In my hip hop class, I show Spike Lee's film Bamboozled and tell the story of what i believe to be the biggest bamboozle in hip hop history. In the late 80s and early 90s, Chuck D was the voice of resistance in hip hop. Gaining mainstream popularity, Public Enemy enjoyed play on rock stations and sold out arenas with majority white youth in attendance. Hip Hop had crossovered and Chuck D was able to do what Malcolm X never could: tell an uncensored racial truth in a way a segment of white America (youth) could hear and accept it. If middle class youth have any understanding of the class and racial warfare in this country Malcolm X exposed a generation earlier, hip hop finally gave it to them. In order to make this racial connection, Chuck D had what Malcolm X lacked: a beat. Once again, music proved to be a universal language that could transcend all boundaries.
Public Enemy's message was uncompromising and honest; direct and explicit. It was a message that needed to be heard by the mainstream masses, but prior to Public Enemy, it was a message that had been hidden in the softer rhetoric and tunes of Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Curtis Mayfield, and Marvin Gaye (to name a few artists with social commentary songs). Public Enemy's rhetoric and music were much more fierce than what preceded...edgier, louder, and revolutionary.
Around the same time another truth teller hit the rap scene: the "gangsta". Also uncensored and unapologetic, the gangsta embraced the dictates of street life, and in some instances, glorified them. Politicians and the mainstream media declared war on "gangsta rap". Claiming it lead to delinquency in our youth, calls for censorship erupted. Ice T became one of the early "poster boys" targeted for his cop killer track. Dr. Dre, Snoop Doog, and Tupac would all be labeled gangsta rappers and targeted later. From this campaign against gangsta rap, the explicit lyric sticker was born, along with unprecedented rap sales, success, and constant radio play. Rap would take the music throne for years.
While gangsta rappers became mainstream, Chuck D and Public Enemy all but disappeared from the forefront. His prototypes (KRS-one, Arrested Develpment, X-Clan, Brand Nubian, etc.) disappeared with him. If the campaign was against "gangsta rappers" why did strong black militants disappear? Well the bamboozle was complete. The war was never against what they knew and were comfortable with...only what they feared. They had no fear of the gangsta because the gangsta could be coopted and controlled. A true Public Enemy could not.
Observing the full spectrum of the bamboozle I see we never completely embraced its scope. Ice T, the OG, became a cop on one of the most popular tv series, Law and Order. Dr. Dre is still one of the most sought after producers in the music industry. Snoop was even given a reality show about parenthood. And Tupac, the thug the media loved to hate, has been lifted to prophet status in his afterlife.
Hope for Hip Hop
While the visibility of Public Enemy vanished, the spirit never did. My hope in hip hop comes from the same source that might be its fault: its irreverence. Hip Hop is never scared. It has no qualms about challenging authority. That is a good thing. It will take organized efforts to move from being a public nuisance that just makes noise and can be controlled and imprisoned (gangstas) to becoming Public Enemy #1 (militant, strong, influential and revolutionary). It is not enough to reject authority if you are not ready to become it.
Chuck D gave us the model:
Big UP to this collaboration taking the baton...doing what they can do be Arizona's 21st century Public Enemy #1.
You got the mic hip hop...it's time to put up or shut up!