The blog series created by Rob Janicke discussing a bunch of albums from the 1990s for you to argue with him about
Public Enemy - Fear of a Black Planet (released on April 10, 1990, via Def Jam and Columbia Records. Produced by The Bomb Squad)
Before diving into the third record on my 90 for the 90s list, let's get something out of the way right now. I've held Public Enemy in as high regard, musically and culturally, as anyone can. I heard them for the first time in 1987 with their debut, Yo! Bum Rush the Show and was floored straight away. By the time their next record came out, 1988's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, quite possibly the greatest hip-hop album ever made, PE had taken this new genre and claimed it as their own.
That quick intro is my way of saying that what comes next may have a bit of bias woven into the fabric.
I'll start by showing I can be objective when it comes to Public Enemy. The album that is the focus of this edition of 90 for the 90s, Fear of a Black Planet, is not as good as the band's previous effort, the mighty It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.
That being said, Fear of a Black Planet, was and is, a landmark rap album, both sonically and conceptually. In case you weren't alive or just not paying attention, this record was made during the wild west-like days when sampling did not come with legal ramifications. Much like the Beastie Boys sophomore album, Paul's Boutique, released less than a year before Fear of a Black Planet, the record is layered with sounds, beats, and grooves both familiar and brand new, creating a collage of sound, unlike anything that came before it.
Ushering in the '90s with themes of multiculturalism and blurred lines of a society in flux, Fear of a Black Planet is also one of the Bomb Squad's (the production team consisting of Hank and Keith Shocklee, Chuck D, Eric "Vietnam" Sadler, Gary G-Wiz, and Bill Stephney) finest musical moments. One of the smartest moves they made, as tempting as it must've been, was to purposely not make It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back 2.0.
Chuck D, known for his hard-hitting, militant, vocal style was at his MCing best on ...Nation. On Fear of a Black Planet, The Bomb Squad diversified the sound, as well as Chuck's approach on the mic. Seductive grooves, ferocious beats, hard funk, and dub reggae all get mixed in with the infamous bombast of Chuck's classic flow.
Correctly considered to be one of the greatest lyricists of his time, Chuck took on a plethora of topics on PE's third studio album. Everything from empowerment within the black community, white supremacy, institutional racism, social issues facing African Americans, the power elite, and race relations in the United States at the time, Chuck pulled no punches but landed plenty. Chuck's words were angry, persuasive, and elegant. He was expressing what was wrong, both due to happenstance and willful destruction by the powers that be.
Fear of a Black Planet was controversial, brutal, necessary, funky, and as in-your-face as an album could be. It's vintage Public Enemy that more than stands the test of time, 33 years after its release. Its impact, as well as PE as a group, is too large to measure. And not just in the hip-hop world either. The influence there is a given.
The late 80s/early 90s was a massively transformative time in popular music and culture. Fear of a Black Planet would and still does, influence artists from all genres, including rock, metal, punk, and alternative.
Talking to Billboard Magazine for a 30-year retrospective on Fear of a Black Planet, the multi-talented musician, Ben Harper, had this to say:
"We are talking about a time when music still represented the reflection of the pulse of a time, of a people, of an era — and we needed it. We needed it, and it was one thing to be cutting-edge hip-hop, but it was another thing to be cutting-edge hip-hop that didn’t flinch in the face of authority, and to actually say, “Oh, you thought you were the authority? The joke’s on you because we are.” And you can dissect it word for word, syllable for syllable, and you just get that much more out of it.
To this day, they are one of the most important groups in my experience. And it reminds me … the vehicle that music can be for social consciousness and awareness and socio-political proactivity in one’s life. They’re just a permanent reminder that you can’t sit still. The music of Public Enemy has meant as much or more to me than any music I’ve ever heard."
In the same article, Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine said:
"To me, it’s a bit like Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s. A lot of people go, “Revolver’s the best one,” but in a way, like Fear of a Black Planet, the tempos are more intense on Sgt. Pepper’s, it feels like now. Fear of a Black Planet actually suits the mood we’re in now — the tension dial’s been turned up three notches higher. It’s all continuous — it’s a continuous record — and I think as a production, it was a statement — a kind of an attitude statement. I think with Fear, they did actually manage to surpass what they did before, even though it was the record before that turned everyone on to them....it was really f–king influential. And it didn’t get old. That record doesn’t sound old at all. It’s timeless."
Sometimes it feels as though Public Enemy doesn't get talked about enough when it comes to the history of modern music and that's a shame. Regardless of era or genre, Public Enemy, with Fear of a Black Planet as evidence, is one of the most important bands of all time, and should be characterized as such. With tracks from Fear of a Black Planet such as "Welcome To The Terrordome", "911 Is A Joke", Fear Of A Black Planet", and "Fight The Power" try and convince me otherwise.
I'm currently writing my first book which will include discussions on many of the bands and artists discussed in this blog series. If you'd like to reserve your signed, limited 1st print run edition of SLACKER - 1991, Teen Spirit Angst, and the Generation It Created (Inspired By You Books 2023), click here.
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