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Power to the People and the Beats: Public Enemy's
New Whirl Odor
Kanye West saying, "George Bush doesn't care about black people" on live national television was the hip-hop moment of the year so far, if not the century. No music was involved in West going off-script to attack the federal response to Hurricane Katrina during an NBC telethon for the Red Cross on September 2, an incident broadcast across three time zones on three channels and refracted through the internet into legend. Yet the punk-rock inappropriateness of that speech--its nervous clarity, its crass opportunism--was like a dream version of Chuck D's old quote about hip hop being black America's CNN. For a minute, anyway, MSNBC and CNBC were black America's hip hop.
The day before West pulled off that bit of historical graffiti, Chuck D was finishing his own response to the American failure in New Orleans, a Public Enemy track titled "Hell No We Ain't All Right!," which similarly shot through the web (though not as far) after being posted at publicenemy.com. Like West's announcement, this performance was timed to new product: PE's ninth album, New Whirl Odor (SLAMjamz/Redeye), which arrives in stores today. (In a perverse bit of stunt retailing, a version without the bonus DVD--which contains the Katrina track--was made available a month earlier at Best Buy.) The title chorus of "Hell No We Ain't All Right!" managed to cut to the rhetorical chase while making a subtle joke: an answer to the first question of every long-distance call to the Gulf. Sampling well-circulated audio of a pissed-off Mayor Ray Nagin, the track opened with Chuck D on the phone, saying, "Does it got to come down to this in order to see things for what they are?"
"Hell No" wasn't the Katrina single of September: That distinction belongs to "George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People" by Houston's Legendary K.O., which put you right in the floodwaters beside looters, and bested West's opportunism by sampling "Gold Digger" wholesale. But writing from a geographical distance, Public Enemy could speak for the nausea felt by many Americans, watching a city die slowly on television while others blamed the victims. "Who cares, while the rest of the Bush nation stares," rapped Chuck D, his familiar bellow on a studio mic now. "Drama unfolds as we're the people under the stairs." Flavor Flav, PE's cackling comic relief (and the more visible 21st-century pop icon, via The Surreal Life), ended on an impassioned note: "We're sending trucks, we're sending boats, boxes, cans of soup, everything.... Don't worry, y'all ain't by yourself."
Katrina tracks circulated the 'net that month--by Prince, Mos Def, Skillbill, and a slew of Dallas rappers on "Gulf Coast 5:45," whose R&B melody began (humanly enough) with the line, "I really don't know what to say." But none had the text-message-like immediacy of the Public Enemy song, which knew exactly what to say. Good intentions were all around, so that wasn't the difference. What Chuck D and Flavor Flav understood, and what Kanye West has started to grasp, is that protest is show business. If Chuck D didn't think so from the start, he wouldn't have modeled his righteous boom after sportscaster Marv Albert and sparkling race hustler Louis Farrakhan. (Note that Chuck never big-ups W.D. Mohammed, son of Elijah Muhammad and, until a couple of years ago, the quiet leader of most African American Muslims.)
Chuck D is at his best when people pay him mind, which is why he's recently lacked the line-by-line electricity of classic '87-'90 Public Enemy. The career peaks compiled on the new Power to the People and the Beats: Public Enemy's Greatest Hits (UMe/Def Jam) leave out much, and fans will make their own substitutions (I miss the Do the Right Thing soundtrack version of "Fight the Power," the single remix of "Brothers Gonna Work It Out," and "Rightstarter (Message to a Black Man)," for starters). But Chuck swings like mad through a career you stopped noticing, and swings hardest when using the autobiographical shorthand that notoriety enables. There was never a more concise, funky, or powerful opening couplet than "I got so much trouble on my mind/Refuse to lose," from 1990's "Welcome to the Terrordome." That single had the gall--the Eminem-sized shamelessness--to conflate the state of black America with Chuck D's own personal migraines over a media shitstorm sparked by still-present PE member Professor Griff, who had made anti-Semitic remarks.
New Whirl Odor suffers for lack of that kind of trouble--it feels driven by production, not lyrics. Which is fine for a few songs: The PE sound, whatever manifestation of the S1W/Bomb Squad network is in charge, remains unique. The peace-sign-flashing "MKLVFKWR" ("wave your hands like you really do care," goes one line) and the Griff-produced "As Long as the People Got Something to Say" rock a genre occupied by one crew alone--and the results are masterly. The spoken-word jam at the end, not so much. Where the album should be seizing a moment, it rambles.
In the two months since the levees broke in New Orleans, I've seen Bono sing "Old Man River," DJ Spooky "remix" D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, and one local rapper say to another, "Yo, Slug, they must be on the pipe, right?" For a great many of us, it's impossible to witness such things without thinking of Public Enemy. Great PE is the cultural equivalent of the "Who's we, paleface?" joke, in which Tonto turns on the Lone Ranger--it shatters the false consensus of American multiculturalism, a dream only reinforced by the massive popularity of black rap music.
PE's sample-heavy throb simulates the pulse of a media headache, and counters with a race man's ad pitch. Recorded well after the album, "Hell No We Ain't All Right!" contained Chuck D's plug for the Millions More March on October 16, 2005 in Washington, D.C., much as "Brothers Gonna Work It Out" anticipated the Million Man March, but with less notice and (as it happened) lower turnout.
Maybe PE's future really is on the internet.
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