Black Metropolis: Strangers in Paradise

Of Homeboys, Homelands, and the Island

I guess it made odd sense that my talk with Hank didn’t occur while we walked about the side streets of Freeport (where I live), or Roo­sevelt (where he lives), or Hemp­stead (a focal point for both of our towns), reminiscing about our lives in these places. It occurred inside of his brother Keith’s (a/k/a Wizard K-Jee) new Datsun 200ZX, on the Southern State Parkway jetting east, going to reg­ister for the New Music Seminar. K-Jee had been driving for the last sever­al hours, as both had just gotten back from the Annual Greek Picnic in Phila, and K’s usually Newport-kicked voice was hoarser than a dog. “I was scream­in’,” he admitted. “Screamin’ and getting my dick sucked.” “Man,” Hank added, “I feel like I’ve been living in this car.” While few Manhattan Islanders use cars to get around, life on the L.I. would be close to Twilight Zonian without them. To this day, Long Island keeps its beach­front mystique mostly intact, and the myths of its car culture are numerous. So it seemed strangely correct that denizens of the land away-from-it-all would set up discussion about the away-from-it-all while going away from away-from-it-all back to it-all. Ya dig?

Of Hank Shocklee: He’s a bespectacled brother of intense intensity in his late twenties, long of limb and levity, and like the album he coproduced for Public Ene­my, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, given to subtle wordplay and noisy pontification. I can remember infinite twenty-to-three-­in-the-morning mornings where, along with Chuck D, Mr. Bill, K-Jee, and M.C. Flavor-Flave, he would elaborate on mi­nute points of hip-hop music theory, such as the emotional resonance of bass-line tonalities, or how to tell which bonus beat records the other hip-hop record produc­ers were using. Then, with an easy fade, he’d delve into an “I Looked Inside Your Mother’s Pussy and Saw …” snapping contest with Flavor; two grown men rev­eling in the formal elegance of Black swing-&-slide-side culture. Then, as they continued the discourse, we would leave their rented studio in Hempstead and go to the 7-Eleven in Uniondale, where Hank would bait “Jim,” the East Indian store­keeper, on the prices of his goods, Flavor would continue to be loud, Bill would move silently through the aisles and get exactly what he wanted, and Chuck would slowly and deliberately unroll one dirty, rolled-up, ain’t-never-seen-the-in­side-of-a-Gucci-wallet dollar bill, take out some change, and buy a macaroni-in-a-­can-something-or-other and call it din­ner. Those were indeed the best of times.

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A recent reviewer of P.E.’s album said that the crew “speaks for an embattled black underclass.” This assessment is white liberal myth-math. The fact is that Hank Shocklee, the members of Public Enemy, and I are all products of Long Island’s Black middle class, the brothers and sisters of the two boojie mannequins gracing the cover of the August Ebony, the beneficiaries of super-oxygenated lei­sure time. When I first told my friend that the Voice wanted a look at L.I. life through his eyes, he said, “Great! I’ll take ’em to Wyandanch!”, a middle-class, pre­dominantly Black town in Suffolk Coun­ty. Then, dropping into a gun-in-your­-face crouch, he mouthed, “We’re the ones that escaped from New York!” His jab was aimed at one, the failure of white Long Island to make any social or emo­tional space for the Black side of the family and two, the resulting resonance of the gangster-ethic fantasy, as it creeps into Black suburban life. The so-called gangster response in Black L.I. life is partly an updated version of what whities used to call cowboys-and-Indians, dis ful­fillment, a stylee balance of the need to dominate and the need to pay back. As I told a friend, every one of those hundreds of bullets that killed hundreds of Detroit youths was meant for a white person. As with most middle-class life, there is a dichotomy present here that escapes lib­eral platitudes, rhetoric, or Voice section concepts.

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

Speeding (67 m.p.h.) down the Grand Central: “You don’t even really under­stand living in Long Island until you grow up. Living in Long Island is like …” Hank searched for a word.

Paradise,” said K-Jee, his rubbed-raw vocal timbre giving an appropriately dreamy quality to his utterance.

“Yeah, yeah. It’s like a fantasy. You’re talking about moving from Harlem into a place where you have your own house that you can own. That’s like, a monu­mental achievement for a people, espe­cially back in the ’60s. If you moved to Queens, you were considered middle-­class. If you moved to Long Island, they’re thinking that, well, you must be rich. That’s why I had to go back to saying that you don’t really understand Long Island until you grow up, because you’ll find out that you’re not rich, you’re not middle-class, you’re working-class.”

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Along with the reality of new, unfound wealth comes the knowledge that L.I.’s integrationist scheme is also carefully packaged. “You’ll find out later on that there were traps, or … I shouldn’t say ‘traps’ … there were things written or set up for you to move into certain areas of Long Island. They’ll set up low-income housing just so Black people can live in a cluster. And if they can get them in a cluster, and subsidize their living expenses, they can keep them together, in a controlled environment. Black home­lands. That goes on all over Long Island. Massapequa Park, for example, is a square mile, and it’s actually just a hous­ing complex. But it’s called Massapequa Park because it’s low-income; low-income is a nice way of saying that they’re all Blacks. Garden City Park, same thing. These things are subsidized by the rich white communites.

“The integration results in, ‘Yes, Black people can spend their money at the same stores that the white people spend their money at. Black people can have a home just like their white counterparts, and feel like they’ve made advancement.’ But the underlying factor is that the whites are just creating ghettoes all over again. They actually want to keep things separate, or there wouldn’t be a Massape­qua Park. There wouldn’t be a Roosevelt, which is a mile long. Which can easily be called Freeport, or Uniondale, or Bal­dwin. It’s not, because the whites wouldn’t go for that. ‘Um, that’s too close. That means you can attend our schools. That means you can now walk in my town, and I cannot harass you, be­cause you live in the same township.’ If I say, ‘Harold you live in Roosevelt,’ and Roosevelt is on one side of the street, and I see you walking in Baldwin, which is on the other side of the street, I can now harass you. ‘What are you doing in Bal­dwin, when most of your people live in Roosevelt?‘ It’s just another way of segregating. But then again, they’re not going to do it overtly, like they did in the South. They’re not gonna say, ‘Well, yes, Black people can only be such-and-such,’ because Black people will revolt against that.”

Other Blacks who’ve settled in Long Island — after our more incendiary broth­ers and sisters made their points in Watts, Detroit, Newark, and Harlem — ­might agree. Mrs. Mildred Clayton is a native of Hawkinsville, Georgia, who moved to the Village of Westbury in 1969. As interpreter for the African-American Museum in Hempstead, she’s a person professionally concerned with Black life on Long Island, especially in terms of the sometimes-strange pieces that make up the puzzle called its history. Like how Freeport got its name (it was a duty free p.o.e. for slaves and other cargo; same thing in Texas, Maine, and the Baha­mas), or what percentage of New York’s supposedly-slave-free population were slaves on 18th-century Long Island (15 per cent, higher than the average for any Southern state during the pre-Revolu­tionary period).

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Like the rest of the Black population in Westbury, Mrs. Clayton lives in a neigh­borhood called New Cassel. “But,” speak­ing of her neighbors, “they always say, ‘Westbury,’ she says, adding a laugh. “Since the ‘white flight,’ if you will, you have a lot of African-Americans living in the village part of Westbury. So the re­maining whites sort of migrated to Old Westbury. I think there may be three African-Americans living in Old West­bury. Like you say, Massapequa, Massa­pequa Park; you have Garden City, and you have Garden City Park. And I do know that the majority of the African­-American population in that town lives in Garden City Park.”

In the morass of racism and living, though, the really unbelievable often pops up, and shows the demarcation between Black and wack to be more than meta­phorical. In April, as part of a series on Long Beach’s increasing gentrification, Newsday ran an article titled, “Putting Blacks Behind ‘The Wall’.” It told of North Park, the oldest Black neighbor­hood in Rick Rubin’s hometown, and through text, diagram, and photographs, gave the old news: how Blacks had been isolated from the rest of Long Beach by zoning policies, traffic guidelines, and a wall. The wall is the back of the block­-long Long Beach Plaza Shopping Center, and it effectively divides Long Beach into two towns: one Black, one the other thing. On the white hand side: the shop­ping center, new storefronts, new resi­dential development. On the Black side: old frame houses. Blacks do not even have direct access to the shopping center from their side. Instead of window dis­plays or store entrances, they see locked metal doors, a wide alley, and garbage bins. And a very white, two-story high, concrete wall.

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“Racism had or has nothing to do with it,” said City Manager Edwin Eaton of the gentrification. “It’s very funny, people tend to forget that when they lived in those rundown buildings it was because the city did not go after them.” Gee, Ed, thanks for letting them stay until you saw a way to make more money out of the space they took up. The problem that he and a lot of white folk have has to do with their second-hand definitions of rac­ism. Racism is not an attitude; racism is not a belief. Racism is numbers. Racism is a result. Racism is what happens. For example, whether or not Mr. Eaton planned to move the sambos and reach out so the gentry could inherit the beach is irrelevant. What has actually hap­pened? The result is racist. Or, digressing only slightly, guys, whether or not Ward ‘n Koch planned for the N.Y.C. Schutz­staffel to kill 250-plus Blacks and Latinos without convicting the cops for murder is not important. Stephen Sullivan gets a good night’s sleep every night; Eleanor Bumpurs just sleeps.

Ironically enough for me, though, the same issue of Newsday reported that a federal jury had found Garden City police not guilty of following a racially discrimi­natory policy in its handling of Blacks, despite the under-oath testimony of Lieutenant Charles Ryan that possession of Black skin would be reason enough to question a person in the area under “certain circumstances.”

Circumstances like walking. Mrs. Clayton told me about what happened to her brothers. Think First Blood: “I have a brother who, in 1977 or ’78, was just walking through the town of Garden City. I guess it was after 11 o’clock — and he just had to go through there, walking to wherever it was he was going. He said a police car came up to him, and they asked him why he was walking through there, and he told them where he was going. So they escorted him out. They gave him a free ride to the edge of Garden City. They gave him a lift. That was the first time. I have another brother who lives in Ohio and, in 1979 or ’80, he came to visit my sister and me. He was coming through Garden City at about two or three in the morning, and they detained him overnight. I had to go pick him up the next morning. They just let him go. No charge, nothing — just that he could go. They didn’t give any explanation as to why they had detained him or what. It did happen.”

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Bizarre as these particular examples of civic courtesy may be, they aren’t new, and if you’re Black, you don’t escape it. Money, it has been said, cannot buy one love, and sometimes the trappings of upward mobility lend themselves to particu­larly sour situation comedies. Bury The Cosby Show. Dr. Jesse Pone Jr., David Dinkins’s former college classmate, has lived on Long Island since 1955, and is presently one of those three African­-Americans living in Old Westbury. “I think we may be up to eight now,” he says. Like his neighbors, but unlike Hank, Mrs. Clayton, or me, he’s part of Long Island’s upper class, albeit the Black one composed of small groupings of determined professionals and the like. Dr. Pone has a big, big house with a swimming pool, with a tennis court, with one of those lawns you break out a John Deere for. He’s got a really long driveway, and owns or has owned a Lincoln, Cadil­lac, and a Rolls-Royce. He has also been stopped in all of them by police. Once, in his spanking-new Caddy, he found him­self at a Carvel, surrounded by three members of the Oceanside Five-O and their wheels. Another time, while driving the Lincoln in what was then his home town of Westbury, he was asked to pull over and produce his license-and-registration. He did, but not before noticing one of the cops had his hand on a gun in an open holster.

“As far as Garden City is concerned, that’s an area that you just don’t travel through,” says Pone. “You avoid. You cir­cumvent, which is a statement of fact. I will go down Franklin Avenue; I will go down Seventh Avenue; I will go down Cathedral Avenue. But in terms of those other streets and stuff, fine! I go through those streets on business days. Otherwise, you will end up getting pulled over, and you don’t know what the disposition of the person’s going to end up being. I think that one of the things that hap­pened to me — and it may sound funny — ­was that even though this guy had me in discomfiture, he was not the ass that so many of the police officers are.”

Which is debatable, because what hap­pened was this: About four or five years ago in Old Westbury, the good doctor got out of his ’69 Firebird and heard this sound: “STOP WHERE YOU ARE! PUT YOUR HANDS ON TOP OF THE CAR! WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?” He started to look around, then heard this sound: “DON’T TURN AROUND! PUT YOU HANDS OF TOP OF THE CAR!” He did, while turning to see from where this voice was coming. What he saw was a police car with Nassau County insignia, a policeman standing in a no-miss crouch, and the working end of a .38.

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The doctor replied as calmly as was possible under the circumstances: “I pay the mortgage here.”

No joke. They were 150 feet into his driveway.

“Well, show me some identification.”

“Then,” said the doctor, “I did the Richard Pryor thing: ‘I Don’t Have It In My Pocket. It’s In The Glove Compartment Of My Car. Will You Kindly Take A Look To Make Sure That You Don’t See Anything That You Can Mistake As Be­ing A Shining Object, Or As Me Reaching For Something.’ We went through that dance.”

Eventually, the question was popped: “Why did you stop me?”

“Well, I saw you coming through West­bury and you were taking some shortcuts driving all through the neighborhood and things there and I didn’t know what you were in the process of doing or where you were going and you just looked suspicious and I just followed the car and when you pulled in here I had to know what you were doing here. We’re having so much trouble in the neighborhod, and I just couldn’t identify you as coming into this particular situation here. [Of course, Pone did not recall hearing of any distur­bances, and at the time, he had been living at that address for about a decade.] Anyway, probably, this won’t happen again.” And he left.

“I came on in the house and I said, ‘Well, fine, at least maybe he was protect­ing my property in term’s of who’s suspi­cious and stuff by coming around here,’ and I thought I was fairly cool, until I woke up about three o’clock in the morn­ing in a cold sweat.”

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“When they ask me why did I move to Old Westbury,” Pone adds, “I say, ‘Because I couldn’t afford Muttontown or Upper Brookville.’ O.K.? Now, if I’d had a hundred million dollars, I wouldn’t have bought this house. But I’d have bought one of those up the way there.

“I want to make one thing clear: that even though I had that unfortunate incident, and that there have been others, by and large, the overwhelming amount of my experience has been positive. If a person can afford not to live in traditionally Black areas, there is no reason why they should not purchase a home and live wherever they choose to. Anybody that’s able to move and to buy are entitled to anything that they wish, and they should do it, ’cause they need to show them that we will. We need to do that.

“Roosevelt is one square mile, but it has two of the nicest parks in Long Is­land, Roosevelt and Centennial Park,” Hank said to me on the phone. “Why?” It’s a few days after our first conversa­tion, on one of those Freeport nights that I’ve learned to love — slightly misty, cool, dark, a wind blowing up from the ocean. “I mean, have you ever been to parks in Nassau County? Roosevelt has the nicest parks in Nassau County. Very beautiful! Spacious! Lots of basketball courts!” An edge crept into his voice. “What are they trying to say? You go into East Meadow, you’ll find Eisenhower Park. You go into Levittown, you won’t even find a park. You’ll find a lot of schools, though. You go into Huntington, you’ll find a lot of schools. What are they saying? Are they saying they want our education to be in the parks? That they want us to play ball? That they want to keep us pacified, happy? It goes back to the white ‘Knee­-grow’ joke — If you wanna stop five Black guys from raping a white girl, throw ’em a basketball.”

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Hank’s leaving for California the next day. Up to that point, we’d been talking about P.E. and the refraction of suburban angst, WLIR’s chicken white-man musi­cal parochialism, and Metro 700 (its un­official farm club, and just as stink). Mostly, though, we’re going over the time about three years ago that the posse (he, Bill, Chuck, I) and others were standing outside of White Castle’s in West Hemp­stead, and a cop from nearby Warden City came by and asked for some I.D.

“Why did that cop come over to us that night?” I ask him.

“I don’t know. We were too close to West Hempstead.”

“At White Castle’s? There are always a lot of Black people there.”

“Yeah, but we were outside for a while, it was a lot of us together, and anytime there’s a lot of Black people together at one o’clock in the morning, they wanna find out why.”

“Black people not going anywhere, but just standing?”

“Right. White people can do it all day long, and a cop’ll ride by and say, ‘How ya doin’,’ and ‘Everything’s O.K.,’ and ‘Ev­erything’s cool,’ but when Black people get together, they must be trying to incite a riot. Cops are community servants in white communities, and in Black commu­nities they’re like deterrents. Crowd control.”

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“How did that make you feel that night, when that occurred?”

“I felt … I dunno … I felt … I felt like they wanted me to feel. Like tearin’ up shit. So they can have a reason to say, ‘See. Can’t let ’em get together.’ ” Again, Hank’s voice became just a touch more agitated. “I was very pissed off. ‘Cause, here we are, everybody’s college-educated, and they’re treatin’ us like we had rec­ords. Like we bad a history of starting trouble. And like I said, these people are probably not ‘racist,’ but in order for us to prove that we’re not the stereotype that they think we are, we gotta prove to them five times that we’re not. When we deal with a white person, we gotta deal with the fact that we gotta prove some­thing to them. We always gotta show them that we are not what they think we are.”

“There are some Black people who’d say, ‘I’m not interested in proving any­thing to a white person.’ Are you com­fortable ‘proving,’ or what’s your attitude in general?”

“Well, my attitude is, I play them how they play themselves in a particular situ­ation. I don’t deal with white people on a whole; I deal with a situation. I know that the stereotype is always there. I’m not here to prove them wrong or anything. I’m just there for them to respect me and what I do. I don’t want them to like me, or anything. I just want them to respect me.”

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"


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!


The Dirty Heartbeat of the Golden Age

In the summer of 1987, E-mu Systems released the SP-1200, a drum machine and sampler designed for dance-music producers. An update of a previous model known as the SP-12, the souped-up edition allowed for the recording and manipulation of a 10.07-second sample with gritty 12-bit sound quality—now you could craft a complete instrumental on one portable machine.

Just as the Stradivarius or the Fender Stratocaster were standard-bearers by which other instruments were judged, the SP-1200 quickly became the tool of choice for East Coast beat-makers during rap’s so-called “Golden Age,” a period during the late ’80s and early ’90s, when sampling laws were still being meted out in courtrooms. Such artists as Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, Gang Starr, Main Source, and the Notorious B.I.G. created classic joints over beats concocted on the SP-1200. The machine rose to such prominence that its strengths and weaknesses sculpted an entire era of music: The crunchy digitized drums, choppy segmented samples, and murky filtered basslines that characterize the vintage New York sound are all mechanisms of the machine.

Long ago toppled by more powerful equipment and computer-based production programs, the sampler continues to inspire enough cultish devotion that any prospective knob-twister still must shell out around $1,000 to go retro. We spoke with several of hip-hop’s must celebrated veteran producers about their experiences with the SP-1200 over the last 20 years.

The Cast

Hank Shocklee Part of the Bomb Squad and producer for Public Enemy, Ice Cube, and Slick Rick.

Lord Finesse Producer for the Notorious B.I.G., Dr. Dre, and Big L.

Pete Rock Recording artist with CL Smooth and producer for Heavy D, Nas, Das EFX, and House of Pain.

Ski Producer for Jay-Z, Camp Lo, and Sporty Thievz.

The Learning Curve

Pete Rock When I first got the SP-1200—I think that was back in ’87—I was going to sessions with my cousin Heavy D, and he was working with Marley Marl. I would just be looking around and looking at the stuff they had and looking at what he was doing. Eddie F had the drum machine, and he showed me how to work it. I basically studied the manual—read it beginning to end and learned it like that. I used it all day, every day. I never came outside—just woke up happy to have a piece of machinery that made music. I didn’t give a damn about anything else once I got that drum machine.

Ski The strength of the SP was definitely the way the 12-bit sounded when you threw the sample or the snare or the kick in there—it just sounded so dirty. It was a definite, definite fucking plus with the machine. The limited sampling time made you become more creative. That’s how a lot of producers learned how to chop the samples: We didn’t have no time, so we had to figure out ways to stretch the sounds and make it all mesh together. We basically made musical collages just by chopping little bits and notes.

Hank Shocklee There’s little tricks that were developed on it. For example, you got 12 seconds [10.07, according to the manufacturer] of sample time to divide amongst eight pads. So depending on how much you use on each pad, you decrease the amount of sample time that you have. You take a 33 1/3 record and play it on 45, and you cheat the system. [Another] aspect that we created is out of a mistake—one day I was playing “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” and it came out real muffled. I couldn’t hear any of the high-end part of it. I found out that if you put the phono or quarter-inch jack halfway in, it filters the high frequency. Now I just got the bass part of the sample. I was like, “Oh, shit, this is the craziest thing on the planet!”

The Machine and the Masters

Lord Finesse They had me as a special guest on Stretch and Bobbito, one of the popular radio shows of the ’90s. I thought it would be slick if I brought my 1200 down. A lot of producers did total beats with their 1200, and I think I did two or three, and one specifically was when I chopped up Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.” I chopped all around his voice using the 1200 and put an instrumental in the back. I played it over the air, and me and KRS-One freestyled over it. It was real slick.

Ski People said they never saw anyone work the SP as fast as me and Large Professor— not that it means anything. It’s crazy. I can’t explain it—it’s like the shit is programmed in my brain. I worked with Jay-Z and did all of Reasonable Doubt on the SP-1200. For “Dead Presidents,” everything was made on the SP, man: the whole sequence, the drum sounds, the Nas sample. The only thing that wasn’t done on the SP was the sample, [but] I ran it through it to give it that sound.

Pete Rock Everything that you ever heard from me back in the day was the SP-1200. That machine made “Reminisce” [“They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)”], “Straighten It Out,” “Shut ‘Em Down,” “Jump Around.” When I made “Reminisce”—I had friend of mine that passed away, and it was a shock to the community. I was kind of depressed when I made it. And to this day, I can’t believe I made it through, the way I was feeling. I guess it was for my boy. When I found the record by Tom Scott, basically I just heard something incredible that touched me and made me cry. It had such a beautiful bassline, and I started with that first. I found some other sounds and then heard some sax in there and used that. Next thing you know, I have a beautiful beat made. When I mixed the song down, I had Charlie Brown from Leaders of the New School in the session with me, and we all just started crying.

An End of an Era

Pete Rock I used the MPC [a technologically superior sampler line first introduced in 1988] on Soul Survivor II. That was kind of the beginning of using it. I thought it had a thinner sound than the SP, but it had way more sample time—like three minutes. So, can’t beat that. I got hundreds of beats on the SP-1200, but I like the MPC. I’m really starting to get in the midst of it now.

Hank Shocklee They’ve mastered the computer to the point it does things the SP-1200 can’t do. [But] we would have better records today if people said, “Look, you’ve got five hours to make a record.” The problem is that people got all day. They got all week. They got all month. They got all year. So thus, you in there second-guessing yourself. With the 1200, you can’t second-guess yourself, man. You got 2.5 seconds a pad, man. . . . Till this day, nobody has understood and created a machine that can best it.