Photo by Gillian KleinYears after hip-hop overtook grunge as America's most profitable music, Public Enemy finally became part of America's cultural mainstream. TheNew York Times included the band's music in its list of the "25 Most Significant Albums of the Last Century," and even Entertainment Weekly listed Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet as one of the most important records of the 1990s.
Meanwhile, vocalist and songwriter Chuck D has metamorphosed from angry urban poet to something akin to cultural guru, at least whenever MTV or VH1 need an African-American to give the black perspective on the latest musical trends. For example, when VH1 aired a documentary on Elvis Presley earlier this year, the network quoted Chuck D saying that he and other black artists respected Elvis as an entertainer and that America wouldn't be the same without him.
That's a far cry from what Chuck D had to say about Elvis in "Fight the Power," which appeared in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing: "Elvis was a hero to most/But he never meant shit to me, you see/Straight-up racist that sucker was/Simple and plain/Mother-fuck him and John Wayne."
But the band's most recent CD, Revolverlution, shows that in spite of Chuck D's apparent softening on Elvis-related issues, Public Enemy is just as angry as ever. After calling the album "groundbreaking," MTV banned the video for the song "Gotta Give the Peeps What They Need." The network's problem? The chorus says, "Free Mumia and H. Rap Brown," a reference to imprisoned cop-killer/political prisoner (take your pick) Mumia Abu-Jamal and imprisoned cop-killer/political prisoner (you get the idea) Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, a.k.a. H. Rap Brown.
And the controversy that started with Revolverlution continued just days before Public Enemy was scheduled to begin their national tour supporting the album, when front man and semicoherent sidekick Flavor Flav got busted. Already on parole for driving without a license several years ago, Mr. Flav—as The New York Times might call him—reportedly got popped by New York's finest for "missing probation meetings and appointments," according to the band's own press release. While Public Enemy has promised to continue its tour, the untimely arrest means that Flav won't appear with Public Enemy when the group performs at Anaheim's House of Blues on Wednesday.
Of course, Flavor Flav has been arrested so many times we've lost count, and controversy is nothing new to Public Enemy, widely viewed as the most politically conscious hip-hop act in the history of the art form. Since the beginning, the band has had a penchant for militant-sounding songs with such names as "Miuzi Weighs a Ton" and "Burn Hollywood Burn," angry screeds full of sampled riots, machine-gun fire, stomping feet and the screeching, wailing sounds of the apocalypse.
Onstage and in photos, the band (with the exception of the always-clownish-looking Flavor Flav) dressed up in the natty creased and spit-shined uniforms of the Fruit of Islam, the Nation of Islam's security detail. One of the band's songwriters/ministers of propaganda, Professor Griff, was temporarily booted from the band after telling a reporter that Jews were "evil." (Griff is still on the band's roster, and it has been almost a decade since Public Enemy had to answer to charges of anti-Semitism.)
And now that Public Enemy has lightened up on Judaism and Elvis, the band has moved on to more appropriate—and timely—targets. In "Son of a Bush," a song on Public Enemy's new album produced by Professor Griff, the band has this to say about our commander in chief: "I ain't callin' for no assassination/I'm just sayin', sayin'/Who voted for that asshole of your nation?"
Public Enemy performs at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2853; www.hob.com. Wed., 8 p.m. $30-$32.50. All ages.
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