Fighting power then and now


This week in 1958 conservative listeners all across America had their worst fears about rock and roll validated.

Arriving at London’s Heathrow airport, “the Killer” Jerry Lee Lewis showed the world his new bride. As history records, Myra Gail Lewis, was 13 years old and the singer’s first cousin (once removed).

If that weren’t enough, the Killer hadn’t yet “killed” the marriage to his first wife when he took up with Myra. These salacious details were broadcast across international media. The fallout effectively blacklisted Lewis. For the next decade his career was a shadow of what it might have been.

The Killer’s torrid and indiscrete lifestyle was just one more nail in what detractors hoped would be the coffin of rock and roll. Five months earlier, a St. Louis disk jockey began a program to “weed out undesirable music.”

During radio station WKW’s “Record Breaking Week” — literally a week where they played records, then smashed them — a DJ uttered the now-famous line, “Rock and roll has got to go, and go it does here on KWK.”

Certain segments of the public just couldn’t countenance the apparent excesses of rock and roll. The entertainment industry was hung on the horns of a dilemma: the emerging art form yielded widely popular products for which there was a growing audience; while at the same time, American culture was in a form of conservative retreat ushered in by the Cold War mentality. In short, Pat Boone just wouldn’t cut it any longer.

America’s other expanding musical innovation was even more subversive. Where rock and roll hinted at it, jazz was explicitly soaked in drugs and alcohol. Of course what both of these musical styles had in common was a heavy influence of African-American culture. For a white America fretting about the encroachment of Communism, the African-American “scare” from within was yet more visceral.

These issues did not resolve themselves without great bloodshed. In the battle for cultural “purity” and hegemony, music was just one more proxy front.

In 1986, the same year Lewis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame, three students, Carlton Ridenhour, Norman Lee Rogers and Richard Griffin, became friends at Adelphi University’s college radio station. They soon discovered their political and musical common ground. The trio connected with Hank Shocklee and Bill Stephney to form the rap group Public Enemy.

When legendary producer Rick Rubin of Def Jam records heard the group’s first track, “Public Enemy No. 1,” he knew magic was in the offing. Rubin brought in William Drayton to rap alongside Chuck D.

The group released its first album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, in 1987. The album garnered a few positive reviews, but their second album, 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, made Public Enemy a household name.

In 1989, the group recorded “Fight the Power,” which was the theme song for Spike Lee’s film, Do the Right Thing.

The following year, Public Enemy returned with Fear of a Black Planet. The album became the group’s first to reach the Top 10.

Where Lewis had run afoul of cultural norms with a lifestyle of excess and poor decisions, Public Enemy stared mainstream culture straight in the face. Public Enemy dared white culture to explain and atone for racism and economic marginalization of black people.

The backlash was swift. The group’s name choice was not mere irony. It was a statement of overt defiance. Both the style of their music and the content was a direct challenge to prevailing cultural sentiments. Conservatives were again happy to oblige the challenge.

Just as rock and roll has matured, so too has rap. Given enough time, the persistent radicals become celebrated as innovators. Such is the lot for Public Enemy. They were among this year’s cohort for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.