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There was a time not very long ago when I thought that hiphop might actually make a difference. Those were the days of righteous indignation and glorious naiveté, the days before the art form became a murderous self-parody. Now revolution is dead at the hands of slick “players” who genuflect in the face of dollar signs and worship genitalia like lustful urban pagans. But when the definitive history of hiphop is written, Public Enemy will loom over its successors for the simple fact that it was the only group that understood the importance of rap as a medium in this information age. The entire point of the self-professed prophets of rage was to hijack the mainstream media as a means of achieving their own subversive ends. And in recognition of their 10th year in the industry, they’ve gone multimedia with Fight the Power, Chuck D’s long overdue first book.
If politics were what made the group stand out from the horde, they were also at the center of PE’s magnetic attachment to controversy. Fight the Power is partly a memoir of the group’s decadelong journey and partly an attempt to set the record straight on many of the issues that have drawn fire from journalists, critics, and politicians. It would have been easy for Chuck D to put out a book riddled with political clichés and drowning in black nationalist platitudes. To his credit, his book is provocative, original, and self-critical in a way that indicates that he hasn’t lost a step. He offers opinions on subjects ranging from the impact of tabloid TV on American journalism to the tomishly backward politics of some black athletes to (amazingly) black-Jewish relations. His voice is that of a man who has been many places, talked to all kinds of people, and paid attention to everything he saw and heard.
Chuck D and the camouflage-clad cast of rebels that eventually became Public Enemy coalesced around the club scene buried in the ‘burbs of Long Island in the mid-’80s. Chuck, the vocal terrorist, started out as a graphic design major at Adelphi University but eventually joined a local clique of DJs known as Spectrum City. Flavor Flav, PE’s hyperactive trickster, came into the picture when Spectrum City began hosting a radio show on Adelphi’s station that directly preceded Flav’s own.
The early days of the group found it floating on the periphery of groundbreaking acts like Run-DMC and LL Cool J. PE’s first album garnered public recognition and critical praise for the incipient militants, but in the context of Eric B & Rakim’s incredible Paid in Full and KRS-One’s Criminal Minded, Yo, Bum Rush the Show was underachievement.
Interestingly enough, the brilliant aural anarchy of “Rebel Without a Pause,” from PE’s second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, was plotted as a response to the way Rakim had completely reoriented the direction of rap. “Rebel” was the first time the Bomb Squad used the raw, ugly noise that would become its trademark. And everything that came after “Rebel” would be marked by the thunder rumbling up from Chuck’s cast-iron larynx and his subversive politics.
The PE history lessons are confined to a single chapter that traces the group’s development up to the group’s fourth album, Apocalypse 91. The ensuing years are discussed only in passing. The remaining chapters are assembled thematically; like a PE album, they tour the lives, crises, and imperatives of black folk.
From the outset, Chuck makes it clear that the explosion of black talent that has taken place over the last five years in film, television, and music has coincided with the emergence of a profoundly apolitical set of black entertainers. Chuck himself floated a proposal to host a talk show based on the Larry King format, but the idea went over like a bow tie at a bar mitzvah. By inundating the public with comedy, Chuck argues, the media have actually denied blacks the full range of human expression. Before dismissing the UPN and WB networks as “United Plantation Niggas” and “We Buffoons,” however, he puts his cards on the table. As Chuck sees it, “News is the last frontier….My agenda is to be a voice in the community and take advantage of media time to get across the message to just think.”
He schemes on delivering a new set of circumstances to the music industry by forming a union for rappers and pushing them in the direction of black management. He broods over the declining sense of community among black people. He fondly chronicles the first time Public Enemy performed in Africa and the recognition that the group’s music helped shape the political views of youth on the other side of the globe. There are moments, however, when he glibly dismisses topics of legit criticism, such as his voice-over for a Nike commercial featuring, of all people, hoop star Charles Barkley. The move was particularly ironic in light of Chuck’s criticism of the company on Apocalypse 91’s “Shut ’em Down.”
In the case of the famously controversial remarks made about Jews by Professor Griff, Chuck is more introspective, pointing out flaws in his own approach to leadership that let the situation spiral into disaster. Still, he is far from conciliatory: “We’ve been the number one casualty of the [entertainment] business, and we can’t talk about what the fuck has been done to us. Individualizing the culprit may be the best approach but if you weigh the facts at the end of the day we’re disproportionately casualties of a so-called caring group of people.” You don’t read a book by Chuck D with the expectation that you’ll be swept away by his warm and fuzzy humanism.
While Fight the Power is everything you would expect in terms of content, there’s disturbingly little attention paid to form. There are numerous grammatical errors that can probably be attributed to an editor who didn’t know that, yes, there actually are rules to Ebonics. On the subject of blacks and Jews, Chuck recalls Griff making a reference to The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jewsa book that wasn’t published until two years later. The frequent quotations from his favorite books interrupt the flow of text and are unnecessary, since he provides a suggested readings list at the end of the book. Co-writer Yusuf Jah doesn’t clutter the book up with interpretive prose; instead he wisely lets the rapper speak for himself. By the end of his 274 pages, Chuck D has proved that a decade later he remains the articulately rageful voice of the black side of town. CP