Batshit Insane Vol. 6: Fear of a Black Planet

At the beginning of the year I wanted to do a week where I posted seven batshit insane albums to start the year off right.  I only made it to five, as first I went to the Steamboat MusicFest and then I cedar fever hit me here in Austin like a ton a bricks.  I am making it up now.  At the bottom I’ll post the the idea behind the series.

Not choosing a Public Enemy record would be a disservice.  Their work, especially with the Bomb Squad, is some of the most intense music ever made.  In reality I could have picked several of their records, but I had to go with Fear of a Black Planet for the sheer knowledge that it had the song Welcome to the Terrordome on it.  James Brown beats, air raid sirens, scratches, white noise, and extremely political lyrics make this album sound like nothing else ever made, other than other Public Enemy records.  Chuck D’s voice is one of the greatest voices in popular music.  He has the deep baritone of a street preacher.  It’s a voice of righteous anger and endless knowledge.  I’m not even a huge hip-hop fan to be honest, though I’ve started appreciating it more in recent years.  But this stuff is more punk rock than most punk rock.  It sounds every bit as revolutionary as it did in 1990.  Samples stacked upon samples until it becomes a Phil Spector wall of sound.  However, where Spector’s wall of sound sounded heavenly, this one is full of discord.  There is so much chaos going on that it goes through the mirror and becomes beautiful.  It’s a classic album.  The song Welcome to the Terrordome especially, for sheer sonic chaos, would have to go in my favorite recordings of all time.

For the first week of 2015 I am writing pieces about records that I can only describe as “batshit insane”.  These are brilliant albums that are so dark they cross the threshold into a knowing comedy.  If you want to understand exactly what I mean in more detail read the first paragraph from the start of this series:

I love records that one can only describe as sounding “batshit insane”.  Where the artist seems as if they are out-crazying the din and the whirlwind of the Great Void.  Albums that trump death, even if the artists are alive and the albums don’t even have death as a central theme because, even if it is subconsciously, they know it is out there and they seem not to give a shit.  I am reminded of the character at the end of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle who dies, “lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who.”  I also think of George Carlin, putting on a show making the batshit insanity of this world hilarious, and then ending his set by standing on one leg with his arms outstretched, daring to be smited.  These are albums where artistic fear is not only not present, it almost seems as if the artists are daring you not to like them.  Albums like this make me laugh out loud and warm my heart to its very foundation.  I could be having the worst day possible and when I put one of these records on I think, “Thank God they are out there.”  I wanted to write about several of these records to start 2015 out on the right foot.  My goal is to post at least one record a day for the next week.  I’m just having fun, like a child skipping through a field.

Public Enemy’s Intellectual Vietnam

I’ve been listening to a lot of Public Enemy recently.  I don’t really listen to rap that often, but when I do it is almost exclusively Public Enemy.  I remember when Public Enemy were in their heyday, and they are still putting out good records now even if they sell less, they had a large crossover white audience despite often singing about black concerns.  Many people wondered why, and I think if I remember the band itself was even a bit confounded by why there were so many white people at many of their shows.  I think the reason that is, is that what they do is just so undeniably great.  When I listen to their records I realize that I am listening to a completely unique artistic statement.  They drew upon black soul, early hip hop, and rock n roll in their music, but the way they put everything together defies categorization.     

I am most familiar with their classic run of albums It’s Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Fear of a Black Planet, and Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Back.  The sound of these records is as dense as Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound.  However, while Spector’s Wall of Sound was “a teenage symphony to God”, Public Enemy’s sound is at the opposite end of the spectrum.  Their music is infused with dread and revolution.  It is music that is meant to provoke.  However, as a musician, I listen to these records and am in awe of the arrangements.  There are so many different levels of sound going on, that shouldn’t work, and yet somehow do.  There are air raid sirens stacked on top of electric guitars, stacked on top of all kinds of drum loops and percussion, stacked upon strange vocal samples.  And that description doesn’t even touch what is going on half the time!  This is really musical stuff that reaches the level of genius. 

The lyrics are also extremely political.  This was at a time when mainstream rock n roll had ceased to be a force for social change.  Public Enemy picked up the baton and ran with it.  Although Public Enemy were often rapping about black concerns, it is not hard to identify with the outsider or underdog.  Plus their lyrics were often batshit crazy in a way that is completely fun if you have a certain sensibility.  I love the term “intellectual Vietnam!”  As Dylan said about Ice-T, who also put out some great stuff, theses guys were, “throwing horses over cliffs.”  They weren’t messing about! 

In Chuck D they not only had a great lyricist, but a great voice.  His baritone is like a cannon going off.  He is a captivating street preacher that demands your attention.  There aren’t that many voices that charismatic in music, let alone in rap.  Also like so much rap out there, and so much country music, and so much mainstream music in general these days, he isn’t selling fake rebellion forged with consumerist ideas.  From the lyrics to Say It Like It Really Is, one of their more recent singles: 

I don’t give a damn about poppin Champaign
Say what y’all wanna say about
Revolution I’m a say what I’m saying

Rather be stuck up than stuck down
Here’s the difference
I picks up the black and brown
Against Mr. Man informants and government
While real people starve and cant pay their rent
They you seriously don’t mean what you meant
I ain’t tricked deceived paid off inagreement
Somebody planned it
Glad y’all understand it
Those that don’t
Headharded like granite
We look out for them too
And don’t take em for granted