11Feb/099

Public Enemy "Night Of The Living Baseheads"

“I wanted to write a song about how crack was affecting us. It was all around us, 360 degrees.” — Chuck D [1]


Public Enemy‘s “Night Of The Living Baseheads” is a period piece with enduring appeal. On PE’s debut Yo! Bumrush The Show, Chuck D’s rhetorical sophistication is nascent but morphs into a new beast by 1988. It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back sees Chuck blast the media’s defamation of outspoken “race men” and by his strategic estimate, the black collective. A permissible lie in the closing bars of “Bring The Noise” (“a magazine or two is dissing me and dissing you”) turns the media’s sophistry on its head, segueing nicely into “Don’t Believe The Hype,” a deconstruction of the machinery that churns racial animosity out of misinformation. 
Chuck’s anxiety over his entanglement in the hated system informs his most fiery works. A topic as germane and polarizing as the crack epidemic must have signalled an irresistible challenge for him. But “Baseheads” is not aimed at crack so much as the discourse that surrounds the rapidly evolving, multivalent crack meme. The groundwork for this discussion was already set, as  ’86/’87 rap was knee-deep in the subject.
On “Paid In Full” Rakim documents the socioeconomic nightmare of the corner trade. Boogie Down Productions’ “The P Is Free” attests to the rise of drug-related violence. Street thugs turned overnight playboy drug lords populate Ice-T‘s Goines-ian vignettes on Rhyme Pays. These narratives are occasionally moralizing but accompanied by the freshest beats out. The intrigue of the uptown crack dealer supplants the mystique of the downtown coke sniffer as the swagger to emulate. 
This transforms “the terrain of how you can rap.” Vocal and production techniques are mutually influential. The freedoms and limitations of existing technologies shape diverse responses to the scourge. Afrika Islam‘s lack of sampling experience leaves him reliant on the preset sounds of the Sp1200. He replays classic breaks in a manner tailor-made for Ice-T’s intentionally variegated drugstore paperback influenced raps.2 Ced Gee masters the sampling abilities of the same machine to creates a different canvas for KRS-One. The respective physical, technical, sonic, and narrative terrains are incidentally different, if only slightly.  
Schooly D knows the resonant symbolic power of crack. “It’s Krack” (from his 1986 debut Saturday Night! The Album) takes its name from fans who would say of his music ” ‘Ahh that shit is crack.’ Meaning it was hype like crack.3 “It’s Krack” is all Roland TR-909 drums, eerie keyboard sounds, unintelligible muttering. Chaos. It may not crack as hard as Marley Marl’s contemporaneous loops, but it hints at the future. Hype is precisely the feel that PE and the Bomb Squad seek for Nation after Eric B & Rakim and BDP’s innovations in “the phrasing of rap, which allowed you to be able to rhyme on a faster tempo, a faster groove” render prior styles obsolete.4
The allure of the faster music and its concomitant signifier is not lost on Chuck. To hook the dancers at the LQ he becomes the duplicitous journalist. “Baseheads” is the marriage of the colloquial brilliance that allows “bass” and “dope” to serve as simultaneous descriptors of music and drugs with the tricksterism that allows the contrived legal distinction between “crack” and “cocaine” to sway public perception. The video accurately depicts the group as an investigative media powerhouse, an extension of Spectrum City, wary of the pitfalls of utilizing the tactics of propaganda to find a fix.
Chuck reveres and loathes the sleazy hustle of the media, drug dealers, dope fiends and rappers. He is cognizant that the musical tradition he venerates is stained by illicit drug use. A return to the “funky” definition of “dope” is a dubious undertaking if once considers the publicized habits of Sly Stone, George Clinton, Marvin Gaye, and others. The alternative that Chuck envisions is a nation of conscientious zombies addicted to his “different bass,” differentiated only by an unseen letter. His hope is that dense sample collages and revolutionary rhetoric will encourage critical thought. This idealism is burdened by the knowledge that he must serve the fiends the baddest product around to get the good message across; “Baseheads” gives them exactly what they crave and throws in an alarming, yet alluring siren to drive the point home.
[1] Brian Coleman, Check The Technique (New York: Villard, 2007) 358.
[2] Coleman 238-239.
[3] Coleman 415.
[4] Coleman 352.
— Thun

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9 Responses to “Public Enemy "Night Of The Living Baseheads"”

  1. Markshot says:

    great post Thun

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  2. Abe Beame says:

    I think you should've included the video in the post as opposed to a link. When I first read this and listened to the song (which I've listened to dozens of times) I thought "projection", the essay was a lot more intelligent than its subject matter. There's some questionable lines but for the most part what I get from Chuck is a lot of moralistic personal responsibility and I'd take "Peruvian Cocaine" any day. The video is brilliant and I now see how you came to your conclusion. But I'd still probably take "Peruvian Cocaine". Also, the footnotes are taking it to the next level.

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  3. Thun says:

    Oh and I can't comment on "Peruvian Cocaine" because I would never ever ever willingly sit through an entire Immortal Technique song. Not a dis to anyone who's into that sort of thing, but it's not for me and never will be.

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  4. Abe Beame says:

    I mean, it's difficult for me not to see any literal correlations here. I would never suggest a lack of complexity on Chuck's part and I have very little biographical background information I'm just reading and listening to what is there. Even given his instructions in the beginning there are a few lines, particularly in the second and third verses that I'm too thick to see deeper meaning in. I think this would make for a pretty great "Line 4 Line". As for "Peruvian Cocaine" it's a study of the route coke takes from the field to the corner featuring some of my favorite unsung MCs (C-Ray Walz and Pumpkinhead). I know annoying white guys who smoke bowls listen to Immortal Technique but you should try getting over that. I'm not saying it's without obnoxious moments but I appreciate it for something like a sited education and digging a little deeper than "Shame on a brother when he dealin/the same block where my 98 be wheelin/and everybody know another kilo/from a corner from a brother keep another below".

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  5. Thun says:

    I didn't say there weren't any literal correlations to be made, but if by your own admission you are approaching the song looking to highlight them, that your approach is overdetermined and fallacious, imho. My argument is that the song is more about crack as a phenomenon than as a social ill. if you feel that this makes the song less "deep" than you are entitled to that opinion, though it seem to me to be a completely arbitrary call. How is describing the route of the flow of illicit drugs "deeper"? I'm definitely not following you on that point.

    Glancing at the lyrics from "Peruvian Cocaine", the song seems more "cute" than "deep" and I don't think it would be especially difficult to point out where their arguments and portrayals are oversimplified or underinformed. Not that this would make it a bad song, of course. i like when rap attempts to analyze issues and come up short, it makes for a great listen and a glimpse into the very human imperfections of bias or self-delusion. But how is a lamentation over fratricide (taken literally, anyway, I have already stated where I disagree on your interpretation of chuck's lyrics) "shallower" than another take on the issue? Seems to me that PE were pretty cognizant of the collusion between legitimized/sanctioned institutions and black markets, being that they pretty much introduced the concept to the rap world first.

    Now, if you're suggesting that "Peruvian Cocaine" is a broader and more globally-minded take on the drug game than most attempts that have preceded it, I will agree. But I don't see how that makes it deeper, or even realistically comparable to PE's examination of the subject, which contains a different approach and focus. How do you quanitfy depth and more importantly, why would you do so?

    And for the record, my opposition to listening to an Immortal technique song has nothing to do with its fanbase, as I have never met anyone offline who is a fan of his music, at least to my knowledge.

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  6. Spick Rick says:

    I think also that Chuck D is bringing the question to a point that we all can grasp, and in fact continually wrestle with. Namely, what the fuck is all this crack about?

    Everyone knows that poppies, coca, and guns are not made in Harlem. But those finished products are in Harlem nonetheless, and what are we, here in America to do about it? The question of personal responsibility can't be tossed away because of the combined magnitude and power of poverty and the drug trade.

    There is a space for human intervention, and I think Chuck D is wrestling with that in terms of the question "what is to be done?". Rather than some cartoonish renderings of radical guerilla rappers flying down to latin America to start a machete insurrection with the main/indirect goal to save Harlem.

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  7. T.R.O.Y. says:

    ^Also, if pointing out the multinational origin of the crack epidemic is "deep" then X-Clan beat Immortal Technique to the punch with the mega-posse cut "Close The Crackhouse" which covers all of the points in "Peruvian Cocaine" in addition to addressing the allegedly shallow concerns of the trade at the street level. More importantly, it is a song with a hard beat that you could actually bop your head to, and even dance to. Plus it features a whole slew of rappers who are better known for their charisma, skills, and social insight than most of the rappers on Peruvian Cocaine, like Wise Intelligent, Big Daddy Kane, and oh yeah, Chuck D.

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  8. Abe Beame says:

    Feel like my intent/opinion on the matter is being slightly misinterpreted, plus I'm citing Immortal Technique in opposition to Public Enemy on T.R.O.Y. which I would imagine is the equivalent of a Yankees cap in Fenway. I take issue with what I perceive as the personal judgments being rendered when for the dealer the issue, the right and wrong can be much more convoluted, and for me there's lot's of interesting material in these complexities. "Peruvian Cocaine" is a series of first person extremely specific character sketches, and while there's clearly a direction and consistent, uncluttered and equally one sided message being put forward I appreciate their attempt to show and not tell, however unsuccessfully. I've never heard "Close the Crackhouse" but it sounds like a great song. And oh yeah, Spick Rick and T.R.O.Y., I really like this piece. I would assume unless your out for nothing but masturbatory complements healthy discussion would be the purpose of writing it?

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  9. Thun says:

    Abe – sorry if I came across combative or dismissive, it wasn't my intent. I tend to come off like that online, where I forget that inflection is non-existent. I sincerely appreciate and invite your disagreement. Analysis without discussion is, as you've pointed out, masturbatory, so I do tip my hat to you for engaging the material.

    I don't agree that Chuck's disdain for drug dealers obfuscates his sense that they are complicit in a larger network of illegal activity. Nor does it prove in any way that he's incapable of appreciating these complexities. I still insist that the song itself is about individual entanglement in something far larger than the individual, and the subject of his disdain is the "hustle" itself. And he is entirely cognizant of the fact that he has to engage in similar form of hustle if he's ever to convince anyone to break free of the constraints that an illegal narcotics trade imposes on the poor and powerless.

    Also, one's view of the subject is going to differ depending on your proximity to the issue. You've already suggested that you are younger. An obvious point to make, perhaps, but I'm not keen on the concept of assigning a greater level of depth to the more distant vantage point.

    My beef with some of your claims was not the song "peruvian Cocaine" (even though I think on a musical level it is a very uninteresting, damned near soporific excercise that looks far better on paper than it sounds) but your terminology. Without a definition of "deep" I had to assume that what you had in mind was value-laden and hierarchical, and possibly favoring the newer song for the sake of its newness, as if innovation and insight increase incrementally in a chrono-linear fashion as a rule of nature. Maybe I was being presumptuous.

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