Rap--The Power and the Controversy : Success has validated pop’s most volatile form, but its future impact could be shaped by the continuing Public Enemy uproar
The song bursting through the speakers in the basement recording studio just off Broadway in the SoHo area is called “War at 33 1/3 It’s the ideal sound track for the summit meeting taking place this night between rap’s two most embattled figures.
Chuck D. is the 29-year-old leader of Public Enemy, the controversial New York rap group that has been embroiled in controversy in recent months over alleged anti-Semitism. Chuck D., who has steadfastly denied the allegations, is seated at the control booth, working on the final mix of his group’s long-overdue third album.
Standing nearby is Ice Cube, the 20-year-old Los Angeles rapper whose lyrics for N.W.A’s platinum debut album were criticized last year by an FBI agent for encouraging violence against law enforcement officers.
Ice Cube, who has similarly denied the accusation, is in town because he has left N.W.A and he wants part of the Public Enemy production team to work with him on his upcoming solo album. But tonight, Ice Cube is in the studio because he wants a preview of the new album from one of the groups that inspired him to record rap music.
Public Enemy’s album, “Fear of a Black Planet,” is expected in March from CBS-distributed Def Jam Records and is bound to be one of the most dissected pop collections in years.
One reason: “Fear” is the follow-up to “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,” the runaway choice as best album of 1988 in a poll of the nation’s leading pop critics that appeared in the Village Voice. The album received twice as many votes as Tracy Chapman’s heralded debut collection.
Another reason is the controversy that has shadowed Public Enemy since the group’s former “minister of information” Professor Griff made anti-Semitic remarks last May in a widely quoted interview with the Washington Times. See story on facing page.
Chuck D. (real name: Carlton Ridenhour) disavowed the remarks and immediately kicked Griff out of the group. But he later brought Griff back into the fold--though in a diminished role. The reversal led to questions about Chuck D.'s own thinking and politics.
For some observers, the puzzlement turned to outrage in late December when Public Enemy released a single, “Welcome to the Terrordome,” that sparked further charges of anti-Semitism and self-martyrdom.
The key lines in the song are a reference to the aftermath of the Griff incident, most specifically the criticism by the media and various Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, that almost tore the group apart:
Crucifixion ain’t no fiction
So called chosen, frozen.
Apology made to whoever pleases
Still they got me like Jesus.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of Los Angeles’ Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, branded the record “definitely anti-Semitic.” (See Pop Eye, Page 74.) Some of the pop music press also lashed out. Alan Light, writing in Rolling Stone magazine said, “Public Enemy may still be rap’s greatest talent, but the band is becoming increasingly impossible to defend.”
All this has left Chuck D. trapped in a firestorm rarely seen in pop music--and it has taken its toll. He seems tense and a bit weary in the SoHo studio as he listens endlessly to “War at 33 1/3.”
“All that flap over ‘Terrordome’ is just crazy,” he says, so wired from the hectic pace of several all-night mixing sessions that he paces while he talks.
“There’s nothing anti-Semitic in that record. People are going out of their way to find that interpretation. No one would ever have even thought about those lines if Griff hadn’t done that (expletive) interview. But I’m not going to let it intimidate me.” (See accompanying interview.)
Several people who have worked closely with Public Enemy, however, express concern about Chuck D.'s leadership abilities. They don’t think Chuck D. is racist or anti-Semitic, but they fear he’s in “over his head” as a social spokesman, a role that was never imagined when the principals in the Public Enemy story first gathered on the campus of a Long Island college in the early ‘80s.
Chuck D. insists he is being misunderstood by his critics and says he’s confident about the future. Early sales for “Terrordome” are encouraging for him. In just four weeks on the Billboard rap charts, the song has jumped to No. 4, and the group’s manager Russell Simmons is predicting the new album will double the 1 million sales of 1988’s “Nation.”
There’s more than Public Enemy’s future at stake when “Fear of a Black Planet” is released.
For, much like Bob Dylan in ‘60s rock and Bob Marley in reggae, Chuck D. has elevated rap artistry and ambition, and given the music a critical credibility that once seemed beyond its grasp. The reaction to Public Enemy’s new album and how the group’s leader handles his role as a social commentator may have more impact on rap in the early ‘90s than any other single factor.
If the band’s album is a critical and commercial success, it should infuse rap artists with a new sense of confidence and ambition. But what if the music is rejected and Chuck D. finds himself so embroiled in the continuing controversy over the group’s racial and political attitudes that Public Enemy falls apart? Rap could not only lose standing in the pop community, but the breakup could also make a generation of rappers more cautious thematically.
It was 10 years ago that the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” became the first rap single to enter the national Top 20. Who ever figured then that the music would even be around in 1990, much less produce attractions that would command as much pop attention as Public Enemy and N.W.A?
“Rapper’s Delight” was a novelty record that was considered by much of the pop community simply as a lightweight offshoot of disco--and that image stuck for years.
Occasional records--including Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” in 1982 and Run-DMC’s “It’s Like That” in 1984--won critical approval, but rap, mostly, was dismissed as a passing fancy--too repetitious, too one dimensional.
Yet rap didn’t go away, and an explosion of energy and imagination in the late ‘80s leaves rap today as arguably the most vital new street-oriented sound in pop since the birth of rock in the ‘50s.
Russell Simmons, rap’s top impresario, speaks as rapidly as most of the supercharged artists he manages. In top form recently, the 32-year-old New Yorker raced through a series of questions about the state of rap as effortlessly as a sports car changing lanes on an open freeway.
But one question stopped Simmons, who is involved--as manager or as owner of Def Jam Records--with virtually everyone of note in East Coast rap, from Public Enemy and Run-DMC to De La Soul and 3rd Bass.
The question: Has rap, which enjoyed its biggest year by far on 1989, finally peaked?
After several seconds of silence, he wearily replied, “People have been asking me that for years --and they always look at me funny when I say that rap is going to get bigger. But it is going to get bigger, much bigger.”
Simmons picked up a recent issue of Billboard magazine. Thumbing one of the weekly record trade’s sales charts, he began reading off the rap albums.
“Look at this: Heavy D, No. 6 . . . 3rd Bass, No. 7 . . . MC Lyte, No. 11 . . . Queen Latifah, No. 12 . . . Young M.C., No. 13 . . . Big Daddy Kane, No. 14 . . .”
“Wrecks-N-Effect, No. 19 . . . 2 Live Crew, No. 21 . . . Rob Base, No. 23 . . . Ice-T, No. 24 . . . Sir Mix-a-Lot, No. 26 . . . Jazzy Jeff, No. 29 . . . and it goes on . . . the D.O.C., Jungle Brothers, EPMD . . . .
“This isn’t the rap chart,” he said triumphantly. “This is the black album chart. I’ve never seen so many rap albums on the charts--and I’m not even counting that rap-influenced (material). If I did that, I could count nearly everything else on the chart.”
Simmons, who got his start in rap by promoting live shows in New York clubs and parks, could also have made an impressive case for rap’s burgeoning popularity by going through the pop charts. More than a dozen rap artists scored gold albums (500,000 sales) or platinum albums (1 million sales) in 1989.
But Simmons, whose younger brother is the leader of Run-DMC, is most gratified by the music’s success in the black community because he feels rap, in its purest and most compelling form, is a vital, grass-roots expression of black aspirations and frustrations.
It’s no accident that Spike Lee used Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” song as the musical centerpiece of “Do the Right Thing,” his brilliant, widely debated look at racial tension in an inner-city black neighborhood.
Echoing the self-help consciousness of ‘60s black militancy, Public Enemy’s best music condemns forces that contribute to social ills in the inner city and challenges victims of those forces to band together, especially economically, to overcome the problems.
In retrospect, the labeling of rap as lightweight was ironic because of rap’s ties to a black oral tradition that goes all the way back to slave days. It’s those ties, some feel, that caused even parts of the black community to resist rap.
“Black radio hated rap from the start and there’s still a lot of resistance to it,” said Russell Simmons. The degree of that resistance is underscored by the “urban contemporary” chart in Radio & Records, another trade weekly.
In the same week that Billboard reported 12 of the 30 best-selling albums on its black music chart were rap, only one of the 30 most played songs on Radio & Records’ survey of “urban contemporary” stations was rap--and it was No. 28.
About radio’s attitude, Simmons adds, “It’s the same reason Ebony (magazine) wouldn’t have corn rows on the cover. Rap represents something that is exclusively black--something that a lot of black people who think of themselves as more sophisticated don’t want to think about.
“They see assimilation as the best way of becoming successful in a white culture and that means emphasizing things that are white. Rap is a return to black culture, a step back from that assimilation. But to me, rap is the real voice of the community. That means there’s got to be a few explosions because a lot of people aren’t going to like what the community is saying.”
Rap is no more dominated by biting social observation than pop and rock, but even the most ordinary rap benefits from the passion and celebration that comes from the music’s position as a vehicle for a segment of America that has almost no other voice in contemporary society.
Public Enemy’s Chuck D. refers to rap records as “black America’s TV station,” and argues that much of the controversy surrounding rap comes from those--black and white--who feel uncomfortable hearing, perhaps for the first time, the feelings of millions of urban blacks.
Like early rock, rap was largely a grass-roots phenomenon that flourished despite the attitudes of the pop Establishment, which ranged from indifference to hostility.
Not unlike the teen-oriented attitudes spotlighted in the early records of such rock stars as Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Chuck Berry, today’s rap records abound with a youthful energy that is, by turns, disarming and crude.
Some of the crudeness is particularly unattractive: traces of misogynistic, anti-gay and possibly racist attitudes. But there are also positive elements--pro-education, anti-drugs--that promote individual responsibility.
Not only is rap beginning to see the rise of female rappers (notably Queen Latifah and MC Lyte) and white rappers (the Beastie Boys, 3rd Bass), but the music has also moved beyond its old East Coast boundaries. Far from one-dimensional, the music now has impressive range.
Rap extends from the playful innocence of De La Soul to the positive message offered by the Jungle Brothers and Boogie Down Productions, from the Chicago “hip house” dance energy of Mr. Lee to the comedic exuberance of Digital Underground.
The greatest danger to rap, Simmons feels, is a flooding of the market by major labels. Where most of the vital rap artists have been launched by small, independent labels--another parallel with early rock--major labels are now racing after rap dollars. Not only have majors signed distribution deals with the indies, they are signing their own rap acts.
“That flooding is a scary thing as we go into the ‘90s,” the manager said. “They’re putting out too many records and a lot of them don’t mean (expletive). They’re just throwing ‘em out and there can be a backlash.”
Simmons believes rap’s underground, semi-outlaw status has helped keep the music energized.
“One thing that helps rap is that there are no rules,” Simmons says. “If someone wants to make an R&B; record today, he’s usually a little older and he’s confined by all the years of R&B; tradition. He’s not really free to do anything he wants.
“But the rapper is probably in his late teens or early 20s and there are no boundaries. In fact, the idea is to do something different. The kids demand it. If you stand still in rap, you’re dead. That’s kinda scary for the artists. But it keeps the music fresh.”
No one has stretched the boundaries more than Public Enemy.
Public Enemy was born on the campus of Long Island’s Adelphi University in the early ‘80s. Ridenhour, an art student, had an interest in rap and hosted a three-hour weekly radio show on the campus station.
Because there weren’t enough good rap records at the time to fill the three hours, he and sidekick William Drayton (Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav) made their own original rap tapes.
Rick Rubin, a young, budding record producer who lived on Long Island, heard one of Ridenhour’s tapes--"Public Enemy No. 1"--and he signed Ridenhour.
Was Rubin attracted to Public Enemy’s politics?
“Politics?” he said, a touch amused in a recent interview. “There wasn’t any politics in the music at the time. He was just doing some real good, real funny raps, about driving around in his (Olds) 98. And I think that’s the real spirit of that whole first album.
“I think the politics became very much of an angle. They were looking for something to make them different from the other rap groups. They were a little bit brighter, had gone to school and they thought the political side of things would be a good way to go.”
Two Long Island friends--Hank Shocklee and Bill Stepheny--helped Chuck D. put together the concept behind Public Enemy. The name was based on the idea that in the ‘80s, a lot of black youth were looked upon as public enemies.
Stepheny--who, like Shocklee, would be involved in the production of the first two albums--pushed for the group’s tough, even radical stance because he was a fan of alternative rock and had long yearned for a hip-hop equivalent of the Sex Pistols or Clash. Indeed, Public Enemy’s punch on record isn’t just in Chuck D.'s words. There’s also an explosiveness to the music that suggests the sense of anarchy of the Sex Pistols--or, more pointedly, urban environment.
Richard Griffin (Professor Griff) was also part of the Long Island crowd, though he dropped out of music during the Adelphi days and got involved in an Islamic study group. He later played a role in helping “politicize” Chuck D., though several people around Public Enemy became concerned in recent years when Griff’s views became increasingly “strange,” in the words of Glen E. Friedman, a photographer who shot the first two Public Enemy album covers.
Then came the Washington Times interview. The fallout ripped a hole through the Public Enemy “team.”
Chuck D., Shocklee and Stepheny had been planning from the Adelphi days to get a production deal from a major record company. At the time of the Griff interview with the Washington Times, the trio was negotiating with five record labels. After the Griff press conference, Chuck D. was given an ultimatum by his two potential partners: Get rid of Griff or forget the production deal.
“I believe Chuck is the Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder of our times,” Stepheny said. “Because of the statements and the poor handling of the Griff situation, however, the specter of Public Enemy to many people became one of anti-Semitism or a hate group. If you listen to the record, there is none of that.
“From the outset, Public Enemy was supposed to be a pro-black group and ultimately (evolve into a) sort of rainbow coalition . . . that we are all public enemies down the line. But the Griff situation was keeping us from doing it. (His behavior) turned it into this negative thing.”
Russell Simmons thinks the new album will reaffirm Public Enemy’s artistry and make Chuck D.'s vision clearer.
“All great artists are on the edge and if that’s where Chuck wants to be, let him go,” he said. “He’s just got to be able to back up his statements and I think he knows that now.”