A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
September 7, 2007
I’m one of a lot of people — middle-aged white people, to be exact — who don’t really like a lot of hip-hop music but love Public Enemy.
Part of it has to be PE’s lyrics and themes, which are socially conscious, politically charged, and free of gangsta idiocy. But an important part of it that’s not as obvious is the actual music. Public Enemy's music is laced with good old-fashioned soul. No, you’re not going to mistake a PE song for one by Wilson Pickett. But listen closely, and you’ll realize that without Wicked Pickett or James Brown or Sly or George Clinton, there wouldn’t be a Public Enemy.
This became especially obvious to me when I saw the group last month at the Santa Fe Muzik Festival (with its excellent band, called The baNNed, which includes Santa Fe resident Brian Hardgroove on bass). And it’s obvious on PE’s new album, How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul??? Public Enemy isn’t just a rap group. It’s a part of the soul-music tradition.
You hear it in the Memphis-style horns that punctuate the cool, funky “Harder Than You Think.” You hear it in the steady beat and the chants of “Soul power!” in the title song. And you feel it in one of the recurring themes of this album — that mainstream, corporate music and pop culture are turning us into an empty, soulless people or at least a grim reflection of a heartless era. As Chuck D says in “Black Is Back”: “It started with your baby on Similac/Don’t get me started/Get it up to speed/Gettin’ back your soul/Is what you need.”
Of course, this talk of no substance and soulless culture brings up the question of Flavor Flav and his insipid TV reality shows. There was a lot of eye-rolling among old-time PE fans at the Santa Fe performance when Flav was on stage plugging his Comedy Central roast.
Two of Flav’s solo tunes on this album don’t have much going for them. But Flav redeems himself nobly with “Bridge of Pain,” a cold-eyed account of a lonely ride on a corrections-systems bus to a jail on Rikers Island in New York. This might be the best thing he’s done since “911 Is a Joke.”
PE’s got little good to say about gangsta rap. “Damn, our interviews were better than some of them acts,” Chuck D boasts on “The Long and Whining Road,” and then he laments, “Seen a nation reduce ‘Fight the Power’ to ‘Gin and Juice.’”
In “Sex, Drugs, and Violence,” PE is joined by a children’s chorus (singing, “We like those gangsta rhymes/Just make sure they don’t corrupt our minds”) and old-schooler KRS-One to tell the stories of the murders of Tupac and Jam Master Jay, laying the blame at the door of hard gangster attitudes. Meanwhile “See Something, Say Something” is an argument against the self-destructive “anti-snitch” movement, which advocates black people never cooperate with police.
But there’s a little surprise in the song “Amerikan Gangster.” The folks Chuck D is talking about here aren’t the Bloods and Crips but the people running the government.
There are a couple of fun diversions on the album.
“The Long and Whining Road” is a clever history of Public Enemy told largely using Bob Dylan song and album titles (it also name-checks Prince, Tom Petty, and Johnny Cash — not to mention the Beatles tune that inspired this song’s title). Employing the chords of “All Along the Watchtower,” Chuck D subtly pleads the case that he’s up there in the Hall of Immortals with Mr. Zimmerman. He also talks about his love of protest songs, so it only makes sense that a classic protest tune, P.F. Sloan’s “Eve of Destruction,” would get the Public Enemy treatment.
The folk-rock trappings are shorn, leaving only the harsh apocalyptic core of the song.
The production of How You Sell Soul is not nearly as urgent as PE’s early works. “The Enemy Battle Hymn of the Public,” for example, with its slick background chorus, seems a little overproduced. But this album still has a lot for us to chew on, musically and intellectually.
Twenty years strong, and Public Enemy still has lots of soul to sell to those with ears to hear.
* Planet Earth by Prince. Back in the ’80s, a Prince song got Tipper Gore so upset she started an organization that Frank Zappa dubbed “The Mothers of Prevention,” resulting in congressional hearings and a national scare about “porn rock.” But the title song of Prince’s latest album sounds like he’s auditioning for the soundtrack to the next Al Gore movie.
Planet Earth isn’t a bad album, but it definitely lacks the sense of danger of Prince’s classic stuff and isn’t even as strong as his recent albums 3121 and Musicology.
Basically, there are too many “quiet-storm” ballads and not nearly enough James Brown/P-Funk soul workouts here. Where’s Maceo Parker and Candy Dulfer, who have graced his last couple of albums? Is there even a sax on Planet Earth?
There should be more tracks like “Chelsea Rodgers,” which features Sheila E. on percussion. And there aren’t nearly enough crazy guitar showcases. The song “Guitar,” a tasty little stomper that’s easily the highlight of this record, comes closest; and “Lion of Judah” and the song “Planet Earth” end with worthy but too-short guitar solos.
You can’t give up on Prince. I just hope his next album isn’t as Earthbound.
Workin’ Man’s Blues. Stan Rosen joins me at 10 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 9, for Terrell’s Sound World’s annual post-Labor Day show, on KSFR-FM 90.7 and simulcasting on KSFQ-FM 101.1 FM. Songs about workers and the labor movement.
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