Technological Mediation and the Musicalization of Reality on Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet


Anne Danielsen, University of Oslo

From the early 1980s and onwards several rap artists and groups addressed the problems and issues linked to unemployment, poverty, underground economy and drug abuse in American inner city communities. At the end of the 1980s this trend of social commentary rap culminated with the commercial breakthrough of groups like Public Enemy and N.W.A.. Public Enemy became particularly important in this process. Their crossover success was considerable, and their combination of heavy beats, astonishing sonic montages, and an explicit political involvement appeared as extremely powerful, both regarding politics and music.
A starting point for this paper was in the experience that the political and musical dimensions of Public Enemy’s music seemed to intertwine to an extreme degree. It seems almost impossible to say where the one ends and the other starts. The discourse and images surrounding Public Enemy’s music contribute to this process. In this paper, however, the focus is not Public Enemy’s means of visual communication, but rather how this exchange, between what might be called a domain of aesthetics and a domain of politics is taking place in music.  Put differently, I will focus on the relation between musical means and political discourse in order to demonstrate how an exchange of art and reality may be staged, not only as a relation of musical and visual elements, but inside a sonic world. And, it will be argued, in this process production and music technology play important roles.
I will approach my topic through analysis and discussion of the album Fear of a Black Planet, released on Def Jam in 1990. I pay specific attention to Public Enemy’s use of samples from so-called ‘real life’ locations, a feature that have become a trademark of Public Enemy's production technique.

Situating the Musical Event

A striking aspect of rap music is the way fragments of other songs or sounds are re-circulated and re-used in a new musical context by means of sampling. These processes of re-circulation may be approached at two levels. On one level, the choice of samples serves musical aims. On another, the inclusion of sound material, whether initially musical or non-musical, obviously has more to it than sound as such: it includes the history and symbolic value of the sampled material. This applies to both the historical and the contemporary sources that are used, and regarding the former, it is probably not by accident that so many rap artists look to 1960s and -70s soul and funk for sonic materials for the recycling process. These sounds associate to a very vital period of black American history. At the same time, the sound quality and the feel of soul and funk from this period are, in Tricia Rose’s words "as important to hip hop's sound as the machines that deconstruct and reformulate them."  [1]
However, in the case of reality rap, the fact that the sampler can use any sound as its material, brought the music closer to a mass mediated, contemporary urban soundscape. At the time of the classic Public Enemy albums, the possibilities for manipulating the recorded sound were somewhat limited compared to today. Nevertheless, the sampler, in combination with sequencing equipment, became a main tool for the development of their characteristic multilayered collages of sounds, inducing images of a polyphonic urban soundscape of voices and street noise, breaking glass, siren and gun shot effects. It was not least through the inclusion of such non-musical ‘documentary’ sounds that Public Enemy made their music a way of addressing the important questions regarding the impoverished situation in the inner city ghettos of the USA. [2]
Initially these documentary sounds neither belong to nor associate themselves with a musical context. Rather they belong to the alleged ‘real life’ (or mime this). Nevertheless, when included in a musical context, also non-musical documentary sounds deal with musical as well as extra-musical issues: they add both symbolic values and musical qualities to the music. Regarding the latter, the use of noise is striking. A lot of noise is incorporated in the production, and many samples are probably chosen according to their ‘dirty’ sound, that is, according to timbral qualities. Moreover, the documentary sounds are included because of their associative power. One important aspect of this is that the sonic fragments of ‘reality’ unavoidably contribute to giving the music a certain location in time and space. In this respect the tune "911 Is a Joke" from the album Fear of a Black Planet is a typical example of Public Enemy’s production technique. It starts with an eight bar intro, immediately bringing forth an emergency situation located in an inner city environment. The atmosphere is urgent: there is hectic, chaotic engagement. Several voices are talking on top of each other. An authoritative person repeatedly states the fact: "There is not a minute to spare!" while another tries to calm down the situation with an ensuring: "Don't worry!” Far behind, we hear the sound of a megaphone, and running all through is an oscillating, enervating synthetic sound with a siren-like melodic movement up and down.
As the rap starts, this location is moved to the back. The sound as a whole dries up. The lead rapper enters the scene, establishing a communicative focus similar to when a journalist reports live from dramatic events on TV. This part lasts for eight bars. Then the musical background changes slightly, as in the second part of the rapped 'verse' many of the continuous, forward directed musical elements, such as the oscillating synthetic sound and the bass line, are removed from the sound box. [3]  The sound opens up: suddenly there is a lot more space in the rhythmic fabric, allowing a deeper, funky feel.
In the ‘chorus’, the sound reminds of the intro. Once again it is crammed with emergency sounds and distinct utterances of different kinds. In fact the “building blocks” of the introduction and the chorus are largely similar: the two consist of a lot of the same sonic material. Yet they are significantly different.

<Cf. audio example 1>

This is of course partly due to the fact that in the chorus, there is a focus on the lead rapper. However, there are important differences also regarding the underlying rhythmic collage. In general the soundscape of the chorus appears less dense and chaotic. The chorus seems, in short, far more focused and ordered according to a musical logic. While many samples in the intro form distinct entities and carry associations to a certain extra-musical context, in the chorus the same samples point less towards the outside world. This is achieved by removing a few elements, among them the voices uttering the different “emergency statements” (“Don’t worry” etc.) and the siren-like synthetic sound, as well as by adding one element, a sample that fills the musical role of a horn section (but which does not sound like one). This sample manages to pull the texture as a whole in the direction of musical signification. As a consequence, the samples forming the community environment, such as the buzz of voices in the background, lose much of the original reference to an urban reality. Suddenly, they primarily have a musical function, emerging as significant timbral and textural aspects of the groove as a whole.

Musical versus Informational Signification

The small alterations in the texture, described above, make a considerable impact as they, in many instances, cause a shift from semantic to musical signification: a sample may be turned from a sonic element with a pragmatic reference, in this case linking the music to a certain environment and certain socio-political problems linked with this environment, into a sonic element that puts musical signification into focus, and vice versa. This transition may also be described as a transition in which a sign goes from having primarily a practical function to having primarily an aesthetic function.
The close relation between practical and aesthetic functions, or to be more specific, between informational and poetic usage of language, is a recurring theme within what is called the Prague school of linguistics. In an essay entitled “Poetic reference” Jan Mukarovsky, for example, investigates this relation through a discussion of what he calls poetic reference. According to Mukarovsky, poetic reference is not determined by qualities in the sign itself. Nor is it the relationship, (or the lack thereof, one might add) to the reality that is indicated that is decisive. Poetic reference is primarily determined by the way it is set into the verbal context. He writes:
 “…in poetry as against informal language, there is a reversal in the hierarchy of relations: in the latter attention is focussed [sic] above all on the relation, important from the practical point of view, between reference and reality, whereas for the former, it is the relationship between the reference and the context incorporating it that stands to the fore. This is not to say that informational reference is absolutely exempt from any effect of the context or that, on the other hand, poetic reference is excluded from any contact with reality. All that is involved is a shift, so to speak, in the center of gravity. As for poetic reference, the weakening of its immediate relationship with reality makes of it an artistic device.” [4]
In a tune like “911 is a joke” the possibility of such a “shift in center of gravity” is used to make the texture balance on the edge between musical and informational signification. One moment a certain sampled element works in a similar way to “informal language”; attention is focused on the relation between the sample and a certain reality, while in the next moment, the same sample acts primarily as a musical reference; the relationship between the reference and the (musical) context incorporating it comes to the fore. This shift from informational to musical reference is achieved by small alterations in the sonic material. These minor changes, which in line with Mukarovsky’s thoughts may be conceived of as a form of awakening of the potential for aesthetic function inherent in any sound, move the emphasis slightly in the direction of a sample’s musical qualities, or, vice versa, they bring the location character of the sampled material up-front.

Tradition and Technology

The urban soundscape, the mass media fragments, the historical and autobiographical aspects, and the direct style of communication, all emphasize the close relation to ‘real life’ in Public Enemy's music. In general, we might say that the ‘realism’ of so-called reality rap is very much linked to these features, and, moreover, that this reality effect is crucial for the notion of authenticity within this genre. Along these lines, Public Enemy’s Chuck D. has stated that rap is black America's CNN. It is a way for a national community without access to the mainstream media to communicate and share its way of living, its politics, styles and language.  However, even though the perceived documentary aspect of the music sometimes conveys the impression that there is a one-to-one relation between rap and the life of the rapper, between life and work, there is, of course no guarantee for such a relation. Put differently, one might say that positioning a work of art in the borderland of fact and fiction often contributes to conceal its status as mediation. (This is an interesting issue that could be discussed in more detail, but I do not have the time to go into this here.)
Nevertheless, a consequence of this ‘realism’ is that a Public Enemy production does not primarily present itself as a separate musical world, in which events unfold according to abstract musical rules. Rather it deals with, or perhaps even presents, an actual life-world. The songs appear to be reports on reality.
This blurring of art and reality, [5] is not exclusive to reality rap. In fact it is a prevalent tendency of much contemporary art, both visual and musical. It is often linked to new digital technological media, and not surprisingly, one might say, since these means obviously make it easier to sample a fragment of reality and process it in a way that makes it fit well into an aesthetic whole. However, also earlier African-American cultural traditions are characterized by a similar inclination to including references to the outside world. The African-American oral tradition described by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his pioneering book “The Signifying Monkey”, for example, is another cultural practice based on the thin line between poetic and informational use of language, and on the rhetoric power a play on this line may have.[6]  Moreover, when it comes to the groove-based repetitive form of rap and much other contemporary computer-based African-American popular music, it is a fact that many earlier African and African-American musical traditions are characterized by a similar approach. [7]
However, even though similar musical forms and rhetorical techniques also characterize music dating back to before the technological innovations of the past twenty years, the occurrence of collage-like repetitive forms has increased with technological devices such as the MIDI-system, sampling and hard disc recording, and recent developments within the field of digital sound processing (DSP). These technological devices make it easier to work out complex sonic events within a short time frame by trying out different solutions with less practical effort. The sound box may be filled with several layers of easily exchangeable sounds, and different sonic and rhythmic temporal shapings may be investigated without the constraints of having to work in real time.
In short, given the powerful meeting of technology and existing traditions in African-American music during the past twenty years, it may seem like the groove directed African-American musical poetics, as well as the rhetorical strategies of African-American verbal traditions, fit particularly well with the solutions suggested by the new digital technological means. And the other way around: the new digital music technology may be thought to have re-actualized African-American groove-directed music and signifying practices. From this, it may be concluded that innovative appropriation of new technology happens first and foremost in a context where technology offers good solutions and new possibilities within the framework of existing values and practices.


1. Tricia Rose, Black Noise. Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), 78.
2. It is an open question whether the sounds are authentic or not. This is, however, not of crucial importance since it is rather the effect of the sounds that matters in this context.
3. The term 'sound-box' was presented by Allan Moore in Rock. The Primary Text (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1993), 106.  The concept was also used in discussions of sound and production on the Prince album Diamonds and Pearls from 1991. See Anne Danielsen, “His name was Prince. A study of Diamonds and Pearls” Popular Music 16 (3) (1998): 275-291.
4. Jan Mukarovsky, “Poetic Reference,” in Semiotics of Art. Prague School Contributions, ed. L. Matejka and I.R. Titunik (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1976), 157.
5. For an interesting and thought provoking discussion of the blurring of art and reality in rap film, see Valerie Smith, “The Documentary Impulse in Contemporary U.S. African-American Film” in Black Popular Culture, ed. Gina Dent (Seattle: Bay Press, 1992).
6. Henry L. Gates, Jr. The Signifying Monkey. A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).
7. See, for example, Olly Wilson, “Black Music as an Art Form” Black Music Research Journal 3 (1983): 1-22; John Miller Chernoff, African Rhythm and African Sensibilities. Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979); J. H. Kwabena Nketia, The Music of Africa (New York/London: Norton, 1974); and Anne Danielsen, Presence and Pleasure. The grooves of James Brown and Parliament (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, forthcoming 2006).