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Still Rebels Without a Pause

By Dave Davis · March 7th, 2007 · Distribution Revolution
Oliver Meinerding

What separates a compilation of cast-offs from a classic? When I finally managed to separate the discs from the packaging, Public Enemy's latest, Beats and Places, fell apart in my hands. Literally. The jewel box crumbled like a Democratic presidential candidate in November, disintegrating into shards of brittle plastic.

But I love PE, so I shoved one of the now-loose discs into my lappy and sucked the music straight into my iPod shuffle along with some other new tunes. When the first track hit my 'buds I cringed. To put it nicely, ummm ... the sound quality was a bit off. And the record seemed to lean heavily on classic PE tracks rather than dropping new moves. It wasn't until I listened end-to-end and watched the DVD that things began to make sense. The Enemy's kicking in the front door, and their message is way bigger than the media on which this album lives.

We're featuring this record in DistroRev because it's unique. Priced like a CD-only, it includes a DVD, both making the same arguments. In spite or because of the raw, ragged sound, this might be Public Enemy's best record musically and lyrically. That sound is the message, and the urgency of the beats are driven by the timeliness of it.

"Grand Theft Oil" reveals Bush's plain meaning by re-sequencing his intentionally mangled speech. "The Flavor Flav Show" updates the classic "Cold Lampin' with Flavor." And while this album was released in late 2006, it references post-Katrina New Orleans, which had just happened at the end of 2005! Surprisingly time-bound lyrics remain as powerful today as they were when Brownie was still down there doing a heckuva job!

Minus a major label, PE brings it straight.

Beats and Places shares more with Thomas Payne's Common Sense (the pamphlet that saved the American Revolution) than Fear of a Black Planet. While the packaging is cheap, the discs are rich, over-flowing with music, videos and ideas. It resists deconstruction. Shuffling through the songs is the best way to miss the point entirely. While the DVD provides a shortcut and hooks you, there's only one way to hear the CD: end to end, from tracks one through 15 without pause. In a single dose, you get the big picture and, as usual with PE, it ain't pretty. The raw, aesthetically ugly sound and harsh production of songs like "Son of a Bush" will cut the toughest hide. Laid end to end, Beats and Places is a thesis, making a devastating case against the status quo. It's a newspaper, podcast and blog all rolled into one crumbly, sharp-as-broken-glass package.

Look, we live in a poverty-optional world, yet repeatedly choose poverty. We romanticize our choices: gay-bashing is a moral value for compassionate conservatives, hunger is merely a character builder. Many pretend racism ended with the Civil War, forgetting segregation was still legal just 40 years ago. Since 9/11 we've been happy to sacrifice other people's children and money, as long as we're not personally inconvenienced. The only surprise is that it took Chuck D and crew so long to drop this bomb.

It's amazing that Beats and Places holds together so well as an album, since it's assembled from many remixes and alternate takes and versions, using beats and lyrics from classic PE tracks or other songs here and there. But make no mistake -- this isn't a collection of dance remixes, but really more of a concept record. The recycled hooks reinforce the message and layer meaning into the music. As always, PE takes us places we've never been before. The beats are as sharp as ever, with all kinds of new, old and entirely unimagined breaks. All songs are "performed" in the classic sense: guys making sounds in real time with instruments and turntables, with their hands, feet and mouths (maybe butts and other parts -- who knows? I'm just hitting the obvious).

The new ground is broken on the Beats section of the DVD. Like the package and the last-week's-news lyrics, the videos rely heavily on twisting familiar imagery to different ends. The Flash-inspired dataculture look of the animation and videos add to the immediacy and "period" nature of the work. The resulting DVD and CD pack a dense, well-supported, expertly delivered message into a nearly disposable container. As with so many of the subjects of this column, the music (and message) are more valuable and important than the artifact!

The Places section of the DVD isn't great -- basically commercials for the band, label, etc. But they don't suck. For those who missed PE in the 1990s, these clips fill in the blanks. Oddly, the "Supplemental" section, a typical label add-on compilation of other SlamJamz artists, is pretty good. Nothing fancy, just plenty of good music, breaking new sounds in new ways (the DIY/Flash/YouTube look and feel of the videos and a continued emphasis on Funk and performance over typical Rap sampling).

Only time will tell how an album so deeply rooted in the present tense will sound to us in the future. If we still value message over media, if there's a place for depth as well as surface and if we continue to recognize and respond to great performances, Public Enemy's Beats and Places will become a classic.

PUBLIC ENEMY performs at the Madison Theater Wednesday with guests X Clan.


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