Saturday, February 26, 2005

Public Enemy #1

Any rap fan would drool and swell with pride to learn that NYU has devoted a two-day weekend confernence to Public Enemy. And indeed the first day had plenty of fun, ideas and contention, which is all you could hope and expect from a PE conference.

Friday night started out with a tour film covering the group's 1988 visit to London and a recent trip there: Lathan Hodge's London Calling. Though candid moments and interviews, you were able to see the band members up close and personal. Chuck D was thoughtful and philosophical about the group and its history while Flavor Flav was the out-of-control comic foil (swearing up and down about fast food places) and Professor Griff trying to address his place in the band, including not only the infamous comment about Jews but his downplayed contribution to the group in general. For the later, I don't buy all of it though it's good to see in the film that the guy does have a sense of humor and gotten a lot wiser from his experiences. This film is a fascinating document that deserves wider release.

Next up was a critic's gathering about PE's second album It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back. The panel was well moderated by Jon Caramanica, featuring Robert Christgau, Greg Tate, Vivien Goldman, John Leland, Alan Light and Armond White (Nelson George sadly couldn't make it). Considering PE's early history of skewing critics, it was kind of funny to see a thing like this and sure enough, a lot of the panel was upfront about their early criticisms of the band. Once Nation came out though, all of them became fans and believers. Christgau spoke of hearing the record on the beach for the first time and still being moved by it despite the off-beat context of his environment. Though he bemoaned how the band failed politically in that it unfortunately didn't create 1000's of black leaders, he later had to rethink that in the light of not just the rap world but also academia and the activist world. Leland (wrote a brilliant review of "Bring The Noise" for Spin when that record came out and it will rightfully appear in an upcoming Spin anthology) talked of how the record brought together the avant, politics and commercialism in a way that had never been done before in rap or any other style of music. Tate spoke of a great house party he threw in the sweltering summer of '88 where everyone hearing the record for the first time acting like it was already their favorite record. Also, he believed that PE was picking up the political/social mantle that Bob Marley had left behind when he died.

With all due respect to the rest of the panel, White had the most salient and provocative things to say throughout the evening. "Blacks like R&B but PE was different because they really brought the noise to it" (for context, it should be added that White is African-American). He also marveled at how the band brought a "naive certainty to rap." One of the closest comparisons he found to the band was the Sex Pistols in terms of effrontery. Goldman agreed, adding that Chuck had written an intro to a recent book about Joe Strummer, saying how much he admired the Clash when he saw them doing their string of dates in 1981 at NY's Bond Casino with Grandmaster Flash opening (and getting booed). White went on to say that PE "encapsulated the promise of hip hop." When comparisons to Spike Lee came up, White (who also works as a film critic) said that Lee was actually closer to John Sayles in terms of style. If you had to pick a film-maker that was closer to PE's frame of mind, he thought it should be Jean-Luc Godard. That didn't seem to sit well with the crowd but thinking about the jarring edits and overt political content of the French director, it certainly made sense.

One thing I was wondering about was how NWA might have overshadowed and thwarted the impact of PE and Caramanica wisely brought that up. White speculated that NWA might have had a weaker, more regrettable social/political agenda but had a better commercial package to present to the consumers.

The Q&A session at the end was a let-down as a group of blow-hards in the audience endlessly peddled their agendas. A Source writer complained that the panel's thought on PE weren't as legit as others whose lives were changed by it. White took exception to that and said that every time he hears the record, he felt that "no one could fuck with me." Then there was some religious/science BS. An Italian gent who said that PE did reach out politically to people in his country had some heartfelt moments but became rabid after a while (which might be appropriate considering the subject).

Unfortunately, there wasn't much time otherwise for other questions but I did wonder about a few other things that I hope to learn more about someday.

- Though it was touted how NYU served as the birthplace of PE's label Def Jam, the group itself was birthed in Long Island, specifically at Adelphi University. Shouldn't that area also be proud of its native sons and have their own conference? Also, I wondered how LI itself figured into the band's music. I think they took more of a universalist approach but you have to think that LI had to be in there somewhere, right?

- Though Nation was critical smash, what about its commercial impact? How did make itself felt outside of New York? The panel seemed to think that its political impact wasn't what it should have been but Christgau speculated that it's very difficult to get radical politics into the mainstream discourse.

- Nation seemed important also because it was an album as an album and not a bunch of singles and/or filler songs. It was a total statement and mindset. Was that in and of itself influential in the rap world? There didn't seem to be a lot of records that did that before Nation.

- What about PE's musical legacy after Nation? White thought that Fear of A Black Planet was a better album but there won't be any conferences about it, partly because it came out in the wake of Nation. PE's ideas and sound definitely evolved a lot and it's worth thinking about and discussing. For the record, after Nation, my favorite PE album is Apocalypse '91 (which Wire magazine was chided for show its love for it).

Sad to say, I won't be able to go to today's part of the PE conference. It's going to feature Chuck himself, Harry Allen and the Bomb squad so that should be amazing. You should definitely go if you can. As Chuck said, we only get 28 days for Black History Month so we should make the most of it.


Blogger Chris said...

I first heard 'Nation' as a (white) 16-year-old in rural Virginia, so I could preach a little about the length of its reach.

I still recall the first effect it had on me: absolute puzzlement. I had heard PE's first album, but this took me a couple of listens to wrap my heard around. Once I got hold of it, I never let it go.'Fear' might indeed be slightly superior, but it could never have electrocuted my brain the way 'Nation' did.

Slightly OT: I recently dug up 'Muse Sick n Hour Mess Age,' and it's not as bad as I remembered.

12:36 PM  
Blogger Perfect Sound Forever said...

Right- since Fear came after Nation, there's no way that it could have the impact of the earlier record. I can't remember exactly my first reaction to Nation but I was pretty taken back by how in-your-face it is. I guess it's no surprise that any kind of music as striking as this would have these kind of reactions from listeners. Muse Sick isn't their best but it's a good, under-rated record nevertheless.

7:50 PM  

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