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Prairie Pop: Hip Hop's Media Assassin

For those listening to hip hop 20 years ago, Harry Allen’s name was well known after the release of Public Enemy’s classic “Don’t Believe the Hype,” from It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. That 1988 album—with its massive freight train of a title, and rocketing aural attack—established the group as agitprop provocateurs and that era’s top hip hop act.

In “Don’t Believe the Hype,” a wholesale lyrical attack on print, radio, and television news and entertainment media, PE’s Chuck D and Flavor Flav set up Allen’s classic four-word cameo with a question. “I’m going to my Media Assassin, Harry Allen, I gotta ask him…”—Flav interjects, “Yo, Harry, you’re a writer, are we that type?”—to which Allen deadpans, in his deep, resonant voice: “Don’t believe the hype.”

"Run-DMC and Doctor Dre, Outside of WBAU/90.3 FM, in the Adelphi University Center, Garden City NY, July 1983." Copyright © by Harry Allen.On Wednesday, April 1, at 7:30, Harry Allen will give a talk in the IMU’s Second Floor Ballroom titled Part of the Permanent Record: Photos from the Previous Century. The discussion will center on a series of photographs he took of Run-DMC, LL Cool J, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, T La Rock, Public Enemy, and other important hip hop figures from the 1980s. Allen’s talk also shares its title with his photography exhibit, which debuted in New York City two years ago; Part of the Permanent Record will debut in Iowa as part of a UI Museum of Art show planned for Spring 2010.

Harry Allen took this series of photos before he gained notoriety through his connection to Public Enemy, and before he broke new ground in the mid-1980s writing about hip hop for The Village Voice and other major print outlets. In the early-1980s, he attended Adelphi University with Chuck D and other members of PE, when many of these photos were shot. They document the emerging hip hop scene as it expanded from its roots in New York City, out into the suburbs, and on its way to becoming a multibillion-dollar lifestyle industry.

One of the many things that set Public Enemy apart from other hip hop groups, then and now, is the fact that they were the first to include a writer in their crew. Not a writer, as in graffiti writer, but a journalist and critic. Allen’s moniker, Media Assassin, acknowledged that he and the rest of PE were battling mainstream media on its own turf. “Media Assassin,” he tells me, “makes an allusion to the notion of warfare, of weaponry. It naturally fits with a group for whom these ideas were used to make music and statements—the ideas of violence, and language, and history.”

Public Enemy prompted dialogues about race and politics, using radio, television, and vinyl to launch their provocations to get people talking, and thinking. This was in the middle of Reagan’s 1980s, when that administration turned a blind eye to the crack epidemic and other problems that devastated black communities. In popular culture, things were not much better. During the 1990 Academy Awards, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing lost to the racially regressive Driving Miss Daisy, and Bobby McFerrin topped the Billboard charts with “Don’t Worry Be Happy.”

With McFerrin’s song, white yuppies got a twofer—they could feel “multicultural” by consuming the work of an African American pop-jazz vocalist and still imbibe in the goodtime party that was the go-go ’80s, an economy that further marginalized many people of color. (“‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ was a number one jam,” Chuck D said in “Fight the Power,” from Do the Right Thing, “Damn if I say it you can slap me right here.”)

Public Enemy created their own world of sound on records like It Takes a Nation… and 1990’s Fear of a Black Planet. As PE producer Hank Shocklee tells me, “What we wanted to create was kind of like a ‘reality record.’ You hear it out in the streets, and what you hear in the streets is back in the record again.” He adds, “We got so far into sampling, we even sampled ourselves.” On Fear of a Black Planet, the group recorded radio and television coverage that discussed Public Enemy, inserting these samples into their songs to comment on the media distortions and misrepresentations of the group.

One such song, “Incident at 66.6 FM,” chopped up a talk radio interview with Chuck D, hosted by Alan Combs, best known as the pathetic liberal co-host of Fox News’ Hannity & Combs. Chuck D recalls, “‘Incident at 66.6 FM’ was actually a live radio interview that I did at WNBC in New York before a show we did with Run-DMC at Nassau Coliseum. The host of the show was Alan Combs. Alan said he tried his best to sue us back then, but NBC, who owned the broadcast felt it would be a waste of time.” Even though “Incident at 66.6 FM” was an interstitial piece—a kind of skit—it is one of the album’s highlights, showcasing the ingenious ways that Public Enemy remixed mainstream media messages in order to comment on them.

While Public Enemy fired off their critiques through the medium of music, Harry Allen happily tipped a few sacred cows in the world of print journalism. For instance, when SPIN magazine put the Beastie Boys on the cover in 1987, he wrote this blistering letter to the editor:

Your decision to put a white crew on the cover of your magazine as SPIN’s front-page presentation of hip hop [Beastie Boys, March 1987] betrays: 1) the inherent phoniness of your alternative stance; 2) your lack of facility with nascent black musical forms; and 3) your own racism. American musical history is running over with contradictions. One just hopes that those of us who watched this music (rap, hip hop) grow off the sidewalk will remember that, despite thousands of recordings, concerts, and park jams by individuals who were and are far more innovative, creative, and black than the Beastie Boys, the first rap crew on SPIN’s cover was not only white but white-faced. This is the Colonel Tom Parker story of black American music. It’s an old, tired story; it’s an untrue story; and a magazine of SPIN’s caliber is capable of much much more.

As a teenaged SPIN subscriber, it was the first time I encountered Harry Allen’s name, roughly a year before “Don’t Believe the Hype” was released. Fifteen years later, in an interview with the magazine, Allen said that his letter was responding to a “very conscious fear and awareness that at that point in hip hop’s history it might be eclipsed by white people participating in it. Which is what happened to earlier forms of black music with the arrival of star-powered white performers.” He added, “The race issue in hip hop has been refined—it has not gone away, and it is not better. It’s just subtler now.”

Harry Allen hasn’t stopped—and he surely won’t stop—writing about politics, race, and culture for the VIBE, The Village Voice, The Source, and other national publications. Allen also hosts a weekly radio show, Nonfiction, on WBAI-NY, and he publishes the blog Media Assassin, at harryallen.info—all of which serve as a forum for his thoughtful, forceful critiques. His rich and diverse career is a testament to the power of words, ideas, and creativity. It is also a reminder of the importance of alternative media, and why we need independent voices that can engage in honest dialogues about the important issues of our time.

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