Public Enemy's rap war
That violent new video by Public Enemy — you know, the one in which the group blows up the governor of Arizona, poisons a state senator, and guns down a few lesser officials in retaliation for the state’s rescinding its Martin Luther King holiday — is that actually meant to condone bloodshed?
Ask the band, the most politically militant and controversial in all rap, and you get this: ”Scientific counterviolence always remains an optional response to racist violence.” That is a statement from Public Enemy’s ”Director of Enemy Relations,” Harry Allen, who is speaking — as he hasn’t always in the past — for the group, as its more orthodox publicist affirms. Translation: Yes, the video does condone bloodshed.
As for how King, that apostle of nonviolence, might have felt about the stance of ”By the Time I Get to Arizona” taken in his name, Public Enemy has addressed that question too, also through Allen: ”While Dr. King may have stood for nonviolence,” the band tells us, ”we wonder what he would have stood for, if he had been able to stand after that bullet ripped violently through his neck. Being assassinated, it’s been said, will often change your political viewpoint.” The civil rights leader’s widow, Coretta Scott King, doesn’t quite see it that way. ”We do not subscribe to violence as a way to achieve any social or economic ends; we condemn violence in any form,” she said recently in response to the video. In Arizona, the Rev. Warren Stewart, leader of a coalition working to reinstate the holiday and pastor of a black Phoenix church, has said that the video ”does a disservice to the legacy of Dr. King.”
MTV, after a few showings, has decided not to air the video in regular rotation. And back in the group’s home territory, New York City, the Urban League’s Dennis Walcott is still wondering why Public Enemy invited him to bring a group of children to its press conference about the video without telling him what the kids were in for. How did Walcott get to know Public Enemy? Two years ago, the group raised money for a campaign implemented to benefit the Urban League. Its name? ”Stop the Violence.”
Welcome to political science, Public Enemy-style.
It’s important to get one thing straight early on in what is a very tangled subject: As controversial and seemingly pro-violence as they may be, the members of Public Enemy aren’t ”gangsta” rappers, like N.W.A, the Geto Boys, or Ice Cube, whose records can be a stew of inner-city street mayhem, foul language, and twisted machismo. Public Enemy directs its rage into politics, presenting itself less as a group of entertainers than as rapping revolutionaries committed to unifying, educating, and inspiring black youth in what they call a war waged against blacks by a racist society.
PE’s three central performers are Chuck D (Carlton Ridenhour), 31, who does most of the rapping; his clock-wearing sidekick Flavor Flav (William Drayton), 32, who cuts Chuck D’s purposefulness with manic riffs; and the group’s DJ, Terminator X (Norman Rogers), 25. This hard-core trio is backed, both onstage and off, by a uniformed, paramilitary-style unit called the Security of the First World, or S1Ws. Other, ancillary members come and go as needed, bearing menacing titles like ”Czar of Education” and ”Lyrical Terrorist.”
Yet for all the group’s cartoonish posturing, Public Enemy is the real thing when it comes to making music. Its current album, Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black (from which ”Arizona” comes), debuted at No. 4 on the pop album chart last October and sold a million copies the first week it was out. Apocalypse has been nominated for a Grammy for best rap performance, and the group’s three previous records are consistently cited by critics as among the best rap albums ever made. Public Enemy has been called, by the Chicago Tribune‘s Greg Kot, ”not just a great rap group, but one of the best rock bands on the planet”; its sound, says The New York Times‘ Jon Pareles, is ”as insurrectionary as its words.”
Designed by Chuck D and a posse of producers called the Bomb Squad, that sound is a dissonant, clashing mix of street racket, snippets of speech and music, and the hardest beat around; it summons up an inner-city world torn to pieces by racism. Against this background, Chuck D and Flavor Flav perform counterstrikes — more typically verbal ones than the kind they resort to on ”Arizona” — against any and every perceived assault on black life and dignity. Their targets have been wide-ranging. They have blasted malt liquor advertisers who prey on black communities (”1 Million Bottlebags” on Apocalypse 91), black drug dealers who prey on their own kind, black lack of self-respect (”I Don’t Wanna Be Called Yo Niga”), and lack of respect from the culture at large (”Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps,” says Chuck D in ”Fight the Power,” the group’s 1989 anthem heard in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing).
But the prophet-of-rage trade is a far more complicated business in the ’90s than it ever was in the revolutionary ’60s. Call Public Enemy the victim of the tyranny of political correctness or just of simple decency, but when the band has strayed it’s paid — and it’s strayed with high-profile frequency, often in a very ugly way.
In 1989, some three years after the members began appearing together, Public Enemy landed in its first brouhaha, one of the biggest in recent music history: Professor Griff, Public Enemy’s ”Minister of Information,” made anti-Semitic remarks that almost broke up the group before Chuck D fired him and — reluctantly — made a public apology. Public Enemy has also gone head-to-head with a genuine issue like racism in the media, then made a mockery of its gutsiness by what Peter Watrous in The New York Times has called the group’s self-serving ”martyrdom at the hands of the press.” In fact, no subject recurs more frequently in PE’s recent songs than the supposed victimization of PE itself, complaining that the members are mistreated by the media and don’t get played enough on the radio.
On an even less elevating note, there’s the continuing saga of Flavor Flav, who missed the debut of the ”Arizona” video because he was in a Mineola, N.Y., jail, after being nabbed for a silly traffic violation (illegal lights around his license plate) but held under outstanding warrants for driving without a license and for a family court matter involving a fight with Karen Ross, the mother of his three children; last May Flav spent 20 days in the slammer after pleading guilty to punching her in the face.
Ironically, the Public Enemy story seemed to be taking a more consistently positive turn last fall when Apocalypse 91 was released to a chorus of critical praise for the band’s new ”maturity.” Moreover, PE embarked on a national tour with the all-white heavy-metal band Anthrax, a move interpreted as an effort by PE to reach out to the surprisingly large part of its audience — PE’s record company, Columbia, estimates around 40 percent — that is white. At the end of October, Public Enemy was even scheduled to give a concert in Boise, Idaho — a state whose entire black population wouldn’t fill the bottom tiers of New York’s Madison Square Garden, and where this band that so many adults consider the last word in divisiveness was inspiring passionate testimonials from white kids.
”I didn’t know hardly anything about black history,” said Joe Merkel, 14, of Boise. ”But then I started listening to Public Enemy, and got really into it, and started reading books about Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X and all that.”
Surrounded by ancient looming turbines and rusting debris in the vast, sinister building called the Power House in the old Brooklyn Navy Yard (where the group was shooting a video for the album’s forthcoming single, ”Nighttrain,” a stark and disturbing meditation on the limits of black solidarity), Chuck D sat down to talk.
The self-described Public Enemy Number One wouldn’t make a bad wanted poster: His face is menacing, set with a hard, sullen expression that doesn’t soften much even when he laughs. Only his hands, graceful and classically artistic, offset his air of contained belligerence. They serve as a reminder that Carlton Ridenhour, child of middle-class parents and native of Roosevelt, N.Y., didn’t start out as a revolutionary. He was politicized in his teens at a summer school on Long Island run by the Black Panthers, and was a graphic-arts major at Long Island’s Adelphi University when he started working at the campus radio station — where he met fellow student Flavor Flav — and getting into hip-hop.
Chuck D is surprisingly cooperative about going through the cat-and-mouse game of responding to questions on the controversies he has addressed dozens of times before. Asked about the lingering fallout from the Professor Griff affair, he says, ”I think it’s cool for Jews to be screamin’ anti-Semitism; it makes their community strong. We’ve got to start doing that, screaming racism, racism!” And he comes off as an articulate radical theorist when he lays out what he thinks can turn things around for black America. ”I’m a firm believer in reparation,” he says. ”Until reparation comes along, we’re all wasting our time. We don’t have control of the media, which is my No. 1 goal, to get as many black points of view heard at the same time.” He doesn’t waste much time coddling well-meaning white folks, but he seems genuinely sympathetic to white kids when he talks about their lowered expectations (”They’re finding out their backs are getting closer up against the wall just like black people’s”) and why they’ve gone so mad for rap (”White leaders have failed white society and people are gettin’ fed up with it. They’re excited about hearing a story they’re not used to hearing”).
And no one is sharper at answering critics who say rappers’ lyrics have gone over the top, but here the message begins to grow rougher.
”Make a long story short on all that shit,” he says. ”I think any rapper’s view should be respected, whether it’s PE, Ice Cube, anybody. Because black people have had clamps and vises and tape over our mouths for 500 years, and now everything should be put on the table! I don’t care if they talk about killin’ all white people yesterday! That should be taken, listened to and analyzed, not everybody just go AAAAGH!”
Then, protectively flanked by a pair of S1Ws, Chuck D settles into an ominous rumble, punctuated by freestyle rants (”If anything happens to me or mine, you know, I could go off, the mutha’s gonna straight-out die, and…”) and prophecies of doom (”If the racial situation isn’t turned around you’ll see mayhem in 5 or 10 years, you’ll start seein’ Presidents, their heads bein’ chopped off, you know, congressmen bein’ slain…”). And when asked whether he thinks white kids’ interest in black culture represents any kind of improvement in the world, there are indications that he’s begun to believe his own hype.
”I think it’s an improvement,” he says, suddenly cautious. ”But I also think the next couple of years are gonna be a test for black men, who’ve ended up bein’ looked up to by white kids more than their parents, or doctors and lawyers, or whatever.”
”Meaning I think we’re gonna catch hell for it,” he says. ”I think right now we’re seein’ a lot of strange things happen, especially to black leaders, people of importance, you know, Muhammad Ali, the speech problem; Richard Pryor, multiple sclerosis; the Magic Johnson incident. All the way down to Bo Jackson’s hip injury. Who’s to say, we’re next or what?”
And the diabolical nemesis in all this would be…?
”It just seems like one big government conspiracy,” Chuck D continues, with a shrug that says to hell with how it’ll look in print. ”That’s my personal opinion; I’m sorry if I’ve offended anybody but f— it.”
Chuck D has been described as a man who never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t like (he believes, for example, that AIDS is part of an antiblack plot), and paranoia and martyrdom have been part of the PE mystique since day one (”Uh-oh, Chuck, they’re out to get us!” were Flavor’s first words on their first album). But this conspiracy, offered without invoking any evidence except general malevolence, seems out of the park, even for Chuck. Does he really believe that?
Well, he canceled his Boise concert, pleading illness, then in a speech he gave a few days later at the University of Vermont, derided Idaho as a state with virtually no black people, and said he’d really canceled because it has too many white supremacists. It’s true that the notorious group Aryan Nations makes its home in Hayden Lake, Idaho, 400 miles from Boise. But was Chuck D — the man who, in ”By the Time I Get to Arizona,” leads a paramilitary force ”to head off a white suprema-scene” — really nervous about going into Boise because there might be a nut group within a day’s drive?
”I wasn’t nervous!” he snaps. ”I just said I wasn’t going! It was the end of the tour, I wasn’t feeling well, and I saw no reason to go. The people, you know, they interested in seein’ Public Enemy in Boise, they need to take all them Aryan Nations kids outta there!”
Insulted on behalf of the young white fans I met there, I try to disabuse him about who’s living in Boise, but his mind is not on white kids. ”Anywhere else,” he says heatedly, ”where I know that there’s black people, there can be KKK down South, they not jumpin’ off ’cause I know I got thousands of motherf —ers ready to do damage. Idaho! I don’t know motherf—ers ready to go to war!’ He’s pounding on the table now. ”I don’t go in no lion’s den!” he mutters angrily, looking around at his S1Ws. ”Lessen I know I got tigers around!”
Even paranoids, of course, face real lions. The day PE didn’t come to Idaho, the Idaho Statesman ran an item about the sheriff of Owyhee County, south of Boise, who had to apologize for a poster he had displayed in his office. Titled ”Run Nigger Run,” it featured an echo of Public Enemy’s famous logo, the silhouette of a black man in the cross hairs of a rifle. There’s no doubt that when Chuck D talks about a war against blacks. he’s not speaking metaphorically: He means a war people die in.
But never has Chuck D’s compulsion to embroider reality taken a more slippery turn than with ”By the Time I Get to Arizona.” You’d never know from the video, for example, that the current Arizona governor, Fife Symington, is in favor of reinstating the King holiday, or that Evan Mecham, the former governor who rescinded it, hasn’t held office since he was impeached in 1988. As the new video and previous controversies have demonstrated, about the last thing this band inspires is constructive public discussion: It has an uncanny ability to bring out the worst in practically everybody.
So the fight grows more bitter and the list of recriminations longer, with Chuck D the only noticeable beneficiary. Says another militant rapper, KRS-One, ”It’s the ultimate way to sell a record: Kill a few politicians. I bet all the white kids in Arizona are running out and buying PE.” Chuck D and Public Enemy are champs, but maybe it’s time they found a new style of play.
Additional reporting by David Brown, Melissa Rawlins, and Bob Cannon.