PUBLIC ENEMY / “By The Time I Get To Arizona”
The Contemporary track for this week, The Roots’ “False Media” pays tribute—albeit subtly—to not one, but two Public Enemy songs. Given that the songs in question were originally released almost twenty years ago, it occurs to me that a lot of Roots fans might not catch the connections.
First up is “Don’t Believe The Hype” from P.E.’s 1988 classic It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. The title of the Roots song comes from Chuck D’s line at the end of the first verse. “False media,” Chuck raps, “We don’t need it, do we?” Also, earlier in the same verse, Chuck says a line that The Roots reused as part of the chorus of “False Media”: “I don’t rhyme for the sake of riddling.” With both of those lines, Chuck was talking about the print media’s (mis)interpretation of Public Enemy’s music. When The Roots reused the lines, they shifted the meaning to a wider scale. They’re talking about the way the media fell hook, line and sinker for Bush and his fellow Neo-Cons’ calls for war in order to ‘protect our freedom’ and/or ‘find weapons of mass destruction’ and/or ‘free the Iraqi people.’ (What’s the current excuse de jour? ‘Complete the mission,’ is it? I wonder how long we’re supposed to buy that one.)
The other P.E. connection is the way The Roots’ guest vocalist Wadud Ahmad imitates the sardonic drawl Chuck D used for P.E.’s 1989 album track “Pollywannacraka” (from Fear Of A Black Planet). Taken alone, I might not have thought The Roots were consciously copying Chuck, but given the other P.E. references in the same song, I think they are. Listen to the two songs, listen again, then do the only thing you can do: admit that I'm right.
* * *
Of course, hip-hop heads love this kind of musical cross-referencing. I guess I could get intellectual about it and argue that the re-use and multi-usage of words, sounds and themes is analogous to the pace and scope of modern life in urban America. Meaning, given that our lives have become a test of our ability to constantly multi-task, to find multiple meanings in everyday subjects, signals and events, why shouldn’t our music do the same? I have a different theory though. I think rap artists continue to sample and continue to reference earlier lyrics just because that’s always the way it’s been done. Rap started with DJs playing other people’s records and with MCs saying anything they could think of, including nursery rhymes, jive-talk boasting and bragging, little bits of popular songs, whatever. None of it made particular sense and it wasn’t meant to. The point was to say whatever you said in a unique style. Your originality was in your presentation, if not always in your content. Old School MCs and DJs did things the way they did because, at the time, there was no other way to do it. They didn’t have instruments, couldn’t sing and didn’t know a thing about making ‘real’ music. (Like Black Thought says in “Game Theory”: “I had nothing, but I made something out of that.”) Today, rap is an industry—the average mainstream rap group has available enough money and technology to do things the ‘right’ way…if they wanted to. But MCs are still referencing old lyrics and DJs/producers are still reusing old records because it’s in the DNA of hip-hop. It’s just the way things are done. Asking why is sort of like asking why jazz musicians are still playing horns or why so many pop songs are still about love. If you dig deep enough, you might come up with a satisfactory explanation, but the true answer is simple. Because that’s just the way it is.
* * *
Maybe it’s because Public Enemy was already on my mind (due to the references in “False Media”
), but the first time I heard The Roots’ “Game Theory,”
right away I thought of P.E.’s “By The Time I Get To Arizona.”
Both songs feature an extended intro portion before getting down to business. Both songs also have that loud, heavy groove that all but the most confident MCs usually avoid. MCs are used to navigating rhythms, but shouting down amplified guitars is a whole different issue. I’m not saying The Roots consciously copied P.E.’s arrangement. (Actually, if I had to guess, I’d say they didn’t.) I’m just saying The Roots track reminds me of P.E.’s and that’s all the excuse I need to drop it on you.
“By The Time I Get To Arizona”
(from Apocalypse '91: The Enemy Strkes Black
) is one of my all-time favorite P.E. songs because Chuck is so angry and self-righteous that he stops making sense at all. (I say ‘at all’ because even at his most sensible, Chuck never made complete sense.) Dig the premise: circa 1991, New Hampshire and Arizona were the only states in the union still refusing to declare Martin Luther King’s birthday an official state holiday. Public Enemy’s reaction to those states’ “psychological discomfort in paying tribute to a black man who tried to teach white people the meaning of civilization”? How’s about a road trip to Arizona to blow up the capitol building and assassinate the governor. It might occur to you—as it occurs to me—that murder and mass violence is a slightly incongruous way to defend the honor of a man who gave his life to the cause of non-violence. It occurred to Chuck too. “He was my hero,” Chuck retorted. “I’ll fight for him however I want.” While on the road, P.E. flipped off well-meaning Arizonians (“what’s a smiling face when the whole state’s racist?”) and “urinated on the state while kicking this song.”
Songs like “By The Time I Get To Arizona”
are the reason Public Enemy was so-loved during the Eighties and Nineties: they never let reason or rationality get in the way of a good fight. Despite some of their more suspect arguments (their regressive attitude towards professionally-inclined black women, for one), P.E.’s better moments remain believable and effective because they were pissed off about things worth being pissed off about. Today’s MCs are pissed off because they keep getting pulled over for cruising through the ghetto in pimped-out Maybachs and because ‘the haters’ won’t stop whispering behind their backs. I’m not sure I can dredge up much sympathy for either one of those particular difficulties. I was 15 minutes late for work yesterday and my girlfriend lives in Japan. Those are problems too—that doesn’t mean you want to hear me whining about it on the radio. Chuck D, on the other hand, was pissed off about historical shit. About systemic shit. About malt liquor being marketed almost exclusively to poor black people. About the lack of recognition for heroic figures like Martin Luther King. About other MCs glorifying—or at least being ambivalent about—crack cocaine. (Although back then, most of us were still figuring out exactly how fucked up the stuff was.) And one more thing: today, both Arizona and New Hampshire recognize King Day. I’m not saying P.E. had anything to do with that, but it got done.
* * *
A quick note about “Arizona.”
Prescient readers will notice that Sister Souljah mentions both Arizona and New Hampshire in the intro. You might wonder, then, why neither the song title nor the lyrics refer to New Hampshire. First, Chuck always liked ‘statements,’ and the title of the P.E. song is a reference to the Glen Campbell song “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”…which, in its ironic way is quite the statement. (Although I’d bet the real connection is Isaac Hayes. Hayes—a P.E.-approved black and heroic type—recorded an epic cover of “Phoenix.”) The other reason P.E. chose not to mention New Hampshire is because you can’t say the words ‘New Hampshire’ and sound pissed off at the same time. You just can’t. Truthfully, I don’t even know where New Hampshire is. If anyone from New Hampshire reads this, write in and let us know you exist. Thank you.
* * *
Finally, how’s about a couple of bonus tracks for the sample seekers out there. The first is Mandrill’s “Two Sisters Of Mystery,”
a psychedelic funk-rock record that sounds something like Funkadelic covering Black Sabbath. (“Two Sisters”
is from Mandrill’s 1973 Polydor album Just Outside Of Town
.) I’m particularly impressed by the horrible sound quality of the bassline: it’s got so much fuzz in it that you’ll think you’ve blown a speaker cone. When Public Enemy sampled “Two Sisters”
for “By The Time I Get Arizona,”
they cleaned up the bass and slowed down the beat a little, but it survives mostly intact.
The second track is Sly Stone’s “Life Of Fortune And Fame” which The Roots sampled for the chorus of “Game Theory.”
(“Life Of Fortune” is a Sly song that dates from his pre-Family Stone days. It’s available on Precious Stone: In the Studio With Sly Stone 1963-1965
.) For me, the type of sampling The Roots do here is the best kind there is. Meaning, it’s the kind where the new usage puts the sampled voices or sounds in an entirely different context. The Roots aren’t sampling a groove or a hook or even a vocal per se, it’s more like they’re using Sly’s voice as if it were an instrument; they capture the sounds, slice them into movable pieces, then put them back together in a way that enhances what they’re trying to do musically.
—Mtume ya Salaam
Dear Sherlock, AKA Mtume,
Once again you sleuth around until you root out the reality and then publicly throw down. You are an esteemed enemy of ignorance. I sit, slack-jawed at your feet, wondering how the fuck you found out all that stuff. Do you got a book somewhere with all kinds of arcane info in it? Is there a parallel internet you visit?
And to think, I can remember when I not only took you to a P.E. concert at the Municipal Auditorium in Armstrong Park in beautiful downtown New Orleans, but we went backstage and you were present when I interviewed Chuck D. We both noted his seriousness—and the lack of backstage groupies, which was unusual for a popular group.
On another note, I would suggest that one reason P.E. is out of fashion is because there is no Bomb Squad today, no group of sound scientists willing to spend twenty hours to splice in three seconds of sound so that it sounds organic to the song even though its origin is completely out of left field. Plus, legally, most artists can neither afford nor get away with sampling as much as P.E. did.
You remember Chuck saying how part of the goal was to create a sound that was instantly identifiable? If my memory serves, Chuck used the example of a jeep speeding down the street. You’re standing on the corner, it turns headed in the opposite direction from where you’re standing and you only hear a few seconds of whatever sounds the jeep is bumping. If they were playing P.E., Chuck’s goal was that amid everything that was going down on that corner, just from hearing those quickly fleeting three seconds you would KNOW it was P.E.
There was a goal and there was a mixing method, all in addition to the message. No bout a-doubt it, P.E. was a milestone in Black music. Thanks for dropping this lesson in P.E. 202 (if anyone didn’t take or took it and flunked P.E. 101, you might want to take a refresher by clicking here for a previous posting
—Kalamu ya Salaam
P.S. New Hampshire is a real state. Last year I was up there twice. It’s between Vermont and Maine, above New York. I don’t know how many people up there are into P.E. And what you said about pronouncing the name of the state is interesting, especially when you consider one of the more famous American standards is “Moonlight In Vermont” and of course there are all kinds of songs for New York. And, though it’s not a song, there was a very famous battle cry, “Remember the Maine.” But for the life of me, I can’t think of any memorable reference to New Hampsire in popular culture.
This entry was posted
on Sunday, November 12th, 2006 at 1:06 am and is filed under Classic.
You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
Leave a Reply
| top |