Last Saturday, Yoko Ono turned 84 years old; so we’ve decided to take the opportunity to shout out one of our favorite visual and musical artists, who has been fucking shit up for five decades and is still going strong in 2017. If you’re a Yoko neophyte and want to know what the fuss is about, here’s our (deeply personal, 100% subjective) primer on why she matters and where to start. No hate allowed–Callie will ether your ass. We’re taking next month off the podcast, but we’ll be back in April with another KISS memoir. The sublime and the ridiculous, folks!
Another Dystopian Video Game Party, another classic Final Fantasy summon: Ramuh, who I’ve decided is pretty metal, but like, Led Zeppelin metal, not Dio or Iron Maiden metal. Also, I get the Regalia back from some bourgeois imperialist pigs. Not bad for less than two hours of play! Like I said in the stream, DVGP is taking off the month of March, so we’ll see you again in April. If you want to know when we’re streaming next, just subscribe to our YouTube channel.
It’s almost too fitting that the anniversary of Public Enemy’s debut album should fall during Black History Month. For people like me–’90s kids from majority-white towns where “Black History” meant half a class period on George Washington Carver every February–Public Enemy was our connection to an invisible history of Black radical thought: from Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois to Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton. Their music opened me up to ideas I didn’t even know existed; ideas that, in the wilderness of White (supremacist) America, were truly life-altering. Discovering P.E. as a teenager was an experience as radicalizing as discovering punk rock; more so, in fact, because they represented a threat to racial hegemony that even the likes of the Clash did not. They were insurrection in musical form, with a visceral cut-and-paste aesthetic that continues to sound cutting-edge to this day.
None of that, of course, was the point of Public Enemy. More than any other rap group of their era, P.E. was music by and for Black people; the radicalized white kids like me were collateral damage. But I can only speak from my experience, as someone for whom Fear of a Black Planet and, especially, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back were an introduction to an entirely new kind of politics, a new way of seeing the world. If nothing else, I have Public Enemy to thank for introducing me to a rich canon of African American literature and art: to Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, and for that matter to James Brown, John Coltrane, and Gil Scott-Heron. Without that initial spark of interest I felt the first time I heard “Bring the Noise,” I might have missed out on a whole universe of ideas that have made me a definitively better person.
Granted, not everything about the group has aged well. Public Enemy may have exposed millions of listeners like myself to Black Power and the Panthers, but they also regurgitated a lot of less progressive influences: the anti-Semitism and homophobia of Louis Farrakhan, most famously, along with a host of conspiracy theories and pseudo-history that contemporary listeners are likely to reject as Hotep bullshit. Their politics are more akin to a firebrand anarchist zine than a well-reasoned essay–which is probably why they appealed more to my teenage self than they do to me as an adult. But there will always be a place for firebrands, and P.E. were as incendiary as they came: it was what made us sit up and listen in the first place. And in early 2017–a time when racism in America is arguably the worst it’s been in my lifetime–their fire might just be needed more than ever. So this Black History Month, let’s look back on 30 years of one of the most important groups in Black music: a group without whose influence, these troubled times would be a lot harder to process.
Editor’s Note: In news that should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with my work ethic, I’m still not finished with my guide to the discography of Public Enemy (though you can read the introduction in my recent guest post on Andresmusictalk). So, I’m going to do what I always do in situations like this, and post a vaguely-related stopgap that I wrote over a decade ago. Here’s my review of MKLVFKWAR Manchester UK Live, a concert DVD released in the wake of P.E.’s underrated 2005 album New Whirl Odor. As you can see, I wasn’t a fan–and I was also writing in a moment of cynicism about the state of hip-hop, which is pretty fucking hilarious coming from a 22-year-old white boy. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether my criticism was on-point or insufferable; in any case, I’ll be back with a fresher take on the Enemy tomorrow. – Z.H.
Which is a stranger thought: that Public Enemy’s days as rap music’s most important, relevant group have now been over for more than twice as long as they’d lasted? Or that Public Enemy was ever important and relevant in the first place? It’s my hope, at least, that the majority of readers would have answered with the former; P.E.’s glory days may have taken leave of them long before the dawn of the 21st century–a glance at VH1’s program schedule is enough to confirm as much–but their importance to hip-hop history, popular music history, and just plain history is one thing that can never be overstated.
These guys were, at one point in time, the cutting edge for rap: an incisive Molotov cocktail of street rhymes, dense samplescapes, and radical Black politics, the likes of which has never been seen before or since. I’m not saying political rap didn’t exist outside of Public Enemy, either before or after the release of their 1987 debut LP Yo! Bum Rush the Show; but I am saying their prescient combination of progressive lyrics and even more progressive production has never been fully replicated. Public Enemy always was ahead of their time, but there’s still a nagging sense that “their time” never actually arrived.
It’s a short, yet surprisingly productive episode of Dystopian Video Game Party: I finish two chapters of Final Fantasy XV, recruiting my first summon along the way in a section that can’t decide whether it’s janky Uncharted or janky God of War. Against all odds, though, I’m still having fun. Follow along on our YouTube channel if you want to see future streams while they’re happening.