the question: Given all of this noise and anger and fear, what accounts for the sheer exhilaration that this record still produces, for me at least, thirty years after it was made? How is it that listening to Fear in 2020 doesn’t simply add to our despair?
Here’s a clue. “Fear of a Black Planet” has a song called “Fight the Power.” And “Fight the Power” happens to be one of the most anthemic, thrilling songs you will ever hear. One could be forgiven, after hearing everything that “Fear” has to offer, for getting the impression that resistance is futile. But Chuck D insists otherwise. “Fight the Power” is an affirmation that resistance is possible, that we should not allow fatigue and despair to silence and disarm us.
This sense of possibility runs deeper than the chorus of the record’s last song. It is embedded in the album’s musical syntax from beginning to end. In analyzing the rapping on “Fight the Power,” musicologist Robert Walser describes the way in which, by syncopating his lyrical delivery with the song’s main pulse, Chuck creates a polyrhythm at the song’s heart. The alternation of rhythmic tension and resolution created by polyrhythms, he notes, mimic the struggle of attempting to make a life. “The music of Public Enemy enacts survival in a complex, dangerous world; however oppressive and dissonant that world, it is made to seem negotiable through dialog and rhythmic virtuosity. The dancing or gesturing body seems able to seize and rearticulate the power of the music, in contexts of reception that are communal even when they depend on mass mediation.” The polyrhythm, says C.K. Ladzekpo, the Ghanaian master drummer and teacher, is “the cornerstone of … trying to recreate life musically.”
Chuck D himself stresses this point. Whereas in the European tradition, music is seen as an aesthetic object to be set aside from everyday life, “In Africa,” Chuck says, “music was day-to-day communication.” He makes this communicative power of music explicit all over Fear of a Black Planet, including in his first words on the album, which both echo James Brown and offer instruction: “Uh, your bad self/Help us break this down from off the shelf/here’s a music servin’ you so use it.” And later, “To condition your condition we’re gonna do a song that you never heard before/Make you all jump along to the education.” Later still, “In 1995 you’ll twist to this/As you raise your fist to the music.” And again on “Fight the Power”: “1989 the number, another summer/(Get down!) Sound of the funky drummer/Music hittin’ your heart ’cause I know you got soul/(Brothers and sisters!)” And later: “As the rhythms designed to bounce/what counts is that the rhyme’s designed to fill your mind/Now that you’ve realized the pride’s arrived/We’ve got to pump the stuff to make us tough/From the heart it’s a start a work of art/To revolutionize make a change nothin’s strange.”
Over and over Public Enemy assert the need to resist illegitimate power, to organize in solidarity against oppressive systems. They frame it as a human need, an irresistible urge to speak, to assert one’s own selfhood, not just in the face of racism and violence but as a means of drawing together into community. But they also assert that music itself is essential to that resistance, is itself a radical act. The music, the groove, allows us to engage in a shared space that simultaneously defies the dominant culture’s efforts to determine our identities and gives us a common language. So where Fear of a Black Planet may be dark and steeped in terror, it is also essentially optimistic about the possibilities for resistance to terror, for generating life in times of darkness.
That feeling of nascent affinity that I experienced as a twelve-year-old has returned, much more strongly, much more personally, than it ever had before in these past weeks. Perhaps I am finally attuned, in some small way, to the catastrophe that Public Enemy invoked in 1990. And maybe that attunement has helped me appreciate more acutely the vigor and energy and creativity with which they oppose that catastrophe. Fear of a Black Planet affirms an idea that is dear to me but sometimes feels suspect in a climate of national emergency: that a work of art might transcend escapism and aesthetic adornment, that it might be an appropriate response to political crisis, that it might rise to the task of resistance.
Is this going too far? Is it possible for someone like me, a white person who strives to be defined by something beyond the privileges and crimes of whiteness, to lay claim to a piece of art emerging from such a specifically African-American context, from what Tricia Rose calls “the tension between the cultural fractures produced by postindustrial oppression and the binding ties of black cultural expressivity”? Can I aspire to the kind of solidarity articulated in Fear of a Black Planet? Or is that just another measure of my privilege, of white people’s incessant desire to own a piece of everything? How can one avoid reenacting the voyeurism that shades so many encounters between white Americans and insurgent black culture?
Possibly I could start by acknowledging that the America depicted in Fear is my America too. That the thicket of paranoia is one that I have both willed into being and been victimized by. That when you participate in a culture, you tacitly endorse that culture; and when that culture treats human beings as aliens, you both do violence to those humans and take part in your own dehumanization. The threat implied by the world of this music—this is my threat too. This is, after all, what makes this record both so terrifying and so liberating; it submerges you in that threat and makes an art of resistance to it. It exposes the vantage point of aesthetic remove as a morally disfiguring delusion. I live in the Terrordome and so do you. The catastrophe has been happening for a long while. Let’s begin there.