Public Enemy: The 1990 ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ Interview
We're dusting off a Q&A with Chuck D to celebrate 25 years of PE's classic third LP
[This article was originally published in the March 1990 issue of SPIN. To coincide with the 25th anniversary of Fear of a Black Planet, we’re repromoting this feature, which looks at the Chuck D’s life at the time of that album’s release.]
Public Service: With their third album, Fear of a Black Planet, about to be released, Public Enemy proclaims the death of European predominance. Pop goes Afrocentric for the ’90s.
Black tardiness in the hour of chaos. For a man who once said to me, “The black race needs order and discipline if it’s going to prosper,” Chuck D’s life seems in turmoil.
It’s 10:00 pm at Greene Street recording studios in New York’s SoHo, and everything is put on hold as Chuck D hurriedly scribbles in his note book, desperately trying to finish a lyric for a track off Public Enemy’s forthcoming album Fear of a Black Planet. The “media devils,” as he calls them, have been hard on his trail all week in the wake of renewed charges of anti-Semitism which Public Enemy’s latest single “Welcome To the Terrordome” have stirred up. Newsweek wants to put him on their cover, and Chuck’s wife is growing increasingly tired of fielding calls from reporters looking for juicy quotations. The previous Sunday, from the stage of New York nightclub the World, Chuck had rhymed: “Once they didn’t give a fuck about what I said / Now they’re listening and they want me dead.”
Tonight, Chuck is in no mood to deal with the press — not even a ‘media angel’ like myself, someone who has known him since before the release of PE’s debut album Yo! Bum Rush the Show. “Fuck SPIN,” he says. “This is more important.” Days later, he apologizes and proceeds to make amends with a dazzling interview, refusing to get off the phone even when I plead that I’ve already got more than enough for the article.
Branded a racist by the tackier elements of the mainstream media and denounced as a ‘sell out’ for his refusal to condone Professor Griff’s anti-Semitic remarks – by the holier-than-thou elements of the black press – Chuck D is in a no-win situation. But as he raps on the opening lines of “Terrordome”: “Got so much trouble on my mind / Refuse to lose.”
“I saw this interview on Canadian television with this white girl who was asked how she related to Public Enemy’s music,” Chuck says, explaining the idea behind Fear of a Black Planet. “She replied that ‘deep down everybody is black.’ That was some deep science.”
“The whole concept is that there is no such thing as black and white. The world is full of different complexions. The difference between black and white is set up by people who want to remain in power. This black and white thing is a belief structure, not a physical reality. There is nobody on this planet who is 100 percent black or 100 percent white. This is not news to black people – black people know they’re mixed. The only reason that Public Enemy promote Afrocentricity and Back to Black is that we live under a structure that promotes whites. At the moment, we got to hold onto our blackness out of self-defense. The bottom line is that white comes from black – the Asiatic Black man – and Africa isn’t the third world but the first world, the cradle of civilization.”
What is Public Enemy’s much awaited third album, Fear of a Black Planet, really about? A lot of things. It’s about the so-called minorities of the world recognizing that they are in fact a majority, rising up to overthrow Eurocentric types with their cultural claim to guide and instruct the non-European. It’s about deconstructing European philosophical edifices or as Chuck D puts it: “hitting at the whole belief structure of the Western world with its white world cultural supremacy.”
It’s about promoting a dynamic Afrocentricity – not some simple-minded search for lost roots, some nostalgic back-to-Africa jive. Chuck D even respects the limited Afrocentricity of N.K.O.T.B., because they “genuinely love hip-hop. I also respect the New Kids because they’ve refused all offers to dump their black manager Maurice Starr. People are still saying ‘get rid of the nigger.’ But the Kids are like, ‘Yo, man! Maurice was here from day one when we were nothing, and we’re gonna stick with him.’ I can’t knock that. I wish I could say that about some so-called black acts.”
Fear of a Black Planet is also about “re-building the black man” — something that “Revolutionary Generation” from the new album addresses with its hope that the black man is about to be reborn with a new appreciation of the black woman. And it’s about how American mass culture, especially in music, is disproportionately influenced by blacks and yet how little of the profits blacks actually keep. (Check out “Who Stole The Soul” off the new album.)
But most of all, Fear of a Black Planet is about music – this is a hip-hop record after all, not a political manifesto. Or, more accurately, it’s an Afrocentric view of music making as opposed to the traditional Eurocentric way of making music, (Is it pleasing to the ear?). Afrocentric music always involves some sort of social function.
This is what Chuck D was getting at on New Year’s Eve at the World, where he said: “’Welcome To The Terrordome’ is a black male correspondent’s view of how we looked at 1989. I don’t look at Ted Koppell or “Newsline.” I’m not going to look at 1989 like the New York Times is gonna look at it. I’m not going to look at 1989 like motherfuckin’ MTV is gonna look at it. I’m looking at 1989 like a brother on the motherfuckin’ block to see how 1989 affected me and black America. That’s what ‘Welcome To The Terrordome’ is about.”
Another striking difference between Eurocentric and Afrocentric music evidence on the album is the emphasis placed on rhythm and repetition. Public Enemy still remain one of the finest dance bands this planet has ever seen (thumbs up to PE producer Hank Shocklee), producing a state-of-the-art dislocated mix of breathless, polyrhythmical raps and slamming, densely-compacted grooves that would enliven the deadest, most zombified ass. All this despite the fact that Chuck D still remains one of the un-sexiest front men in contemporary black pop.
But Chuck is unsensual for a reason. Blacks have been traditionally valorized for their physical grace and their supposedly more “natural” relationship with their bodies. In practice this has often meant that black mental agility has been vastly under-rated. “We know how to dribble a ball and dance and all that shit,” he says. “Now let’s develop our minds. Let’s be the complete 360-degree motherfucker because at one time in history, before the slave holocaust, we were the complete being.” Chuck D may not be a traditional intellectual — “People think I read a lot of books. I don’t.” — but possesses a fierce intellect. His song titles encapsulate complex political and cultural feelings in a sharp, accessible slogans that must make Madison Avenue ad executives green with jealousy – “Don’t Believe The Hype,” “Fight The Power,” “Fear Of A Black Planet,” “Bring The Noise,” “Black Steel in the Hour Of Chaos,” “911 Is A Joke,” “Who Stole the Soul?.” If you’d never heard a note of PE’s music, you’d still get the general idea from just reading the track listings.
Tell me about the concept behind Fear Of A Black Planet.
This shit started with Frances Cress Welsing, a doctor from the Washington, DC area who shows that what prevents black and white coming together is a racist belief set up hundreds of years ago that the white race is somehow pure, and that that purity will diminish as it mixes in with other races, until the so-called white race becomes extinct. She calls it the white genetic annihilation theory.
Most of the world is made up of people of color, so why do so-called whites think their shit is pure? And why do they think that imagined purity entitles them to rule the planet? It’s like this whole aristocratic thing with kinds and queens — if you poison their bloodline they think their family tree is dead. Some white men think if they don’t marry a white woman and produce a likeness of themselves, then he is dead. In this country, they’ve got this law that one drop of black blood makes you automatically black. To this day we’ve got a law that upholds this white racist standard of purity. Let’s kick that apartheid shit out of here. What laws like that say is that if you’re white you’re pure, if you’re black you’re wack — some sort of poison in the bloodstream. Why are they treating human beings like aliens?
Fear Of A Black Planet is not only the title of the album it’s also a track on the album. What are some of the lyrics?
Oh, yeah. Like “Man, you ain’t gotta worry about a thing / About your daughter, nope, she’s not my type / But, supposed she said she loved me / Are you afraid of the mix of black and white? / We’re living in a land where the law says the mixing of race makes the blood impure / But she’s a woman, I’m a man / By the look on your face I can see you can’t stand it.” And in the bridge it goes “Excuse us for the news / You might not be amused / But did you know white fomes from black? No need to be confused.”
But aren’t as many black people against race mixing as white people? I’m thinking of a recent edition of Ebony about white male/black female couples. The reader response was amazing. Without exception all the women said go with it if it’s from the heart. While all the black men uniformly condemned bi-racial couples saying things like “don’t black women who go out with white men realize that white men raped black women during the days of slavery?”
You gotta understand something. The black man was taught prejudice and racism by the white man.
That makes me think of a quotation from Minister Louis Farrakhan: “The black man loved the white man more than the white man loved himself.” Now that’s some deep shit.
Right. It’s not that whites have a problem with blacks or that blacks have a problem with whites: it’s that whites have a problem with themselves. White people have a problem with themselves, their culture, their history, their beliefs. They’re unsure. They don’t know how to accept anything that comes that differs from the beliefs they’ve been taught and are used to. They have a problem with their religion. They have problems with authorities, their power structures. They have a lot of problems with themselves and the structures that their forefathers have created for the benefit of themselves and at the expense of others, which ends up being at their expense, too, in the long run.
Can you relate what you were saying about Fear Of A Black Planet to what’s been happening at “Yo! MTV Raps” recently? There were all those rumors about cancelling the weekday show despite its big success in the ratings. Fear of a black MTV perhaps?
You’ve got “Yo! MTV Raps” with Afrocentricity pouring out of it, making all the other programming look timid, weak and pale by comparison. It’s a top-rated show, it’s bringing in the dollars, and yet the heads of MTV are saying “Man, we gotta lessen it’s power, because we didn’t think it was going to be this powerful.”
“Yo! MTV Raps” is incorporating black life into white American suburbs. White kids all of a sudden are finding black heroes without a white middle man involved. Little Johnny in Nebraska is saying these days “Man, I wanna be like Eazy E.”
I guess you could call it the emergence of the new black super-hero. The real black super-hero — different from a ball player because a ball player can only do physical things, say a few words and leave. With the new black hero, I’m always going to be in your face and you’re gonna remember what I said — you’re gonna remember what’s in my mind, not what my body does. White America is finding out about black America, and the powers that be are scared of that. White kids are finding out for the first time how black kids think and live. Before, it was like “Johnny, don’t go in that neighborhood because these people are like that.” Rap is teaching white kids what it means to be black, and that causes a problem for the infrastructure.
What do you think of white rappers like 3rd Bass?
3rd Bass is a good example of people just being people. MC Serch and Pete Nice were brought up in the middle of racism and yet they said, “No, man. I’m not down with that.” Serch is not going around pretending he’s black — he’s saying brothers is kicking it, and I’m out there kicking it with them. I respect Serch for his ability to understand the black situation and his ability to look past all that. He must know he’s going to get it from both sides — a white boy doing rap — but his inner strength comes from his awareness of what life is like on both sides.
Most black people, just to keep our heads over water, must know how the white structure operates, and we must know how our own structure operates. We have to know the white thing, because we’re getting it pumped to us daily – in the schools, on TV, and in the newspapers. But white Americans generally know little about how black Americans feel.
American life doesn’t exactly nurture inter-racial contact.
But that shit is changing with people like Serch. Serch is a good example of someone who understands black sentiments but is still himself.
How seriously do some white kids take the message in your music? It’s quite possible that those Italian kids in Bensonhurst who murdered Yusef Hawkins were big PE fans.
Without a doubt. You probably got a lot of drug dealers who like PE, but they still go on selling drugs even though PE come out against that. You’re always going to get people who ignore the message and are just into the music for the slamming beats. As long as the majority get the right message.
How effective have PE been in turning people’s heads around?
Very. You were the first journalist to interview us, and I remember how we talked about gold chains and the “cold getting dumb attitude” that was prevalent at the time. Look around and see how things have changed in the last three or four years.
So you don’t have a problem with whites dabbling in black musical styles?
Not at all. There’s always going to be white structures that say to the individual: “White boy, it ain’t good for you to think black because you’re gonna stay there.” It’s like they said in the slave days: “Those caught harboring the nigger will be reduced to the status of negro.” But what you got to understand is that all levels of hipness start with the black community. They then cross into the hip whites and then into the mainstream.
It’s like Air Jordans. It starts [Chuck takes on a homeboy accent], “Yo! Air Jordans is a black thing. This shit is crazy hype.” Then you hear hip whites say [adopts downtown trendy accent], “Yo, man! Michael Jordan’s incredible.” Then it goes mainstream [adopts preppie accent] “Yo! Michael Jordan is the greatest in the world.”
I’m not making fun of white people picking up on black things: all I’m saying is that black people should get paid when this shit goes mainstream. It’s important that what we create, we control. We can’t even poing to all the things we created thousands of years ago, because they’re all chopped up in museums and in rich people’s homes. Where are all the profits from the slavery holocaust? You can’t repair the human damage of slavery, but where did all the money go? Capital doesn’t just disappear. It’s liquidated in some form or another – in banks or schools or government institutions.
It’s like I rap on “Who Stole The Soul”: “40 acres and mule, Jack / Why’d you try to fool the black / You say it wasn’t you / But you still pledge allegiance to the red, white and blue / Sucker stole the soul.”
How come PE haven’t been on “The Arsenio Hall Show?” Every other rapper of note seems to have bee.
Spike Lee told me it was because PE and him are a posse, and Arsenio doesn’t like Spike. But I think that deep down the fact is that Arsenio is just plain scared.
Does Arsenio fear a black planet?
I don’t know if that’s true because I think his planet to him is his whole ego. He’s just playing it safe. He’s doesn’t want to put us on his show because he’s scared to lose sponsors. Now the media have tagged us as racists, it’s the only excuse he needs.
What about Griff? It seems to me that he deserved the whole media shitstorm about his anti-Semitic remarks. But what was lost in the furor was that Griff’s fundamental project — to construct a non-Eurocentric version of black history — is very sound. It’s just his scholarship credit was shit — citing sources that had long been discredited.
Most journalists are like, ‘How can I fault this guy on a slip?’ You might say 30 positive things, but the one negative thing means you lose the game. The negative thing is all you hear about.
This is a headline country: headlines rule this country. If the headline say that PE are racist, then that’s what most people believe.
Does bourgeois black America fear a black planet as much as white America? I noticed that, in the tape of your recent conversation with Spike Lee that you let me listen to, you talked about the way Ebony and Jet hardly ever mention your music.
Well I suppose they do if they got interests and stakes in a white structure that does fear a black planet. Whether a black planet or not, it’s nothing offensive: it’s actually safe. What it means is that the Afrocentric point of view actually will be respected and looked at, and we will get our stake in this planet that we have to get in order to be a force that everybody has to deal with on an economic level.
In the same conversation with Spike, you said that fighting the power isn’t about guns and violent revolution: it’s about networking and business.
We’re not taught to be tied into the networks like white people are. The schools don’t work that way for black people. It’s just a matter of controlling what we create — how much comes into our community and how much leaves our community.
Comparing your debut album Yo! Bun Rush The Show to your latest, these days you seem to have moved from local concerns to more global concerns, talking about the planet and such.
At the end of his life, Malcolm X moved to a more global type of struggle. When you talk about a global struggle, you get out of the narrow borderlines that America has set up in this racist type of structure. People of color are being oppressed, but there are a lot of factions involved in it. What Malcolm was getting at was that American blacks have to take a more global approach to politics and understand that in each and every place the struggle is the same, but each has a different twist. Since that first interview with you, I’ve been around. I’m able to see parallels with the American black struggle and what’s happening in Israel and Northern Ireland.
That’s exactly what happened to Malcolm X. It’s when Malcolm started to travel that he saw that the struggle of the American black wasn’t unique.
Exactly. You can’t just see one place, you gotta see a lot of places to get a grasp of the real situation happening in the world.
What happened during you recent meeting with Farrakhan?
We talked about the situation and what’s to be done and what’s the best way to handle it. And Minister Farrakhan also pointed out where Professor Griff went wrong: you know, knowing that you have the right to say the thing. Things that he said afterwards were also in a self-defensive type situation, where they cane hammering down on him for no reason. So, then afterwards, if you’re caught up in a fight, you’re going to swing back.
Farrakhan had the same situation in early 85, maybe about 15 different Jewish organizations clammering down on him all because a newspaper wanted to put out a headline that was not in context — that tried to destroy the Jesse Jackson campaign after Farrakhan came to the defense of Jackson after Jackson’s life was threatened. You think Minister Farrakhan asked for any of that? He said the last thing he wanted to get into a whole run-in with Jews. He said that’s not the objective.
Hasn’t the anti-Semitism issue obscured what is important about Public Enemy?
Somebody out there wants it to be that way. Hey, fuck that, obscure their objective and them get them caught up in another situation that they have to fight their way out of. That’s the situation in this culture: people always want to divide by setting up some kind of devices. It’s getting to be the case that any time a black person mentions the word Jew, he’s accused of racism.
The song “Pollywanacraka” on the new album — what’s that about?
It’s about race mixing. “Pollywanacraka” is a viewpoint from the black neighborhood, not necessarily my viewpoint. For example, a lot of black women in the neighborhoods are going to be fucking mad if a black man is with a white girl. “As soon as a black man gets some money, he’s with a white girl. White girl can’t do nothing for him.” But the black male might say: “Well shit, I’m with this white girl because it’s a person thing. I just love this girl. And thing, these sisters can’t do nothing for me ‘cause they only want my money.”
And the other way around. A black girl with a white guy — brothers be like, “Oh man, that bitch went out and fucked with this white boy, only looking to get his fucking money ‘cause she don’t think niggers is good enough.”
I try to tell my people there shouldn’t be any hatred for opposite races. But no man is God: God put us all here, but the system has no wisdom. The devil split us in pairs and taught us black is bad, white is good and black and white is still bad. That’s why every time I turn around, all the people in the neighborhood is looking to get mad at interracial couples and that’s what “Pollywanacracka” is about.
One final question: How does music function differently in a black life from a Eurocentric Life?
In Africa, music was day-to-day communication. That’s a trick that white world supremacists haven’t managed to steal from us today.