Public Enemy’s “Fear of a Black Planet”
When “Fear of a Black Planet” was released in 1990 Public Enemy had already established themselves in the newly developing rap cannon with their critically acclaimed and commercially successful “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back”. With this album Public Enemy aimed to create a hip hop equivalent of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” in terms of the dense musical textures and social commentary. Public Enemy aided in cementing hip hop and a lasting genre and helped established an identity for hip hop of social consciousness, protest and showmanship.
While the group sought to continue the dense and complex sounds of their previous album, they took a new direction with the lyrical content, discussing things like race as opposed to the overtly politically messages of “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back”. The production team achieved these dense tracks with the heavy usage of sampling. These samples are taken from a range of sources and are used to different effect on various songs. Public Enemy layer numerous samples on top of each other in order to create what they call a “sound wall”. The many samples combine together to create a collage. With these samples they’re able to capture the artist’s essence exactly and put it in their music.
The album was released during a period known as the Golden Age of Hip Hop, demarcated by an absence of copyright right laws limiting artists’ access to sample material and the creation of diverse new sounds in hip hop. Public Enemy took full advantage of these conditions, sampling from dozens of sources on a single track.
We’ll highlight two tracks that display different types of samples.
FIGHT THE POWER
This Grammy award winning song was the lead single off the album. It was originally written as an anthem for the film Do the Right Thing at the request of its director, Spike Lee. The song would become the most famous of Public Enemy’s tracks.
Public Enemy use an interesting sampling approach to construct the beat. Instead of sampling and meshing multiple lines of music the take snippets of beats and loop and layer them to make a mosaic. The rest is the track features various samples on its many tracks including 4 vocal tracks, a guitar, bass, and synthesizer track and percussion.
The vocal samples are taken from numerous sources but they have in common that they are from influential figures in 20th century black music. In the 3rd verse front man Chuck D alludes to the appropriation of black music with a reference to Elvis Presley. He and many other blacks felt that white popularity and success gained from music largely created by African Americans during the early 20th century robbed the originators of their proper historical regard. By sampling an array of these artists he pays homage to his heroes and gives them their due justice.
911 IS A JOKE
In this song Public Enemy use samples to create an environment. Instead of taking snippets of other music they incorporate a diverse set of sounds ranging from police sirens to a megaphone voice.
The samples not only create a sound but also create a setting. The sirens and megaphone evoke images of mass gathering, protest, and an environment of unrest all of which echo lyrics of black empowerment as well as the US racial climate at the time. Chatter in the background of the song can be heard throughout the song. To get this sound the artists had a group of their friends come in and recorded them having a casual conversation. Public Enemy aimed to create a “back in the projects” feel that the “vocal sample” evokes to help produce the setting.
The beat also contributes to the discordant sound through its sample construction. The beat is a layering of 4 different looped tracks which line up on-beat but in combination create tension which jars the listener.
Midway through the song there an evil laughter heard after the chorus. Although at first it may seem odd, the laughter reflects the ironic title theme. Presenting “911 is a Joke” as a groovy jam makes a mockery of the police force they feel underserves their community.
Danielsen, Anne. “The Musicalization Of ‘Reality’: Reality Rap And Rap Reality On Public Enemy’s Fear Of A Black Planet.” European Journal Of Cultural Studies4 (2008): 405-421. Music Index. Web. 9 Feb. 2016.
“Public Enemy”. Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 04 Feb. 2016
Sewell, Amanda. “Paul’s Boutique And Fear Of A Black Planet: Digital Sampling And Musical Style In Hip Hop.” Journal Of The Society For American Music1 (2014): 28-48. Music Index. Web. 4 Feb. 2016.