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Rap--The Power and the Controversy : Success has validated pop's most volatile form, but its future impact could be shaped by the continuing Public Enemy uproar

February 04, 1990|ROBERT HILBURN

NEW YORK — The song bursting through the speakers in the basement recording studio just off Broadway in the SoHo area is called "War at 33 1/3 It's the ideal sound track for the summit meeting taking place this night between rap's two most embattled figures.

Chuck D. is the 29-year-old leader of Public Enemy, the controversial New York rap group that has been embroiled in controversy in recent months over alleged anti-Semitism. Chuck D., who has steadfastly denied the allegations, is seated at the control booth, working on the final mix of his group's long-overdue third album.

Standing nearby is Ice Cube, the 20-year-old Los Angeles rapper whose lyrics for N.W.A's platinum debut album were criticized last year by an FBI agent for encouraging violence against law enforcement officers.

Ice Cube, who has similarly denied the accusation, is in town because he has left N.W.A and he wants part of the Public Enemy production team to work with him on his upcoming solo album. But tonight, Ice Cube is in the studio because he wants a preview of the new album from one of the groups that inspired him to record rap music.

Public Enemy's album, "Fear of a Black Planet," is expected in March from CBS-distributed Def Jam Records and is bound to be one of the most dissected pop collections in years.

One reason: "Fear" is the follow-up to "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back," the runaway choice as best album of 1988 in a poll of the nation's leading pop critics that appeared in the Village Voice. The album received twice as many votes as Tracy Chapman's heralded debut collection.

Another reason is the controversy that has shadowed Public Enemy since the group's former "minister of information" Professor Griff made anti-Semitic remarks last May in a widely quoted interview with the Washington Times. See story on facing page.

Chuck D. (real name: Carlton Ridenhour) disavowed the remarks and immediately kicked Griff out of the group. But he later brought Griff back into the fold--though in a diminished role. The reversal led to questions about Chuck D.'s own thinking and politics.

For some observers, the puzzlement turned to outrage in late December when Public Enemy released a single, "Welcome to the Terrordome," that sparked further charges of anti-Semitism and self-martyrdom.

The key lines in the song are a reference to the aftermath of the Griff incident, most specifically the criticism by the media and various Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, that almost tore the group apart:

Crucifixion ain't no fiction

So called chosen, frozen.

Apology made to whoever pleases

Still they got me like Jesus.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of Los Angeles' Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, branded the record "definitely anti-Semitic." (See Pop Eye, Page 74.) Some of the pop music press also lashed out. Alan Light, writing in Rolling Stone magazine said, "Public Enemy may still be rap's greatest talent, but the band is becoming increasingly impossible to defend."

All this has left Chuck D. trapped in a firestorm rarely seen in pop music--and it has taken its toll. He seems tense and a bit weary in the SoHo studio as he listens endlessly to "War at 33 1/3."

"All that flap over 'Terrordome' is just crazy," he says, so wired from the hectic pace of several all-night mixing sessions that he paces while he talks.

"There's nothing anti-Semitic in that record. People are going out of their way to find that interpretation. No one would ever have even thought about those lines if Griff hadn't done that (expletive) interview. But I'm not going to let it intimidate me." (See accompanying interview.)

Several people who have worked closely with Public Enemy, however, express concern about Chuck D.'s leadership abilities. They don't think Chuck D. is racist or anti-Semitic, but they fear he's in "over his head" as a social spokesman, a role that was never imagined when the principals in the Public Enemy story first gathered on the campus of a Long Island college in the early '80s.

Chuck D. insists he is being misunderstood by his critics and says he's confident about the future. Early sales for "Terrordome" are encouraging for him. In just four weeks on the Billboard rap charts, the song has jumped to No. 4, and the group's manager Russell Simmons is predicting the new album will double the 1 million sales of 1988's "Nation."

There's more than Public Enemy's future at stake when "Fear of a Black Planet" is released.

For, much like Bob Dylan in '60s rock and Bob Marley in reggae, Chuck D. has elevated rap artistry and ambition, and given the music a critical credibility that once seemed beyond its grasp. The reaction to Public Enemy's new album and how the group's leader handles his role as a social commentator may have more impact on rap in the early '90s than any other single factor.

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