PE, Fear Of A Black Planet (1990) Album Cover
Tomorrow’s an important milestone in my life. Nineteen years ago, I went to a Public Enemy concert with one of my Pitt friends. It was a Thursday evening engagement at the old Syria Mosque, a weird name for a place that was a entertainment hall, not a place of worship. I believe it was a Masonic temple, one located less than two blocks from Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning on Bigelow Blvd near or on Fifth Avenue. It wasn’t the beginning of my interest in hip-hop, my friendly date for that evening, or maintaining an eclectic sense of thought and style. But it confirmed in many ways how unbounded my mind was, regarding music and so much else.
I’m still amazed at times what I’ve come to like over the past three decades of almost continuous music consumption, as reflected when I allow my iPod to randomly select from some 1,300 songs. My home life at 616 wasn’t much of a guide. My mother liked Al Green, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Temptations and The Four Tops. My idiot stepfather loved The Ohio Players and The Commodores. My alcoholic father was into anything that he could snap his fingers to off- rhythm, including Motown, and especially James Brown. I guess that makes sense, since Jimme and the Godfather of Soul spoke in the same incomprehensible cadence. For me, it all started with Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Fantasy.” I just happened to catch it on the radio one day, it must have been on WBLS 107.5 FM, sometime in second grade, ’76-’77 for me. I loved the song, I don’t know why, but it was literally the first time I consciously came into contact with music.
Two years later, I had a much easier way of gaining exposure to music without waiting for my mother or stepfather to turn on my mother’s beat-up stereo system from her days with my father. One of the first things Jimme bought me and my brother Darren after we started our occasional weekend times with him was a small transistor radio. It had both FM and AM, which in the days of the late ’70s was a relatively new technology. Both me and my older brother would play around with the radio, but I used it more often. I eventually settled on two stations — WABC 77 AM and WBLS.
Because I had no immediate guide as to what to listen for, my criteria for music was to like whatever sounded good as it bounced around my ears and brain. Frank Sinatra, Billy Joel, Donna Summer, E ,W & F, Christopher Cross, Michael Jackson (the Off the Wall album), Stephanie Mills, Teddy Pendergrass, Marvin Gaye, The Commodores (post-funk — my stepfather made me sick of “Brickhouse“) and so on. I loved how WBLS signed off at the end of the night, with “Moody’s Mood for Love,” a song from the mid-’50, with the “there I go, there I go, there I go” refrain at the beginning of the song. Call me weird, but this is where my eclecticness started.
The summer of ’80, just before my mother and stepfather separated for the first time, we went to a concert in the park, somewhere in the Bronx, most likely Van Cortlandt Park between 242nd and 262nd. It was a rap concert, my first one, and it featured Sugar Hill Gang among others. I kind of liked it, especially since I couldn’t believe how quickly the rappers put words together in combination and in rhythm. It was as silly as it was profound, at least for me at ten. I liked it, but it wasn’t exactly playing on every radio station in New York. Even WBLS almost completely ignored rap in those days. My stepfather bought their album soon after that concert.
For the next year, my musical tastes continued to take shape, including Pink Floyd, Queen, Luther Vandross, REO Speedwagon, Kenny Rogers, Kenny Loggins, Genesis and Phil Collins, along with what I already liked. Then my stepfather came back into our lives with his Hebrew-Israelite religion, disrupting the songs in my head for a few years. My saving grace, in the weirdest of ways, was being in Humanities, the gifted track program in which I was enrolled for six years.
I’ve counted off numerous negatives about this program in this blog over the past nineteen months. One positive, though, at least for me, was the rich mix of pop culture in the classroom. I could vicariously keep up with music through the singing of classmates, the music that some of them would play on their radios, boom boxes, and their first Walkmans. I learned to despise The Who, like The Police, tune out the heavy metal, continue to feel ambivalent about rap, and wish I didn’t have to wait for my classmates or for a trip to a grocery store to keep up with music’s constant evolution. Much of the rest around my explorations of pop music and rock, of silliness and search for spiritual meaning, I’ve described in my previous postings.
Like many folks in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I became caught up in this sense of affirming or reaffirming my sense of Blackness, of understanding my world through the lens of race, of attempting to make sense of Afrocentricity and how I fit or didn’t fit into it. One of my grad school friends tried to define this as a period of renewed Black pride, between roughly ’88 and ’92, with the rise of what he called “Afrocentric rap,” including Arrested Development, Digable Planets, Wu-Tang, and of course, PE. I think that’s a bit too cerebral, and that’s saying a lot. For me, it was a period of experimentation and discovery, between ’87 and ’95, when hip-hop evolved and devolved between socially-conscious messages, materialism, and socially-conscious messages through materialism. That’s what PE represented for me, even before I left for Pitt in ’87.
By the beginning of the new decade, the ’90s, I’d already been reconfiguring my inner and outer musical soundtrack for more than two years. I had already weeded out such wonderful artists and groups such as Thompson Twins, Starship, Glass Tiger (don’t ask), Whitney Houston (can’t listen to anything from her first two albums) and other things that one should only listen to while snorting coke. As soon as I found out that PE was coming to Pittsburgh to play songs from Fear of a Black Planet and from their other albums, I went over to Syria Mosque and snapped up two tickets, presuming I could get one of my friends to come with me to see them perform.
I knew who to ask and why. As much as any person over the years, this friend made me feel all right about my eclectic music tastes, partly because hers were almost as eclectic as my own. Other than my wife, who loves Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry along with Talib Kweli and Blind Willie Johnson (’20s era Blues), I can’t think of another person who’s influenced my musical likings more. I mean, how many Blacks did I know who both liked The Beatles and PE, unless they were artists like Doug E. Fresh or Grandmaster Flash?
It was a great concert, probably the best concert I’ve ever been to (not that I’ve been to all that many over the years). It made me realize that music was truly universal, that there was some merit to any music genre, no matter how silly, serious or scintillating. I felt connected again, in that music was about more than my enduring march of miracles and fantasies, of using it as an escape or as a way to motivate myself academically or otherwise. It was something to enjoy, to read into it as much or as little meaning as I wanted. It was a way to build connections to other people, to form friendships and relationships. And it was a way to map the events that unfolded in my life. That PE concert wasn’t the beginning of my modern eclecticism of music, and it was hardly the end. But it really did help.