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Fight the Power: Rap, Race and Reality by Chuck D with Yusuf Jah

December 24, 2011

Twenty-three years after buying the cassette tape of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, I still hold Public Enemy as the best rap group of all time. Half the tracks on my iPod shuffle are Public Enemy. They stand alone in both the sound and the content of their music—Chuck D’s insightful, socially and politically provocative lyrics mirrored by Flavor Flav’s wacky antics, all driven by the assaulting, dense wall-of-sound mixes of the Bomb Squad. There is not, nor has there ever been anyone like them. I picked up this book because I wanted a little more insight into the man behind the lyrics. I wanted to know where he came from and get some background to the songs. The book was published in 1997, so it’s a little dated. A lot has changed in the world of hip hop, media, race, and Public Enemy, but it seemed like it would be an interesting read nonetheless.

From the start, Public Enemy was a controversial group. Rap music had been white sneakers, tracksuits, and rhymes that were clear and simple. And then comes this group out of New York that was loud and angry, a musical and visual personification of black militarism. They had a security force decked out in black and white fatigues and armed with uzis, a logo that showed a silhouetted b-boy in a crosshair (although many, including myself when I first saw it, mistook the silhouette for a police officer), and lyrics that took aim at seemingly everything: the media, the music industry, political leaders, liquor companies, daytime television, and anything else they believed to have a negative impact on the black community. They were raw, real, serious, and they made parents nervous. To a white teenager growing up in the suburbs, they looked and felt like rebellion.

At its best, Public Enemy leveled smart, sharp criticism, often picking surprising targets. One of my favorite verses:

I like Nike but wait a minute,
the neighborhood supports so put some money in it.
The corporations know they gotta give up the dough,
or else we gonna have to shut ‘em down.

-“Shut Em Down”

This lyric in part caused Nike to examine its business practices, be honest with itself about who its market was, and begin to support inner city youth programs. This is socially conscious music at its best.

But at its worst, Public Enemy wrote lyrics or fired off statements that made them seem hypocritical and/or not on the same page. Like in 1989, when Professor Griff, a member of this band that supposedly stood for equality, mired the whole group in controversy with a series of anti-Semitic remarks in an interview. Or Chuck’s kooky sidekick, Flavor Flav, kicking off “She Watch Channel Zero,” a song criticizing the effect of trash TV on the black community’s perception of itself, with “You’re blind, baby. You’re blind to the fact of who you are because you’re watching that garbage,” only to years later star in some of the most low-brow reality television ever. But I digress. This book is Chuck’s story.

Chuck D was born in 1960, which made him older than most rappers, and he was hesitant to even get on the mic in the first place because of his age. But growing up in the 60s also gave him more insight into the civil rights movement, so when PE hit the scene in the early days of rap, they pushed the envelope sonically, but they also came with a serious point of view.  Chuck’s lyrics were in the tradition of Dylan, Baez, Hendrix and the 1960s protest songs, written in a different day and style of music. And Flavor Flav, conscious of it or not, represented another element of the 60s. Chuck, who insisted on Flav’s inclusion in the band despite some trepidation on the part of the record execs, wanted a call-and-response man, a kind of Bobby Byrd to his James Brown. Like his name, Flav was meant to add flavor. And with his gold teeth, weird sunglasses and oversized clock hanging around his neck, he certainly did.

James Brown & Bobby Byrd

Chuck D & Flavor Flav, 1988.

Even stranger than his look are Flav’s lyrics, which tend to be nonsensical or, again drawing from the 1960s, straight up psychedelic:

Ya eatin’ death cause ya like gittin’ dirt from da graveyard – ya put gravy on it
Den ya pick ya teeth with tomb stone chips
And casket cover clips – dead women hips ya do da bump with – bones

We got Magnum Brown, Shoothki – Valoothki
Super-calafraga-hestik-alagoothki
You could put dat in ya don’t know what I said book.

-Cold Lampin’ With Flavor Flav

Although Flav is often criticized as being a sideshow clown, his goofiness serves as the perfect counterbalance to Chuck’s rhymes and adds yet another element that makes PE wholly original. Chuck, who majored in graphic design in college, achieved just the right balance of meaning and incongruity with PE’s image. He knew how to work the media and he was going to make certain that, love them or hate them, PE wasn’t going to be ignored.

As for the specifics of Fight The Power, the most enjoyable parts are the personal stories: Chuck and Flavor goofing around as young guys working for a delivery company, the time on tour when Flav was MIA and Chuck had someone else dress up as Flav for the show, and Chuck’s amazement at the size of U2’s production when they toured together. At one show near Chicago, Chuck watched in amazement as one after another of U2’s helicopters landed—one full helicopter just for their luggage. He spent the tour realizing time and again that, although they might be on the same bill, they were in different world. He ends the chapter with the statement, “We have U2 stories up the ass.”

Beyond the personal stories, the book is about Chuck’s worldview. Chuck D is a man of many opinions on many, many topics. He’d like to see more black representation in politics, in corporate America. A better representation of the black community in general in the media. He’d like for “black” radio stations to actually be owned by black people. He’d like for rap and hip-hop to be about more than gang-bangin’ and materialism. He’d like black citizens to have control over what he calls the “three E’s” of their communities—economics, education, and enforcement. For black folks to support black businesses. In short, he’s a man with a keen interest in improving the black community, and he has a lot of ideas about where to start.

Since 1997, Chuck has continued to be very vocal about these issues. I’m interested to see how or if his views have evolved at all. He’s still dedicated to community improvement, using his music as a springboard to add his voice to the conversation. He gives lectures at schools around the country, contributes to social, political and human rights projects. So in addition to his social criticism, he actively works for change, which is admirable.

I hardly agree with everything Chuck has to say. He has extreme views and isn’t one to pull punches. He sees racism as the primary conflict in situations where I don’t think it plays much of a role. He claims to notice less hip-hop being played in NBA arenas, which he sees as racist (again, this is 1997). There are fewer white vs black boxing matches, which is somehow racist. And most record companies are headed by racist management. As a white guy who grew up with as much privilege as anyone could hope for, it makes me uncomfortable to dispute these claims, but some of them seem more credible than others. There may be some racism, but the record industry has plenty of examples of black execs ripping off black artists and white execs ripping off white artists. I would contend that profit is the greater motive and that corporations will almost always try to squeeze the last penny out of their artists. I have no point of view on hip hop in NBA arenas.

The claim that I found most abrasive was when he called athletes and entertainers “high-priced slaves” because of their exploitative contracts. I’m willing to give some artistic leeway in the context of song lyrics, but to compare slavery to guys whose contracts don’t pay enough for them to buy a third house is, I would think, an incredible offense to anyone whose ancestors came over on a slave ship. One of the most moving parts of the book is Chuck’s recollection of his visit to the slave dungeons in Ghana, which makes the pro athlete/slave comparison that much more egregious.

That said, I respect Chuck quite a bit. At one point in the book, when he’s on a panel with a politician, Chuck says he agrees with her “about 70%.” I probably agree with him about 70%. Mostly I agree with what he stands for, with what he believes in and what he does as an artist. In a sea of music and media garbage, it’s good to have someone producing work that challenges convention and is thought provoking. I appreciate anyone using their influence to build communities and promote peace.  And he makes really good music to work out to.

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