Public Enemy: “911 Is a Joke”
During the early ’80s, I was a fan of Run-DMC — of all the rap and hip-hop groups at the time that I was familiar with, they were doing the most interesting stuff sonically and lyrically and balanced their message with a sense of humor very well. After they’d reached their zenith by 1986 and began a slow descent into repeating their past moves with less success, my hip-hop needs (which, admittedly, are usually filled quite well by just a couple of good groups…I’ve never been on the hunt for a lot of new stuff the way I always have been for alternative/indie/etc. rock) were met with such albums as the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising.
Then, in 1989, I saw Spike Lee’s movie Do the Right Thing and in the first few moments of that movie, with Rosie Perez dancing along, was introduced to “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy. That intro was such a powerful way to start the movie that I couldn’t help but be drawn into the song and its message, exactly as Lee wanted it. And the James Brown samples of the song, layered together with other snippets and samples so skillfully by Public Enemy, gave the song an unforgettable impact. So time to get some Public Enemy! I’d read about them, and knew about the controversy that followed them, but I don’t think I’d yet knowingly heard anything by them (this being the days before the Internet had taken off to the point where you could easily find music to listen to there, so you still had to rely on radio and TV…or movies…to hear new music without buying an album, and Public Enemy hadn’t been receiving a whole lot of widespread airplay).
The album was 1990’s Fear of a Black Planet, and it was love at first listen. The layers upon layers of samples and found sounds (sirens in particular were put to good use) continued throughout the album and, combined with the commanding voice of Chuck D and the comic relief of Flavor Flav (long before he became a reality TV punchline), made for an incredible listening experience. This was still, in the Paul’s Boutique era, a time when samples could be used without legally having to cite them and pay for them (these albums soon put an end to that), so it was filled with beats and instrumentation that were used in original ways but still seemed familiar, because essentially they were. And much as I enjoyed the whole album, the song that appealed most to the concise power-pop side of me, beside “Fight the Power,” was “911 Is a Joke.” It was by no means power-pop, but from its great “Hit me!” intro to its fade-out just over 3 minutes later, it was concise, catchy, utilized another incredible James Brown groove, and featured fantastic rhyming by Flavor Flav — call it “power-hip-pop,” if you will. And despite the seriousness of the song’s claim, that people in inner-urban areas get lower priority when it comes to responding to 911 emergency calls, it’s done with a dark humor that underscores the message without dragging it down into pure vitriol. It’s a powerful highlight to an incredible album.