Fear of a Black Planet

Fear of a Black Planet

The third album from Public Enemy is a dispatch from chaos: A portrait of a fraying band at the height of its influence and infamy, and an aural bombast that reflected not only the tumult of their organization, but the tumult of America. If Fear of a Black Planet was nothing more than a venue for closing track “Fight the Power”—easily the greatest protest song in rap history, arguably the greatest protest song in the history of popular music itself—it would go down as a historic moment, the place where the voices of a hip-hop generation brought their noisy, corrosive collage-work to the bleeding edge. But there’s so much more going on with Fear of a Black Planet, both on and off the record. Not long before its 1990 release, Professor Griff, the group’s Minister of Information, made anti-Semitic comments to The Washington Times, resulting in months of press scrutiny, and enough turmoil to cause the group to briefly disband. Griff was eventually ousted from Public Enemy, a situation Chuck D addresses on “Welcome to the Terrordome.” But the disorder that had become a normal part of Public Enemy’s world is best captured by the Bomb Squad, the production team that turned Fear of a Black Planet into a 63-minute hailstorm of colliding samples and media snippets. On claustrophobically dense songs like “Terrordome,” “Brothers Gonna Work It Out,” and the Flavor Flav classic “911 Is a Joke,” barbed shards of funk and soul elbow for space, packed tighter than ever before (or would ever be again). Songs like “Power to the People” and “War at 33 1/3” blur by at tempos better suited for mosh pits than dance floors. Elsewhere on Fear of a Black Planet, Chuck rages under walls of noise like a hip-hop Sonic Youth, waging war on America’s racist institutions. He rages against stereotypical portrayals in movies (“Burn Hollywood Burn”), exploitative record labels (“Who Stole the Soul?”), the police (“Anti-N****r Machine”), and the deeply embedded hatred that keeps it all spinning (“Fear of a Black Planet”). And while Flavor Flav provides his famed comic relief on “Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man,” his solo turn on “911 Is a Joke”—a commentary of the emergency hotline’s response time in Black areas—is as cutting as any of Chuck’s more stern critiques. Chuck D had wanted the “pro-Black radical mix” of 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back to be the group’s version of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. And with Fear of a Black Planet, he aimed for the heights of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The result is an absolute high-water mark for furious rhyming, a defining moment for the nexus of pop and politics, and a frenzied peak for sampledelic experimentalism.

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