Monday, July 16, 2007

"100 Greats" #061: Public Enemy, Greatest Misses, 1986-1991

Now playing: Public Enemy - Fight the Power

By the spring of 1977, I had figured out New York—or at least, I had figured out how to hack my little corners of Manhattan. I knew the Lower East Side, where I lived in Alphabet City; Washington Square Park a few blocks south, where 20 years before the first rising tide of the Great Folk Scare had broken; the West Village, to which I’d walk every day to the New School buildings on 12th Street & Avenue of the Americas, and where once a week on a Friday I’d spend $1.50 for a loaded slice at Ray’s Famous Pizza; Chinatown below the Bowery (not yet gentrified), where I’d tentatively explore the dim sum shops, hyper-conscious of how, by height, complexion, and personal odor, I stood out from the crowds around me—my first extended, very valuable experience of being in the ethnic minority; 14th Street, where the street vendors, dime stores, and cheap markets held sway; the used bookshops along First Avenue (now, sadly, almost all disappeared into the virtual marketplace of the Internet—and with them the communities who hung out in them); 8th Street, which had been the cornerstone for the 1960s folk revival and East Coast psychedelic explosion—and where I’d stare in awe at the Café Wha? where in “66 Hendrix had mopped the floor with every white blues guitarist, and peer in the smoked windows that dressed the sexy guitar-shaped profile of his purpose-built Electric Lady Studios. I had no fuckin’ money at all: I was so poor I would walk instead of spending 50 cents on the subway; my one weekly indulgence was that buck-and-a-half loaded slice at Ray’s. I was seventeen years old, enormously relieved to be out of my yachting-skiing-investment broker bedroom community (where I’d spent most of high school despising most of my contemporaries, with the exception of the very small cadre of hipsters, musicians, and street-drag-racers I hung out with, and my senior year of which I had, very much at the last minute, abandoned in favor of an early-admission “Freshman Year” seminar program at the New School), and my mom had driven me down from Boston, helped me unload my belongings onto the sidewalk at the NYU dorm where the New School rented student rooms, and said, “OK, good luck!” But I had some, dim inkling that the city around me might provide some opportunities and some adventure—at least, for an artist, for a young man, for a Westerner (I imagine Hong Kong would kick my ass). I was lucky: I was big, and male, and scary looking, and pretty ragged, so in the cost/benefit equation that any competent mugger maintains in casing potential targets, I looked like a pretty high-risk, low-return investment—I was a lot safer, and thus a lot freer, than a small-boned, well-dressed woman would have been.

So I walked. Everywhere:

Washington Square Park south through Little Italy, the Bowery, and Chinatown, all the way Battery Park; across lower Manhattan from Alphabet City and the East River all the way down Christopher Street past the gay couples cruising, shopping, and gossiping (Christopher Street had been Ground Zero for the 1969 Stonewall Riots that were the first, long-overdue public face of the Gay Liberation movement), up Bleeker to the 8th Avenue hot-dog stands and bodegas (and where I got my first piercing on a hot spring day in ‘77) west to the Hudson docks and the view across to Jersey.

And I lived and died by the Village Voice’s “Free or Under 2 Bucks” back page. Back in the day, the Voice (still the greatest city-arts-rag I’ve ever read) would fill the second-last page of the edition with a long listing of all the arts & culture events going on around the island that were either free-admission or cost less than $2 to get into. It was great for me: for the price of the hike, or when I was feeling flush, 50 cents for the subway, I could hear all kinds of great music I’d never heard before, taking me into neighborhoods I would never have known existed. I heard Cecil Taylor in the basement of an uptown church that way, as well as hearing the Ramones and the Patti Smith Group at CBGB before anybody outside Manhattan knew who they were.

That’s also how I heard hip-hop for the first time, before almost anybody in the white community—I think—could have heard it. In the early ‘70s, and particularly in the wake of the political turmoil that convulsed Kingstown prior to the Seaga/Manley elections and which almost killed Bob Marley, many, many people were getting the hell out of Jamaica and coming to the States. And a lot of them wound up in Brooklyn and Spanish Harlem.

I was assisting one of my Freshman Year Program colleagues, as a volunteer teaching literacy at a school in East Harlem two days a week after my own classes. We’d ride the Number 6 line north from 14th Street, and walk from 125th Street east to the school. A lot of the kids were from the Barrio further north, and they were sweet and wonderful kids (then, as now, it’s a lot easier for an outsider to teach 8-year-olds than 16-year-olds—those intervening eight years were pretty destructive, and by 16 no East Harlem kid wanted to deal with a know-it-all white boy from the suburbs).

I stopped on the corner, waiting for the light, and realized there was music coming from the playground behind me. It was not a style I was familiar with, but I already knew how to recognize a killer groove when I heard one.

I turned around, slung my rucksack over the other shoulder (basic NYC survival tip: never carry your bag zipper-outward—only inward, against your body), and crossed the sidewalk and walked onto the playground. Under the raggedy basketball hoop (battered and pockmarked backboard, rusty chain net), a group of kids wearing Knicks T-shirts and baggy jeans bobbed and rocked back and forth. In the center, there was a tall, skinny, dreadlocked guy with a microphone in his hand, chanting rhymes of the sort that I associated with the Dozens (variants of which I’d heard on records by Lenny Bruce and Lord Buckley). But this guy’s accent was definitely not New York—he sounded like he was from the Caribbean. I didn’t pay much attention to the words he was reciting, though I loved the way the voice was interacting with the musical background.

But my attention was immediately riveted by the heavy-set kid behind him, at the base of the hoop, who was crouched over a couple of battered turntables perched on a couple of milk crates (back in those days, plastic milk crates were an essential part of almost all NYC exterior or interior decoration—my bookshelves in the NYU dorm were built out of ‘em), with a set of headphones on, swaying back and forth and doing something with his hands to the LP’s themselves. I realized he was manually moving the discs with-and-against the turntables” motors.

I had never seen this before, and at the time I didn’t really know what I was seeing—my understanding of black music stopped way short of the contemporary (a fact I’m embarrassed about—I’m still ashamed of the “Disco Sucks” T-shirt a friend gave me, neither of us realizing the racism behind the NYC rock stations” derogation of that latest 1970s trend in Great Black Music). But I was an instrumentalist, and even if I was too much of a suburban folk-music head to realize the artistry of the toaster, I knew even through ignorant observation that the kid on the turntables (the “Wheels of Steel” as Grandmaster Flash immortalized them) was some kind of virtuoso. There’s an unmistakable visual power that emerges just from the physical motion of someone who is that much in command of his instrument. I didn’t understand what was happening, but I knew that that kid was absolutely rockin’.

I have a bad tendency to be obtuse about great music that’s right in front of me. I grew up outside Boston—and totally missed the fantastic Boston Irish-emigrant music scene. I lived in Chicago, and missed its Irish music scene—though I did a little better at picking up on the South Side blues. I lived in New Orleans, and nearly missed its fantastic R&B scene, encountering it mostly as door security, not a musician. I found out years later that hip-hop had come out of the interaction of NYC street culture (especially the great break-beats pioneered by James Brown's bands, and the percussion breakdowns of Latino salsa), and the Jamaican immigrants who brought with them the practice of rapping over "dubs" (one-off records based on the rhythm tracks of Studio One singles). But that day in Spanish Harlem, I listened for a little while, and then went back to my dorm on East 10th street and put on Born to Run, very loud: a daily ritual for me in that year—it’s part of what got me through it.

But now I think back to those kids rockin’ the wheels on a hot day in Spanish Harlem in 1977, and the tall skinny Jamaican guy toasting, and the break-dancers and graffiti artists whose art was just beginning to transform New York’s street culture, and I see their forebears' generations standing behind them like echoes or sepia shadows: from the doo-woppers harmonizing on Queens street-corners and the toasters driving sound-system trucks up into the hills of Jamaica's Cockpit Country, to James Brown tapdancing for tips outside Atlanta movie theaters, to the jug bands and hokum bands on the streets and in the speakeasies of Memphis, to the lone blues guitarists and pianists rocking the juke joints of Clarkesdale and Dockery’s Plantation, to the “novelty” dancers doing the hoochie-koo in the vaudeville houses and tent-shows of the chitlin’ circuit, to the Upper South black musicians from whom George Washington Dixon and Thomas Daddy Rice and Dan Emmett learned their music—and whose blackface imitation was conventionally derogated as noxious racism but was maybe—also—the era’s sincerest expression of awestruck admiration for black musical genius; all the way to Master Juba dancing in the Bowery for Charles Dickens and the slave fiddlers lighting up harvest dances in Louisiana Big Houses, and I see the tradition reaching back even farther—before Reconstruction, before slavery days, before the Middle Passage, and all the way back to the griots and jugglers, sorcerers and blacksmiths of West Africa, and I am reminded—again—of the transcendent power, stamina, and resilience of Black culture.

In James Cameron’s surprisingly great 1994 Strange Days film, a more imminent, American, and believable version of the Bladerunner/dystopia trope, a race war is catalyzed by the unsolved murder of a political rapper by two rogue white LA cops. Aside from the chilling timeliness of this story vis-à-vis the horrific miscarriage of justice that in 1991 had acquitted the eleven cops who beat Rodney King within an inch of his life, the cinematic pleasure of seeing Ralph Fiennes’s against-casting star turn as an ex-cop street con selling bootlegged “tapes” of other people’s psychological experiences, and the guilty pleasure of seeing a beyond-cut, leather-clad, dread-locked Angela Bassett kicking the living shit out of, first, three LA-punk thugs, and subsequently, two LAPD cops (one played by the great Vincent D'Onofrio), there is the realization that rap music came from somewhere—that is, in its earliest, greatest manifestations, before it was appropriated and turned into a wish-fulfillment adolescent fantasy reminiscent of Brian Wilson’s ‘sun & surf & blondes” fantasies with the Beach Boys.

Whether Afrocentric, apocalyptic, B-Boy, or gangsta: KRS-One, Public Enemy, Run-DMC, or NWA, hip-hop was the voice and the soundtrack of real communities. Passed around on short-run audio cassettes, from the kids who created street art out of spray cans and concrete walls, or sheets of cardboard and their own bodies, or out of busted-out turntables and salvaged LP’s, or out of nothing but their own minds and hearts and voices and rhymes, hip-hop is only a more recent manifestation of the indomitable, indefatigable, and eternal contribution of Africa to the very foundations of American expressive culture. After the horror that was inflicted upon them by Arabic slave traders and Portuguese traders and their own treacherous rulers and Presbyterian ship captains and Cuban auctioneers and Mississippi plantation owners and every white person who ever profited, directly or indirectly, from black folks' pain, our nation owes them.

Public Enemy rendered the due bill.

Coming out of Adelphi University's free-form radio programming, they featured the righteous, wrathful roar of Chuck D (born Carlton Ridenhour into Long Island’s black middle class); the hilarious, rubbery Trickster-isms of his brilliant foil/fool Flavor Flav (of whom Chuck said, “I dunno what he adds, but he adds something": “Yeah, boyeeee!”); and the brilliant, orchestral, endlessly rich and layered beats of the genius DJ Hank Shocklee. What too few (white) cultural critics have ever understood, particularly about that first great generation of hip-hoppers, was that they were, as black griots had always done, inhabiting personae—that is, it didn’t matter whether Chuck really did come from the streets, any more than it mattered if Miles Davis had. The black bourgeois have been left out of the story of black music because so many wanted to believe that great black music was a product of instinct or environment, not sweat, effort, thought, and craft.

Chuck didn’t fuck around. Though the dime-store, anti-Semitic combative posturing of bodyguard/dancer Richard “Professor Griff” Griffin and his Security of the First World posse was laughable—though no less obnoxious for its childishness—Chuck’s own militancy was solid as a rock (in Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 Lightning in a Bottle, easily the greatest blues performance video ever, he turned Wolf’s “Killing Floor” into a brutal frontal assault on the Bush administration’s Iraq lies). It Takes a Nation of Millions was a clarion call declaring a new day in black music and identity politics.

And it comes through in the tracks of this compilation too, with Chuck’s great rhymes, Flav’s wild onomatopoeia, and the transcendent beats of Schocklee’s Bomb Squad, which feature the astonishing turntable artistry of Terminator X (who gets a shout-out on the tribute track “Terminator X”; best line from Flav “who gives a fuck about a goddamn Grammy?!?”), and which build layers upon layers of quotes, samples, allusions, and comic collisions: The Shocklee tour-de-force is “Night of the Living Baseheads,” which features no less than thirteen separate samples, from the likes of Sly & The Family Stone, The Temptations, Kool & The Gang, Dennis Coffey, The Bar-Kays, Rufus Thomas, the Average White Band, David Bowie, and Kurtis Blow and a whole network of James Brown and JB spinoff recordings (were it not for James, and his greatest drummer Clyde Stubblefield, whose “Funky Drummer” was sampled literally hundreds of times, it’s very probable that hip-hop as we know it wouldn’t exist). But the Bomb Squad also samples The Escorts, Stevie Wonder, and Isaac Hayes’s “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic” (“Black Steel”, which opens with Flav’s “Base fuh ya face, London!”); “Don’t Believe the Hype” (sampling JB, Rufus Thomas, Melvin Bliss, and which features Flav’s great onomatopoeic retching); “Fear of a Black Planet” (Sly Stone, Syl Johnson, and the Bar-Kays); and the anthemic hit single “Fight the Power” (sampling JB, JB sidekick Bobby Byrd, the Dramatics, Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” and even Clapton’s Marley cover of “I Shot the Sheriff”, and opening with a sample of Reverend King proclaiming “Matter of fact, it would be safe to say that they would rather switch than fight!”; Chuck's best line: "Most of my heroes didn't appear on no stamp"); the eponymous “Public Enemy #1” name-checks two other touchstones: Aretha Franklin and the JBs, and “Rebel Without a Pause” is built entirely on samples out of James’s stable, but opens with a sample of Jesse Jackson throwing down at the 1972 Wattstax concerts in LA.

There’s the epochal, wall-obliterating, heaviest-of-the-heavy 1991 collaborative remake of “Bring the Noise”, sampling Marva Whitney, JB again, and Funkadelic, between PE and the thrash/metal band Anthrax, which echoed the (equally great) 1986 collaboration on “Walk This Way” with Run-DMC and Aerosmith--though I'd argue that "Bring the Noise" rocked even harder and meaner.

My personal favorite is “911 is a Joke,” for its absolutely flawless production and Flav’s astonishing, instinctive, and virtuosic evocation of Uncle Remus, minstrelsy’s interlocutors, and all those nameless, subversive clowns who shucked-and-jived all the way back to the Trickster Rabbit, or Legba, at the crossroads, and before that to Elegibo in Bahia and Elegua and Anansi-the-Spider in West Africa. Flav’s finest hour, the brilliantly infectious, grimly flip irony of “911 is a Joke”—the griots have always understood that the very greatest political power for a musician accrues from making very sure that the critique absolutely rocks the house. Nothing is more revolutionary than music that everyone wants to hear. Only a trickster like Flav would find a way to frame this quintessential “fuck-off” to New York’s authorities as such impeccably infectious pop rhyme, in the classic, polyrhythmic refrain: “Get-up-ah, git, git down, nine-one-one is a joke in your town”. Like the greatest of the African jeliya who are the original archetypes, Flav could frame the most brutal satire in a fashion that made any official condemnation all the more ridiculous for its attention.

The only hip-hop song of this period which was even close to as tough, uncompromising, and just plain dangerous was is N.W.A.'s instantly-banned “Fuck the Police”, with a refrain so infectious and so incendiary ("Fuck tha Po-leece, fuck tha po-leece, FUCK-'em!") that it spread like wildfire throughout black communities even though it probably never appeared on broadcast radio.

In the dystopic, paranoid (“Lenny, the question isn’t whether you’re paranoid; the question is whether you’re paranoid enough”), and sadly prescient Strange Days, just before he is murdered, the prototypical political rapper “Jeriko One” is pulled over on a bogus traffic charge, but refuses to observe the black-white power relations the LAPD expected, spitting out, from his knees, his contempt for a system he knows is loaded against him:

You’ve pulled over the wrong black man, Officer Steckler! I’m the 800 pound gorilla in your mist, fucker! I make more money in a day than you make in a whole year! And my lawyer loves sending sorryass Aryan RoboCop fuckers like you to jail! You’re gonna be in my next song…It’s about a cop who met his worst nightmare: a nigga with enough political juice to squash your ass like a stinkbug! You gonna be famous, fucker!

So they shoot him in the head.

These people changed our world. They changed our nation. They changed global musical culture. And they damned sure changed my life.

And they paid and paid and paid and paid for it.

Looking back to that steaming playground basketball court in East Harlem in the spring of 1977, among the “40” bottles and fast-food wrappers, listening to those kids create real art, lasting art, "art that saves lives" art, out of nothing but their own experience, I am grateful.

And I’m ashamed.


Banjosnake said...

Brilliant post to the Hundred Greats, my friend... As a not-very-educated-or-exposed hip-hop appreciator, this one really helps me kinda-sorta understand... your own experience as a white-boy outsider is particularly welcome to this hillbilly. I also am thrilled that you like "Strange Days," a film that I've always though got short shrift. This whole post reminds me of the wonderful/horrible scene in Jim Jarmusch's film "Ghost Dog" when the Italian gangsters are trying to figure out who their own assassin is (Forest Whitaker), so they can kill him.

Sonny (the great Cliff Gorman): So what the fuck is his name?

Louie: Ghost Dog.

Sonny: What?

Louie: Ghost Dog.

Mr. Vargo: Ghost Dog?

Old Gangster: He said Ghost Dog!

Louie: Yeah... he calls himself Ghost Dog. I dunno, a lot of these black guys today, these gangster types... they all got names like that they make up for themselves.

Mr. Vargo: Is that true?

Louie: Sure.

Sonny: He means like the rappers, you know, the rappers. They all got names like that. Snoop Doggy Dogg, Ice Cube, Q-Tip, Method Man... my favorite was always Flavor Flav from Public Enemy... ya got da funky fresh fly flav... (goes into long, hilarious rap) I love that guy...

Mr. Vargo: I don't know anything about that... but it makes me think about Indians. You know they got names like uh... Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, Running Bear, Black Elk... (makes deep mooing sound like an elk).

Sonny: ...that kind of shit...

Old Gangster: Ah, Indians... Niggers... same thing!

A sad comment on how those in power lump those of us not in power all together into one big unwashed rabble... but also a remarkable comment on how far Public Enemy's music penetrated the American culture! Keep it up, man... don't quit writin' this shit! You're gonna be the educator of us all, not to mention making Greil Marcus run for cover and never come out of hiding!

CJS said...

Yeah, I loved Ghost Dog too.

Thanks for the kind words. See also the "Help with 100 Greats" post above, and feel free to let me know your "Top 5" (High Fidelity reference).

Thanks again.