Saturday, October 10, 2009

"Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" by Public Enemy (1989)

Being the age that I am, I missed several key 'Year Zeroes'. I wasn't born when Elvis, or Chuck Berry, or Ike Turner, or whoever it was who somehow magically 'birthed' rock and roll came out with whichever magnum opus was 'the first rock and roll song'. I wasn't alive for "I Want to Hold Your Hand" or "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag". I was alive for "I Feel Love", "God Save the Queen" and "Rapper's Delight", but just barely - and more interested in Ernie singing "Rubber Duckie" than any of the above.

One of the few true "Everything you knew is wrong" moments in music history that I can actually say I've witnessed is the release in 1988 of Public Enemy's "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back".

I think one of the main reasons I was slow to warm to rap music was that the early era of rap music was, let's face it, decidedly light on meaningful lyrical content. The music was great, the verbal dexterity was impressive, sure. But lyrically most of the rap that was on the radio in the mid-eighties was pretty vapid lyrically.

Or, more to the point, if there was any depth I wasn't hearing it. Rap was okay, but it wasn't compelling. Chick D, on the other hand, had both a voice that pulled you in and the lyrics to make you shut up and listen. Hanging out with my friends and a boombox, I can only remember once being absolutely stunned into silence with a rap song. It was this particular one, though it could have been almost any on this album.

It wasn't just that piano riff (sampled apparently from Isaac Hayes). Like so much of the Bomb Squad's work, it seemed annoyingly compelling, or else compellingly annoying at the time, but years later I see it as a great exercise in tension and release. More specifically, each of those repeated clashing chords steps up the tension, until the bar-ending piano line lets it out. And then over and over again.

And over again.

Six and a half minutes is crazy long for a mid-tempo rap song. The only real reason this song can go on so long is that Chuck D is telling a great story. Hell, it was revolutionary enough that he was telling a story at all, but this noir tale of a draft dodger breaking out of prison is just a good story. The black power rhetoric (here is a land that never gave a damn...) stunned me but in a way that somehow felt refreshing, exciting. It set up a tale that, while bloody and subversive, was profoundly righteous. Going through idealisms at a teenage rate as I was, that was highly impressive.

Lastly, sorry to say, "Black Steel" is brilliant because Flavor Flav's role is minimal. One of the more frustrating people in hip hop, Flavor Flav took solo pieces like "911 is a Joke" and made them compelling. He was a good rapper. Yet so much of his "Yeah boy-eee" shtick was tired that it actually regularly served to bring down everything Chuck D had built up. So here, absent except for verse-delineating 'phone calls', Flavor Flav is exactly as present as he ought to be.

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