Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Epitome of Public Enemy

If hip hop wants to be a part of the solution to what ails our communities, hip hop must once again become Public Enemy #1. Chuck D understood this well, and we must learn from the model he gives us in his music and in the way he lives his life.

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's time to put up or shut up!


Constructive Feedback said...


What function does Hip Hop (protest movement) serve when "Favorable People" are the ESTABLISHMENT in the community?

As I stated in my previous post - the days of having "conservative enemies" in control over the key institutions that provide the Black Community our civic services are over. Today I see TI, Young Jeezy and Ludacris on stage at a Democratic Party rally, seeking to get a liberal Democrat elected as the Senator of Georgia. (2008)

My frustration with "Hip Hop As A Political Movement" is that it has bought into the milieu of the "permanent struggle" yet it seems to have no sense of its responsibility when it needs to become COMMUNITY MANAGERS.

When does the struggle to say what you will, against the conservative establishment morph into defining of conscious limits after the conservative have moved out of the region of consideration and now we see evidence of a need for heightened consciousness among the people?

Take the same framework and apply it to:

* The police function of the community

* The public education function

* The economic/jobs creation

in the community.

When does the rebel/revolutionary accept his victory and begin to take the controls and produce the by-products that he now protests FOR?

Tina said...

that is where hip hop is going on grassroots level. While teh public face of hip hop may not be working to that end (yet) the community face of hip hop is taking over. I work with an organization call Hip Hop Congress which is a network of artists, students, educators, community organizers and through hip hipm HHC is working to take on the responsibility and become the community managers, mentors and servants we need on the ground. While in lyrics the artists may do "protest art" in day to day living, they are teaching youth, starting after school programs, grwoing community gardens etc.

Travis G said...

RE: The Epitome of Public Enemy
Tina, I’m loving this post--like a fat kid loves cake. I agree that hip-hop culture must once again become what Imani Perry (2006, Prophets of the Hood, chp. 4) calls “outlaw culture.” Public Enemy, on many fronts represents that raw, marginalist tradition of African-American literature, protest, and rebellion. However, on the issues of social class, gender, sexuality, and diasporic blackness (“black” does not equal “American”), the music and message of Public Enemy usually fell short. The model provided by PE was far from ideal, and as we hope (and WORK) for a better hip-hop, we should remember that.

As I cosign the post, I do want to point out two things:
First, there is a tendency to freeze PE in 1988/1989, in the same way that we freeze MLK Jr at the podium of the so-called “I Have a Dream Speech.” The prophets of Rage have been going strong for almost 25 years, and in my opinion, some of their best music was produced post-1991!!! I’m rocking Rebirth of a Nation (2006) and How do you sell Soul (2007) CDs in my office right now!!! Both bang as hard as Fear of A Black Planet, and represent a maturing of the message that was missing in the late 1980s.

Second, and related, I recommend peeping the track “Coincidence” co-written by Paris on the Rebirth album. The verse:

Is it a, coincidence that we ain't taught truth
A, coincidence that they target the youth
A, coincidence everything is the same
That a message in the music ain't a part of the game?

Is it a coincidence that commercial gansterism replaced political rap in the early 1990s? Naw, some of it has to do with the consolidation of media and radio by multi-national corporations. But I would also encourage folks to peep what Professor Griff, the former minister of information for Public Enemy has been saying about the shift in hip-hop. Google his lectures. He argues that hip-hop was co-opted by a NEW COINTEL-PRO that has been using rap music as a form of psychological warfare against black and poor people. I’m not saying I’m convinced, but this is a radical thesis. What if it’s not just about the money, but about the control of thought, of imagination, of dissidence?
I’m all for hip-hoppers starting a new movement, but are we to only organize around mainstream, moderate, centrist definitions of hip-hop politics? Doing so, would likely start by also considering the more challenging aspects of PE’s message, including those espoused by Prof. Griff, Sista Soulja, and those appearing on post-1991 PE albums.

Tina said...

@Travis G - appreciate this a fat kid loves cake :) LOL. most definitely have to avoid 1. freezing protest in time and not recognizing room to grow...we have to avoid romanticizing protest as well...

2. the REAL issues of culture now beings "sold back" as psychological warfare...i have heard some, but will look up other lectures.

3. point taken in terms of what hip hop as a movement should look like...see my reply to Constructive Feedback for what i see in terms of not just protest lyrics (like the Immortal Techniques) but basically hip hop folks taking care of all sorts of ways: from education to farming.