Countless suburban kids, this writer included, learned about social injustice from Public Enemy. Leader Chuck D famously proclaimed rap "the black CNN," and the Long Island group were its anchormen, galvanizing hip-hop's golden age with a progressive blend of militant imagery, urban decay, Afro-centric empowerment and comic relief courtesy of clownish hype man Flavor Flav. Turning 20 this year is their magnum opus, Fear of a Black Planet, a stunning song cycle serving as an activist's guide to the America of 1990.
"We grew up in that period, being inspired by What's Going On and the great Beatles albums," says Chuck on the phone from Long Island. "It started out in the rock world, then the soul world had great albums. Stevie Wonder, Isaac Hayes—people would put their whole lives into the themes of those albums."
Like its predecessor, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Fear is one of the few hip-hop albums to enter the esteemed "classic album" canon. Nation's themes of media misrepresentation and cultural strife had come true by 1990, and the group didn't squander the spotlight on Fear, whose subject matter was more complex than ever. It presented portraits of social racism (the title track and "Pollywanacraka"), damaging paradigms ("Burn Hollywood Burn," which featured future Hollywood powerhouse Ice Cube), and societal disavowal of the inner city ("911 Is a Joke"), all created with a finer brush than the straightforward, anthem-heavy Nation.
"The album was a statement, because it actually took a college professor's theory and turned it into a rap record, which was kind of over-the-top but reflected where we were at that time," Chuck says. "I was a postgraduate college student—it wasn't like I was 22 or 21. I was 30 years old."
Chuck recalls that the group set out to make an album that would "stand the test of time by being diverse with sounds and textures," and they certainly succeeded in that goal. "Brothers Gonna Work It Out" blends elements of well-known Prince, P-Funk and Sly Stone songs rendered unrecognizable in an unsettling yet compelling cacophony.
In the kaleidoscopic "Welcome to the Terrordome," Chuck D touches on everything from the mob murders of black youth and police brutality to his frustration with black-on-black crime and his own detractors. But it's the noisy, simmering swirl of guitar and chaotic vocal samples that make the track a potent promise of impending confrontation. These soundscapes uncannily reflect the confusion and tension of the pre&–Rodney King era.
This year's Rock the Bells Festival boasts a slew of albums-in-their-entirety performances from old-school icons like Slick Rick and Rakim, but the genre's most deserving album won't get the same treatment on PE's upcoming shows. "Nation is an up-tempo record, so it works from beginning to end," Chuck says. "Fear has peaks and valleys, for a great album's listening sake, but live, you have to position it or act really well within it."
Either way, the album's title is as relevant as ever, considering the baseless attacks of the "birthers," the Tea Party movement and President Obama's countless other detractors.
"All you have to do is take the e-t off it, because E.T. was the extraterrestrial," Chuck says, laughing. "You take off the e-t, and you have 'Fear of a Black Plan.'"
Read the complete interview with Chuck D at