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The Boston Phoenix Atomic Bomb

PE's MP3 for Y2K

By Alex Pappademas

JUNE 7, 1999:  Truth is, I don't care how Public Enemy put their albums out. LP, CD, MP3, sold from the boot of Chuck D's mom's Camry LE, whatever. For more than a decade, PE have been inspiring debate, provoking protest and rolling in analytical ink, not all of it complimentary. That's a tradition that should continue, and it would be a straight-up shame if the new PE hit the street and all we did was fetishize about distribution.

But just so you know, There's a Poison Goin' On . . . is PE's first album for the new World Wide Web-based record label Atomic Pop, which calls itself "a new model music company dedicated to leveraging the digital medium to change the way music is acquired, marketed, promoted, sold, and distributed." Which means that though Poison will be available in record stores on July 6, the only way to get the $10 CD right now is on-line, from atomicpop.com or amazon.com, or by downloading the music directly from the Atomic Pop site for a Dischord-ish eight bucks.

Whether or not Atomic Pop (founded by industry lifer Al Teller, whose résumé includes head-office stints at both CBS and MCA) represents an actual revolution remains to be seen. At the moment, the company looks suspiciously like a plain ol' indie label with a fresh Web site. And its non-PE bench (L7? Blood of Abraham?) looks like sloppy seconds, even though Chuck D's presence could make a pillow fight take on an insurrectionist cast.

But two seconds into Poison, none of that matters. Because from sound one -- a flipped-inside-out acoustic-guitar sample going down the drain -- "Dark Side of the Wall: 2000" is indelibly Public Enemy, all syncopated explosions, pump-shotgun drum loops, whinnying flutes, and sampled white authority figures postulating about the apocalypse as if they didn't know their collective ass is next. Like "Contract on the World Love Jam," the Bomb Squad instrumental that opened 1990's Fear of a Black Planet (Def Jam), it's an overture to the hour of chaos ahead.

Throughout PE's career, even when Chuck D's lyrics were misguided or totally full of shit ("She Watch Channel Zero," anyone?) the truth came through in D's delivery, and the wall of sound underneath it. It was music as hectic as a talk-radio screaming match, as lurid as the front page of PE's long-time nemesis the New York Post.

The absence of sounds in that weight class made last year's He Got Game soundtrack more a greatest-miss than a return to form. But the title track was maybe the first PE single you could hum, unless the doo-doo-woppin' bass line from "911 Is a Joke" counts. And it was undeniably poignant to hear D, a sports nut so hardcore he's used the phrase "salary cap" to advocate the redistribution of global wealth, tearing sports itself apart, unraveling the ways the game he'd loved had come to embody the worst qualities of a system he despised.

Substitute hip-hop for sports and the metaphor still holds up -- after PE's break with Russell Simmons and their original record label, Def Jam, Chuck's dismissive "Fuck the game, if it ain't sayin' nothing" scans today as "Fuck Def Jam" and Puffy and everyone else who helped turn hip-hop's soul-on-a-roll into novelty-crossover soap-on-a-rope. But Poison's message isn't as tight as He Got Game's. The disc's thesis is that the turn of the millennium is a chance for black people to renegotiate their deal with America, a time to grab some agency or get shafted like the Furious Five. But Chuck's lost some focus, so he manages only collateral damage and not accuracy on the mike, often just riffing on complementary sounds like the freestyle rhymer he never really was. Protein, gangsta lean, triple team, tetracycline. It works surprisingly well -- there may be nothing holding the lines together on cuts like "Here I Go" or "Last Mass of the Caballeros," but that doesn't stop the words from setting one another off like strings of firecrackers.

And it helps that most of the new album approaches the psychedelic density of the second side of Black Planet, with newcomer Tom E. Hawk's beats buzzing and skipping in a credible impersonation of system-crashing media overload or your CD player catching a Y2K fit. So even if there's something crazy about a Public Enemy disc where the most memorable track is a Flavor Flav joint -- "41:19," where Flav gets pulled over for driving-while-black, then asserts, with almost Cagneyish defiance, that the New York cops who shot Diallo needed more target practice while "10,000 disposable cameras" get the whole exchange on film -- this is still an album that demands to be ordered or downloaded or stolen, as long as it's heard. Even amid chaos, the message comes through: don't stop being pissed off about tomorrow, it'll soon be here. And if we're not careful, it could be worse than ever.

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