Public Enemy’s third album continued where It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back had left off, but notched up the power, musically and lyrically. Chuck D calls Fear Of A Black Planet the group’s Sgt Pepper’s…, and as a 25th anniversary deluxe edition is released, it stands up as well as P.E’s’ finest, both as a piece of art and as a document of its time. But it nearly wasn’t made and it would be impossible to make anything like it now.
It’s hard now to appreciate just how controversial Public Enemy were seen to be back in 1989. Their paramilitary imagery, advocacy of Black Marxism and the Nation of Islam in particular had long been seized on by mainstream media. Chuck D gave hundreds of interviews in which he always treated interviewers as adversaries. One of these is referenced on the album track 'Incident At 66.6 FM', which samples a radio phone-in during which the presenter cheerfully laughs off one caller who invites the band to “go back to Africa” while another refers to their fans as “scum”. As Public Enemy’s profile rose following the release of ...Nation of Millions, two events saw the controversy around the group shoot higher than ever.
First, they recorded ‘Fight the Power’ for the Spike Lee film Do The Right Thing. ‘Fight the Power’ is the definitive Public Enemy track - aggressive, uplifting, funky, relentless, angry – with Chuck’s powerful and righteous rap matched by samples, piled higher than ever before by The Bomb Squad production team. The chanted chorus, “Fight the power, fight the powers that be” sounded like a call to arms and, allied to Lee’s brilliant film - controversial in its own right and culminating in a race riot rather than a happy resolution - ensured more notoriety for the group. But Chuck stating in rhyme that Elvis “never meant shit to me” and Flavor Flav following that up with “motherfuck him and John Wayne” became more of a talking point to some commentators, who weren’t happy to hear American heroes being blasted and dismissed as racist.
A TV interview given by the group’s ‘Minister of Information’ Professor Griff, in which he stated that Jews were responsible for “the majority of the wickedness that goes on across the globe”, was the other factor to boost the group’s notoriety. Griff, a founder member of Public Enemy, had become isolated recently with Chuck taking responsibility as spokesman for the group and Flavor Flav’s reckless behaviour provoking him to physically attack him.
Though Chuck would never apologise for Griff’s comments, he was used to defending his colleague and presenting a toned-down and acceptable spin on his more extreme views; but the backlash from this incident wasn’t going away and Griff was dismissed. Chuck felt that Griff’s views had been taken out of context and was furious that the group was being held collectively responsible for the individual comments of one of its members. Media silence followed this announcement and rumours spread that Public Enemy could be finished.
It almost was, but instead the band returned to Long Island, got in the studio and started on a new album. The single 'Welcome to the Terrordome' was released January 1990. It’s another sample-heavy classic, punctuated with scratches from Terminator X. Chuck is angrier than ever here, kicking off with the battered but defiant line “I got so much trouble on my mind/refuse to lose”. Later he rhymes, “Apologies made to whoever pleases/still they got me like Jesus”; a reference to his trial by media, though it invites misinterpretation given the nature of the Professor Griff furore. It’s a great song and it showed that Public Enemy weren’t about to start playing it safe.
Fear Of A Black Planet was released in April 1990, and it was a progression in every way from ...Nation of Millions. The Bomb Squad had perfected their production techniques to produce a denser, richer, multi-layered sound – their ‘sonic wall’. Copyright law was changed shortly after the album so that royalties had to be paid on all samples used in recordings. So many samples were used in the making of ...Black Planet that if it were made under current laws the group would lose money on every copy sold. Chuck’s delivery was not only more defiant than ever before, but it was more ambitious, with sophisticated internal rhymes, as on ‘Who Stole the Soul’: “I learned we earned, got no concern/Instead so burned so where the hell is our return?”. Flavor Flav comes to the fore more on this album and gives us the funk classic ‘911 Is A Joke’ and the genuinely funny ‘Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man’, the third and fifth singles from the album.
Chuck always saw Flav as a vital counterbalance to his own serious messages and Flav’s comic interventions are welcome amongst the rhetoric here. Chuck saw his own role in the band as to provoke rather than to lead and on the title track, ‘Meet the G that Killed Me’, ‘Burn Hollywood Burn’ (featuring guest vocals from Ice Cube and Big Daddy Kane) among many others Chuck does just that.
Fear of a Black Planet received near-universal acclaim from reviewers and it sold a million in its first week. It is as influential as an album can get, and nobody has ever matched Public Enemy’s power. This is what it sounds like when a group at the top of its game gets backed into a corner and comes out fighting.