Going into 1989, Public Enemy was riding high. The group’s acclaimed breakthrough album, 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, had helped put them at the forefront of hip-hop’s most innovative acts. And they were going to have the spotlight song, “Fight the Power,” in Spike Lee’s incendiary, brilliant film Do the Right Thing. But when it came time to record the follow-up to Nation of Millions, frontman Chuck D was mired in controversy and band tensions, which all helped fuel this remarkable new album. In this excerpt from his new critical biography, Public Enemy: Inside the Terrordome, film and music critic Tim Grierson recounts the making of Fear of a Black Planet 25 years later.
When Chuck D declared “I got so much trouble on my mind” at the start of “Welcome to the Terrordome,” it was easy to assume that he was referring to the fallout from band member Professor Griff’s anti-Semitic comments in a May 1989 interview in The Washington Times, which resulted in Griff being dismissed from Public Enemy. But that was only part of it. The band had begun to fracture, tensions growing between the rapper and producer/songwriter Hank Shocklee over a purported label deal for the two men (and associate Bill Stephney) that had fallen through, leaving bad feelings. Safe to say, there was an air of anxiety both around Public Enemy and within.
“A day or two after Chuck had fired Griff from the band,” engineer Chris Shaw says, “he came in and did a vocal for ‘Welcome to the Terrordome.’ I wasn’t an engineer on the session, but I had to go into the room to get a cable or something. I walked in just as they started to do the vocal, and it was probably the most intense vocal I ever heard Chuck deliver. Unfortunately, it never got used in the song because the track ran out before he could finish the last verse. He did the vocal again — it wasn’t quite as intense, but it was pretty amazing just standing there while he was doing it. He was obviously ridiculously angry, incredibly angry, and incredibly emotional about it. He just poured everything he had into that vocal. I mean, the second take was incredible as well, but it wasn’t nearly as good as the first. Unfortunately, only five or six people heard it and can say it really happened.”
No matter: the version we all know is phenomenal enough. The lyrics were written while Chuck took an impromptu road trip to Allentown, PA. “It just poured out, exactly what I was feeling and thinking,” he told Rolling Stone two years later. As for choosing the song’s subject matter, “I knew exactly what was going to happen,” he said. “I knew the first record we released then [after the Griff controversy] was going to be closely watched. I thought it was fascinating that so many people were interested in the lyrics of rap for the first time. That’s what rap is about, right? Checking out the lyrics.”
Incensed and passionate — “it’s coming from the heart,” he sings at one point — “Welcome to the Terrordome” was the epitome of the noise Public Enemy generated so brilliantly. Culling the paranoid energy of the Temptations’ “Psychedelic Shack” and the fresh fury of the drums off of James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” — to name just two samples weaved into the mix — the song had an almost dizzying density. “Welcome to the Terrordome” felt like a vortex, one that Chuck was desperately trying to pull himself free from.
There are two competing emotions in the song, which was apt since “Terrordome” reflected the conflicted feelings consuming Chuck about the Griff incident. On one side, he wanted to mend fences (“God bless your soul and keep livin’” and “my home is your home”), while still being needlessly antagonistic:
Crucifixion ain’t no fiction
So-called chosen frozen
Apology made to whoever pleases
Still they got me like Jesus
“The accused anti-Semitic lines were there because I knew that people would only be concerned with this one thing and not look at anything else,” he said in Rolling Stone. “Because the whole song basically explains everything from beginning to end, but if you take a chunk out and isolate it, it may say something else. You put it in context and that’s what the record is about. That’s why I was very pleased with the results — I got everybody’s attention to show them exactly what I meant.”
Chuck may have been pleased, but prominent Jewish groups weren’t, condemning the lyrics. On one hand, Chuck’s gambit was clever: he was trying to write a song that articulated the need to absorb a speaker’s entire message, not just a snippet. After all, this was what Chuck and Griff claimed had happened to Griff with The Washington Times. But on the other, the stellar wordplay — as well as “Told a ‘Rab get off the rag” — only built walls between groups. If Chuck really believed that PE didn’t exist to offend anyone, why spend his first post-Griff song lobbing grenades?
But for Chuck, the song was more important in terms of delivering a manifesto for African-Americans as they looked to the future. “I wrote that record at the end of ’89, to signify the Terrordome is the ’90s,” he told The Village Voice in 1991. “It’s a make-it-or-break-it period for [blacks]. We do the right thing, we’ll be able to pull into the 21st century with some kind of program. We do the wrong thing, the 21st century is going to be gone, there’ll be no coming back.”
The song incurred the wrath of the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, but other Jewish leaders spoke up for Public Enemy. Most prominent of these supporters was Danny Goldberg. A talent manager who went on to represent Nirvana, Goldberg chaired the ACLU Foundation of Southern California. In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Goldberg argued, among other things, that Chuck’s crucifixion line wasn’t a slap at Judaism but, rather, part of a long tradition of artists (such as John Lennon) who were using the metaphor to express their personal anguish. “Restrictions on speech have never helped minorities anywhere,” he wrote, disapproving of calls to censor or boycott the band. “Every gain by minorities in this country coincided with a loosening of restrictions on cultural and political speech. Every repression recorded by history has followed a clampdown on speech.”
“As somebody with a Jewish name, I was really mortified when rabbis were accusing [Public Enemy] of anti-Semitism,” Goldberg says today. When he wrote the op-ed, he had not yet met Chuck, but he was enormously impressed with the band. Furthermore, “it just seemed, to me, just so immoral and wrong and tone-deaf” to accuse the group of anti-Semitism. “I thought maybe me writing about it would be useful. It certainly was useful to me in terms of saying what I wanted to say.” He didn’t deny that anti-Semitism was a legitimate worry in the world, but Chuck was not someone that he felt deserved such scorn. “Chuck D was an artist who didn’t have a biased bone in his body,” Goldberg says. “His work was positive and inclusive.”
“Terrordome” suggested the knuckle-busting temperament of the band’s forthcoming album. But then again, so did the album’s title. “When I walk to the 7-Eleven, I feel like I’m being watched because of who I am — a black man,” Chuck told the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot during a July 1990 interview. “Sometimes I feel compelled to buy something so I won’t be suspected of stealing. Blacks see the problem of racism in America very clearly because they have to live it every day… . Whites aren’t educated about racism because they’ve benefited from it. Fear of a Black Planet is like feeding baby food to babies — whites are babies when it comes to racism. And they won’t study it unless it hits them in the face daily.”
In his 1987 Melody Maker interview, he was even more provocative, saying, “Of course I’d like it if everybody white married somebody black and then the next generations were all black. Then there’d be no double standard, except the kind of sick, fucked-up thing black people have among themselves that makes them judge between different shades of darkness. But this integration is never gonna happen. So people should stick to their own. Without a strong sense of black consciousness, there’s no cohesion, and no survival. The Chinese, the Jews, they stick together, deal with each other. Blacks don’t.”
So, Fear of a Black Planet, like 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, had a sort of double meaning. To PE’s way of thinking, whites feared a world in which interracial couples produced black children — but, the band wondered, could blacks be disciplined enough to know what to do with such a future? Those tensions would pulse through the album’s 20 songs: anger at white racism but also anger at black ignorance.
It was also the album where the name “the Bomb Squad” was born. Now synonymous with the production crew that oversees Public Enemy albums, the moniker was, according to DJ and PE associate Johnny Juice, something of a ruse. “The Bomb Squad name was created by Chuck to mask the fact that Hank didn’t do anything [on Fear of a Black Planet],” Juice says. “Everybody wanted to fucking kill Hank, but Hank was contractually obligated to have his name on it. And this is why Chuck was brilliant. How do you pacify everyone? ‘OK, you guys are the Bomb Squad, and it’s produced by the Bomb Squad, so everybody gets their credit, no matter who did what.’”
Juice’s claim can be backed up by looking at the album’s liner notes. The production is credited to the Bomb Squad — Hank Shocklee, Chuck D (as Carl Ryder), Eric “Vietnam” Sadler and Keith Shocklee — but when you look at the individual song credits, Hank is nowhere to be seen. Shaw, who (unlike Johnny Juice) worked on Fear of a Black Planet, recalls that Hank assisted with Chuck in determining the track order for the record. But even then, Hank was less of a force on this new album then he had been on previous records. In Don’t Rhyme For The Sake of Riddlin’, a 2008 band-approved PE biography, Sadler is quoted as saying that when the band prepared to make Fear of a Black Planet, “Hank wasn’t talking to Griff, Griff wasn’t talking to Chuck, Chuck wasn’t talking to Hank, Hank wasn’t talking to Keith. It was a little war going on.”
But if the group was fracturing, the music wasn’t. Fear of a Black Planet may be one of the quintessential albums in the history of pop that reflects the tensions of its creation. But unlike, say, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, which was fuelled by romantic disillusionment and egos, Black Planet’s turmoil was political and cultural as much as it was warring personalities. Rather than shy away from the controversy raised by Griff and their own incendiary comments in the press and on Nation of Millions, Public Enemy leaned into the imbroglio, resulting in a record that, years later, still sounds like a five-alarm fire. If that wasn’t enough, they were also trying to top Nation of Millions while continuing that album’s legacy.
“Fear was the second half of a back-to-back ‘movement’ of albums that immediately signified that rap could be as significant an album genre as rock, forcing respect,” Chuck boasted immodestly in Billboard in 2010. “It was a musical and political statement that resonates to this day.”
The album backs up his proclamations. Nation of Millions includes snippets from the band’s triumphant London stage show to suggest the level of their cultural cachet, but Fear of a Black Planet was about proving that success wasn’t going to sink them. If their previous album had aimed to show that hip-hop could make meaningful full-length records, Fear of a Black Planet wanted to prove PE could do it again.
“Last summer I was fighting, I was depressed, but I knew what I was doing and the group got bigger over handling the controversy,” Chuck said in 1990. “People talk about controversy making a group bigger; handling it makes it bigger. If you don’t handle it, you’re out of here.”
An air of cinematic drama infuses Fear of a Black Planet from the start. The opening cut, the instrumental “Contract on the World Love Jam,” sets the scene, building quietly, calmly and ominously. A mixture of political speeches and news segments that hinted at Public Enemy’s uncertain future, the track thrillingly suggested the album’s high stakes: could the band hold together to uplift a race in danger of losing itself? The beat was stark and the tone concerned, ending on a sampled statement that was both hopeful and worrying: “There is something changing in the climate of consciousness on this planet today.”
“They already had the samples laid out in the order they were going to put them in,” Chris Shaw recalls about “Contract on the World Love Jam.” “It wasn’t like they were scratching their heads in the studio: ‘What are we going to do to introduce the record?’ They pretty much just went in and started. I wouldn’t be surprised if they wrote that track before they did anything else.”
And then, Fear of a Black Planet exploded, the titanic “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” riding a feverish sample of Prince’s guitar solo from “Let’s Go Crazy.” Where other PE tracks were defiant and angry, quite possibly their loudest song was also their most openhearted. Rather than preaching revolution, “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” was a beautiful distillation of the self-sufficiency Chuck responded to in the preaching of the Nation of Islam. An anthem of black unity, the track found Chuck extolling African-American history, property and business ownership, responsible fathers, and self-respect to end, as he called it, the status of “so many of us in limbo.”
Backed by a dynamic chorus of Chuck and hype man Flavor Flav singing “Let’s get it on” back and forth to each other, the intensity rising with each chant, “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” reached a glorious crescendo in its final verse:
In 1995, you’ll twist to this
As you raise your fist to the music United we stand, yes divided we fall
Together we can stand tall Brothers that try to work it out
They get mad, revolt, revise, realize
They’re super bad Small chance a smart brother’s Gonna be a victim of his own circumstance
If “Terrordome” worried about blacks in the next century, “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” laid out the plan for success. It remains one of PE’s most inspiring songs, fully aware of its makers’ flaws but determined to fight through them to find a better tomorrow. We’re now far past 1995, but Chuck’s bold glimpse into the future still feels forward-looking: positive without collapsing into “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” platitudes. It was a peaceful rally with the mayhem of a riot.
“Keith basically wrote that song,” Shaw says. “That’s an awesome track. I just remember putting it down, I was like, ‘Uh, are you sure you’ve got the clearance to do “Let’s Go Crazy?”’” Shaw also reveals the song features one of Hank’s few on-record appearances. “He’s the whispering [chorus] vocal, ‘Brothers gonna work it out,’” Shaw says. “That’s Hank with laryngitis.” He laughs. “Hank showed up at the studio one day, his voice was shot. And they were like, ‘Oh yeah, we got to use that.’”
With around 150 to 200 samples used on Fear of a Black Planet, the album was even more of a sonic tapestry than Nation of Millions. And like its predecessor, it was conceived with an eye toward how one track segued (or collided) into the next one. “This album also built more on thematic moods than anything,” Chuck wrote. “I had saved samples and snippets, and gone through at least 100 hours of listening to samples, tapes and records to use on the album.”
The album consisted of 20 tracks, but the band took care to consider pacing. The stern, forceful “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” moved into Flav’s “911 Is a Joke,” a comical but ultimately serious criticism of emergency medical technicians’ slow arrival into poor black neighborhoods. The bedlam of “911 Is a Joke” segued to an interlude, “Incident at 66.6 FM,” which highlighted a real radio interview Chuck gave to host Alan Colmes, with angry callers commenting on how offensive they find the band. (There is one supporter, though, who gets the final word.) Then came the raging “Welcome to the Terrordome.” Loud then subdued, incensed then funny, thoughtful then reactionary, major statements then palate-cleansing intermezzos: Fear of a Black Planet hung together like a conversation — a debate, really — between the voices within Public Enemy.
“I was at the studio every day for Nation,” Shaw remembers, “and I saw it getting bigger and bigger as it went on. Fear felt a little bit darker to me: the band had the whole Griff controversy and Nation was such a huge record — it was being labeled as this groundbreaking, career-defining moment. So, for their [follow-up], it’s time for them to deliver a record that is just as good, if not better. You could sense that was going on: every song that we worked on, there was this pressure to make it as good as it possibly could be. Every song was sort of like, ‘What more can we add to make it bigger? What more can we do to make it better? What can we do to make it a lot louder and noisier?’”
“Fear of a Black Planet was one of the first times that hip-hop was getting scrutinized word for word and line for line on a political level,” Chuck told Vibe more than 20 years later. “Our job was to come up with something that people couldn’t find. We wanted to dazzle and amaze and deliver something totally different from It Takes a Nation… The biggest thing that Public Enemy proved in the ’80s and early ’90s that made us different from any other rap group was that once we found something that worked we were going to throw it away. We never repeated ourselves. That’s what the rock ’n’ rollers did.”
All of this was being done with relatively unsophisticated equipment. Nick Sansano, an engineer who was more closely associated with Nation of Millions but also worked on Fear of a Black Planet, says, “Technology drives the sound, you know? People ask [Public Enemy], ‘What prompted you to make your sound composed of all these little snippets? How did you have such a brilliant idea?’ And it’s like, ‘Because that’s the only way we could do it.’ How much sampling [time] was there on the Panasonic, which was their first keyboard? Half a second? You couldn’t do it any other way. There are bands that really use the technology well, like Tangerine Dream or Kraftwerk, but for hip-hop, those guys were the Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream. They were making the most out of nothing — that technology, everything was bad.”
But despite the pressure and the subpar technology, the Fear of a Black Planet sessions had their prankster-ish moments, especially when it came to the album’s samples. As Shaw recalls, the group would nix certain ones that were too obvious. But in general, the band’s attitude toward samples in an era before they would be heavily legislated was “Fuck them if they can’t take a joke. But they would definitely draw a line: Occasionally, there would be a sample with a full-on vocal in it and Hank would be like, ‘Oh, that was great, but we’ll definitely get nailed for that.’”
Still, Shaw laughs. “I can name some samples on that record that would definitely get them in a shit-ton of trouble,” he says. He won’t reveal specifics, but he does offer one example: in the studio, he and Eric Sadler “were laying down this sort of muffled tone” for a track. “As we were laying it down, Eric looked at me: ‘White boy, you know what that is?’ I have no idea. Eric opened up the filter, and as soon as it was playing full, my jaw just dropped. I was like, ‘You can’t do that!’ He goes, ‘Yes, I can — I just did.’”
The creativity spilled over onto other albums. At the same time that Fear of a Black Planet was being made, Sansano was working with Sonic Youth on their follow-up to Daydream Nation, their major-label debut Goo. “They loved that we worked at Greene Street [studio], too,” Sansano says. “There was no dividing line [between rap and rock groups].”
The line was further erased when Chuck guested on Sonic Youth’s “Kool Thing,” which became Goo’s first single, his raps complementing the buzzing guitars and masterfully sculpted feedback. Sansano still recalls “seeing the track really come to life with Chuck coming in and doing the vocals. There were other [rock] bands that would use the odd sample here and there, but his physical voice has meaning.” The collaboration happened spontaneously. Sansano recalls, “Kim said, ‘It’d be great if we could have a rapper [on the track],’ so I said, ‘I can ask Chuck. He’s here.’ We were in A at that point, and they were in B [at Greene Street]. It wasn’t a grand plan: it was, ‘Oh yeah, it’d be cool, wouldn’t it? Yeah! Let’s see if he wants to do it.’” Chuck was game, and “Kool Thing” was finished, with Gordon mischievously whispering at one point in the song, “Fear of a female planet.”
Sadly, there could have been more Public Enemy-Sonic Youth collaborations in the future, but they never materialized. “I blame myself because I gave up on it,” says Sansano. “I wasn’t persistent enough. I was working on a collaboration where we would do a Side A/Side B 12-inch. They would flip songs: PE was gonna take a Sonic Youth song, and Sonic Youth was gonna take a PE song, and reproduce and remix it. We had a couple of meetings. I don’t even remember what the [songs] were, but we even got that far. But when it got time to actually schedule people and start to work out all the business stuff, it just kept getting waylaid. Looking back, I kick myself. At the time, I was like, ‘All right, well, it’ll happen.’ You have that youthful [enthusiasm]. I’m 51 now, and it didn’t happen.”
Because of all the turmoil around the making of Fear of a Black Planet, it might surprise some to know that there could have been an additional obstacle. “When Fear was coming out, a lot of bootleg cassettes of it got out before its release date,” remembers Shaw. “Fortunately, this was before the Internet era, so it didn’t get too far out, but a lot of people had copies. [Public Enemy] didn’t feel comfortable leaving a copy of the master at the studio, so right after we finished mastering Fear of a Black Planet, they made two reference CDs, which the guys in the band took, and they made two DAT copies — and they gave me one. They said, ‘Chris, take this DAT and take it to your house. We trust you.’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure, no problem.’ Well, that night, I walked home and I got yanked into a dark doorway by these two guys. One of them held a gun to my head: ‘Give me everything you’ve got now!’”
Never having been mugged before, Shaw tried to remain calm, handing over his wallet, which had about five dollars in it. Unsatisfied, his attackers also demanded his new leather jacket, which he’d purchased on a recent trip to Italy. “As I’m taking it off, I realize that DAT is in the pocket,” Shaw says. “I thought, ‘Oh shit, now what do I do?’ I kinda clumsily took the jacket off and handed it to them upside down, and the DAT falls out of the pocket. The guy looks down at the sidewalk at this little plastic case and says, ‘What the hell is that?’ I said, ‘It’s my answering-machine cassette: do you want that, too?’ He goes, ‘Aw, fuck it,’ and the two of them run off, but not before they took my sneakers.” Shaw laughs. “I walked back to the studio, and I just started punching the wall. Chuck and Hank were like, ‘What’s wrong?’ I said, ‘I just got mugged! They took my jacket, they took my shoes, they took my wallet.’ Chuck was like, ‘Oh, wait … didn’t you have the DAT?’ I’m like, ‘Naw, I got that right here.’ The DAT was worth 10 times more than what I gave them.”
Public Enemy: Inside the Terrordome excerpt courtesy of Omnibus Press. The book is available at Amazon and other fine booksellers. Tim Grierson is a film and music critic who writes for Screen International, Deadspin, Paste, Rolling Stone and The Dissolve. He tweets at @timgrierson.