Monday, May 14, 2012
There are a few extremely important rap groups. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five set the tone for what '80s rap was to be. Run DMC brought rap into the spotlight. The Beastie Boys brought it to the mainstream. De La Soul showed that rap did not have to be track suits and gold chains. Public Enemy, however, is a different animal altogether.
Since the best known member of Public Enemy today is Flavor-Flav, we forget how dangerous and influential they were to the conservative United States of the 1980s. When this country was lining up to collectively suck Ronald Reagan's dick, Public Enemy was instilling fear in those waiting in line, praising Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan and presenting a militant, pro-revolution image that was not easily ignored. While the music was funky and fit the hip-hop norm of the day, the lyrics were angry. This was revolution you could dance to. They also had a great sense for marketing or branding themselves, spawning associated acts that spread the word further.
Now I am no historian, and I am sure there were some elements of Public Enemy's message I may have disagreed with, but part of the reason for this post is that we need a Public Enemy today. Frankly, we needed one in 2002. Sure, there are angry bands that decry our wars and the Bush presidency but none of them have what Public Enemy had, namely a huge pulpit to preach from. Here are some of the reasons I think we are lacking a new Public Enemy.
Rap was "new" in the 1980s, at least as far as the mainstream was concerned. Sure, lots of people knew "Rapper's Delight" (The Sugarhill Gang, 1979) and the world marveled at the rap-rock collaboration of Run DMC and Aerosmith, but still people in the mainstream did not quite understand rap. The lack of a new genre of music is a barrier. This leads to the next point...
The way middle America got its hip-hop, primarily, was through MTV. Say what you will about MTV's destruction/bastardization of music, they were extremely important as well. Aside from all the bubblegum many groups/artists were able to use the medium to get serious music into our consciousness, and MTV loved rap. Their show Yo! MTV Raps! brought rap to more people than any other venue, and for once had a legitimate member of the music community hosting, namely Fab Five Freddy. We don't quite have that platform anymore. Sure, we can get new music on the internet, but in the '80s if you wanted something that was not Top 40 outside a major urban area, you watched MTV. You had to watch all the music they played while you waited for the Culture Club or Haircut 100 video to come on, which forced you to be exposed to music you may not have sought out on your own.
Lastly, the US public is rather complacent. This is changing, but we are slow to act. Sure, we get all riled up on Twitter and Facebook when Prop 8 passes or Planned Parenthood is dissed by the Komen Foundation, but this is not really action. When George W. Bush was handed the presidency by Congress in 2002 we did not have the same ubiquitous social media we have today, but the outrage was rather impotent. Couple that with Bush's re-election just shows that we were not outraged enough. The US is fraught with religiously based bigotry, the main targets being Latinos, Women, and members of the LGBTQ community. We type angry missives in bulk, but if so many of us are truly angry why are we always on the losing side?
So, I do not think we will see another Public Enemy any time soon, so I propose we look back to the one we had. While much of the history that spawned their anger might not seem equivalent to groups currently under fire (not to imply that Black America is out of the woods yet), all you have to do is look for the similarities such as the Stonewall Riots, the UpStairs Lounge Arson, attacks on Human Rights based on sexual orientation, or the Draconian laws designed to drive Latinos from communities too see that "the man with the whip" is still around and if you don't fit his image of what the US should be, he'll be swinging for you.