That violent new video by Public Enemy — you know, the one in which the group blows up the governor of Arizona, poisons a state senator, and guns down a few lesser officials in retaliation for the state’s rescinding its Martin Luther King holiday — is that actually meant to condone bloodshed?
Ask the band, the most politically militant and controversial in all rap, and you get this: ”Scientific counterviolence always remains an optional response to racist violence.” That is a statement from Public Enemy’s ”Director of Enemy Relations,” Harry Allen, who is speaking — as he hasn’t always in the past — for the group, as its more orthodox publicist affirms. Translation: Yes, the video does condone bloodshed.
As for how King, that apostle of nonviolence, might have felt about the stance of ”By the Time I Get to Arizona” taken in his name, Public Enemy has addressed that question too, also through Allen: ”While Dr. King may have stood for nonviolence,” the band tells us, ”we wonder what he would have stood for, if he had been able to stand after that bullet ripped violently through his neck. Being assassinated, it’s been said, will often change your political viewpoint.” The civil rights leader’s widow, Coretta Scott King, doesn’t quite see it that way. ”We do not subscribe to violence as a way to achieve any social or economic ends; we condemn violence in any form,” she said recently in response to the video. In Arizona, the Rev. Warren Stewart, leader of a coalition working to reinstate the holiday and pastor of a black Phoenix church, has said that the video ”does a disservice to the legacy of Dr. King.”
MTV, after a few showings, has decided not to air the video in regular rotation. And back in the group’s home territory, New York City, the Urban League’s Dennis Walcott is still wondering why Public Enemy invited him to bring a group of children to its press conference about the video without telling him what the kids were in for. How did Walcott get to know Public Enemy? Two years ago, the group raised money for a campaign implemented to benefit the Urban League. Its name? ”Stop the Violence.”
Welcome to political science, Public Enemy-style.
It’s important to get one thing straight early on in what is a very tangled subject: As controversial and seemingly pro-violence as they may be, the members of Public Enemy aren’t ”gangsta” rappers, like N.W.A, the Geto Boys, or Ice Cube, whose records can be a stew of inner-city street mayhem, foul language, and twisted machismo. Public Enemy directs its rage into politics, presenting itself less as a group of entertainers than as rapping revolutionaries committed to unifying, educating, and inspiring black youth in what they call a war waged against blacks by a racist society.
PE’s three central performers are Chuck D (Carlton Ridenhour), 31, who does most of the rapping; his clock-wearing sidekick Flavor Flav (William Drayton), 32, who cuts Chuck D’s purposefulness with manic riffs; and the group’s DJ, Terminator X (Norman Rogers), 25. This hard-core trio is backed, both onstage and off, by a uniformed, paramilitary-style unit called the Security of the First World, or S1Ws. Other, ancillary members come and go as needed, bearing menacing titles like ”Czar of Education” and ”Lyrical Terrorist.”
Yet for all the group’s cartoonish posturing, Public Enemy is the real thing when it comes to making music. Its current album, Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black (from which ”Arizona” comes), debuted at No. 4 on the pop album chart last October and sold a million copies the first week it was out. Apocalypse has been nominated for a Grammy for best rap performance, and the group’s three previous records are consistently cited by critics as among the best rap albums ever made. Public Enemy has been called, by the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot, ”not just a great rap group, but one of the best rock bands on the planet”; its sound, says The New York Times’ Jon Pareles, is ”as insurrectionary as its words.”
Designed by Chuck D and a posse of producers called the Bomb Squad, that sound is a dissonant, clashing mix of street racket, snippets of speech and music, and the hardest beat around; it summons up an inner-city world torn to pieces by racism. Against this background, Chuck D and Flavor Flav perform counterstrikes — more typically verbal ones than the kind they resort to on ”Arizona” — against any and every perceived assault on black life and dignity. Their targets have been wide-ranging. They have blasted malt liquor advertisers who prey on black communities (”1 Million Bottlebags” on Apocalypse 91), black drug dealers who prey on their own kind, black lack of self-respect (”I Don’t Wanna Be Called Yo Niga”), and lack of respect from the culture at large (”Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps,” says Chuck D in ”Fight the Power,” the group’s 1989 anthem heard in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing).
But the prophet-of-rage trade is a far more complicated business in the ’90s than it ever was in the revolutionary ’60s. Call Public Enemy the victim of the tyranny of political correctness or just of simple decency, but when the band has strayed it’s paid — and it’s strayed with high-profile frequency, often in a very ugly way.