It's a black thing, you got to understand," declaims Chuck D during the coda that concludes "Move!" one of the many exhortatory blasts on the new Public Enemy album, Apocalypse 91: The Enemy Strikes Black. You can believe him. The album, PE's fourth, attempts nothing short of setting a sociopolitical agenda for the black community in the last decade of the twentieth century. Toward that ambitious end it doesn't waste many words decrying the historical crimes of whites, though allegorical embodiments of white oppression "Jack," "the other man" turn up for cameos here and there. Instead, racism is simply assumed as an essential fact of American life, as elemental as the air black people breathe, the food they eat. Given that state of affairs, PE has set its mission as identifying and annihilating the effects of racism the ways in which black people have been taught to aid in their own destruction and forging a new black consciousness. Understanding the past is important, the group seems to be saying "Can't Truss It," for example, recounts the slave trade in gripping terms but only as a first step toward the real goal: creating the future.
Apocalypse 91 is introduced with the words "The future holds nothin' else but confrontation," just before DJ Terminator X and PE's production phalanx, the Bomb Squad a shifting lineup that includes, in varying combinations, Hank and Keith Shocklee, Chuck D and Gary (G-Wiz) Rinaldi unleashes the amazing buzz that has become Public Enemy's sonic trademark. A relentless siren over a throbbing bass and propulsive drum track, it's the perfect metaphor for the urgency of contemporary urban life. That opening statement, which leads into "Lost at Birth," and that distinctive sound set the tone for the entire album, but it's soon clear that part of the confrontation PE foresees must occur within the black community itself.
On "Nighttrain," which samples the James Brown track of the same name, Chuck D defines black identity as an issue that runs deeper than skin color. As a staccato beat drives him, Chuck vilifies thieves and drug dealers ("Self-hater trained/To sell pain") who prey on their own neighborhoods, warning that "you mustn't just put your/Trust in every brother yo/Some don't give a damn." Meanwhile, goosed along by a funky guitar sample and piano break, Flavor Flav, Chuck's antic foil, demands respect from blacks and whites alike on "I Don't Wanna Be Called Yo Niga."
"How to Kill a Radio Consultant" goes after radio in general for not playing rap but takes special aim at the conservatism of black stations "When the quiet storm comes on I fall asleep," Chuck D complains. Another Flav showpiece, "A Letter to the N.Y. Post," attacks the notorious tabloid for racism ("It always seems they make our neighborhood look bad"), but Chuck doesn't spare the black weekly Jet for falling right in line: "Black newspapers and magazines are supposed to get the real deal from the source y'all/Sorry Jet you took the info straight out of the Post/Burned us just like toast." And while "One Million Bottlebags" takes a cue from the surgeon general and excoriates the liquor industry for excessive marketing to blacks, Chuck D wonders, above a slamming rhythm track, "But who drinks it like water/On and on until the stores reorder it?/Brothers cry broke but they still affordin' it."
This righteous self-criticism should not be confused with blaming the victim or excusing bigotry. The album views the present, after all, as "Apocalypse 91" and does not shy away from such terms as "genocide" ("One Million Bottlebags") and "holocaust" ("Can't Truss It") to describe the systematic assault of institutional racism on black people. But the point of this album is that unless black people unify in resistance, all will surely be lost. This idea is conveyed most chillingly in the brief segment that introduces "A Letter to the N.Y. Post." Over a country-style fiddle sample, a white man speaking in a genial Southern accent describes himself as a member of the Ku Klux Klan and offers the following remarks: "I'd like to express our deepest gratitude at the destruction of the inferior nigger race, and I'm especially pleased to report it's destroying itself without our help. To all you gangs, hoodlums, drug pushers and users, and other worthless niggers killing each other, we'd like to thank y'all for saving us the time, trouble and legality for the final chapter of riddin' y'all off the face of the Earth. Your solution to our problem is greatly appreciated, so keep selling us your soul."
Apocalypse 91: The Enemy Strikes Black ends with the collaboration between Public Enemy and Anthrax on "Bring the Noise." One of rap's great anthems, Public Enemy's tumultuous version of "Bring the Noise" first appeared on the Less Than Zero soundtrack in 1987 and the next year on PE's album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Anthrax adapted the aesthetic manifesto Chuck D articulated in the song's title to its own thrash-and-burn brand of metal and then invited Chuck to rap over the din. The result falls short of the original, but its heart and its mind, and its message is in the right place.
The message is that communities with very different values and ways of living can still learn from each other, live and create with each other. Understanding is how that happens. No one stands to gain if the apocalypse comes down, if the empire strikes back. Chuck D has called rap "the CNN of black America." Events are moving fast; Apocalypse 91 needs to be watched. (RS 614)
(Posted: Oct 3, 1991)
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