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Dancing With Mistah D

The stories in his debut book have their fascinations, as the memoirs of major artists usually do, and his polemics have their moments: the parallels between plantation system and penal system can't be traced too often. But in the end Chuck D is an artist, as he's proved most recently with the furious 1996 solo Autobiography of Mistachuck and now a sixth Public Enemy album, He Got Game (Def Jam), which fights the power even if girls sing on it and reflects hip hop's far-flung revitalization whether he knows it or not. And he probably doesn't: what's most striking about Chuck D's 1997 release, Delacorte Press's Fight the Power, is how bullheadedly the author conceives his own artform.

I suppose it's no surprise that the proud founder of REACH--Rappers Educating All Curriculum Through Hip-Hop, dedicated to "changing the direction that Rap is going in and changing the image that has been attached to it"--should be so bound up in Old School prejudices. Still, a show of ecumenicism might help make his grandiose plan a reality. Instead, the rhyme animal includes among his "Favorite All-Time Rap Albums" only one by an artist who's emerged since 1990: Tupac's Makaveli. He leaves a few grudging slots for new guys in other top 10s scattered through the book, but beyond Tupac the sole youngblood name-checked with any noticeable warmth is Common, who--like Tupac, and unlike virtually any other rapper--shares with D roots in the '60s Black Power movement. Neither Puffy Combs nor Suge Knight is even mentioned, presumably to help D stick to his policy against taking public issue with fellow black men, but if he had to choose I'm afraid he'd take Suge. While his reservations about gangsta rap are astute and measured, his reaction to "R&B"--melodic samples, backup choruses, declarations of romantic devotion, and any other distraction favored by females who waste their racial essence watching Jenny Jones on Channel Zero--is triangulated by disgust, envy, and contempt.

Chuck D emphasizes that he was born in 1960, well before most rappers, and hence came up on Vietnam, the Panthers, and the Muslims rather than blaxploitation flicks, Sanford and Son, and dope parties. Too young even so to have soaked up the expansive sense of entitlement that infused black as well as white radicals in that heady boom time, he does nevertheless fit a '60s stereotype. To cross-racialize a little, call it the Tom Hayden/Malcolm X model. For both, the decade's operative abstraction was militance, not liberation, because both were basically puritans, just like Chuck D. "The last Bohemian but you'll never/see me intoxicated," avers the teetotaling nondoper on his solo album shortly before ripping into the positively enthralling "No," which renounces, among many other things, "rolls royces," "Lexcoups," "gold teeth," "bodyguards," "pork chops," "funk samples," "corny choruses," "callin women bitches and hoes," "singin voices," and "spelling errors." No wonder this secular guy has such a soft spot for the Nation of Islam.

Black or white, '60s pop had no use for such asceticism, but as the economy contracted the tendency surfaced in the disco-sucks reaction, the straight-edge impulse--in the gut suspicion of all "hard rock" that honest music must be forbidding music, the better to reflect reality and weed out wusses. And of course, many hip hoppers agreed. The great formal achievement of gangsta was to seem forbidding while in fact sexing up the thrill of the forbidden. PE's way was harder. They had a good beat and you could, if you were really so inclined, dance to them. But once the Bomb Squad unleashed its dense industrial shriek on It Takes a Nation of Millions, PE shared more sonically with the harsher strains of rock than with any rap. An instant hit with lovers of jazz wail and punk clamor, this weld of bass loops, war whoops, .45-calibre paradiddles, vinyl in distress, guitar and keyboard cannonades, and other displaced noises was so commanding that for a year or two it ruled hip hop--the Bomb Squad even produced Ice Cube's solo debut in those bicoastal days. But in the end, gangsta funk samples and girly r&b prevailed, and after spewing out four epochal albums between 1987 and 1991, PE fell off. The six new tracks on 1992's Greatest Misses were often defensive, and 1994's more confident Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age was rejected by young hip hoppers whose gangsta-inflected "reality" it dissed or ignored. As for Autobiography of Mistachuck, it stiffed, simple and plain.

He Got Game won't save hip hop from itself because hip hop has already saved itself from itself--with girly stuff and fast-talking women, with regionalism and internationalism, with RZA and Five Percenters, with turntablists and trip hoppers and free-styling wordslingers and all the arty types a genre this rich throws up, with the natural tendency of gangsters to destroy each other and scare the shit out of everybody else. And it won't make PE kings of rap, either. It wouldn't even exist if Spike Lee hadn't asked the secret hero of Do the Right Thing to write songs for his basketball movie, and even now PE is recording Resurrection, described by the forward-looking D as "a mixture of Redman meets Rage Aginst the Machine." Yet like every Public Enemy album, He Got Game is a strong one. However vexed its relation to its avowed culture, however contradictory its musical ethos, however perplexing its aesthetic identity, it brings the wallop. Will it educate all curriculum through hip hop? Not likely. Will it stand as art? If there's any justice.

Crucially, the soundtrack concept is under control. As a sports addict and the author of the highly apropos "Air Hoodlum," Chuck D has an established gift for ball songs. So we hear about the kicks kids die for and David Stern's auction block and the insults of stardom: "Can I get a chance/If I don't sing or dance/Write about romance/Or wear short pants?" And in "Game Face," the neatly excerptable "I wake up every morning with my game face on" leads into a trademarked reminder of just exactly what this jock is so competitive about: "We ain't for the fame/We're for the change." In short, PE's militance, while adapted to the commercial circumstance, is undiminished, and as always, its limitations as politics don't detract from its impact as music. However dubious some of Chuck's ideas on the page (just be glad he reserved his old theory that only religious Jews suffer anti-Semitism for the book), however overstated his portentous puns (scholarships as slave ships?), they're uniquely compelling as orated music.

Yet despite Def Jam's boast that He Got Game reunites not just Chuck, Flav, Terminator X, and that Professor Griff fellow, but Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee, and Eric "Vietnam" Sadler of the Bomb Squad, the musical departures are rather r&b. Evolved though PE's beats may have been by 1994, the Bomb Squad's turn-that-shit-down nuclear siren was all over Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age. The closest this album gets to the stressful speed of classic PE is on one of the seven (of 12) songs Shocklee-Shocklee-Sadler didn't produce, the Danny Saber-Jack Dangers closer "Go Cat Go." Instead you'll hear backup femmes, churchy chorales, skeleton beats, Wu strings, more guest rappers than advertised, and funk samples, although these are outnumbered by hooks appropriated subtly (in fact, brilliantly) from "James Bond Theme" and the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" and blatantly (also brilliantly) from Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth." On the latter, the title track and projected single, Steve Stills himself blubbers a climactic coda. Oh those '60s.

But if the change the Bomb Squad is here for is whatever musical twist the culture unfurls, these compromises (augmentations, some might say) never touch PE's sonic heart, which is nowhere more Old School than in its working assumption that rap is musical speech before it ever gets to the studio. The self-appointed "mouth that roared" embodies his presumption of leadership in a vocal attack that imparts to his politics the ego-weight of his conviction and commitment. But just as ineluctably, Flavor Flav bounces his vox populi off the stern moralizing of the "r&b strangler" (to quote the album) who long ago "accepted the role of being that `uncool motherfucker'" (to quote the book), his pleasure-principled street cadences, perpetual-adolescent jabs, and hero-worshipping support render him a full partner even if the lion's share of the words go to the evangelistic rodomontade. If it renews one's progressive faith to hear Chuck D indict "corporate hands up in foreign lands/With the man behind the man gettin paid behind the man," or predict that "fuckin with Saddam will bring a new Saigon," it renews one's love for life to hear Flav fulfill the silly promise of "Shake Your Booty," the cheesiest song PE has ever recorded. And when Wu bit player Masta Killa filters in from some other planet--first observing, "Those that label the gods as antisocial/Choose not to apply their third eye," then asking the existential question, "What will enable a man to levitate?"--Chuck D keeps his own counsel and lets Flav adapt. "You can take that and put that in the back of your brain," the little wise-ass crows. And thus is PE's street cred preserved.

In theory, that is. Because if there's any justice, He Got Game will do more than stand as art--it will propel Public Enemy back into the hip hop present. Only as more than one rapper put it in the Old School days, there is no justice--there's just us. So here's rooting for Spike Lee to score his biggest hit since Do the Right Thing. I'm not sure Chuck D understands how well hip hop can live without him. But I am sure it could damn well use him anyway.

Village Voice, Apr. 28, 1998