Sunday, 19 July 2015

Oliver: Public Enemy - By the Time I Get to Arizona (21 December 1991)

I always have a tendency to pick up on things just at the fag end of when they're happening.  Whether it's in fashion, technology or culture, I'll always end up keeping my distance until committing myself just at the point where whatever traction the thing has is slowing to a halt and then something else springs up to take its place.  It's now happening retrospectively.

With this blog taking late 1991 as its starting point, I've made a few interesting discoveries regarding some of the artists and scenes that Peel was playing at that time.  The most relevant to this post is that "the golden age" of rap and hip hop was coming to an end when Peel played this track on 21/12/91.  It may not be an exhaustive amount of reading to determine this but both Simon Reynolds in Retromania and Tim Grierson in Public Enemy: Inside the Terrordome have referenced 1987-91 as the genre's highpoint both from a thematic sense and the kid in a candy store mentality which saw unlimited sampling intermingled with a perfect fusion of MC and DJ in so many crews.  Gradually over the course of the 90s, oversampling became more expensive and the MC gained more prominence, altering the balance that made so many of the cuts and records from that first rush of releases so memorable.  That's their theory anyway, it will be interesting to see how Peel shows from subsequent years reflect that and how they affect my selections.

The sense of a golden age being brought to an end also applied in many people's eyes to Public Enemy by late 1991.  The release of their fourth album, Apocalypse 91...The Enemy Strikes Black has been regarded in wider critical circles as the last essential Public Enemy record, part of a continuum with their earlier releases: Yo! Bum Rush the Show, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet.  I haven't heard the complete Apocalypse 91.... yet, but according to Grierson, it's overall theme marked a shift away from examining how white repression has stifled black people from enjoying the same opportunities, instead it looked inward to how and why the black community had allowed this state of affairs to come about.  By the Time I Get to Arizona though was on more familiar ground, taking as its inspiration, the decision by the states of Arizona and New Hampshire not to have a public holiday to mark Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday. Using the riff from Mandrill's song Two Sisters of Mystery, Chuck D's response to this oversight is predictably incendiary: nothing less than assassination will do and this coming from a collective who were the antithesis of the gangster rap acts that would start to gain more of a foothold in the market after the "golden age" was over.  The riff is fed through the same kind of distortion that characterised Public Enemy's sound in the Nation of Millions...era; "Recording in the red" as Hank Shocklee put it. And this meant that even if the noise discomfited you, as Chuck D wanted it to, you were primed and ready for him to come over the top of it all and tell you the way it is.

This cut was promoted by a highly controversial video.  It was broadcast once on MTV in January 1992 and Chuck D found himself having to defend it on a number of American TV shows, usually being dragged in to do interviews at 5:30am by satellite because Public Enemy were on a European tour at the time.  Nevertheless, the controversy achieved its aims given that in November 1992, Arizona voters voted for the King holiday.  New Hampshire waited a further seven years before agreeing to it.

Tim Grierson's book is an interesting look at the whole of Public Enemy's career up to the present day.  In a happy accident of timing, they've released a new album this week: Man Plans, God Laughs.

Videos courtesy of R3dJerro and PublicEnemy.

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