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Public Enemy: The Devil Made ‘Em Do It

Public Enemy’s 1988 It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back opens with roiling crowd buzz from a live snippet recorded at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. Then an air raid siren cuts through the din, a keening wail that still meant something in a town where the Blitz was well within living memory.

In his review from that summer thirty years ago, Greg Tate’s prose rivals the sonic intensity of the album under discussion and informs us up front that PE’s disk “demands kitchen-sink treatment.” And we get it — every other sentence is pullquote-worthy:

Nation of Millions is a will-to-power party record by bloods who believe (like Sun Ra) that for black folk, it’s after the end of the world. Or, in PEspeak: ‘Armageddon has been in effect. Go get a late pass.’”

“Hiphop being more than a cargo cult of the microchip, it deserves being debated on more elevated terms than as jazz’s burden or successor.”

“PE producer and arranger Hank Shocklee has the ears of life, and that rare ability to extract the lyrical from the lost and found.”

Tate’s review agitates as much as the music: “PE wants to reconvene the black power movement with hiphop as the medium. From the albums and interviews, the program involves rabble-rousing rage, radical aesthetics, and bootstrap capitalism, as well as a revival of the old movement’s less than humane tendencies: revolutionary suicide, misogyny, gaybashing, Jew-baiting, and the castigation of the white man as a genetic miscreant, or per Elijah Muhammad’s infamous myth of Yacub, a ‘grafted devil.’

“To know PE is to love the agitprop (and artful noise) and to worry over they whack retarded philosophy they espouse.”

Below are the original pages as well as the full text of the article. And just for the fun of it, we’ve included the full-page ads between the Tate opener and the jump page to capture the musical flavor of the moment: Kiss at the Ritz and Stevie Wonder doing eight shows at Radio City Music Hall.

The Devil Made ’Em Do It

by Greg Tate

Granted, Charlie Parker died laughing. Choked chickenwing perched over 1950s MTV. So? No way in hell did Bird, believing there was no competition in music, will his legacy to some second-generation beboppers to rattle over the heads of the hiphop nation like a rusty sabre. But when Harry Allen comes picking fights with suckers adducing hiphop the new jazz, like hiphop needs a jazz crutch to stand erect, I’m reminded of Pithecanthropus erectus, and not the Charles Mingus version. B-boys devolved to the missing link between jazzmen and a lower order species out of Joseph Conrad. “Perhaps you will think it passing strange, this regret for a savage who was of no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara. Well, don’t you see, he had done something, he had steered; for months I had him at my back — a help — an instrument. It was a kind of partnership.” Page 87.

Hiphop being more than a cargo cult of the microchip, it deserves being debated on more elevated terms than as jazz’s burden or successor. Given the near absence of interdisciplinary scholarship on the music, the conceptual straits of jazz journalism, and hiphop’s cross-referential complexity, the hiphop historian must cast a wider net for critical models. Certainly Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back (Def Jam) demands kitchen-sink treatment. More than a hiphop record it’s an ill worldview.

Nation of Millions is a will-to-power party record by bloods who believe (like Sun Ra) that for black folk, it’s after the end of the world. Or, in PEspeak: “Armageddon has been in effect. Go get a late pass.” In Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, Eugene Genovese offers that the failure of mainland blacks to sustain a revolutionary tradition during slavery was due to a lack of faith in prophets of the apocalypse. This lack, he says, derived from Africa’s stolen children having no memories of a paradise lost that revolution might regain. Machiavellian thinking might have found its way into the quarters: “All armed prophets have conquered while all unarmed prophets have failed.” But the observation that blacks were unable to envision a world beyond the plantation, or of a justice beyond massa’s dispensation, still resonates through our politics. Four decades after Garvey, the cultural nationalists of the ’60s sought to remedy our Motherland amnesia and nationhood aversions through dithyrambs, demagoguery, and a counter-supremacist doctrine that pressed for utopia over reform pragmatism. Its noblest aim was total self-determination for the black community. For PE, that, not King’s, is the dream that died.

The lofty but lolling saxophone sample that lures us into the LP’s “Black Side” could be a wake up call, a call to prayer, or an imitation Coltrane cocktease. Since we’re not only dealing with regenerated sound here but regenerated meaning, what was heard 20 years ago as expression has now become a rhetorical device, a trope. Making old records talk via scratching or sampling is fundamental to hiphop. But where we’ve heard rare grooves recycled for parodic effect or shock value ad nauseam, on “Show Em Whatcha Got” PE manages something more sublime, enfolding, and subsuming the Coltrane mystique, among others, within their own. The martial thump that kicks in after the obligatto owes its bones to Funkadelic’s baby years and Miles Davis’s urban bush music. But the war chants from Chuck D and Flavor Flav that blurt through the mix like station identification also say, What was hip yesterday we save from becoming passé. Since three avant-gardes overlap here — free jazz, funk, hip hop — the desired effect might seem a salvage mission. Not until Sister Ava Muhammad’s tribute-to-the-martyrs speech fragments begin their cycle do you realize Public Enemy are offering themselves up as next in line for major black prophet, missionary, or martyrdom status. Give them this much: PE paragon Farrakhan excepted, nobody gives you more for your entertainment dollar while cold playing that colored man’s messiah role.

PE wants to reconvene that black power movement with hiphop as the medium. From the albums and interviews, the program involves rabble-rousing rage, radical aesthetics, and bootstrap capitalism, as well as a revival of the old movement’s less than humane tendencies: revolutionary suicide, misogyny, gaybashing, Jew-baiting, and the castigation of the white man as a genetic miscreant, or per Elijah Muhammad’s infamous myth of Yacub, a “grafted devil.”

To know PE is to love the agitprop (and artful noise) and to worry over the whack retarded philosophy they espouse. Like: “The black woman has always been kept up by the white male because the white male has always wanted the black woman.” Like “Gays aren’t doing what’s needed to build the black nation.” Like: “White people are actually monkey’s uncles because that’s who they made it with in the Caucasian hills.” Like : “If the Palestinians took up arms, went into Israel, and killed all the Jews it’d be alright.” From this idiot blather, PE are obviously making it up as they go along. Since PE show sound reasoning when they focus on racism as a tool of the U.S. power structure, they should be intelligent enough to realize that dehumanizing gays, women, and Jews isn’t going to set black people free. As their prophet Mr. Farrakhan hasn’t overcome one or another of these moral lapses, PE might not either. For now swallowing the PE pill means taking the bitter with the sweet, and if they don’t grow up, later for they asses.

Nation of Millions is a declaration of war on the federal government, and on that unholy trinity — black radio programmers, crack dealers, and rock critics. (“Suckers! Liars! Get me a shovel. Some writers I know are damn devils. From them I say I don’t believe the hype. Yo Chuck, they must be on the pipe, right?”) For sheer audacity and specificity Chuck D’s enemies list rivals anything produced by the Black Liberation Army or punk — rallying retribution against the Feds for the Panthers’ fall (“Party For Your Right To Fight”), slapping murder charges on the FBI and CIA for the assassinations of MLK and Malcolm X (“Louder Than a Bomb”), condoning cop-killing in the name of liberation (“Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”), assailing copyright law and the court system (“Caught, Can We Get a Witness?”). As America’s black teen population are the core audience for these APBs to terrorize the state, PE are bucking for first rap act to get taken out by Washington, by any means necessary.

Were it not for the fact that Nation is the most hellacious and hilarious dance record of the decade, nobody but the converted would give two hoots about PE’s millenary desires. Of the many differences between Nation and their first, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, is that Nation is funkier. As George Clinton learned, you got to free Negroes’ asses if you want their minds to bug. Having seen Yo! Bum Rush move the crowd off the floor, it’s a pleasure to say only zealot wallflowers will fade into the blackground when Nation cues up. Premiered at a Sugar Hill gala, several Nation cuts received applause from the down but bupwardly mobile — fulfilling Chuck D’s prediction on “Don’t Believe The Hype” that by treating the hard jams like a seminar Nation would “reach the bourgeois and rock the boulevard.” But PE’s shotgun wedding of black militancy and musical pleasure ensures that Nation is going to move music junkies of all genotypes. “They claim we’re products from the bottom of hell because the blackest record is bound to sell.”

PE producer and arranger Hank Shocklee has the ears of life, and that rare ability to extract the lyrical from the lost and found. Every particle of sound on Nation has got a working mojo, a compelling something other-ness and that swing thang to boot. Shocklee’s reconstructive composition of new works from archival bites advances sampling to the level of microsurgery. Ditto for cyborg DJ Terminator X, who cuts incisively enough to turn a decaying kazoo into a dopebeat on “Bring the Noise.” Putting into effect Borges’s rule that “The most fleeting thought obeys an invisible design and can crown or inaugurate, a secret form,” PE have evolved a songcraft from chipped flecks of near-forgotten soul gold. On Nation a guitar vamp from Funkadelic, a moan from Sly, a growl abducted from Bobby Byrd aren’t just rhythmically spliced-in but melodically sequenced into colorful narratives. Think of Romare Bearden.

One cut-up who understands the collage-form is PE’s Flavor Flav. Misconstrued as mere aide-de-camp to rap’s angriest man after Yo! Bum Rush he emerges here as a duck-soup stirrer in his own right. Flav’s solo tip, “Cold Lampin With Flavor,” is incantatory shamanism on a par with any of the greats: Beefheart, Koch, Khomeini. “You pick your teeth with tombstone chips, candy-colored flips, dead women hips you do the bump with. Bones. Nuthin’ but love bones.”

Those who dismiss Chuck D as a bullshit artist because he’s loud, pro-black, and proud, will likely miss out on gifts for blues pathos and black comedy. When he’s on, his rhymes can stun-gun your heart and militarize your funnybone. As a people’s poet and pedagogue of the oppressed, Chuck hits his peak on the jail-house toast/prison break movie, “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.” The scenario finds Chuck unjustly under the justice (“Innocent/ Because I’m militant/Posing a threat/ You bet it’s fucking up the government”). Chuck and “52 Brothers bruised, battered, and scarred but hard” bust out the joint with the aid of PE’s plastic Uzi protection, “the S1Ws” (Security for the First World). Inside the fantasy, Chuck crafts verse of poignant sympathy for all doing hard time. (“I’m on a tier where no tear should ever fall/Cell blocked and locked I never clock it y’all.”) His allusion to the Middle Passage as the first penal colony for blacks is cold chillin’ for real. Chuck’s idea of a lifer, or career soldier, is also at odds with convention: “Nevertheless they could not understand that I’m a black man and I could never be a veteran.”

As much as I love this kind of talk, I got to wonder about PE’s thing against black women. And my dogass ain’t the only one wondering — several sisters I know who otherwise like the mugs wonder whassup with that too. Last album PE dissed half the race as “Sophisticated Bitches.” This time around, “She Watch Channel Zero!?” a headbanger about how brainless the bitch is for watching the soaps, keeping the race down. “I know she don’t know/Her brain be trained by 24-inch remote/Revolution a solution for all of our children/But her children don’t mean as much as the show.” Whoa! S.T.F.O.!* Would you say that to your mother, motherfucker? Got to say, though, the thrash is deadly. One of those riffs makes you want to stomp somebody into an early grave, as Flav goes on and on insinuating that women are garbage for watching garbage. In light of Chuck’s plea for crack dealers to be good to the neighborhood on “Night of the Living Baseheads,” it appears PE believe the dealers more capable of penance than the sistuhs. Remember The Mack? Where the pimp figures it cool to make crazy dollar off his skeezes but uncool for the white man for sell scag to the little brothers? This is from that same mentality. And dig that in “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” the one time on the album Chuck talks about firing a piece, it’s to a pop a female corrections officer. By my homegirl’s reckoning all the misogyny is the result of PE suffering from LOP: lack of pussy. She might have a point.
* Step the Fuck Off!

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FIGHT THE POWER

The New York agit-rap veterans are on tour this year commemorating the 20th anniversary of Fear of a Black Planet, the 1990 long-player that gave us one of Public Enemy‘s most enduring singles, “911 Is a Joke.” Is it weird to see Chuck D and Flavor Flav hit the increasingly desperate heritage-act circuit? A bit, yeah. (Didn’t “Don’t Believe the Hype” warn us about stuff like this?) Still, PE’s passion seems undimmed these days, something that can’t be said of the group’s ability to create material that stokes the pop-political consciousness. So, better we get recycled vitality than fresh marginalia, right?

Sun., Aug. 15, 3 p.m., 2010

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VHI and Slick Rick, Together at Last at Hip-Hop Honors

The bizarre, the chaotic, and the sublime all lined up exactly once, for 30 seconds or so, at Thursday night’s VH1 Hip-Hop Honors taping at Hammerstein Ballroom: Chuck D and Flavor Flav snarling through “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” as the Roots luxuriated in Isaac Hayes’s “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic” behind them. Three different permutations of soul all mashed wantonly together, that joyful, buoyant piano riff buried deep in the original’s solo bouncing perfectly off Public Enemy’s undimmed enmity. All from the network that brought up Pop-Up Video.

VH1 has done this for five years now, and it still doesn’t make any sense. Hip-Hop Honors basically seeks to triangulate the MTV Music Awards’ hell-raising anarchy with the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame’s backslapping reverence, inducting a class of older-to-progressively-newer-school luminaries every year (Tupac, Run-D.M.C., and PE were among 2004’s inaugural class; Missy Elliott joined Snoop Dogg in 2007’s) and staging elaborate odd-couple tributes live onstage. (Last year’s A Tribe Called Quest homage led to Lupe Fiasco’s lyrics-flubbing, uh, debacle.) This year’s hoedown—taped Thursday and aired Monday night—honored Cypress Hill, De La Soul, Slick Rick, Too Short, and Naughty by Nature. Another thing those five acts have in common: little to absolutely no VH1 airplay back in their primes. Not that this newfound praise is unwarranted or unappreciated, even if, this fete aside, the channel mostly interacts with past-their-prime rappers willing to spoof themselves as cuddly, harmless malcontents, Flavor Flav being the most drastic and unsightly example.

Anyway, Flav was far more tolerable in this context, with no wayward ladies of ill repute following him about and defecating on the stairs. (Though this year’s controversy involved the lack of female inductees, a dilemma VH1 assuaged by bringing out Eve and MC Lyte to pay tribute to Slick “Treat Her Like a Prostitute” Rick, which will certainly calm everyone down.) And the whole shebang has a really charming semi-coherence, even from way up in the Hammerstein’s mezzanine, full of wine-toting young professionals chatting blithely through all the earnest video tributes and loudly asking why Slick Rick wears an eyepatch. Biz Markie DJ’d from a towering balcony, boasting dookie ropes thick enough to secure a yacht to a dock and repeatedly announcing “I know y’all remember this one!” as he cued up “Wu Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin’ ta Fuck Wit” and “I Wanna Sex You Up” and so forth. I elected to tune out the evening’s host, Tracy Morgan, after he made a “John McCain is physically incapable of getting his hands in the air and waving them like he just don’t care” joke within 30 seconds, but I suppose he’s the perfect cartoonishly deranged figure to emcee this thing. Not a bad scene, as surrealist award-show tapings go.

Random, mostly pre-recorded Tracy hijinks aside, the format here basically broke down to a) some admiring minor celebrity (Michael Strahan!) introduces the inductee; b) brief pre-taped video chat with the inductee, Cypress Hill insisting it wasn’t entirely about the herb, etc.; c) random artists hit the stage for a live rapid-fire medley tribute; d) inductees do their own live rapid-fire medley tribute. Cypress Hill went first, actually, and inspired probably the least effective segment all around, the Gym Class Heroes bashing away feebly in a valiant attempt to sound like the Roots as Fat Joe stomped about and Jim Jones wanly proclaimed “We ain’t goin’ out like that” as though he had every intention of goin’ out like that. De La Soul fared much better, both as honorees and performers: Estelle and Q-Tip did right by “A Roller Skating Jam Called ‘Saturdays’,” and the boys themselves gave the same respect to “Me, Myself & I,” famous apprehension toward their biggest hit aside. (Slipping “We hate this song” into the lyrics and what-have-you.)

Slick Rick, unsurprisingly, put the most thought into the visual side of things. After his star-studded intro (Ghostface Killah and Biz Markie leading the amped-to-be-on-TV crowd through “La Di Da Di”), the Ruler emerged on a gilded throne, tended to by four nubile, scantily clad lasses, with backup dancers curled up in little beds as “Children’s Story” unfolded—still for my money the most unsettling possible contrast between the exuberance of a track’s sound and the unrelenting grimness of its tale. (There was even a nightstick-wielding cop for comic relief, chasing after a perp dancing around in a rainbow beanie with a propeller on top.) Also unsurprisingly, Too Short, the other guy tonight who never could have dreamed he’d one day be lavishly honored by VH1, didn’t go in for such shenanigans, but his slate of cohorts—Luther Campbell (himself a newly minted VH1 star) on the intro, Kid Rock (in vintage Oakland A’s jacket, nice touch), Scarface, Bun B—was both the weirdest and the most fulfilling. Plenty of other big- and not-so-big-shots (Busta, Lil Jon, Cee-Lo delicately crooning “The Look of Love” during the Isaac Hayes tribute thing) flitted on and offstage throughout; it all felt a little random, but that’s clearly the strategy here—and why the hell not?

Naughty by Nature closed us out, which actually helps clear up some confusion: It’s not so much hip-hop nostalgia being sold here as just nostalgia, period, songs we can all know and love and shout along to even though we couldn’t all have picked Too Short out of a lineup back in the day and VH1 was in no mood to help us—or him. So, what the hell: Heyyyyy, hoooooo, heyyyyyyyy, hoooooooo. There probably was no way to keep Wyclef Jean away from this thing, but, hell, he wants to play guitar for a few minutes, fine. It’s always a great time for a block party, and it’s never too late to learn what “O.P.P.” stands for.

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Let the Eggplants Fly

Highlights from my first month living in New York City:

Had My Sexuality Openly Questioned by Ice-T Has anyone asked Public Enemy mastermind Chuck D, point-blank, how he feels about his hype man Flavor Flav amassing stupendous fame and fortune via a VH1 show that stereotypes, degrades, and humiliates clearly deranged women who inexplicably aspire to have sex with him? Can Chuck—who has denounced his cohort’s past reality TV antics as “Flavploitation”—reconcile his own decades of thoughtful activism with Flavor of Love, the horrific, thoroughly depressing find-Flav-a–soul mate program that, incidentally, is the funniest thing on TV that is not The Colbert Report?

I merely ask because the future of autumnal hip-hop celebrity seems to follow Flav’s example. Look for Ice-T’s Rap School this fall on VH1, wherein our hero teaches a bunch of sheltered, oblivious Upper West Side prep school kids the finer points of hip-hop culture. Spoiler: The season ends when Ice-T’s charges—named YPC, a/k/a York Prep Crew—open for, appropriately enough, Public Enemy, at a B.B. King’s gig taped in early May.

The crowd, though impatient for “Don’t Believe the Hype,” was willing to roll with this. A torrent of cute-but-terrible scratching and cute-but-terrible rapping transpired, and then lingered unnecessarily; the assembled throng’s mood gradually turned from bemusement to annoyance to hostility. Specifically, we began loudly booing a pre-teenage rapper dressed in a trench coat who for some reason reminded me of Fozzie Bear. Fozzie’s well-being seemed to be in danger, until an irate Ice-T stormed back onstage and suggested that those who would disparage the performance of such innocent little kids was—and he does not use this word lightly—a “faggot.”

I feel this rebuke’s sting. Forgive me, Fozzie.

(Bonus for Flavor of Love fans: The second season will go on as scheduled; when someone in the crowd shouted, “Where’s Hoopz?” Flav replied, “Ask T.I.”)

Sailed on a ‘Booze Cruise’ Around the Statue of Liberty to the Soulful Strains of a German Cover Band Named Booga Suga Let it be known that Booga Suga did George Michael justice.

Accosted by a Bouncer and Denied Entry to a Show Where I Was Supposed to Be on the Guest List A rite of passage. Screw you, Hugh Masekela.

Attended One of Those Indie-Rock Shows Where the Audience Consists Entirely of Bloggers Beirut are a fine, up-and-coming faux-Balkan rock band, but their gala Knitting Factory debut was the first concert in history to acknowledge MP3 blog hype by incorporating the equivalent of download times between every song. Each tune dissolved into an endless interlude of nervous smiling and feverish ukulele-tuning, as the packed house shifted its collective weight from foot to foot and patiently waited for someone to right-click: save as. Meanwhile, I approached one of the many photographers at random to see if he’d gotten any good shots—it was the brooklynvegan.com guy. Whoops.

Two weeks later, at the much more fluid Mercury Lounge follow-up, Beirut definitively proved what lusty Internet hype buys you in 2006: Two brand-new bitchin’ ukuleles.

Witnessed the First Show of A Two-Night Stand, and Got the Crappier Set List This is going to happen to me roughly 10,000 times a year. I can feel it. Mogwai’s mid-May Friday-night Webster Hall soiree was just fine, but evidently the Saturday set included “Tracy,” “Mogwai Fear Satan,” “My Father My King,” and “Christmas Steps.” God dammit. At least instead I was doing something worthwhile that night, namely . . .

Zeitgeist Alert: Window Shopped at American Apparel (Ding!) While Bumming Around Williamsburg (Bong!), Before Going to See Danielson (Brrung!), Who Sucked (D’oh!) We are the generation that praised a record titled He Poos Clouds and we get what we deserve.

Kicked My Own Ass Repeatedly for Failing to Sneak Into One of Those Apparently Thoroughly Righteous Guns N’ Roses Gigs My regret is an emotion likely more profound than any to be expressed on Axl’s perpetually forthcoming Chinese Democracy.

Mourned the Death of a Beloved Band via a Funereal Solo Record Store Gig
You are lucky they just broke up, because you will largely be spared my admittedly sketchy contention that Grandaddy is the best rock band of the past five years. We are the generation that praised a record titled Just Like the Fambly Cat, etc., etc. But an awestruck loyalist I remain, and with great trepidation did I bow before frontman Jason Lytle at Other Music, his bandmates discarded and probably disgruntled back in California, strumming an acoustic and sweetly warbling tunes of Nature vs. Technology disaffection in his trademark mesh-back trucker cap that suddenly seemed less like ironic affectation and more like a sad necessity. “Summer . . . it’s gone, it’s gone, it’s gone, it’s gone, it’s gone . . .” he murmured, like a broken record, for about 45 profoundly uncomfortable seconds. He has apparently fled to Montana for time immemorial; you will miss him, though probably not as much as I.

Almost Forgot to Explain the Name of This Column In the late ’90s I attended a Ricky Martin concert (he was almost kicked in the groin by a backup dancer during the gala “Livin’ la Vida Loca” opener) at a Cleveland venue named Gund Arena. Several also unnecessarily tall colleagues joined me. “Jesus Christ,” one exclaimed. “We’re like the Duke basketball team all hanging out watching Ricky Martin.” At that exact moment he was drilled in the back of the head with an eggplant flung by an irate fellow concertgoer who couldn’t see shit. My friend has yet to emerge from his coma. “Down in Front” is an order, a mantra, a cautionary tale. And it reads nicer than “Aloof Corporate Asshole.”

Antagonized Fellow R Train Passengers by Blasting the New Mission of Burma Record Through Headphones at Absurdly High Volume As the song goes, I, too, am haunted by the freakish size of Nancy Reagan’s head.

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Lowlight Reel

SCOWLGATE: After the first presidential debate was televised, a video appeared on the Internet collecting all of the president’s scowls and sneers into a chilling montage of disdain. A sitting president who couldn’t control his facial responses any better than he could defend his policies, who repeated the same simplistic phrases like a stuck robot, causing some to speculate that the suspicious lump on his back might’ve been a battery. No way someone that incompetent could ever win re-election . . .

L’AMOUR FOU: I swore I’d never again watch The Surreal Life, that septic tank for has-been and never-quite-were celebs. But it sucked me back in this year with a freaky, spaced-out love match between Amazonian alien Brigitte Nielsen (ex-wife and co-star of Sylvester Stallone) and Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav. What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?

CRACK ME UP: My favorite TV gaffe of the year was a moment of unselfconscious, energetic ass-scratching on the part of pundit Andrew Sullivan at the end of Real Time With Bill Maher—a burst of much needed comic relief after all that wrenching Election Day stress. His excuse: It itched.

DEAD AIR: Not only can anyone be a star via reality TV, but now apparently anyone can be a talk show host on CNBC. Execs aimed reasonably high with Tina Brown, moved down several notches with ad agency mogul Donnie Deutsch. But what were they were expecting from John McEnroe’s hour-long chat spot—exclusive interviews with the Williams sisters? Weekly tantrums? Viewers fleeing in droves? Yeah, that must be it.

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Flava Flav and the Mad Hatter

Writer Amiri Baraka wrote that poetry is not a poem, but a heightened sense of language found anywhere: a newspaper article, a conversation. The Live Theatre Gang’s production of the verse-play Printz of Poets (New York Comedy Club) underscores, robustly, Baraka’s contention. This collaborative writing effort is both urban and supernal. The plot is sometimes hokey, but the characters’ rhythmic idiolects are iridescent. And juxtaposed with the sublimely sloppy set replete with Biggie Smalls and seraphic Mariah Carey posters, this is postmodernist slob chic.

The play finds a young poet-rapper named Lemar (who lumbers awkwardly in his skin) grappling with unemployment, fame, and his girlfriend’s pregnancy. He is abetted by four actors playing different aspects of his psyche, who alternate between dozens trash talking and language that echoes the numinous. Skitz (Jomo Kellman) is equal parts Flava Flav and Mad Hatter. His nimble high jinks virtually eclipse the rest of the cast during his onanistic sketch “5 Minutes.” However, director Reed McCants’s deft touch is manifested in the way the comely Rastafarian sage Reason (Nacinimod Deodee) coolly tempers the verbal landscape with lines like “I must wrestle with the stolen soul nestled within this vessel.”

Countless times the writing rises to that of the superlative poet “outside of poetry”—the first “Big Willie”—Shakespeare. The evening’s provocative verbal whirlwind is only occasionally undermined by a phone prop (which is abused while trying to advance the plot), where disembodied voices, although funny, sound like cookie-cutter caricatures of African American thugs, nagging nanas, and nasal-voiced, Jewish bosses. Hip-hop is an unbridled and kinetic phenomenon, but director McCants elicits stillness and its formidable powers from his cast. He transforms this rap-to-riches narrative into an eye-opening experience, even if, somehow, you happen to be sleeping.