Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Shit Storm

Shortly before the June 1988 release of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Public Enemy did some alarming interviews in London. Quotable quotes like "There's no place for gays. When God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, it was for that sort of behaviour" and "If the Palestinians took up arms, went into Israel and killed all the Jews, it'd be alright" so shocked the U.K. that to this day most Brit crits believe Yo! Bum Rush the Show is the great PE album. Odious as these sentiments are, though, the fact remains that there's no discernible homophobia or anti-Semitism (and only a touch of reverse racism) in the crew's recorded work. Furthermore, the offending bigmouth was neither Chuck D nor Flavor Flav, but PE's designated Minister of Information, Professor Griff, reputedly a Black Muslim, though one hears that Muslims don't trust Griff because he declines to observe Nation of Islam tenets while continuing to spout white-men-fucked-dogs-in-the-Caucasus dogma. Soon word was that either Def Jam or PE itself had gagged Griff. When John Leland covered the group for the September 1988 Spin, he talked to Chuck D and only Chuck D, who first asserted, "I back Griff. Whatever he says, he can prove," then claimed, "People are gonna see that Griff said this, and in the same interview, I said something else." Obviously, Chuck was a little loose-lipped with Leland. But compared not just to Griff but to, oh, John Cougar Mellencamp, he was Noam Chomsky.

And there the matter lay. Long since platinum, Nation of Millions is now regarded as a milestone. Hank Shocklee is a remixer in full effect, Flavor Flav a street hero, Chuck D talking vanity label with MCA. And while no outsider would call their ideology consistent, gradually Public Enemy came to be seen as a politically promising public entity--at the very least, the chief reason second-generation B-boys adorn themselves with leather Africa medallions instead of dookie gold. Until May 22, when the Reverend Moon's ultraconservative D.C. daily The Washington Times published a one-on-one interview between Professor Griff and black reporter David Mills.

It's tempting to see this confrontation as a set-up, and in the usual journalistic sense it was--knowing Griff had a damaging story in him, Mills enticed him into giving it up. But after meeting Mills, an excitable young guy with a Southern drawl who could pass for Italian or Greek, I found it hard to see him as part of a rightwing conspiracy to rid the nation of up-and-coming black nationalist leaders (which is how many regard Al Sharpton's association with onetime D.A. candidate Vernon Mason, for instance). He's clearly appalled by both anti-Semitism and white racism; a month after his big moment he was arguing furiously with anyone who cocked an eyebrow at him that he had every right to research Jewish involvement in the slave trade. And in any case, Griff was aching to get sucker-punched. Forty minutes into their exchange, Mills kicked off the crucial segment of the interview by citing "an offhand remark" Griff had made on a TV interview a month before--"I think that's why they call it `jewelry,' because the Jews in South Africa, they run that thing"--and Griff was off to the races.

This wasn't just anti-Zionism run amok, it was pure, paranoid, hate-filled anti-Semitism, with Henry Ford's notorious The International Jew a prime cited source. After making an exception for the "righteous" Jews "that are following the Torah given to them by Moses" (we'll meet these paragons again soon), Griff opined that "the majority of them [i.e., Jews]" are responsible for "the majority of the wickedness that goes on across the globe." He dared Jews to send "their faggot little hit men" after him, raved about how "the Jews finance these experiments on AIDS with black people in South Africa," observed that "the Jews have their hands right around Bush's throat," and concluded that he must be speaking the truth because if he wasn't the Jew who owned CBS would long since have forced him, Griff, out of the group. In all these pronouncements, of course, the style of thought is as telling as the substance--homophobic epithets, a lobby as a stranglehold, a single man "owning" an enormous corporation. But faced with these rabid slanders, Chuck D declined to dissociate himself from his brother. As Mills recounted a later interview: "So as Chuck D sees it, true Jews aren't responsible for the world's wickedness. `Maybe I would say people that fronted as Jews. I don't think they deserve the term `Jew.'" Only paragons need apply.

Although Mills's piece was reprinted May 29 in the Moonies' New York rag, the story lagged until RJ Smith picked it up in the Village Voice out June 14. (I should note that I get my paycheck from the Voice and count RJ a friend.) That was when the "shit storm" Chuck D predicted began. All kinds of gossip surfaced--the group's longsuffering label publicist Bill Adler (raised Jewish) had had enough, the group's up-and-coming private publicist Leyla Turkkan (raised Muslim) had had enough, Chuck was label-jumping, the group was breaking up. And the feces are still flying as I write, partly because instead of either sticking by Griff or disowning him, Chuck D tried to do both. To an extent this must have reflected genuinely divided loyalties--in the kindest construction, his personal ties pulled him one way and his own beliefs the other. There are even rumors that at one point in PE's inept damage control operation Chuck alone opposed ousting Griff from the group. At his most hysterical, he was dumb enough to phone Smith and hit him with some freestyle: "Listen to me, RJ, any shit that comes down on me, it's coming down on you. And that's a goddamn threat! Write this down! I ain't gonna write no goddamn white-boy liberal letter to the editor, no article either."

By June 19, with that gem already in Smith's next column, Chuck had chilled enough to sign a single-spaced two-and-a-half page statement ("TO ALL OFFENDED, CONCERNED AND UNCONCERNED") announcing that Griff was no longer Public Enemy's Minister of Information. The wording was roundabout, never quite specifying whether Griff was dismissed for his stated ideas or his failings as a "diplomat." But the tone was thoughtful, informed, humane, and a little mad--in short, a rock critic's dream. Certainly no white admirer of the group could hope for an antiracist credo more explicit than "Black Power is only a self-defense movement that counterattacks the system of white world supremacy, not white people or the religious sects they choose." Next day, the statement was withdrawn. A new one, we were told, would be presented at a press conference the following morning.

The hot rumor was that Griff had been kicked out of PE altogether, and at around 11:15 in a modest conference room at Manhattan's Sheraton Centre that rumor came true, or so it seemed. Compared to a similar event almost exactly a decade earlier, when Elvis Costello tried to apologize for uttering the word "nigger" in public, this one was small potatoes--a dozen or so print journalists, Mills included, and three TV crews who soon blew out the mike, thus almost silencing the star attraction, Chuck D and only Chuck D. It was also brief, with questions cut off after half an hour. Though at moments his wording could still be construed as more critical of Griff's timing than of his beliefs, Chuck D stated explicitly that "the whole group" (which other members later denied) had dismissed Griff as a matter of "discipline" for his failure to promulgate "Public Enemy's program." For once he came off truly righteous: "We are not anti-Jewish, we are not anti-anybody--we are pro-black, pro-black culture, pro-human race. Professor Griff's responsibility as Minister of Information for Public Enemy was to faithfully transmit those values--to everybody. In practice he sabotaged these values."

Chuck made clear that he still felt loyalty and admiration for PE's most diligent freelance scholar. But he also implied what many believed--that Griff's provocations had been deliberate, a way of getting back at the group for his diminished role. And at least three of Chuck's comments set him apart from black nationalist orthodoxy: he referred to Griff's "offensive"--never "anti-Semitic"--comments as "racism" ("You can't talk about attacking racism and be racist"), acknowledged that even blacks had participated in the slave trade ("though they got conquered too in the end"), and distinguished the Nation of Islam's economic program from the rest of its ideology ("I follow the Nation because Minister Farrakhan and the Nation show us economic self-sufficiency in America and that's my sole use for this information"). A lot of the time he seemed like the smartest guy at a dorm-room bull session. "I don't even wanta get into the religion game," he told us, "because I just think religion throughout the years has been a conspiracy by the world leaders to trick the people." Right on.

There were predictable mutterings that Chuck had been forced to moderate his posture by CBS or MCA--people didn't say "the Jews" only because they were in a state of raised consciousness. And clearly the pressure had been driving Chuck crazy--like all new stars and many old ones, he has a hellish time determining where private begins and public leaves off even under ordinary circumstances. It was my impression, however, that he wasn't bullshitting. Even better, it seemed conceivable that this grotesque incident would prove the catalyst that could inspire PE to top an album so epochal there was no reason to hope they'd ever get over it. But subsequent events haven't moved that way. The very next day, sources close to PE began reporting that the group had broken up, and soon it was official. "We're outta here," Chuck told an MTV interviewer. And sharing a bill with N.W.A at Philadelphia's Spectrum Sunday night--Griff didn't appear, although he was backstage--he announced that this would be Public Enemy's final performance. There was a small riot. Spectrum employees were assaulted. It was a mess.

For the moment, that's where the saga stands. It won't stop developing--Al Sharpton has been seen circling in PE's vicinity--and it's reasonable to hope that three or six or nine months down the road, after Spike Lee returns to the set and Chuck's label flops and Flavor Flav staggers under the weight of his own album, PE will regroup. But for the moment it's relatively stable, and we're stuck with with a familiar rock and roll tragedy: well-meaning entertainers thrust into a prominence they can't handle. Even before the shit storm, Public Enemy was riven by the jealousies and thwarted egos that beset all newly successful groups, with special complications. At one point, Leyla Turkkan told Chuck that he wasn't equal to the leadership role she'd helped him achieve: "You're not learned enough," she pointed out. And while that's not the whole story (learning has never helped anybody cope with the brute exposure of fame), it's a contradiction endemic to an era when we expect political insight from rock heroes--think of Bono, Mellencamp, Prince. If the rock heroes are black nationalists, so much the worse--although the sorry history of integration in this country has once again convinced many of us that some sort of black-power program is essential to the achievement of the most basic kind of black equality, the details of that program have escaped thinkers far more sapient than Chuck D. The best we can hope is that this latest setback will prove educational--the learn-from-our-mistakes/trials model. The worst we can fear is that it will serve to unloose the already overflowing backlog of desperation and paranoia on both sides of the color line.

LA Weekly, 1989