Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Who's Fucking Who?: Public Enemy Meets Madonna & Lenny

The story broke on MTV, natch: turns out the rhythm track of "Justify My Love," the MTV-banned Madonna song (and video) supposedly composed by Lenny Kravitz with additional lyrics from the artiste, was lifted whole from "Security of the First World," a 1:20-minute instrumental cleverly concealed on Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back. "This is a sampling sport/But I'm giving it a new name/What you hear is mine," trumpets that album's anticopyright manifesto, "Caught, Can We Get a Witness?" But the same song disses love-is-all-you-need-child Kravitz and boy-toy-in-effect Madonna preemptively: "You singers are spineless/As you sing your senseless songs to the mindless/Your general subject love is minimal/It's sex for profit." And when Kravitz told MTV he'd picked Nation of Millions up off the studio floor he didn't increase the likelihood that Hank Shocklee and Chuck D. would treat him like a brother. For a while there was talk of a lawsuit, preceded by a press conference where Hank and Chuck could explain how their rights had been infringed and their feelings hurt--and also where SOUL Records' Shocklee-produced Young Black Teenagers could explicate (and publicize) their "To My Donna," a soon-come answer B-side built off the same track. In a male porn fantasy as commonplace as Madonna's female sex fantasy is exotic, the Teenagers invite their Donna (a teaser and no virgin, they're sure) to come to papa: "I got what you want give it nasty" and "I got it/Come get it/You want it/It's heated," they theorize, as a sampled starlet gasps and moans on an adjacent track. But cooler heads prevailed. SOUL prexy Bill Stephney notes that all the aggrieved are "staunch defenders of sampling," and hopes Madonna might repay her musical debt by appearing in a "To My Donna" video, because Madonna and the Teenagers are "on the same tip." And as white people who promote interracial culture, they are. Sexually, though, aren't they kind of antithetical, Bill? Isn't it even possible that Madonna and Kravitz were signifying, or practicing their détournement, by sampling a militantly male chauvinist band? And how could a woman who boasted to Forrest Sawyer that in her videos the woman was always in sexual control turn around and role-play in a male wet dream? Says Stephney: "I don't think she would be in a literal interpretation of what this song's supposed to be, and I would hope that whoever did it wouldn't do a literal interpretation." If the rap biz should slow down, we understand there's an opening for a diplomat over in Moscow.

Village Voice, 1991