February 26, 2005
NYU's Public Enemy Conference: Night One Roundup
2/28/05 EDIT: I'll try to get up my notes from the second day soon. In the meantime be aware of this.
Tonight's event brought up a lot of emotion for me, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one getting choked up here and there.. Gonna try to run down as much as I can, before I rest up for tomorrow's marathon. This is mainly for my benefit, to remember as much as I can, so it may ramble on and on:
With the auditorium fully packed and many more left outside, the evening began with some rare footage from 1988: a series of gritty b&w PSA clips directed by Brett Ratner, with a young Flav and Chuck advising the kids to vote, honor black history month, and use condoms.
Then a (still in production) documentary mixing PE's 2003 trip to the UK with footage of their historic 1st visit in 1988. It was slow and flat at times, to be honest, but all the 1988 footage was great, and gave a rare glimpse of PE with their guard down and just being regular folks, instead of the mythological heroes they still seemed to be back then; Chuck straight cracking up as Flavor keeps clowning and ribbing him like "Yo Chuck be farting out his mouth! I don't know how be be doing that! There's a party in Chuck's mouth, everyone's comin!"
Most of the other engaging moments came whenever they spoke to Professor Griff, surprisingly.. describing his experience as road manager, that often consisted of babysitting Flavor Flav:
"That was a test that God gave me, and honestly, I'd have to say that sometimes I failed that test. [shaking his head remorsefully] I broke his clock a couple of times, smashed his radio... put him in the choke hold.. had several physical confrontations, and just kept asking 'does it have to come to this!?'
After a while he couldn't take it anymore, and passed on the flav-minding duties to some of his S1W partners.
Chuck gave Griff props as an underrated musican and producer, as we saw clips of Griff playing the drums.. Griff repeatedly described his frustration after doing the "research and fact-finding," and contributing many of the core ideas on PE's records, but never getting recognized for his key role in the group. He was still angry about how the crew didn't stand by him in the scandal, over having to "literally take my family and move, cuz they wanted me to lay low." But he knows that the mission of the group is bigger than him so he doesn't take it out on the rest of the crew now.
He said "trying to be this kind of politically charged group, you don't come into it knowing everything. these were roles we were growing into as we went along. so of course there were gonna be peaks and valleys." After reciting his infamous quote about the jews he rolled his eyes and asked "isn't that dumb?? so foolish!" But then still claimed it would have made sense if quoted in context.
Then the real fun started, with Jon Caramanica gently guiding a panel of Greg Tate, Armond White, Robert Christgau, John Leland, Alan Light and Vivien Goldman.
In their own way Tate, Armond and Christgau were all heroes for me back then, right along with PE.. so maybe I'm just caught up in sentimentality, but I thought this was one of the best panel discussions I've seen. Sharp insights dropped all around.
Describing the first time they heard the album, Christgau said he'd thought "Yo! Bumrush the Show" was just aiite, "a great idea for a band, that people said were better than they really were." But then when he heard Bring the Noise it was "one of the most ecstatic musical experiences of my life."
John Leland laughed about his initial conflict with the band after dogging their first album, then described how thrilling "Nation" was, being so artistically avant garde and so political, yet so successful in getting distributed commercially.. it offered a rare moment of hope that such avant garde and political work could be spread through commercial avenues.
Greg Tate got the tape in advance and became obsessed with it, listening over and over again every night until "the whole album became a mantra." Studying the lyrics, decoding the patchwork of samples, and just marveling at this new language of music they had created. He looks back on the first album now as the beginning of them learning how to speak that new language.
Greg Tate described how PE continued the "lineage of political prophecy through music," from Duke Ellington to Paul Robeson etc.. and the arrived just in time to pick up the torch from Bob Marley who'd passed about 7 years before.
Armond White said Black music had always centered on rhythm and blues but PE added a third element of noise, thus adding a new dimension to Black pop. Tate noted PE's noise was not entirely new, but also part of a lineage, a path explored by Trane, Pharoah [sanders not monch] and MC5.
Armond also loved their "brash optimism" and "naive sense of certainty about the world" which we can look back on now and see the flaws, but at the time it was thrilling, just what we needed. It gave us a sense of "unlimited promise, that they/we can change the world both artistically and aesthetically." He said the album is not a political document but a romantic document, a document of our romance, as young people, with becoming political. Like Godard's "Masculine/Feminine." (Armond is the Dennis Miller of criticism, always rocking the esoteric analogies)
Armond saw the same "effrontery" found in British punk, and the provocative words and song titles heard from The Smiths. And he got in a dig at Spike Lee, saying PE were up on Godard's level while Spike is "more in the John Sayles Obvious School" of filmmaking.
Vivien she was struck even by Nation's album title, and it reminded her of Walter Rodney's "How Europe Underdeveloped Africa" in how it grabs you. She noted, for the british punk connection, that Chuck did the intro to a new Joe Strummer book, and said he was inspired by seeing the Clash at Bond's in Times Square. Christgau said "oh yeah, you mean the shows where they had Flash and the Furious Five open up, and the Clash's fans pelted them with beer!"
Alan Light cited 1988 as "the pinnacle," "an astonishing moment when technology ran ahead of the law." ..new sampling technology allowed a tremendous explosion of creativity, through modes of expression that would become illegal 18 months later.
They cited Chucks stated goal of producing 5000 new black leaders. Christgau said that though PE ultimately failed in their mission, it wasn't their fault, it's just that "political failure is endemic to movements for radical change," and success in that realm requires a genius far beyond chuck d or any of us. They still have to get credit because although someone like U2 is still around, their politics are compromised now.. PE ultimately failed and imploded, but they never compromised.
Pressed for more explanation of how they "imploded," the Dean explains "obviously Flavor Flav was sometimes a.. loose cannon.. and Chuck had his limitations too; he could be, at times a sententious fool." This sent some murmurs through the crowd.
Caramanica asked why the other groups like X-Clan, Native Tongues and BDP weren't pick up the mantle after PE fell, Christgau stated flatly "the other groups just weren't as good." "And then NWA came with a musical idea that had more currency than any of the political groups, especially with the era of open sampling coming to an end" though Christgau shares Armond's distaste for what NWA brought to the table.
Greg Tate then spoke of how profoundly PE impacted so many young people, especially college students, and convinced Christgau that PE may have actually succeeded in their mission after all.
Greg said "Nation" came out at a perfect moment when hip-hop had been picked up by "the machine" enough to be distributed as only the machine can, but the machine was still too scared/leery of these new hip-hop guys to step in and try to control their art or tamper with it. And being picked up by the machine was still new to the artists, so they were still focused on communicating to their own black community, and not as influenced yet by how the rest of the world would take it. He said hip-hop was "a dream deferred that exploded... and then dried up like a raisin in the sun".
Then Caramanica was instructed to stop and take questions, and a brief but theatrical Q&A ensued.
First Fahiym Ratcliff (Source Editor) spoke fervently about how the album changed so many people like himself, made them change religions, turn their whole lives around.. he said it should be "the people" who lived it like that up there on the panel, instead of these critics. He forcefully insisted that instead of the panel taking questions they should just take "testimony" from people in the crowd.
Armond stepped up and answered back just as strongly: "I have to take issue with what this young man is saying, discrediting the panel. I am the people. You don't love this album more than I do. You don't take this album more seriously than I do...
Finally a young man up front made a passionate speech about how he came here from Italy, and it was Public Enemy that inspired him to be politicized and devote his life to being part of a global struggle, and that for everyone, like him, that PE did reach, each of them is going to reach that many more people, and eventually their mission really will be fulfilled. Christgau again rescinded his verdict of failure, and reaffirmed that he would never say we should admit defeat in our struggle against the type of fascist regimes we have in both Italy and America. This was the most moving moment of the eveninf for me, in a night where my eyes got teary quite a few times, remembering how much this music meant to me, and sharing how much it still means to all of us.