My Pop Life #61 : Fight The Power – Public Enemy

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Fight The Power   –   Public Enemy

…Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Mother fuck him and John Wayne
‘Cause I’m Black and I’m proud
I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped
Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps…

After another election night betrayal, another public display of democracy that makes you want to vomit, all we have left is “each other” people.  We have to fight the powers that be.  England will kick off this summer, once again, the familiar ritual of burning and brick throwing.  Once again Labour has failed to appeal to its core constituency and some of them have voted Green, others UKIP, still others Conservative. Many others didn’t vote at all.

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…What we need is awareness, we can’t get careless, you say what is this ?   My beloved lets get down to business, Mental self defence and fitness…

The greatest band to come out of the 1980s was Public Enemy.  PE burn with righteous fire against injustice, racism, the media, corruption, laziness, selfishness, privilege, ignorance.   They were one of the reasons that I became a writer in 1987.

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 When I heard their  first LP “Yo Bum Rush The Show” I was excited by power and truth combining with beats and rhyme, it was exciting and inspiring – but could not prepare me for the monster work of their 2nd LP “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back” in 1988.  It was a tidal wave of sound and righteous fury and I couldn’t get enough of it.  I saw them twice live in London that year – or maybe two years running.  Brixton Academy ’87 – ’88.

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I went with Miss P who was directing my first as-yet-unwritten play and the cast of same as-yet-untitled play:  Rita Wolf (my girlfriend), David Keyes, Kwabena Manso, Gaylie Runciman, Pamela Nomvete and Carl Procter.  We were all researching a play about homelessness, to be expressed at least partly through hip hop.  That’s how it was pitched to the Joint Stock Steering Committee “led by” Caryl Churchill and Max Stafford-Clark.   The resultant play was called “Sanctuary“, directed by Paulette Randall and designed by Jenny Tiramani, and it won me the Samuel Beckett Award 1987 for best first play.

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Leader, writer and inspiration behind Public Enemy Chuck D is now an elder in the rap world.  In 1987 he was a revelation.  His lyrics, his delivery, his fury, his tone are all second to none.  I don’t think technically he is the best rapper – that honour goes to Rakim for me – but Rakim pretty much sticks to one subject ie: what a great rapper Rakim is.  Chuck D and PE cover the waterfront.   DJ Terminator X was also scratching records in ways unheard of at that point, not just samples, but noise pure and simple, and the production team of Hank & Keith Shocklee and Eric Sadler “The Bomb Squad” invented a whole new vocabulary of sound : screeching, chopped up quotes from many sources, layered, punchy, visceral and powerful.  The genius addition of Flavor Flav, the joker in the pack, wearing a huge clock “so you know what time it is” and chirruping support from the sidelines (“yeeeah boyeee“) made the package complete – a black gang to take on the white establishment and kick it in its holy nuts.

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Hence the Elvis/John Wayne quote above.   Deliberately provocative, it comes from a lifetime of being a second-class citizen in a first-world nation.   The pure anger in their work becomes a creative force in itself, and the potency of Fight The Power, (taken from album number three Fear Of A Black Planet which should have been released in 1989 but eventually appeared in 1990) has not been matched by any protest song or rallying cry ever recorded.  It is a seriously pumped-up rhythm, sampling James Brown, The Isley Brothers, Syl Johnson and 16 other tracks in a huge sound which was ubiquitous that summer of 1989 when it soundtracked Spike Lee’s film Do The Right Thing, and the hot summer in Brooklyn kicking off.

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In 1989 I was still in full B-Boy mode.  I’d adopted the hip-hop look in 1987 when the sounds and culture of rap bowled me over.   I had written an American version of Sanctuary that summer called Sanctuary D.C., researched and set in Washington DC.   And I had the genesis of a new piece forming, all in verse, commissioned by the BBC.   George Faber it was who asked me in early 1990 to write something in rap from that culture, I was the white emissary from the front line.   I came up with a rhyme play called The House That Crack Built, set in Washington DC and based on the street life I had experienced there in the summer of 1989, the summer of Do The Right Thing.  I nearly got stabbed in D.C. outside a downtown men’s shelter when my bicycle was surrounded by homeless guys who wanted to know what I was doing.  “you’re a european” one of them accused.  “How did you know?” I answered with naive foolishness “I’m English“.  He meant I was white.  There were 20 of them around me, one guy circling the outside giving me glimpses of a large knife inside his coat.  He looked insane.  I spoke sincerely about my desire for a colour-blind future and they probably pitied my twattishness and let me cycle off.  My general foolhardy youthful naivitée probably saved me a few times that summer, researching the American version of my English hit play.  Chatting to crack dealers on the wrong corner.  At night.  But somehow I got away with it.

Back in London 1990, George Faber didn’t get the play I’d delivered at all.  He asked me to produce a week’s workshop and show him a handful of scenes.  I’d anticipated this, and hired a handful of actors who had to prove they could rap in a brief audition.  My lead was the amazing Roger Griffith, one of my favourite actors.  His buddy was played by Michael Buffong, now a first-rate prize-winning director at The National theater, Royal Exchange and Talawa.  Mum was ‘Dame’ Dona Croll of course, whose five-year old daughter had just arrived from Jamaica – so cute – with best friend Jo Martin, the bad guy was Calvin Simpson, who tragically died shortly after the workshop, a lorry knocking him off his bicycle on Waterloo roundabout.  That was a terribly sad funeral.   We filed past the open casket in church, and he was so dead.    I remember him as a great actor and a man who insisted on wearing odd socks.  Years ahead of his time.   Chris Tummings and Jenny Jules completed the cast, but Jenny got a bad asthma attack and was hospitalised and had to be recast at the last minute.  Did Pamela Nomvete fill the breach?  Ashamed to say I can’t remember….but I think so….anyway we worked hard all week, bringing a few scenes to life, learning how to rap in dialogue.   It worked really well, rap is naturally really dramatic and perfect for stage or dramatic work – it’s not unlike Shakespeare or Greek drama.  But Faber and his small BBC gang who came to watch on the Friday afternoon (including his secretary – his barometer) didn’t get it.  He had a meeting with me the week after and said “why is it set in America?“,  I said “Because there’s no crack scene in the UK“.   He said “well change the drug then“.  The casual lazy sweeping generalisation.  Crack was different to every drug I’d ever come across.   Totally.  His well-meaning liberal racism was shocking in the end.  “We brush past these people in the street every day – what do they feel?“.    So depressing.   The piece wasn’t taken forward, and has never been produced anywhere.   If it was mounted now it would be proper old skool rap history, all about Bush and Amerikkka.

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Years later in 2003 I was on the set of another aborted project which I’d written – a film called Red Light Runners.  Bits of it are online somewhere.  Long bitter story – for another post.  That was the experience that stopped me writing.  Bookend contribution.  I was talking to Tricky, who was in our cast, about Fight The Power since he had covered the Public Enemy track Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos on his first album rather brilliantly with Martina Topley-Bird sing-songing the rap lyrics.   We were sitting on the top deck of a bus waiting for something or other to happen.  Probably filming at Centrepoint ?  Anyway, I asked him about the exact quote at the top of the page about Elvis Presley, and we went on to talk about how brilliant Elvis was, especially in the early days.  Elvis was a hero to me, but so were Public Enemy.  I didn’t have a problem with that but I couldn’t quite articulate why.   But I trust Chuck D.  We agreed he was a provocateur and stirring the shitpot.  There’s always been debate about the good ole boy Elvis and how he treated black people, but you’ll need to listen to the ’68 comeback tapes to get the rest of that story.  Racist – in the sense that any kid from Memphis was racist in 1954 – probably.  But Racist with a capital R – no, don’t believe it.  He melded black and white music together.  He listened to gospel music on the radio and loved it, mixed it with hillbilly music.  Elvis = no racist.  But the racial divisions of America are so deep and so scarred that you can see them from the moon, and Chuck D and PE needed to hold up white icons in order to shoot them down.   It’s a polemic.   It’s a position.

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Chuck has since blurred the quote : on the LP it’s scarcely audible.   You can hear it on the original single, and the film soundtrack clear as a bell however.  Its impact was huge.   They always flirted with controversy, particularly in the shape of Minister of Information Professor Griff, who left PE after an unfortunate quote about Jewish people, but at their heart they are fundamentally about telling the truth to power.

We all have to carry on, despite defeats, setback and disappointments.  What choice do we have?  In the late 80s, Public Enemy were the soundtrack to change.  They still are.  Live – I’ve seen them five times – they are astonishing, nowadays using a live band and covering songs like Edwin Starr’s “War”.   The retain all their power and urgency.  For what, if anything, has changed ?

clip from Do The Right Thing :

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My Pop Life #7 : Do The Right Thing – Redhead Kingpin & The FBI

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Do The Right Thing  –  Redhead Kingpin & the FBI

…brothers are stealing & dealing & big wheeling, and to a younger mind that stuff is appealing – so

what do they do? they gather up a crew, go out & steal or rob instead of gettin’ a job…

Summer of ’89 I was living in Archway Road N6 and directing a summer school at the National Youth Theatre in Holloway – a 3 week workshop with a mixed gang of wannabe hopefuls from all over the UK.  We had a presentation to make at the end of the fun. So we started to build a show – based on an eco-disaster idea I’d had called Zone. We met each morning in Parliament Hill School gym and did warm-ups, games and hot-seating. They were a talented gang – one of them (Frank) became a writer, another (Kerry) became Artistic Director of the Theatre Royal Stratford East and another (David) became David Walliams.  My assistant director was David Steinberg from Tel Aviv, who is still a close friend  (I travelled to see him during the 2nd intifada).  The local estate kids used to “invade” the school every day and run amok, the caretaker did nothing of course – we were the ‘incomers’.  I challenged them one morning with the phrase “off you go”, which the leading kid echoed back incredulously “off you go?”, then off he went.  But that lunch hour my leading actor Rob was slashed with a knife outside the sandwich shop on Highgate Road and was rushed to hospital with a cut cheek. Disaster. Police were called, nothing happened, we finished the last few days of the workshop in Holloway Road at basecamp.  In the final show I used two pieces of music – one was a choreographed dance routine to a hip hop song which had stormed my ears that summer.  I brought in two hip-hop choreographers whose names escape me now, they used to do all the videos from that era – the Cookie Crew, London Possee, Gee St Records kinda thing, and they took this disparate group through their B-Boy paces.  Good dancers stood at the front, less good ones at the back, but NO ONE was exempted, despite protestations.  Walliams in particular, despite doing an impeccable and hilarious Kenneth Williams impersonation on a regular basis, really wasn’t a natural dancer, but I never treated him any different to the rest of them despite evidence to the contrary, and to his credit he gamely danced on.  It really was the highlight of the “show” when we presented it to parents and the NYT.  It’s got great lyrics and a real new-jack swing bounce to it.  Despite the title (which you cannot copyright thank god) the song has nothing to with the Spike Lee film of the same name which also came out in 1989, and was also in the form of a cautionary tale of hard-won wisdom.

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Many years later Jenny was working with Sharon Osbourne in The Vagina Monologues and we were invited to the Osbournes Christmas Party just behind Harrods.  Elton was there, I ignored him out of nerves (regret) and David Walliams, now star of hit show Little Britain was also there.  He took my elbow : “Ralph I need to thank you for the National Youth Theatre workshop – you didn’t treat me differently to the others, and I had such a good time I went back the following summer, and met Matt Lucas.”  That was nice.  David also devoted part of a chapter in his autobiography to the experience which he then sent to me, and we’re now back in touch.  Life is long.

Later in 1989 I went to a live hip hop concert in London with KRS-One headlining, EPMD (?) and Redhead Kingpin performing this song.  It’s still a classic.