So, where were we?
Late '80's, yeah, that's it.
I still remember the first time I heard "Welcome to the Terrordome."
Holiday season, little bit before, little bit after, Christmas 1989. Before Fear of a Black Planet had dropped, for sure. I'd gotten in the Sloshmobile and drove myself to the mall to pick up a CD. Don't even remember which one it was. What I do remember is that as I'm at the counter, I see 1) that I've got a little extra dough after the CD, and 2) that the cassette single from the forthcoming Public Enemy album was for sale.
You may snicker at the mention of a cassette single, but the good thing about that was, while I had to wait until I got home to play my new CD, I could play my new cassette on the way.
Before 45 seconds had elapsed, I was pretty sure this was the greatest rap track I had ever heard. Chuck D's raps seemed to me to be like the guitars on a Minor Threat track: full of rage and WAY upfront. Or, if I'm doing the punk thing (and I clearly can't help myself), maybe the best comparison for Chuck D on the track is to Lee Ving: full of piss and bile, two hundred words a minute, loud, and you can clearly understand every goddamned one.
The interviews I'd read with Chuck D going back to Nation of Millions had impressed me. Chuck was more than a little bit skeptical about the ability of the mass media to communicate relevant informtion to inner city black youth, and he conceived of his band's music to fill that void. Public Enemy was a way to get around polluted or non-existent channels of communication.
I was able to understand that. That was how Neil Young's "Ohio" had worked, what had been so impressive about it. That's how Chuck and Flava wanted to operate--but on a regular basis.
'Course the other upshot of this method of operations is that Public Enemy's music could in no way be seen as "for" me. It was neither conceived, nor written, nor performed, with a white longhair in mind.
For a while, I didn't let that bother me. Later on, and with other artists, the gap would become harder to ignore.
One day at FIU Cerveza and I came across a bottle of cheap vodka that insisted to us it desperately needed drinking. So we took the bottle with us, and we walked into the woods that lined the campus, and followed a gravel path until we came to an open shelter with four log pillars and a concrete floor. Two picnic tables, painted brick red, sat complacent and obedient under a prefab roof. The sun shone brightly, reflected off waxy subtropical leaves, but a strong breeze blew through the trees as well, and kept things comfortable even as we later got manic.
Whoever it was that had the bottle placed it on one of the tables, and we sat down, facing each other with the bottle at eye level between us.
And we began to drink, what else? We drank and talked shit about punk rock and Bukowski and sci-fi and comic books. Erik might have talked some about women. I, knowing nothing about the subject, would have listened. I might have talked some baseball. Erik, knowing nothing about the subject, would have listened.
We talked endlessly as we passed the bottle back and forth; as we arose from the benches and paced around it in an excess of energy. Something now makes me think we found a baseball bat,or some like object, and began to bang on shit with it, nearby trees, the structure's pillars, the concrete floor. We were college students, who knew it all, who had the keenest insight, and the purest taste.
I was working for The Herald only part-time then, driving the Sloshmobile down to the Herald complex on Saturday afternoons, parking it at an auxiliary lot, then walking the couple blocks to find the truck I was going to work, to insert a couple or three thousand comics sections into the Lifestyle, stack the completed doubles on one side of the truck in rows so high and heavy that they would fully compress the truck's springs.
So late one Saturday afternoon (I told Erik that day), as I was returning to my car, having inserted those couple or three thousand, having stacked the truck so that it would lean dangerously as it always did when the driver that night inched it into the building to receive its hundred bundles of Sunday main section, I walked into the auxiliary parking lot and surprised a thief, who'd been trying to break into my car and steal my Sony stereo.
I told Erik, "some nigger . . . ." he cut me off, and that was the end of my car stereo story. From there on out, the discussion was about my language and my racism. We were both pretty drunk by this time, so the discussion was more of an argument. It didn't come to blows, but by the time we walked off, I understood what 'tears of rage' meant, and we both pretty much thought the other was an asshole.
I didn't think I was a racist or a bigot, of course. How could I be? Not only did I have a Malcolm X shirt hanging in my closet, I actually pulled the thing out and wore it!
More seriously, the way of it was, I figured, was that if you try to fuck with me, if you try to give me bodily harm or take my stuff, it's only fair that one of the things I get to do is insult you. Hence the N-word I'd used.
Erik didn't see it that way, and after a few days of thinking about it, after my hangover was through with me, neither did I.
Even before the N-word was called the N-word, I hadn't used it much, reserving it for those who failed to conduct their business with me in an upright manner. But after that vodka-fueled argument with Cerveza, chastened, and a bit ashamed, I was very very careful about its use again.
Early one Sunday morn--this is '91 or '92--some friends and I, after taking in an evening's entertainment at Churchill's Hideaway, decided to head north out of Little Haiti, and stopped at a Liberty City convenience store for additional beer, cigarettes, etc.
There was a brother hanging outside who was, I suppose, used to seeing those who had been previously at Churchill's pull up.
I remember we engaged the guy in conversation; I guess he had asked us in in a friendly way about whoever it was had been playing at Churchill's (not sure, but I know it wasn't Scraping Teeth). And one of us replied, and we started talking outside, just another three o'clock in the morning bullshit session between three or four white kids and a brother in the bad part of town.
So, because they're on my mind, because I'm not terribly nuanced or clever, I bring up Public Enemy.
Looking back, I shouldn't have been surprised at the answer, but I was at the time. I'll be paraphrasing, but the dude (older than me at the time, but younger than I am now) basically gave me a minute and a half of how Public Enemy wasn't real, or how it wasn't "street." How it was gangsta rap with its rhymes about guns and drug deals and crack whores that was the shit.
And I kept my whiteboy mouth shut, but I was like, you've got to be fucking kidding me.
If this had been '92, the most popular rap album of the year was The Chronic, but in any event, NWA was at least three years old at this point. And of course gangsta rap would go on to be the '90's breakout genre.
Leaving Public Enemy in its collective dust. Though Flava Flav occasionally went out and got some additional work, Public Enemy *has* continued to make music through the present day. But please do not pretend that their relevancy vs. the Snoop Doggy Doggs of the world has been all that high.
Anyway: I thought it throughout the '90's, but never more intensely than on that night in Liberty City: what a fucking waste, and what an example of mass stupidity, to reject positive music that addresses personal and social change in favor of this bullshit that glorifies thuggery and mysogyny and ignorance.
It'd be different if Chuck D was pussy or if Chuck D was a sucker. But he wasn't. And isn't. He was significantly harder core in my own opinion than many of the metal guitarists who had my respect.
Yet little from his target audience. It would have been different if what the brother had told me that morning was out of step. But it wasn't: the dude was mainstream. Mainsteam for about a decade, if not through the right fucking now.
So it was, that Sunday morning, that I began to wash my hands of rap. Bad deal all the way around.
I know I've missed Public Enemy's efforts since then, and I know there's thing called alternative hip hop that I might have found more palatable, but fuck it. Why wade through the shit when there's so much else of interest out there?
Ever since that day in the woods with Cerveza, I've understood implicitly that it's ridiculous for me to walk around like most sheltered white liberals do, with my head in the air, pretending that the problem is entirely external, that I myself am clean of racist attitudes. And I have realized since then that all you can do--all anyone can do--is to try and do the best you can.
Maybe my best here, in trying to explain why I no longer listen to this music that I find offensive, and more importantly, deleterious, is not good enough. It probably ain't.
When it gets down to it, I understand my own hypocrisy. I understand that I give The Dwarves a pass for "Skin Popping Slut," and that I don't call out The Prodigy for "Smack My Bitch Up." Or that 98% of the music that I listen to is, as John Peel called it, "white boys with guitars." Go to town on all that, if you want.
But it won't change how I feel about rap and its biggest baddest ugliest child, gangsta. It won't change my mind about the culture that surrounds it, where someone like 50 Cent plans a gunshot wound for the credibility it would give him within the twisted scene. And never mind Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur.
I've spent my life digging into the aural sludge that is The Butthole Surfers and Big Black and Ministry and Wolf Eyes and all the rest of it. But rap? That shit got much too dirty for me.
Public Enemy - Fear of a Black Planet - 05 Welcome To The Terrordome
File under: Blind alleys
Dynamite Hack - Superfast - Boyz N the Hood
File under: Covers where they get the words exactly right
These files was removed July 22, 2010. If you're still way interested in coming up with a copy of this--and really can't figure out where you might get one--drop me an email and I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out for you.