1990, Music

Fear of a Black Planet (1990) by Public Enemy

This is the first Hip Hop album I have ever given my requisite 3 listens to. I am 33 years old. There have been a number of R&B (or “urban”) albums containing raps and Hip Hop that I have listened to, and I listened to an EP recently that might have sort of qualified, but this is absolutely the first Hip Hop album I have ever heard properly.

The reason for that is that I am an extraordinarily white Canadian, who was raised in a middle class neighbourhood (now an upper class neighbourhood, basically) and I was always so utterly self conscious of the giant disconnect between what Hip Hop appeared to be about and my own life experience. (For some reason, this massive disconnect has not prevented me from loving Blues and Jazz – though both of those styles were heavily appropriated by white peple before I was born, that’s probably got something to do with it.)

Usually when I approach albums as an adult I have decades of listening to a genre to prepare me for something. I have listened to hundreds of rock albums, so I know what I’m in for. Same with jazz. It’s getting that way with “classical”. But I have no frame of reference here, beyond the “hits” (including “Fight the Power”) that made it onto music television and, to a lesser extent, radio, and which I desperately tried to ignore.

There are things about Hip Hop I probably will never get (though as the genre evolves, maybe that will change). I have almost always appreciated musicianship more than vocals (with a few exceptions) and so the emphasis on wordplay in Hip Hop – by people who aren’t even trying to sing most of the time – has always struck me as some kind of cop out. The lack of interest in the people making the underlying music (the “producers” often) used to strike me as odd, too (though that has changed) – the idea that the “talent” was in rhyming, in creating poetry, and not in creating music, never appealed to me. And the “turn taking” of having different MCs taking the lead on different tracks (and having guests) always sort of rubbed me the wrong way, as I was raised on music where everyone in the band contributed (in theory) to every track (more of a myth than a reality).

So how do I possibly evaluate this? Well, I’m going to try anyway.

It’s obvious to me where the real talent lies here (at least it seems that way to me): Chuck D and the various producers/programmers clearly seem to be the source of what is of interest here. Flavor Flav is less confusing to me here with at least one track that seems less ridiculous than his personality.

As someone who appreciates punk, even though he never rebelled as a teen, I can absolutely see the appeal of these lyrics, not just to African Americans, but to anyone who feels oppressed and misunderstood, and who would like to wear that as a badge. I understand, more than I ever have before, why Hip Hop sort of overtook punk as the music of disaffected youth. (Compare this album to the “California punk” of the ’90s – this is far, far more dangerous.)

The production is absolutely incredible. Some of these tracks are so unbelievably dense. Even someone with my unfamiliarity with Hip Hop can see the huge influence this has had on the use and style of sampling, not just in Hip Hop, but in nearly every popular music genre out there. I also love how they use their detractors against themselves, making them out to be ignorant, reactionary and, yes, afraid. Had this ever been done before in the history of music? I don’t know of any examples.

A classic as far as I know, though I wouldn’t know.


Listen to me talk about Fear of a Black Planet

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