11Feb/09Off

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 “Night Of The Living Basheads”


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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