Public Enemy – Fear Of A Black Planet: Round 81 – Tom’s Selection

Fear_of_a_Black_PlanetSurely a ridiculous choice for the ‘How the hell did that get into my record collection’ round, Fear of a Black Planet is widely (and rightly) regarded as one of the finest hip-hop albums of all time…if not one of the finest albums of all-time per se. So it should be of no surprise to find it in my regular rotation. However, I have only owned it (and its sister album, the equally fine It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back) for a couple of years having been stung into action by Rob and Nick’s response to my less than enthusiastic reaction to our first hip-hop album at record club – it was round 6, and Rob brought the album Niggamortis by Gravediggaz.

At the time I had precious little hip-hop in my record collection and what there was tended to stem from the more trip-hoppy end of the genre…or be the Beastie Boys! My reluctance to embrace hip-hop stemmed from my assumption that the vast majority of it was either misogynistic, unpleasantly aggressive, racist or a combination of all three. Sure, De La Soul existed but they, in my mind, were the exception that proved the rule! I had heard Straight Outta Compton and reacted really badly to it. I had heard a Public Enemy album in really bad circumstances (I think, in retrospect, that it must have been the debut Yo, Bum Rush The Show) but I hadn’t really listened to either. Convinced that hip-hop had nothing to offer me and that I had no way of connecting with it, I was happy to close the door and dismiss it as ‘one of those’ genres that I just didn’t need.

But a strange thing happened to me in Round 6. Whilst I can’t say my tastes aligned particularly with the music of Niggamortis, it did sow a few seeds of possibility and that, coupled with Rob and Nick evangelising on the subject of Public Enemy’s finest albums (and, if I’m being totally honest, their reputation amongst the cognoscenti)  led to me quickly enquiring as to whether my vinyl ditching chum, Steve, would care to part with his Public Enemy records in exchange for some beer money.

Well, of course, the rest is history, at least in as much as I now completely see what the fuss was all about – these two records are monumental in every sense. Lyrically outstanding, I love the fact that none of the cheap shots I used to associate with hip-hop are here at all. Sure, Public Enemy are pretty pissed off but this is the stuff of righteous indignation, political disgruntlement, genuine frustration at the inequalities of life. I also love the clever way they are highlighting the stupidity of their critics (that would have been me, guys!). By playing clips from interviews and reviews they are letting their critics words speak for themselves, throwing a spotlight on the narrow-minded ignorance of some of their more negative commentators. Furthermore, the title of the album is simply genius and the irony is palpable – ‘we know you feel threatened so, just to underline the fact, we thought we would remind you with the title of our new record’.

Just as eye-opening to me was the sound of the record. My previous PE experience, during a VERY long drive with a (soon to be ex) girlfriend, left the impression that Public Enemy records were rants over squeals, monochromatic and abrasive and hard work. If Rebel Without A Pause is in any way representative of their early work I can still see why I would have struggled – this is powerful music with very little light.  An album of this would have been hard enough to take at the best of times! But, two albums down the line, the music is nothing like that. Funky, fun even, but always impressive, it’s easy with Fear of a Black Planet to get lost in the grooves and find yourself wallowing in the words as if they are just another instrument; the white water atop the torrent of momentum that these incredible compositions create, it really does sound like nothing else in my collection and, whilst far from being ‘easy’ it is also far from being inaccessible.

Choosing between the two Public Enemy records I own was pretty much a toss of a coin – they are both great. I went with Fear Of A Black Planet mainly due to the fact that I have listened to it less and therefore had more to discover but also because it is, perhaps, a little warmer and more groovy (in much the same way I slightly favour Check Your Head to Paul’s Boutique). Whatever, there is no doubt that both records are outstanding and, together, they stand as a colossal reminder to me to keep an open mind – I should never have been in a position where either record would have been eligible to bring to this round!

Rob listened: I got into a fight with my Brother over ‘Fear of a Black Planet’. He was the hip-hop head in our house and by the time Public Enemy’s third was released, he had practically worn out the first two. Although I hadn’t been obsessing like he had, I had certainly been falling for them alongside him. We shared a record player at that time, precariously and, on one or two occasions, fatally, located beneath the dartboard. So we would alternate, which meant that he was learning about Public Image Limited whilst I was absorbing Run DMC. He got the grips with The Smiths whilst I became a discerning KRS-One listener. When Public Enemy arrived on the old phonograph (I bought him ‘Yo! Bum Rush the Show’ for christmas) we found our first and perhaps still our most heartfelt musical overlap. In the urgency and abrasiveness I heard echoes of Sex Pistols. In the dizzying lyrics I found resonances with The Fall, another insane musical compendium I was trying to get to grips with. In the alien otherness of those first two records I found the challenge and urge to reject that would characterise many of my very favourite records over the next years.

So it was that when ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ came out, I was the one old enough to get the bus to Manchester and buy a copy. One copy. For me. When I brought it home and Stu cottoned on that I was planning to keep it, things turned tricky. Silly really, we had to listen together anyway, but I guess I could see where he was coming from. As I recall, I tactically left it in his collection after a little while, such that I had to buy myself a second copy years later. But, by that time, we’d worn out the first one together and my oh my, what an album. My favourite of theirs, I think, the balance being tipped by the sheer bustling richness of sound on tracks like ‘Revolutionary Generation’, ‘Welcome to the Terrordome’ and ‘911 Is A Joke’. In the end, I’m glad we shared the listening experience even if ownership of the vinyl was disputed, and to be fair, I think I too would lose my shit if someone tried to deny me this incredible record.

Graham listened: Almost came to this as a completely fresh listen. Off my radar when it was released and not really ever engaged with PE. Expected to be challenged/intimidated by the album, but found the complex layers of sounds fascinating. Who knew, huh?

Nick listened: A guy I was at university with once asked me to manage his rap band based purely on the fact that I owned a copy of this album. Nothing came of that conversation. But this record, wow. Maybe Nation of Millions slightly edges it for the brutally enticing juxtaposition of noise and groove, whereas this is slightly richer and more ‘lush’ (if that’s not a crazy word to use about PE). I doubt I know it as well as Rob does, but this has been a part of my life for the best part of 20 years, and it’s still fabulous.

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