Public Enemy is one of the most influential and transformational figures in the history of protest music. Chuck D, Flavor Flav and DJ Lord show why once again on their return to Def Jam with What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down?
Early protest music was mostly focused on sadness and lament. From union songs of the early labor movement through to anti-Vietnam and pro-civil rights songs of the late ’60s and ’70s, the musicians were primarily upset in different ways. Then punk music came into its own, and protest music was angry, but angry to inflame, angry at the world and at authority. Then came Public Enemy.
Along with NWA, in the mid-’80s, Public Enemy had rage. They weren’t sad, they weren’t disappointed and they weren’t angry at the world in general. They were utterly furious at their situation and the situation of their people, and they were clearly and furiously angry at those who had created and perpetuated that situation. Most importantly, they didn’t want to give peace a chance and they didn’t want compassion and conversation; they wanted to fight back. They were avatars of a generation that saw promising protest movements give way to a burgeoning kleptocracy as their communities crumbled, and their righteous hostility scared authority to the highest levels of government and society.
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988) and 1990’s Fear of a Black Planet aren’t just two of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time, they’re two of the greatest protest albums of all time. They were an unheeded warning of problems that persist 30 years later. They’re a documentary and a time capsule, proving that the problems being protested in 2020 are neither imagined nor recent. Also, they show that the exact same violence was being perpetrated in the exact same ways against the exact same people before many of today’s protestors and even protest leaders were even born.
With all that in mind, it’s easy to look at What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down?, their first album since 2017 and their first since this year’s series of breaking points, with a great deal of hope. This year has seen fantastic protest albums, from Gaslighter by The Chicks to RTJ4 by Public Enemy’s primary spiritual successors, Run the Jewels. But a major label release from Public Enemy feels like the gurus coming down from the mountain, the grandmasters of the art form returning to the fray to show us all how it’s done.
And the list of guest artists only serves to reinforce that assumption. George Clinton, Run-DMC, Nas, the surviving Beastie Boys, Black Thought, YG, Ice-T, Questlove and so many more appear on various tracks. The updated version of “Fight the Power” alone features six contributors. It’s not just a who’s-who of socially conscious music but of music in general.
WYGDWTGGD lives up to the expectations. Public Enemy’s decades of experience, and the centuries of combined experience of the guests and collaborators, shine through on every track. The second half of the album especially—beginning with “Fight the Power Remix 2020” and continuing through “Beat the Crowd,” “Smash Them All” and “Go At It”—sounds as good as any hip-hop made today, though obviously with an old school flair since the group has been around long enough to be on classic rock stations.
Lyrically, however, it’s not as revelatory as other modern protest music. It doesn’t hit with the same gut punch and it doesn’t speak truth to power in the same profound way as Nation of Millions and Black Planet did decades ago or in the way RTJ4 did earlier this year. While the social messages are apt, and while they touch on modern flashpoints, the generations of socially conscious musicians who have built on Public Enemy’s legacy have added a level of specificity and nuance that this album is often lacking.
We’ve reached the point that we all know and see the problem. Everyone carries an HD video camera in their pocket to document it and has the ability to broadcast it to the entire world in realtime, so the broad messages that were revolutionary and controversial in the late ’80s now feel like reiterating the baseline level of understanding we now share. In fact, the most profound and hard-hitting lyrics are on the “Fight the Power” remake… from the likes of Black Thought and Nas. While Chuck D does have a new verse, his most prominent contribution is a verse from the original referencing Elvis and John Wayne.
There’s also the occasional reminder that remaining original members Chuck D and Flavor Flav are 60 and 61. The most glaring example is that the defacto title track, “GRID,” is about addiction to cell phones and social media, asking what you would do “with no emails or WhatsApps” when “those might have to pick up a book, pick up a pen.” Which, of course, is true; society would be in trouble without modern communication systems. But since it never touches on the fact that those same technologies have not just encouraged but driven the resurgence of the civil rights movement, it feels like a get-off-my-lawn rant about times changing in the form of a rap.
Despite those complaints, WYGDWTGGD is a fantastic album. It’s the best Public Enemy has done in at least a decade, and at points it’s a balm for a weary soul. Chuck D’s voice is still as cathartically powerful as it’s ever been, and nobody else in music could marshal a musical force like Public Enemy did for this album. This is a more pure but also more incipient form of the protest music the group pioneered.
Follow editor Daniel J. Willis at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.