Fear of a Black Planet
|Fear of a Black Planet|
|Studio album by Public Enemy|
|Released||March 20, 1990|
Greene St. Recording
(New York, New York)
The Music Palace
(West Hempstead, New York)
Spectrum City Studios
(Long Island, New Yorkf)
|Label||Def Jam, Columbia|
|Producer||Chuck D, Eric "Vietnam" Sadler, Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee|
|Public Enemy chronology|
|Singles from Fear of a Black Planet|
Fear of a Black Planet is the third studio album by American hip hop group Public Enemy, released on March 20, 1990, by Def Jam Recordings and Columbia Records. It was produced by the group's production team The Bomb Squad, who sought to expand on the dense, sample-layered sound of Public Enemy's previous album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988). Having fulfilled their initial creative ambitions with that album, Public Enemy pursued a different direction and aspired to create what lead MC Chuck D specified as "a deep, complex album". Their songwriting was partly inspired by the controversy with member Professor Griff and his dismissal from the group in 1989.
The album features elaborate sound collages that incorporate varying rhythms, numerous samples, media sound bites, and eccentric music loops, and reflect the content's confrontational tone. Conceived during the golden age of hip hop, its assemblage of reconfigured and recontextualized aural sources preceded the sample clearance system that later emerged in the music industry. Fear of a Black Planet contains themes concerning organization and empowerment within the African-American community, while presenting criticism of social issues affecting African Americans at the time of the album's conception. Its criticism of institutional racism and White supremacy were inspired by Dr. Frances Cress Welsing's views on color.
In its first week, the album sold one million copies in the United States, where it charted at number 10 on the Billboard Top Pop Albums. It was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America. Fear of a Black Planet was praised by music critics for its sonic quality, societal themes, and insightful lyrics, and was named one of the best albums in 1990. It has since been recognized as one of hip hop's greatest and most important albums, as well as being musically and culturally significant. In 2003, it was ranked number 300 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, and in 2005, the Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry.
- 1 Background
- 2 Concept
- 3 Recording
- 4 Composition
- 5 Songs
- 6 Singles
- 7 Commercial performance
- 8 Critical reception
- 9 Legacy and influence
- 10 Track listing
- 11 Personnel
- 12 Charts
- 13 Certifications
- 14 See also
- 15 References
- 16 Bibliography
- 17 Further reading
- 18 External links
In 1988, Public Enemy released their second album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back to critical recognition and sufficient sales. It fulfilled their creative ambitions to create what they considered to be a hip hop-equivalent to Marvin Gaye's What's Going On (1971), an album noted for its social commentary. Its dense musical textures, provided by the group's production team The Bomb Squad, exemplified a new production aesthetic in hip hop at the time. The controversial, politically charged lyrics by the group's lead MC Chuck D, whose braggadocio raps contained references to political figures such as Assata Shakur and Nelson Mandela, as well as endorsements of Nation of Islam-leader Louis Farrakhan, intensified the group's affiliation with black nationalism and Farrakhan.
It Takes a Nation's success helped raise hip hop's profile as both art and sociopolitical statement, amid media criticism of the genre. It helped give hip hop a critical credibility and standing in the popular music community after it had been largely dismissed as a fad since its introduction at the turn of the 1980s. The album was the runaway choice as the best album of 1988 in The Village Voice's Pazz & Jop, a poll of the leading music critics in the United States. Public Enemy also expanded their live shows and performing dynamic. With the album's content and the group's rage-filled showmanship in concert, Public Enemy became the vanguard of a movement in hip hop that reflected a new black consciousness and sociopolitical dynamic that were taking shape in America at the time.
In May 1989, Chuck D, Bomb Squad producer Hank Shocklee, and publicist Bill Stepheny were negotiating with several labels for a production deal from a major record company, their goal since starting Public Enemy in the early 1980s. As they were in negotiations, group member Professor Griff made anti-Semitic remarks in an interview for The Washington Times, in which he said that Jews were the cause of "the majority of the wickedness" in the world. Public Enemy received media scrutiny and criticism from religious organizations and liberal rock critics, which added to charges against the group's politics being racist, homophobic, and misogynistic. Amid controversy, Chuck D was given an ultimatum by Schocklee and Stepheny to dismiss Griff from the group or the production deal would fall through. He fired Griff in June, but he later rejoined and has since denied holding anti-Semitic views and apologized for the remarks. Several people who had worked with Public Enemy expressed concern about Chuck D's leadership abilities and role as a social spokesman. Def Jam director of publicity Bill Adler later said that the controversy "partly … fueled the writing of [the album]".
To follow-up It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the group pursued a different direction, content-wise. According to Chuck D, they sought to make a more thematically focused work and to condense Dr. Frances Cress Welsing's theory of "Color Confrontation and Racism (White Supremacy)" into an album-length recording, "telling people, well, color's an issue created and concocted to take advantage of people of various characteristics with the benefit of a few". He recalled their concept for the album in an interview for Billboard, "We wanted really to go with a deep, complex album … more conducive to the high and lows of great stage-performance".
Chuck D also cited in their creative vision the commercial circumstances for hip hop at the time, having quickly transitioned from a singles to an album medium in the music industry during the 1980s. In an interview for Westword, he later said, "We understood the magnitude of what an album was, so we set out to make something that not only epitomized the standard of an album, but would stand the test of time by being diverse with sounds and textures, and also being able to home in on the aspect of peaks and valleys". On their musical direction, Chuck D said, "We wanted to create a new sound out of the assemblage of sounds that made us have our own identity … When we made It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back we were shooting to make What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye and when we made Fear of a Black Planet I was shooting for Sgt. Pepper's."
The album's artwork followed Chuck D's concept of two planets, the "Black" planet and Earth, eclipsing. The group enlisted B.E. Johnson, a NASA illustrator, to create the cover. Cey Adams, creative director for Def Jam at the time, later said of the creative decision for the artwork, "It was so interesting to me that a black hip-hop act did an illustration for their album cover. At that time black hip-hop artists, for the most part, had photos of themselves on their covers. But this was the first time someone took a chance to do something in the rock'n'roll vein".
Recording sessions for the album took place during June to October 1989 at Greene St. Recording in New York City, The Music Palace in West Hempstead, and Spectrum City Studios in Long Island. It was produced entirely by The Bomb Squad, which included Chuck D, Eric "Vietnam" Sadler, and brothers Hank and Keith Shocklee. The album's recording marked the first time that Keith Shocklee was credited as a member of the team; he played a significant role in composing the main tracks and music for the album. Hank Shocklee was their director and was referred to by Chuck D as "the Phil Spector of hip-hop". For Fear of a Black Planet, they sought to expand on the dense, sample-layered "wall of noise" sound of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.
Having worked out an elaborate method that involved the members assembling different types of sounds in the studio, the Bomb Squad reconfigured and recontextualized musical fragments from various sources into their own compositions. Each member brought a different philosophy to making music, arranging sounds, and working with technology, with material appropriated from singles, LP albums, and radio, among other sources. Hank Shocklee viewed the group as "a production assembly line where each person had their own particular specialty." According to him, he came "from a DJ's perspective. Eric [Sadler] is coming from a musician’s perspective. So together, you know, we started working out different ideas." Sadler advocated a more traditional, structured approach to songwriting, while Shocklee's approach was less conventional. As the group's main lyricist, Chuck D wanted to recontextualize the sampled material into his lyrics and create a theme for the album.
For the track "Burn Hollywood Burn", Chuck D dealt with clearance issues from different record labels in order to collaborate with rappers Big Daddy Kane and Ice Cube, who had been pursuing the Bomb Squad to produce his debut album. The recording marked one of the first times in which MCs from different rap crews collaborated, and it led to the Bomb Squad working with Ice Cube on his 1990 debut album AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted.
The Bomb Squad listened to various music records and used devices such as the E-mu SP-1200 drum machine and sampler, the Akai S900 sampler, and a Macintosh computer to arrange samples and sequence tracks. The sessions, which were recorded by Shocklee for future reference, had the group playing beats and records, while collecting potential sample material. Chuck D has said that "95 percent of the time it sounded like mess. But there was 5 percent of magic that would happen." Shocklee compared their production to that of filmmaking, "with different lighting effects, or film speeds, or whatever", while Chuck D found their intention to "blend sound" similar to a visual artist "tak[ing] yellow and blue and come up with green". He said of their approach in a 1990 interview for Keyboard Magazine, "We approach every record like it was a painting. Sometimes, on the sound sheet, we have to have a separate sheet just to list the samples for each track. We used about 150, maybe 200 samples on Fear of a Black Planet."
Instead of selecting from the numerous, basic backing tracks that Sadler had collected before the sessions, Chuck D wanted for the production team to improvise beats in the studio, leading to much of the album's music being composed on the spot. Chuck D has said that he spent numerous hours listening to various tapes, music records, and other audio sources in search of samples for the album. Hank Shocklee said of their search for samples to use, "When you’re talking about the kind of sampling that Public Enemy did, we had to comb through thousands of records to come up with maybe five good pieces. And as we started putting together those pieces, the sound got a lot more dense."
In order to synchronize the samples, the Bomb Squad used SMPTE timecodes and arranged and overdubbed particular bits of backing tracks, which had been inspected by the members for snare, bass, and hi-hat sounds. Chuck D said of their production and sampling, "Our music is all about samples in the right area, layers that pile on each other. We put loops on top of loops on top of loops, but then in the mix we cut things away". Music journalist Jeff Chang said of their methodology, "They’re figuring out how to jam with the samples and to create these layers of sound. I don't think it’s been matched since then." After the tracks were completed, sequencing began of the seemingly discontinuous album for The Bomb Squad, amid internal disputes among its members. The final mixing took place at Greene St. Recording and lasted into February 1990. Sadler later reflected on the album's post-production, saying "A lot of people were like, 'Wow, it's a brilliant album'. But it really shoulda been much better. If we had more time and we didn't have to deal with the situation of nobody talking".
The album was conceived during the golden age of hip hop, a period roughly between 1987 and 1992 when artists took advantage of newly emerging sampling technologies before they were noticed by labels and lawyers. Accordingly, Public Enemy were not compelled to obtain sample clearance for the album. This preceded the legal limits and clearance costs later placed on sampling, which effectively limited hip hop production and the complexity of its musical arrangements. In an interview with Stay Free!, Chuck D said of their use of sampling, "Public Enemy's music was affected more than anybody's because we were taking thousands of sounds. If you separated the sounds, they wouldn't have been anything--they were unrecognizable. The sounds were all collaged together to make a sonic wall". An analysis by law professors Peter DiCola and Kembrew McLeod estimated that under the sample clearance system that had emerged in the music industry since the album's release, Public Enemy were to lose at least five dollars per copy if they were to clear the album's samples at 2010 rates; McLeod commented, "a loss of five million dollars on a platinum record".
Music and style
The album's music features assemblage compositions that draw on numerous aural sources. The production's musique concrète-influenced approach reflects the political and confrontational tones of the group's lyrics, with sound collages that feature varying rhythms, aliased or scratchy samples, media sound bites, and eccentric music loops. Recordings sampled for Fear of a Black Planet include those from funk, soul, rock, and hip hop genres. Elements such as choruses, guitar sounds, or vocals from sampled recordings are reappropriated as riffs in songs on the album, while sampled dialogue from speeches are incorporated to support Chuck D's arguments and commentary on certain songs. The Bomb Squad's Hank Shocklee likened their produced sounds surrounding Chuck D's rhythmic, exhortative baritone voice to putting "the voice of God in a storm".
The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Folklore (2006) writes that Fear of a Black Planet introduced a production style that "borrow[ed] elements from jazz, especially that of John Coltrane, to craft a soundscape that was more challenging than that of their previous two albums, but still complemented the complex social commentary". Journalist Kembrew McLeod calls the album's music "both agitprop and pop, mixing politics with the live-wire thrill of the popular music experience", adding that the Bomb Squad "took sampling to the level of high art while keeping intact hip-hop's populist heart. They would graft together dozens of fragmentary samples to create a single song collage." Music writer Simon Reynolds calls the album "a work of unprecedented density for hip hop, its claustrophobic, backs-against-the-wall feel harking back to Sly Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On or even Miles Davis' On the Corner".
Some tracks use elements from Public Enemy's previous material, which Pete Watrous of The New York Times interprets as "reminding listeners that the group itself is not only part of a tradition, but has a history of its own." Watrous describes the music as "the sound of urban alienation, where silence doesn't exist and sensory stimulation is oppressive and predatory", and writes that its dense textures "envelop Chuck D's voice and make his rapping sound as if it is under duress, as if he were fighting against a background intent on taking him over. […] Layer after layer of sounds are placed on top of each other until the music becomes nearly tactile". Chuck D calls Fear of a Black Planet "completely an album of found sounds … probably the most elaborate smorgasbord of sound that we did." He said of the layering, "When we put together our music, we try to put together layers that complement each other, and then the voice tries to complement that, and the theme tries to complement that, and then the song itself tries to complement the album as a whole, fitting into the overall context." In his essay on hip hop aesthetics, Richard Schur interprets such layering as a motif in hip hop and as "the process by which … new meanings are created and communicated, primarily to an equally knowledgeable audience", concluding that "Public Enemy probably took the ideal of layering to its farthest point".
Fear of a Black Planet contains themes of organization and empowerment within the African-American community, and of confrontation. Chuck D's critical lyrics on the album, interspersed with the surrealism of Flavor Flav, also concern contemporary black life, the state of race relations, and criticisms of institutional racism, White supremacy, and the power elite. Music critic Greg Sandow calls Chuck D's language "strong and elusive, often fragmentary" and "embedded [with] critical, sometimes brutal thoughts". Although he views that "some people might disagree with some of these ideas", Sandow writes that "it's hard to dispute the lyrics' assertion that many Whites are afraid of blacks", adding that the album "touches on" the idea of "an age when whites understand that they're a minority in the world". Music author Robert Hilburn writes that songs on the album "decr[y] what Chuck D. sees as the consequences of white, European cultural domination in the United States and throughout much of the world". Sputnikmusic's Nick Butler notes "two recurring themes – inter-racial relationships … and the racism inherent in the American media", adding that Public Enemy's "anger is more focused and streamlined" than on their previous work.
In his book Somebody Scream!: Rap Music's Rise to Prominence in the Aftershock of Black Power, Marcus Reeves states that the album "was as much a musical assault on America's racism as it was a call to blacks to effectively react to it". According to music writer Greg Kot, the album is "hardly a black power manifesto for world domination, but a statement about racial paranoia. Though he spares virtually no one with his withering raps, Public Enemy's Chuck D is harshest of all on his fellow blacks, expounding on everything from history to fashion: Use your brain instead of a gun. Drugs are death. Know your past so you won't screw up the future. Gold chains worn around the neck demean the brotherhood in South Africa." Kot writes of Chuck D's perspective and the theme of fear, "It's fear that divides us, he says; understand me better and you won't run. Fear of a Black Planet is about achieving that understanding, but on Public Enemy's terms. In presenting their view of life from an Afro-centric, as opposed to Euro-centric, perspective, P.E. challenges listeners to step into their world."
The opening track, "Contract on the World Love Jam", is a sound collage made up of samples, scratch cuts, and snippets recorded by Chuck D from radio stations and sound bites of interviews and commercials. The tension-building track introduces the album's dense, sample-based production. According to Chuck D, the song features "about forty-five to fifty [sampled] voices" that interweave as part of an assertive sonic collage and underscore the album’s themes. "Incident at 66.6 FM", another collage that segues into "Welcome to the Terrordome", contains snippets from a radio call-in show interview of Chuck D and alludes to the media persecution perceived by Public Enemy. "Burn Hollywood Burn" assails the use of black stereotypes in movies, and "Who Stole the Soul?" condemns the record industry's exploitation of black recording artists and calls for reparations. "Revolutionary Generation" celebrates the strength and endurance of black women with lyrics related to black feminism, an unfamiliar topic in hip hop. It also addresses sexism within the black community and misogyny in hip hop culture.
The title track discusses racial classification and the root of White fear of African Americans, particularly racist concerns by some Whites over the effect of miscegenation. In the song, Chuck D argues that they should not worry as the original man was black and "white comes from black / No need to be confused". The song features a vocal sample of comedian and activist Dick Gregory: "Black man, black woman, black child / white man, black woman, black child?". "Pollywanacraka" also concerns interracial relations, including Blacks who leave their communities to marry wealthy Whites, and societal views of the matter: "This system had no wisdom / The devil split us in pairs / and taught us white is good, black is bad / and black and white is still too bad". Music writer Robert Christgau comments on Chuck D's performance and style on the track, "people keep bringing in Barry White or Isaac Hayes, but he's playing the pedagogue, not the love man, maybe some Reverend Ike figure". "Meet the G That Killed Me" features homophobic etiology and condemns homosexuality: "Man to man / I don't know if they can / From what I know / The parts don't fit". Written by hypeman Flavor Flav and Bomb Squad-producers Keith Shocklee and Eric "Vietnam" Sadler, "911 Is a Joke" features Flav as the main vocalist and criticizes the inadequacy of 9-1-1, the emergency telephone number used in the United States, and the lack of police response to emergency calls in predominantly African-American neighborhoods.
Songs such as "Fight the Power", "Power to the People", and "Brothers Gonna Work It Out" propose a response for African Americans to the issues criticized throughout the album. "Power to the People" has a tempo of approximately 125 beats per minute and elements of Miami bass, electro-boogie, and fast-paced Roland TR-808. Addressing their plight at the turn of the 1990s, "Brothers Gonna Work It Out" features cacophonic sound textures and a theme of unity among African Americans, with Chuck D preaching "Brothers that try to work it out / They get mad, revolt, revise, realize / They're superbad / Small chance a smart brother's gonna be a victim of his own circumstance". Richard Harrington of The Washington Post writes that songs such as "War at 33⅓" and "Fight the Power" "may sound like a call to ohms and arms, but they are really a call to action ('turn us loose and we shall overcome'), a message to conscience and a plea for unity ('move as team, never move alone,' both cautionary advice and game plan)". "War at 33⅓" has a theme of resistance and a 128 bpm-tempo, cited by Chuck D as "the fastest thing I've ever rapped to, rapping right on top of the beat".
The lead single "Fight the Power" features revolutionary rhetoric by Chuck D and was used by director Spike Lee as a leitmotif in his acclaimed 1989 film Do the Right Thing, a film about racial tension in a Brooklyn neighborhood. Lee approached the group in 1988 after the release of It Takes a Nation with the proposition of making a song for his movie. Chuck D wrote most of the song trying to adapt The Isley Brothers' "Fight the Power" to a modernist perspective. The song's third verse contains disparaging lyrics about popular American icons Elvis Presley and John Wayne, as Chuck D rhymes "Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant shit to me' / Straight up, racist the sucker was / Simple and plain", with Flavor Flav following, "Muthafuck him and John Wayne!". The lyrics were shocking and offensive to many listeners upon the single's release. Chuck D's lyrics express the identification of Presley with racism—either personally or symbolically—and the largely held notion among Blacks that Presley, whose musical and visual performances owed much to African-American sources, unfairly achieved the cultural acknowledgment and commercial success largely denied his black peers in rock and roll. The line regarding John Wayne refers to his controversial personal views, including racist remarks made in his 1971 interview for Playboy. "Fight the Power" has since become the group's best-known song and has been named one of the best songs of all time by numerous publications.
The controversial single "Welcome to the Terrordome" references the murder of Yusef Hawkins and the 1989 riots in Virginia Beach, and it has Chuck D criticizing Jewish leaders who protested Public Enemy in response to Professor Griff's anti-Semitic remarks. He addresses the controversy as being in the center of political turmoil, with criticisms of the media and references to the Crucifixion of Jesus: "Crucifixion ain't no fiction / So called chosen frozen / Apology made to who ever pleases / Still they got me like Jesus". He is also critical of Blacks and those who "blame somebody else when you destroy yourself": "Every brother ain't a brother / 'cause a Black hand squeezed on Malcolm X the man / the shootin of Huey Newton / from the hand of Nig who pulled the trigger". His lyricism features dizzying raps and internal rhyme: "Lazer, anastasia, maze ya / Ways to blaze your brain and train ya […] Sad to say I got sold down the river / Still some quiver when I deliver / Never to say I never knew or had a clue / Word was heard, plus hard on the boulevard / Lies, scandalizin', basin' / Traits of hate who's celebratin' wit Satan?". Its dense production incorporates numerous samples, including several James Brown tracks and the guitar line from The Temptations' "Psychedelic Shack". Several other samples are heard amid Chuck D's rapping, such as the line "come on, you can get it-get it-get it" from Instant Funk's "I Got My Mind Made Up (You Can Get It Girl)". Allmusic's John Bush cites the track as "the production peak of the Bomb Squad and one of Chuck D.'s best rapping performances ever … [N]one of their tracks were more musically incendiary".
The third single "911 Is a Joke" features Flavor Flav as the lead MC. He was given the idea by Chuck D to write the song. As Flav recalled, "I went and got high and wrote the record. I went and got ripped, I went and got out of my mind, and I started speaking all kinds of crazy shit 'cos usually back in the days when I used to smoke, it used to broaden my ideas and everything". Its humorous and satirical subject matter is reflected in its music video, which featured a severely injured Flav being mistreated by a remiss, overdue ambulance staff. Another Flavor Flav-solo track, fifth single "Can't Do Nuttin' for Ya Man", has lyrics advocating African-American self-reliance and denouncing welfare dependence. It also reflects on Flav's experiences with acquaintances from poor neighborhoods. He said of his inspiration for the song, "I was in my Corvette riding from Long Island going to The Bronx. I was slipping. I was roasting. I mean I was smoked-out crazy. And everybody kept asking me for stuff and yet nobody wanted to give me stuff. So then if anybody ever asked me for something I would be like, 'Yo, I can't do nothing for ya man.' Next thing you know I started to vibe on it: 'I can't do nothing for ya man,' um ahh um um ahh. So I went and told that to Chuck. Chuck was like, 'Record that shit man'". Writing of both tracks, music critic Tom Moon comments that Flav "affects a tone of gimme-a-break sarcasm that is crucial to both tracks, and is welcome respite from Chuck D.'s assault". "Can't Do Nuttin' for Ya Man" was featured in the 1990 comedy film House Party.
Originally intended for an October 1989 release date, Fear of a Black Planet was released on April 10, 1990 by Def Jam Recordings and Columbia Records. Although It Takes a Nation garnered Public Enemy more exposure with black audiences and music journalists, urban radio outlets had mostly rejected Def Jam's requests to include the group's singles in their regular rotation. This incited Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons to attempt grassroots promotional tactics from his earlier years of promoting hip hop shows. In promoting Fear of a Black Planet, he recruited young street crews to put up posters, billboards, and stickers on public surfaces, while Simmons himself met with nightclub DJs and college radio program directors to persuade them to add albums tracks such as "Fight the Power", "911 is a Joke", and "Welcome to the Terrordome" to their playlists.
The album debuted at number 40 on the US Billboard Top Pop Albums chart, with first-week sales of one million copies in the United States. It also charted for 10 weeks and reached number four in the United Kingdom, and it charted for 28 weeks and reached number 15 in Canada. In its second week in the US, the album moved up the Billboard Top Pop Albums to number 19. By June 1990, it had reached number 16 on the chart and sold over one million copies in the US. It ultimately peaked at number 10 and spent 27 weeks on the Billboard Top Pop Albums. On June 7, 1990, the album was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), for shipments of at least one million copies in the US. It reached sales of 1.5 million copies in July 1990. Since 1991, when the tracking system Nielsen SoundScan began tracking domestic sales data, Fear of a Black Planet has sold 561,000 additional copies as of 2010.
The controversy surrounding the group and their exposure through the singles "Fight the Power" and "Welcome to the Terrordome" helped Fear of a Black Planet exceed the sales of their previous two albums, Yo! Bum Rush the Show and It Takes a Nation of Million to Hold Us Back at the time, 500,000 and 1.1 million copies, respectively. The latter single's lyrics were initially viewed by religious groups and the media as anti-semitic upon its release. The album contributed to hip hop's commercial breakthrough at the beginning of the 1990s, despite its limited radio airplay. Its success made Public Enemy the top-selling act, both domestically and internationally, for Def Jam Recordings at the time. Ruben Rodriguez, Columbia's senior vice president at the time, said in one of the label's press releases, "What's happening with Public Enemy is unbelievable. The album is selling across the board to all demographics and nationalities". In a December 1990 article, Chicago Sun-Times writer Michael Corcoran discussed Public Enemy's commercial success with the album and remarked that "more than half of the 2 million fans who bought [Fear of a Black Planet] are white".
Upon its release, Fear of a Black Planet received rave reviews from music critics. Rolling Stone's Alan Light praised Public Enemy's "determination and realism", stated, "The careening rage of Nation of Millions hasn't been diluted – it's been given focus and substance". Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times, who asserted prior to its release that it was "bound to be one of the most dissected pop collections in years", wrote that the album "rivals the force and the power of It Takes a Nation" and stated, "The secret in maintaining commercial and artistic credibility in the fast-changing rap world is keeping the music fresh, and Public Enemy recognizes that challenge in Fear of a Black Planet." Greg Sandow of Entertainment Weekly called it "a formidable piece of work, and the one pop album released so far this year that no one interested in the current state of American culture can afford to ignore." He said of the album's music, "There's nothing in pop music quite like it. It sounds like a partly African, partly postmodern collage, stitched together on tumultuous urban streets."
USA Today's Edna Gundersen called the album "a masterpiece of innovation [and] challenging music" and stated, "PE's pro-black agenda grows more credible and compelling". Richard Harrington of The Washington Post wrote that its "sonic assault is as uniform as the angry energy" and stated, "while raising political consciousness, sparking self-awareness and challenging the very foundations of institutional racism must be both daunting and thankless, … the group shows it's willing to work on the edge, without a safety net. This album is less a revolutionary gesture than a challenge. How it's met depends on how it's understood." Tom Moon of The Philadelphia Inquirer observed "some of the genre's most sophisticated sound designs and unconventionally agile rapping" on the album and called it "a major piece of work, the first hard evidence of rap's maturity and a measure of its continuing relevance". He commended Public Enemy for "using elaborate, sometimes radical imagery" and stated, "At a time when most pop music equals fast, thoughtless, responsibility-free escape, Fear preaches, educates, mobilizes and energizes. As its political messages have grown more refined, Public Enemy's insights have grown correspondingly sharper".
Although he found the album's "brutal pace" to "wear down eventually", Robert Christgau of The Village Voice felt that the group's lyrics are "no more suspect ideologically than they've ever been" and stated, "Shtick their rebel music may be, but this is show business, and they still think harder than anybody else working their beat." Peter Watrous of The New York Times called it "an essential pop album" and stated, "On their own, the lyrics seen [sic] functional. Taken with the music, they bloom with meaning." Simon Reynolds of Melody Maker remarked that the content epitomizes the group's significance at the time: "Public Enemy are important … because of the angry questions that seethe in their music, in the very fabric of their sound; the bewilderment and rage that, in this case, have made for one hell of strong, scary album". Chicago Tribune critic Greg Kot felt that with the album, "Public Enemy affirms that it is not just a great rap group, but one of the best rock bands on the planet-black or otherwise".
Legacy and influence
Impact on popular music
Since its initial reception, Fear of a Black Planet has been recognized by music writers as one of the greatest and most important hip hop albums of all time, as well as a culturally significant work. In a 1991 interview for The Village Voice, Chuck D said of the album's standing in Public Enemy's catalogue, "Fear of a Black Planet was the most successful album we had—not because of all the hype and hysteria. It was a world record. Because of all the different feels and the different textures and the flow it had". He has said of the album in retrospect, "If It Takes a Nation was our 'nation' record, Fear of a Black Planet was our 'world' record". The album's success with critics and consumers has been viewed as highly contributory to hip hop's mainstream emergence in 1990, dubbed by Billboard editor Paul Grein as "the year that rap exploded". In a July 1990 article, Greg Kot compared Public Enemy's influence with the album on hip hop to the impact of Bob Dylan, George Clinton, and Bob Marley on each of their respective genres and eras, having "given it legitimacy and authority far beyond its core following". Writing of the group's cultural significance with Fear of a Black Planet at the time, Peter Watrous of The New York Times commented that Public Enemy "has jerked rap music into an active political sphere" and found the album significance to both hip hop and popular music, stating:
The music outdistances other political pop with both its urgency and its visionary approach to the dance floor. And the group has made pop music that is vital in the contemporary debate about race in American culture for the first time since the 1960s, when Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, Gil Scott-Heron, the Last Poets and others charged their music with politics. Unthinkable without the context of racial strife, Public Enemy is a voice for the traditionally voiceless black lower-middle class. What is extraordinary is how the group has managed to turn the specifics of their social position, as both blacks and entertainers, into music. By including facts and figures from their lives in their pieces, they've folded the real into their storytelling.
With respect to hip hop music, the album was important in the field of sampling, as copyright laywers took notice of The Bomb Squad's production and such a sample-heavy work would not be cost effective in the future. Chuck D later said of its sampling issues, "We got sued for everything. We knew that the door on sampling was gonna close". Subsequent use of sampled material, particularly the use of whole songs on top of a beat, by other hip hop artists prompted stricter sampling laws. Fear of a Black Planet was the group's commercial apex, with sales dropping off for their subsequent albums.
Fear of a Black Planet also epitomized the resurgence in black consciousness among African-American youths at the turn of the 1990s, amid a turbulent social and political zeitgeist with the Bush administration and South African apartheid. With its increasing popularity evident in Public Enemy's work, black consciousness became the prevailing subject matter of many hip hop acts, exemplified by X-Clan's cultural nationalism on their debut album To the East, Blackwards, the revolutionary, Black Panther-minded The Devil Made Me Do It by Paris, and the Five Percenter religious nationalism of Poor Righteous Teachers' debut Holy Intellect.
In a 1990 article for The Village Voice, Robert Christgau wrote that in addition to being "the most innovative popular musicians in America if not the world, they're the most politically ambitious. Not even in the heyday of [the] Clash has any group come so close to the elusive and perhaps ridiculous '60s rock ideal of raising political consciousness with music." Of their effect on young listeners of hip hop music, he wrote, "they have actually instigated a species of leftish Afrocentrism among kids who three years ago thought gold chains were dope." Music author Marcus Reeves wrote of the album's thematic impact, "For the post-black power generation, black consciousness was now in full effect with many a hip-hop youth, as leather African medallions made popular by rappers like P.E. replaced thick gold chains as the ultimate fashion statement … P.E.'s million seller sat at the front of a full-blown black pride resurgence within rap".
However, this resurgence soon became commodified as a trend, while actual awareness within the African-American community was limited and ineffectual to issues such as drug dealing and the prevalence of liquor stores in such neighborhoods. Public Enemy responded to this and other deep-rooted problems of Black America on their following album, Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black (1991), which featured more critical assessments of African-Americans, denouncing Black drug dealers who donned Afrocentric merchandise, hip hop artists who promoted malt liquor, Black radio stations for lacking significant airplay to hip hop, and even the Africans at the onset of the Atlantic slave trade for lacking unity.
|Encyclopedia of Popular Music|||
|The Rolling Stone Album Guide|||
Critic Alex Ross cites Fear of a Black Planet as one of "the most densely packed sonic assemblages in musical history". On the significance of its hip hop production, journalist Kembrew McLeod writes that "Even though the group was working with equipment that was rudimentary by today’s standards, they made the most of the existing technologies, often inventing techniques and workarounds that electronics manufacturers never imagined." In a retrospective review of the album, Allmusic editor Stephen Thomas Erlewine said that "as a piece of music, this is the best hip-hop has ever had to offer", calling it "a remarkable piece of modern art, a record that ushered in the '90s in a hail of multi-culturalism and kaleidoscopic confusion". Q wrote in a 1995 review upon the album's reissue, "[it] achieved the near impossible by being every bit as good as its predecessor. The music was Public Enemy's now-familiar scream but was augmented with a percussive tinge that reflected the ever greater Afrocentricity". In The Rolling Stone Album Guide (2004), Peter Relic found the album "more varied stylistically and more downtempo … but its greatest tracks contain just as much lightning" as the group's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.
NME stated in a 1995 issue, "the content remained as astonishingly tough and intelligent as before". Sputnikmusic staff writer Nick Butler commented on its musical significance as a hip hop work, stating, "Hip-hop has a habit of moving at such a pace that records date in a matter of years, but Fear Of A Black Planet is utterly timeless. Musically, it's funky, avant-garde, dense, and original … Lyrically, it's inspired, intelligent, emotive, and angry as hell … Essential, in every sense". Steve Juon of RapReviews commented that Fear of a Black Planet "rocks like no other album did before it and very few have since. It's inspiring to hear hip-hop done so masterfully, with every cylinder and piston firing in a beautiful symphonious harmony that keeps the audible engine running start to finish with each listen […] Even though time passes and we all get older, 'Fear of a Black Planet' remains powerfully timeless". Piero Scaruffi dubs it both the group's and hip-hop's "masterpiece".
Fear of a Black Planet appeared in the top-10 of several critics' year-end album lists of 1990. It was voted the third best album in The Village Voice's 1990 Pazz & Jop critics' poll, and the publication's Robert Christgau ranked it number 10 on his own "Dean's list". The Press-Telegram named it the fifth best album of the year. The Boston Globe ranked it number two and stated "In a banner year for hardcore rap, these bitter maximalists still dropped the big one, refracting the sound of urban chaos through the dense prism of production team The Bomb Squad". Pittsburgh Press writer Peter B. King ranked it third on his list and noted its "dense collage of recycled sounds, provocative lyrics and Chuck D's peerless rapping". Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune included it on his list of the year's 10 best rock musical recordings and wrote that it "explodes with information, political pronouncements, poetry and passion – it's as dissonant and divisive as the time we live in".
USA Today ranked the album number three on its year-end list and commended its "stinging rapidfire essays and sonic booms". Chicago Sun-Times writer Michael Corcoran included it on his top albums list and cited Public Enemy as "currently the best rockn roll band in the world", stating "This fierce LP is Ben Gay for white guilt as Chuck D assails the oppression of blacks in no uncertain terms. Besides the angry yet often illuminating messages, this record just plain sounds great". The State named it one of the year's best albums and hailed it as "possibly the boldest and most important rap record ever made. A sonic tour de force". Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times ranked the album number five on his year-end list, noting that it "dissects aspects of the black experience with an energy and vision that illustrates why rap continues to be the most creative genre in pop".
Fear of a Black Planet was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group, presented at the 33rd Grammy Awards in 1991. In 1997, The Guardian ranked it number 50 in their 100 Best Albums Ever list, which was voted on by a panel of various artists, critics, and DJs. In 1998, it was selected as one of The Source's 100 Best Rap Albums. The album was ranked number 21 in Spin's "100 Greatest Albums, 1985–2005" publication. Pitchfork Media named it the 17th-best album of the 1990s. It was included in Rolling Stone's list of the Essential Recording of the '90s. In 2003, the album was ranked number 300 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. In 2004, it was one of 50 recordings chosen by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry, which selects recordings annually that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". According to a press release for the registry, "'Fear of a Black Planet' brought hip-hop respect from critics, millions of new fans and passionate debate over its political content. The album signaled the coupling of a strongly political message with hip-hop music".
|1||"Contract on the World Love Jam"||Keith Shocklee, Eric Sadler, Carl Ridenhour||
|2||"Brothers Gonna Work It Out"||Shocklee, Sadler, Ridenhour||
|3||"911 Is a Joke"||William Drayton, Shocklee, Sadler||
|4||"Incident at 66.6 FM"||Shocklee, Sadler, Ridenhour||
|5||"Welcome to the Terrordome"||Shocklee, Sadler, Ridenhour||
|6||"Meet the G That Killed Me"||Shocklee, Sadler, Ridenhour||——||0:44|
|7||"Pollywanacraka"||Shocklee, Sadler, Ridenhour||
|8||"Anti-Nigger Machine"||Shocklee, Sadler, Ridenhour||3:17|
|9||"Burn Hollywood Burn" (featuring Ice Cube & Big Daddy Kane)||O'Shea Jackson, Antonio Hardy, Shocklee, Sadler, Ridenhour||
|10||"Power to the People"||Shocklee, Sadler, Ridenhour||3:50|
|11||"Who Stole the Soul?"||Shocklee, Sadler, Ridenhour||
|12||"Fear of a Black Planet"||Shocklee, Sadler, Ridenhour||3:45|
|13||"Revolutionary Generation"||Shocklee, Sadler, Ridenhour||
|14||"Can't Do Nuttin' for Ya Man"||Shocklee, Sadler, Ridenhour||2:46|
|15||"Reggie Jax"||Shocklee, Sadler, Ridenhour||——||1:35|
|16||"Leave This Off Your Fuckin Charts"||Norman Rogers||2:31|
|17||"B Side Wins Again"||Shocklee, Sadler, Ridenhour||3:45|
|18||"War at 33⅓"||Shocklee, Sadler, Ridenhour||——||2:07|
|19||"Final Count of the Collision Between Us and the Damned"||Shocklee, Sadler, Ridenhour||——||0:48|
|20||"Fight the Power"||Shocklee, Sadler, Ridenhour||
Credits for Fear of a Black Planet adapted from liner notes.
|Australian Albums Chart||4|
|Canadian Albums Chart||15|
|Dutch Albums Chart||17|
|New Zealand Albums Chart||4|
|Swedish Albums Chart||24|
|Swiss Albums Chart||19|
|UK Albums Chart||4|
|US Billboard Top Pop Albums||10|
|US Billboard Top Black Albums||3|
|1989||"Fight the Power"||Netherlands (Nationale Hitparade)||24|
|UK Singles (Gallup)||29|
|US Hot Black Singles* (Billboard)||20|
|US Hot Rap Singles (Billboard)||1|
|1990||"Welcome to the Terrordome"||Netherlands (Nationale Hitparade)||21|
|New Zealand (RIANZ)||12|
|UK Singles (Gallup)||18|
|US Hot Dance Music/Club Play (Billboard)||49|
|US Hot R&B Singles (Billboard)||15|
|US Hot Rap Singles (Billboard)||3|
|"911 Is a Joke"||Netherlands (Nationale Hitparade)||71|
|New Zealand (RIANZ)||22|
|Switzerland (Schweizer Hitparade)||25|
|UK Singles (Gallup)||41|
|US Billboard Hot 100 Singles Sales||34|
|US Hot Dance Music/Maxi-Singles Sales (Billboard)||26|
|US Hot R&B Singles (Billboard)||15|
|US Hot Rap Singles (Billboard)||1|
|"Brothers Gonna Work It Out"||New Zealand (RIANZ)||30|
|UK Singles (Gallup)||46|
|US Hot Dance Music/Club Play (Billboard)||31|
|US Hot R&B Singles (Billboard)||12|
|US Hot Rap Singles (Billboard)||22|
|"Can't Do Nuttin' for Ya Man"||New Zealand (RIANZ)||15|
|UK Singles (Gallup)||53|
|1991||US Hot Rap Singles (Billboard)||11|
|* Prior to 1990, when Billboard returned to the R&B designation, the chart was called the Hot Black Singles.|
|Canada (Music Canada)||Gold||50,000^|
|United Kingdom (BPI)||Gold||100,000^|
|United States (RIAA)||Platinum||1,000,000^|
*sales figures based on certification alone
- The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time
- Assemblage (composition)
- East Coast hip hop
- Hip hop production
- Political hip hop
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