Was Public Enemy's 'revenge fantasy' taken too literally? MEMORABLE MOMENTS

December 27, 1992|By J. D. Considine fTC | J. D. Considine fTC,Pop Music Critic

"It's called 'By the Time I Get to Arizona,' and it shows several of that state's officials being killed for refusing to adopt Martin Luther King's birthday as a state holiday. The group Public Enemy calls it 'a revenge fantasy,' but many who gather to honor Dr. King today call it a disgrace to his memory."

That was the way Forrest Sawyer introduced the Jan. 20 edition of ABC's "Nightline," and on the whole, it made for a fairly concise summary of the controversy then swirling around the rap video. Released to MTV only a few weeks earlier, it showed Public Enemy's Chuck D leading a paramilitary team -- played by the group's own "security force," the S1Ws -- on a search-and-destroy mission against fictitious Arizona politicians.

"By the Time I Get to Arizona" was designed to provoke controversy, and it succeeded. Quivering with outrage, columnists and commentators from coast to coast railed against the video. Some called it an insult to the legacy of nonviolence left by Dr. King; others fretted that its images of imagined retribution would spark real-life violence from rap fans too young or too angry to see the clip for what it claimed to be -- a piece of fiction.

Some of us refused to buy that theory, though. On Jan. 19, an article of mine argued that these critics were missing the point -- the video wasn't advocating violence, it was expressing anger. Moreover, what really frightened people about the clip wasn't "that it has the power to stir up trouble, but that it makes us think about troubles we'd just as soon shove under the table."

A producer at "Nightline" saw the story, and called the next day. And so I found myself in a studio on Television Hill, linked by satellite to Sawyer in New York, Chuck D in Hamburg, Germany, and Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page in Washington, D.C.

Page represented the conventional wisdom, agreeing that it was wrong for Arizonans to reject King Day, but arguing that Public Enemy's video would only turn people against the holiday. Furthermore, he felt the video's simulated assassinations flew in the face of King's adherence to nonviolence; at one point, he wondered how Chuck D could possibly idolize Dr. King when he seemed to share so few of King's ideals.

Chuck D, for his part, countered that the clip wasn't a plan for action but "a possible scenario," a fiction intended to open discussion on the issue. As for Page's contention that it was time to "break the cycle of violence," Chuck insisted that "violence in our neighborhoods is caused by a lot of things -- lack of education, lack of the right information, lack of self-respect. . . . Not the amount of violence [in rap videos]."

That made sense to me, so I pushed his argument a step further. This fight, I said, wasn't a matter of violence vs. non-violence, but of media propaganda. And if the Republicans could use Willie Horton to carry Bush to victory in '88, why shouldn't Public Enemy use a revenge-fantasy video to express its rage at perceived racism?

Who won? Looking back, it's clear that Page was the only pro in the party, cutting in with aplomb and maintaining his talking-head smile no matter how the discussion raged. Chuck D parried gamely, but clearly was tired -- and no wonder, since it was 5:30 in the morning in Hamburg. Most of the discussion was between them, leaving me to the "Yeah, but . . ." role (in fact, one of my yeah-buts with Sawyer wound up sampled onto the current Public Enemy album, as part of the intro to "Gotta Do What I Gotta Do").

Still, Chuck D's final point, that P.E. would quiet down once the King holiday is accepted in Arizona, must have swayed someone. In November, a referendum on the issue passed easily, ensuring that Public Enemy -- and everyone else -- will be able to celebrate Martin Luther King Day in January '93.

GOOD, BAD AND UGLY TOP 10 ALBUMS

1. Lindsey Buckingham, "Out of the Cradle" (Warner Bros.)

2. R.E.M., "Automatic for the People" (Warner Bros.)

3. P. J. Harvey, "Dry" (Island)

4. Arrested Development, "3 Years 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life of . . ." (Chrysalis)

5. Nine Inch Nails, "Broken" (Nothing/TVT/Interscope)

6. Alice in Chains, "Dirt" (Columbia)

7. Tori Amos, "Little Earthquakes" (Atlantic)

8. Sugar, "Copper Blue" (Ryko)

9. Screaming Trees, "Sweet Oblivion" (Epic)

10. Mary-Chapin Carpenter, "Come on Come on" (Columbia)

TOP 10 SINGLES

1. Sir Mix-a-Lot, "Baby Got Back" (Def American)

2. Screaming Trees, "Nearly Lost You" (Epic)

3. The KLF with Tammy Wynette, "Justified and Ancient" (Arista)

4. Arrested Development, "Tennessee" (Chrysalis)

5. Pearl Jam, "Even Flow" (Epic)

6. En Vogue, "My Lovin' (You're Never Gonna Get It)" (East/West)

7. Tom Cochrane, "Life Is a Highway" (Capitol)

8. Wreckx-N-Effect, "Rump Shaker" (MCA)

9. The Shamen, "LSI (Love Sex Intelligence)" (Epic)

10. The Movement, "Jump!" (Arista)

TOP FIVE CONCERTS

1. U2, March 10, the Spectrum, Philadelphia

2. Bruce Springsteen, June 15, the Globe, Stockholm

3. Tori Amos, Sept. 13, Lisner Auditorium, Washington, D. C.

4. P. J. Harvey, December 3, 9:30 Club, Washington, D. C.

5. Elton John, Sept. 20, Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia

TOP FIVE VIDEOS

1. Sir Mix-a-Lot, "Baby Got Back"

2. The KLF with Tammy Wynette, "Justified and Ancient"

3. Tori Amos, "Silent All These Years"

4. Lisa Stansfield, "All Woman"

5. U2, "Even Better Than the Real Thing"

FIVE WORST ALBUMS

1. Michael Bolton, "Timeless (The Classics)" (Columbia)

2. Right Said Fred, "Up" (Charisma)

3. Billy Ray Cyrus, "Some Gave All" (Mercury)

4. Garth Brooks, "The Chase" (Liberty)

5. Wilson Phillips, "Shadows and Light" (SBK)

FIVE WORST SINGLES

1. Billy Ray Cyrus, "Achy Breaky Heart" (Mercury)

2. The Heights, "How Do You Talk to an Angel?" (Capitol)

3. Ugly Kid Joe, "Everything About You" (Mercury)

4. Boyz II Men, "End of the Road" (Motown)

5. Michael Jackson, "Heal the World" (Epic)

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