Classics Critiqued

This is a monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that it must be a critically acclaimed or cult record released before 2000.

Public Enemy – ‘Fear of the Black Planet’ (1990, Def Jam Records)

For the final Classics Critiqued of 2010 I’ve chosen an album that earlier this year reached its 20th anniversary. Public Enemy’s ‘Fear of the Black Planet’ opened up the 90s with the HUGE drums of ‘Brothers Gonna Work It Out’ and in retrospect set the tone for the next few years of American music as well as being an important landmark in hip-hop’s march towards commercial success and acceptance (not that acceptance was something Public Enemy sought). There is often debate about whether ‘Fear of the Black Planet’ is better than their previous album ‘It’ll Take A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’, which is often cited as the ‘Greatest Hip-Hop Album of All Time’ and both albums regularly feature in writers’ polls for the ‘Greatest Albums of All Time’ and though I will discuss the difference in this piece, it is a separate subject.

At the time ‘Fear of the Black Planet’ was met with universal acclaim here and the in US, from Rolling Stone to the NME. The critics didn’t just pick up the album’s undeniable musical power but also its power as a cultural force for black people and hip-hop as a genre. Greg Sandow of Entertainment Weekly called it “a formidable piece of work and the one pop album released so far this year that no one interested in the current state of American culture can afford to ignore.” This was an album that challenged the very people that Public Enemy had begun to apply to, the ‘white people’ that they had problems with were attracted to this visceral and catchy sound, this wasn’t just a ball of experimental noise but jammed full of hooks that stuck in the brain. Further to this Public Enemy showed ‘the first hard evidence of rap’s maturity’, the lack of which had come in for hard line criticism before this release.

In the modern critical musical climate this sort of praise would not seem like such a big deal but in 1990 such unanimous acclaim from the white rock music press was unheard of for a hip-hop act. Public Enemy were truly on top of the world that year. They dominated MTV, by now a major player in the music industry, played huge stadium shows and sold 2 million copies of ‘Fear of the Black Planet’. It was now their planet as foreseen on the back cover of ‘Fear of the Black Planet’.

Their dominance of 1990 and the sound of ‘Fear of the Black Planet’ proved pivotal for hip-hop music as a whole. Previously Public Enemy and their peers had used a flurry of breakbeats as their main weapon and now the beats were stripped back and hit deeper. You could still dance to these; you just danced slower. This programming changed hip-hop forever: it is now extremely rare to hear an MC lead hip-hop track with a breakbeat. They now reside almost solely in instrumental underground hip-hop. The samples are used differently on ‘Fear of the Black Planet’ too. Rather than singular sounds flying in from all over the stereo image they are layered and interwoven to create a wall of sound and this more focused approach is no less powerful than what was achieved with ‘Nation of Millions’ and it still hits as hard today. One of the most surprising elements of this album is that its tracks still have the ability to cut it 20 years despite all the technological advancements made subsequently.

In many ways Public Enemy and Golden Age hip-hop fans have been disappointed by what hip-hop has since become. Chuck D. himself says it is ‘undeveloped’ and that albums such as ‘Nation of Millions…’ and ‘Fear of the Black Planet’ can still sound radical to teenagers who hear it for the first time today because of its radical political message and that it is a relative to current commercial hip-hop. In the comments section of an interview Chuck D did with The Quietus in 2008 a teenager said ‘When I bought the album on a whim last year I was 15…and it certainly was radical for me from a musical point of view.’ From personal experience I can bear this out, being exposed to Public Enemy as a teenager completely blew my mind and still does over ten years later.

‘Fear of the Black Planet’ was a vital release on many levels in terms of the political issues it confronted and its influence on hip-hop’s musical and commercial development. Though hip-hop truly broke through the mainstream with Notorious B.I.G’s ‘Ready to Die’ and the beginning of P Diddy’s dominance as the hip-hop businessman, ‘Fear of the Black Planet’ was an incredibly important milestone on the way to commercial acceptance. More so Public Enemy were one of the last hip-hop acts (though there’s still time for more) who united and dominated America. Half of all copies sold were bought by Caucasians, which was and is still an important statistic in the genre’s timeline. Here was an act with the power to cross the biggest national divide. Though I could list the likes of EL-P and his Def Jux label, socially-conscious rappers such Mos Def and Talib Kweli etc. and many others directly informed by the group and ‘Fear of the Black Planet’, it seems needless as Public Enemy influenced all hip-hop (and some dance music) that followed this album’s release 20 years ago.

Spotify playlist:

Public Enemy – Fear Of A Black Planet