Power To The People and The Beats:
Public Enemy’s Greatest Hits
Given the way greatest hi ts compilations are often thrown together by any label with money to license music rights from an artist’s parent company, a collection featuring the work of a group as influential and controversial as Public Enemy would be rightly viewed with suspicion. Still, Universal (Def Jam Recordings’s current distributor) has managed to release a not-quite-as-expansive-as-deserved, but competent snapshot of a group that for better or worse became the sonic template and barometer of verity for just about every major hip-hop label.
Pompous and majestic as Marcus Garvey on parade in full dress regalia, yet down-to-earth as a Black Panther teach-in, Public Enemy managed to strike a necessary balance between the serious and the silly. Lead rapper Chuck D’s crisp baritone and complicated internal rhyme schemes (“Never badder than bad/cause the brother is mad at the fact/that his brother’s corrupt like a senator” on “Bring The Noise” comes to mind) worked only when alternately reigned in and encouraged by Flavor Flav’s homeboy histrionics—reminding the listener that despite the riot going on, it was still, in the end, a party record.
The wavering between those extremes informs not only the sonic architecture of the songs featured on Power To The People, but the lyrical intent, as well. (The Bomb Squad’s innovative, pre-digital sampling techniques are to this day the gold standard of hip-hop production.) Veering from incisive, anger-flecked cultural critique of capitalism and Global White Supremacy (“Public Enemy No. 1” and the scathing, breathless “Prophets Of Rage”) to cleverly worded, anti-Semitic
backhands (the infamous “Welcome To The Terrordome,” “Can’t Truss It”) and homophobia (Chicago attorney Thomas “TNT” Todd’s intro clip on “Fight The Power”) Public Enemy’s poetics ran the gamut from laser-sharp analysis to cringe-worthy parroted rhetoric.
Though their outsider missives became less popular with the commercial (and often more class-resonant) rise of gangsta, Public Enemy has remained the touchstone in dialogues regarding the possibilities and ultimate viability of “revolutionary” rhetoric as mediated by corporate media machinery.
By the album’s closer (the title song from the 1998 Spike Lee film, He Got Game—complete with The Buffalo Springfield’s Steven Stills warbling meta-ironically over a loop of their 1967 hit “For What It’s Worth”), Public Enemy’s legacy is less cemented than illuminated for examination of their continuing relevance. Former P.E. publicist and Beastie Boys member Adam Yauch’s liner notes seem way too short. Still, former P.E. publicist Harry Allen’s closing assertion that “The matrix is deeper, more diabolical, more pernicious, more invisible” speaks volumes about the political, cultural and creative void in pop music—let alone hip-hop—that Public Enemy valiantly, if imperfectly,
attempted to address across the arc of their career.
(Cash Money Classics/Universal)
First known as a protégé’ of late Motown funkmeister Rick James and a dynamic producer and songwriter in her own right, Teena Marie has carved out a distinguished career in R&B, garnering gold albums and numerous radio hits from the late 1970s (notably with the heavily sampled, rap-driven 1981 hit, “Square
Biz”) through the mid-1990s. Labeled “blue-eyed soul” artist by a cliché-minded music writer, Marie’s talents garnered her a following that belied her complicated racialized and familial context. Of Portuguese descent and hailing from a significant African-American communal family, Marie was far from the first “white” artist signed to Motown or any of its imprints, though the label implicitly
promoted her as such. Having managed to set a few legal precedents following a lawsuit over royalty participation, Marie signed to Epic Records in 1983 and had a hugely successful run on the R&B charts before she and the company parted ways in 1993. Following an independently released CD in 1994, Marie left the business to devote more time to raising her daughter, recording and touring sporadically until the release of 2004’s Grammy-nominated La Dona on the Universal Records-distributed Cash Money Classics imprint.
Marie confers some sorely lacking “old-school” credibility to a largely moribund Cash Money roster. CEO Bryan “Baby” Williams wisely opened the pocketbook
again for Marie’s second project, and the results evidence Marie’s artistic and marketing savvy. Balanced with unforced hip-hop-flavored numbers and her trademark sultry, slinky ballads, Sapphire mixes urgent youth with veteran in-the-cut chops. Replete with tight production and arrangement from heavy hitters of modern R&B (George Duke and Gerald Albright), Marie weaves back
and forth between gospel-tinged softness (“What God Created”) and sexy chugging duets (“Cruise Control” with mentor Smokey Robinson), sprinkling clever metaphors throughout her lyrics (most notably on “A.P.B.,” “Love Is A
Gangsta” and the single “Ooh Wee” featuring Dogg Pound member Kurupt), sounding completely at home every step of the way.
Marie’s daughter, Alia Rose, appears on several tracks, startlingly mimicking her mother’s soprano on the closer, “Resilient,” a gorgeous, soaring and deeply respectful tribute to communities devastated by Hurricane Katrina. It’s a fitting close to a set that belies her positionality and successfully conveys where she’s come from and where she wants a listener to go with her—somewhere wild and peaceful, and likely not at all where she imagined she’d be at the beginning of her recording career in 1979.
Fear of A Mixed Planet
(33rd Street Records)
Released independently in 2004 by the soon-to-bebankrupt Tower Records, Fear Of A Mixed Planet is easily one of the best albums of that year—one that many more people should have heard.
Hugely successful as the front man, instrumentalist and producer of the Oakland, California-based, freaky hip-hop hit machine Digital Underground (‘Doowhatchulike” and “The Humpty Dance,” among others), Shock G (aka Greg Jacobs, aka Humpty Hump) continued his oversight of quality-but-under-promoted Digital Underground releases following the end of their major label deal with Tommy Boy Records in 1995.
Fear represents less a departure from the Parliament- Funkadelic influenced soundscape of his D.U. output, than a more specific, personalized take on hip-hop and racial identity than would be possible with the pressure to make chart hits and a large group of personalities to manage. It would certainly be easy to run his well-received, old playboy-nerd shtick into the ground, yet Jacobs is able to make it even more relevant with clever, cogent meditations on his experiences as a mixed-race (Black and Jewish) person. Though his lascivious lyrics might be
off-putting to the uninitiated, they encourage and undergird and directly engage a conversation around white and non-white communities’ tension with mixed-race identities, as well as an unavoidable discussion of patriarchy as a linchpin of the purity myth.
An East Coaster by birth, Shock wears his Bay Area boho-hippie cred on his sleeve more than ever on Fear, sliding from his standard, piano-driven send-ups of rap scene ego-tripping (“Everything is Beautiful”) to intense poetic theses on blood quantum (“Who’s Clean?”) and the alternating fetishization and loathing of mixed-race families and children on the title track’s chorus (“don’t they make a good couple/a body double’s way happy at the fact that they making DNA copies/dead on each others lips, dead on each others nose/I hope the baby
got ten toes.”)
Citing burnout and weariness with industry politics, Shock announced his retirement from touring and recording shortly after Fear’s release. Given his track record and the quality of his final effort, it doesn’t seem futile for fans to hold out hope that he’ll find additional inspiration to create a similarly thoughtful project in the near future.
Juba Kalamka is a founding member of the queer hip-hop group Deep Dickollective and creator of the label Sugartruck Recordings.
Send suggestions for review to juba@jubakalam