Fire engulfs the city of Los Angeles, as the words “not guilty” are swiftly followed by the screams of thousands and the pain of millions. It’s April 29, 1992 and riots tear through South L.A. Two years earlier, a pair of rappers on the other side of the country spoke of such a phenomenon. On April 10, 1990, Carlton “Chuck D” Ridenhour, and William “Flava Flav” Drayton took on the role of social terrorists, as Public Enemy number one. Their 1990 album, Fear of a Black Planet was released at a time when racism divided America. Twenty-five years later, its message of fighting against oppression is still being chanted in streets across the country.
Fear of a Black Planet was Public Enemy’s third studio album and sold one million copies in domestic sales its first week. The album eventually produced five singles: Fight the Power, Welcome to the Terrordome, 911 is a Joke, Brothers Gonna Work It Out and Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man. Fear of a Black Planet influenced the way we listen to hip-hop today, as well as the way music is created. Public Enemy was a boulder when hip-hop was only a pond, and their production, artistry and bold content still sends ripples through the ocean that has become the genre.
A new generation of rappers have taken on the methods of Public Enemy’s production team, the Bomb Squad. The Bomb Squad used the classic “boom bap” synonymous with 1990s hip-hop and fused those sounds with complex DJ scratching and audio samples. Sampling has become one of the most used techniques in modern production, especially on free mixtapes. An example of this is Fashawn and his producer Phonix, who combined Queen’s We Are The Champions with some heavy hitting beats to create a song he called Manny Pacquiao. Taking sampling to new heights, Charles Hamilton developed an entire instrumental using only the sounds of a Windows computer, appropriately named Windows Media Player. However, it may be hard for modern artists to compete with the reported 200 different samples included on Fear of a Black Planet, but rappers can still look to Public Enemy’s political based content for inspiration.
Fight The Power is the last song on Fear of a Black Planet and it leaves the listener with a clear and everlasting image of rebellion. Public Enemy created something bigger than just a song when they said, “we got to fight the powers that be.” They used their position in the spotlight to spark a political dialogue that has been carried on by artists such as Common, Immortal Technique, Jay Electronica, Lupe Fiasco, Nas and many more. While completely different in nature than the themes those artists discuss, Macklemore’s 2012 hit Same Love was made under the same assumption that rap can carry a political-based message and inspire change. But back in 1990, Public Enemy walked on unchartered territory. They paved the road for these artists to follow.
The fashion in which Chuck D and Flava Flav came together to create one sound has been sought by hip-hop duos and groups for over two decades. Just as N.W.A did before them, Public Enemy created a united sound through the artistry of multiple hip-hop personalities. Only four years after the release of Fear of a Black Planet, the smooth talking Big Boi and the wild and off-beat Andre 3000 released their first album as the Atlanta-based duo Outkast. Public Enemy and Outkast’s influence can be heard in newer collaborative efforts such as Black Star and Watch The Throne. The latter had a series of hits with their self-titled album, including Otis featuring a sample of Otis Redding himself.
It’s been 25 years since Fear of a Black Planet was released and it still remains one of the greatest politically charged albums of all-time. It transcended hip-hop and holds a level of social influence very few hip-hop albums have been able to replicate. The first words you hear on the album are, “Some foreign power, some group of terrorists, some individual concern… fighting an enemy, the race that controls the past, controls the living present, and therefore, the future.” Two years later, four police officers beat Rodney King on camera, and they and escaped punishment. Twenty-two years removed from the L.A. riots, Michael Brown’s killer, a police officer, experienced the same fortune as those officers. Police officers killed 1083 people in the subsequent year, with African Americans being more than twice as likely to be the victim than all other races combined. Echoes of “fight the power” are still heard under the chants of “black lives matter”.