In the Crack Era, hyperbolic news segments like 48 Hours on Crack Street ruled the scene. Few dissenting voices were able to marshal necessary counternarratives in the face of panic and political opportunism. One unexpected, but historically rooted set of voices smashed through the hushed tones of fear and alarm: the voice of politically conscious rap. Namely, Public Enemy, the self-dubbed “prophets of rage.” PE’s 1988 offering, Night of the Living Baseheads is both a critique of the crack trade, and media coverage of crack’s ascendance. In short, Night of the Living Baseheads is a clear counternarrative to histrionic anti-crack news specials like 48 Hours on Crack Street which blitzed nightly news throughout 1986 and 1988—both conveniently during election cycles.
The track begins with a grainy recording of Malcolm X: “Have you forgotten that once we were brought here, we were robbed of our name, robbed of our language. We lost our religion, our culture, our god… and many of us, by the way we act, we even lost our minds.” At first glance, this might be PE joining the chorus line of African American voices comparing the scourge of crack to the crushing, systematic exploitation of bondage. However, a closer look at their accompanying music video makes it more clear who exactly lost their minds in the Crack Era, television news.
Welcome to PETV, the “Black CNN” according to Chuck D. Less a politician, Chuck D was by his own admission a “dispatcher of information.” In the words of scholar Tricia Rose, Public Enemy’s work “keeps poor folks alert” from being misled or placated by “media stories and official ‘truths.’” At a broader level rap music by the late 1980s had become “Black American TV,” a public and highly accessible place where black meanings and perspectives could be shared by people with lived experience rather than fetishized by commentators on nightly news. If rap had truly become “Black American TV,” Public Enemy positioned itself as its most incendiary channel.
Poor people learn from experience how and when they can express their discontent. Under slavery, and later, through the blues, poor folks have found ways to present their perspectives through the guise of chorus and verse. This transcript of resistance—what James Scott calls the “hidden transcript”—is a clear and biting counternarrative to official white “truths.” It critiques and resists the dominant narrative. Rap, much like work songs and the blues, had become the “contemporary stage for the theater of the powerless” by the Crack Era. A powerful voice for the powerless, Public Enemy explicitly intended to inform the black masses just as preceding leaders of Black Nationalism before them had sought to. Indeed, the group had their own “Minister of Information” in Professor Griff. Per Cuck D, their songs “were like headline news from a black point of view.” When presenting the world from an entirely different vantage point, Chuck D tapped into an important reality: “you’re able to come up with all kinds of things that are not presented in today’s media…things that are not usually discussed, or at least not from that perspective.”
On their 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Public Enemy positioned themselves as heirs to James Brown’s loud, Black and proud tradition by sampling Brown’s 1971 Revolution of the Mind album cover on their own album cover. On the back, the crew glared upward, dressed in fatigues, behind bars, their feet soiling an American flag on the prison floor. Flavor Flav’s clock read somewhere around midnight. Harry Allen of the City Sun wrote of their work, “this is the album that ends the 80s.” Indeed, 1988 marked an interesting historical moment. The Nation of Islam reemerged as a national force, the anti-Apartheid movement reached new heights, Black Nationalism ascended once again, and Jesse Jackson was running for President.
The album’s sound is a taste of Crack Era New York. Music writer Mark Drery noted the “collage of sputtering Uzis, waling sirens, fragments of radio and TV commentary… and key phrases lifted from rousing speeches by famous black leaders.” The music, according to Drery, was “haunted by the ghosts” of “Michael Stewart, beaten to death by New York City Transit Police, Michael Griffith chased into the headlights of an oncoming car in Howard Beach, and Yusef Hawkins shot in Bensonhurst.” The album also provides reference to several icons of black resistance who were considered political prisoners, including Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver. On the track “Rebel Without a Pause” Chuck D calls himself a “supporter of Chesimard.” A reference, of course, to Assata Shakur—formerly Joanne Chesimard.
Albeit through a different mode, Public Enemy continued the tradition of Malcolm X and others by talking the Black liberation struggle in personal, honest tones. Offering alternative explanations for key social events and issues, the group weighed in on scores of controversies. On “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” Chuck provides a radicalized account of the state penitentiary which operates like a “form of slavery.” On “Prophets of Rage,” Chuck takes Margaret Thatcher to task for her unwillingness to endorse the release of Nelson Mandela. In “Louder Than a Bomb” and “Party for Your Right to Fight,” the references to phone taps, J. Edgar Hoover’s racism, and federal surveillance speak to the legacy of COINTELPRO efforts to undermine Black Power. “911’s a Joke” lambasted lackluster public services and exceedingly long police and ambulance response times. The groups master stroke, though, came in 1989 on the title track of Spike Lee’s film Do The Right Thing. “Fight The Power,” written for Lee’s film, and its accompanying video were the height of Public Enemy’s new Black Nationalism.
Do The Right Thing opened June 30, 1989, as the Central Park Jogger case raged forward. The video for “Fight The Power” was intended to be a “Young People’s March to End Racial Violence.” T-shirts and placards were handed out to local attendees featuring images of Angela Davis, Jesse Jackson, Paul Robeson, Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey, and Muhammad Ali. Public Enemy performed the song behind a red, black and green stage framed by a large photo of Malcolm X. According to one writer, it was as if “the 1972 Black Political Assembly had been transformed into a millennial Brooklyn block party.” Perhaps more interesting, the video began with footage of the March on Washington, followed by the voiceover: “We ain’t going out like that 63’ nonsense.”
In an era of consensus regarding punishment and law and order, Public Enemy offered an important aside from ground zero. Their message and cultural forms had become the central cultural vehicle for open reflection on important issues ranging from poverty to policing, mass incarceration, news coverage of the urban poor and the crack trade, daily rituals of life as a hustler, violence, the Black family, and Black history.