Public Enemy’s Anti-Nigger Machine begins less as a song than a sledgehammer, a collection of seemingly random noises punctuated by a snippet of a soul singer wailing what sounds like “bing” over and over, faster and faster, until the whole thing collapses. Chuck D comes in after a brief interlude, his voice booming and sustained: When I’m talkin’ rhyme time / To blow your mind time some say / It’s nothing worse than a verse / To hear some nigger curse.
Within days of its release in 1990, Fear of a Black Planet, the album on which Anti-Nigger Machine appeared, became the accompaniment to just about everything I did.
Adolescence is a bitch, and for white kids across North America and beyond, this one included, Fear became its only salve. My sisters, still stuck on dreary, acid-washed wuss rock, wanted nothing to do with it. My parents, freshly divorced, could at least agree on this: the noise suddenly emanating from their respective living rooms was unacceptable and dangerous. In short, Fear was punk music, sung not by pasty kids in jeans but rapped by black men in baseball caps, one of whom wore a gigantic clock around his neck.
Fear was a resounding success both critically and commercially, and, today it remains an enduring example of focused, intense rage. The album’s targets are too many to list, yet its central theme—that fear is a poisonous, powerful thing—was practically a self-fulfilling prophecy: parents hated it, record industry executives pilloried it, and many radio stations refused to play it. Even Fear’s success was punk. “With Fear of a Black Planet we were circling the world: all the hypocrisies and all the ideologies, challenging each person [about] what they believe is such a ridiculous notion as race,” says Chuck D today.
Seeing Chuck D (born Carlton Ridenhour) brings a flash of déjà vu: a freshly minted 50-year-old, he wears a familiar black track suit, sneakers and a backwards Adidas cap. He hasn’t once stopped railing against familiar topics—racism, fear, greedy record companies, lazy hip-hop artists. With Public Enemy, he is in the midst of a 20th anniversary world tour of Fear, performing the album in its near-entirety along with the clock-wearing court-jester-cum-reality TV star known as Flava Flav.
“There is not a stitch of instrumentation in that album,” Chuck says of Fear’s production. Rather, it’s made up of hundreds of sampled song snippets (Hall & Oates, Grandmaster Flash and nearly everything in between), lines from speeches, random voices, all tweaked within an inch of recognition and layered on top of one another—sort of an Internet-sourced album before the Internet existed.
“It’s normal today when someone is trying to construct something, but back then it was totally rare because everything was scattered across various configurations—there’s an eight track [machine] over there, there’s somebody’s reel over there, there are books over there, here’s a stack of cassettes and records,” Chuck D says.
“I had a cassette deck that I kept everywhere I went. I would listen to speeches and audio files that I would have to stitch together. I have books where it’s like, 46 minutes and 30 seconds in there’s this one line, and we’d have to take it and sample that one line. The work in it is: how can you take 1,000 voices and make them have a synonymous conversation?”
Their recent Montreal show was indicative of Fear’s continuing influence. There is none of the guns-and-hos imagery with Public Enemy. No smoke machines or auto tune, either. The crowd is as disparate as the music sampled: black, white, young, old, hulking bald dudes, frat boys in various stages of drunkenness, young white girls who weren’t alive when the album came out.
Chuck D instructs the audience to download the brand new single for free on the website; Flava Flav, who at 51 is a freakishly young-looking grandfather of three, launches into 911 is a Joke and is soon strutting topless and googly eyed across the stage. The Security of the First World, the band’s onstage security team and set piece, marches in lockstep to the beat. For nearly three sweaty, righteous hours, it’s as though 1990 never even left.