1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About

1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About

by Joshua Clover

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In a tour de force of lyrical theory, Joshua Clover boldly reimagines how we understand both pop music and its social context in a vibrant exploration of a year famously described as "the end of history." Amid the historic overturnings of 1989, including the fall of the Berlin Wall, pop music also experienced striking changes. Vividly conjuring cultural sensations and events, Clover tracks the emergence of seemingly disconnected phenomena--from grunge to acid house to gangsta rap--asking if "perhaps pop had been biding its time until 1989 came along to make sense of its sensibility." His analysis deftly moves among varied artists and genres including Public Enemy, N.W.A., Dr. Dre, De La Soul, The KLF, Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, U2, Jesus Jones, the Scorpions, George Michael, Madonna, Roxette, and others. This elegantly written work, deliberately mirroring history as dialectical and ongoing, summons forth a new understanding of how "history had come out to meet pop as something more than a fairytale, or something less. A truth, a way of being."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520944640
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 11/06/2009
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 198
Sales rank: 1,099,121
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Joshua Clover, Associate Professor at the University of California, Davis, is author of The Totality for Kids (UC Press), The Matrix, and Madonna anno domini.

Read an Excerpt


bob dylan didn't have this to sing about


Copyright © 2009 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-25255-4

Chapter One

The Bourgeois and the Boulevard

"1989! The number, another summer!" So begins Public Enemy's "Fight The Power," opening the soundtrack to the Spike Lee film Do the Right Thing. The charged and confrontational movie opened on June 30, 1989, amid a maelstrom of controversy—in part for its ending with a Brooklyn race riot triggered by the film's protagonist Mookie, played by Lee himself.

Public Enemy was, in that moment, at the height of its powers. The year before, the group had released what was then the most influential album in hip-hop's history: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. The densely layered, discomfiting sounds of the Bomb Squad production team (led by Hank Shocklee) and leader Chuck D's mercurial verbal militancy seemed like the zenith of hip-hop's Black Power and Black Nationalist movement, which had been for several years ascendant.

The moment contained just the same the seeds of its own annihilation. On the first day of July, following a month of remarkable controversy, the headline "Public Enemy Ousts Member over Remarks" made the front page of leading trade journal Billboard. Professor Griff (Richard Griffin) had been the band's road manager and served as head of the S1Ws, "Security of the First World," a cadre who minded the stage during shows clad in military apparel clearly appropriated from the Fruit of Islam, the paramilitary defense force of the Nation of Islam. It was in Griff's role as the group's Minister of Information, however, that he stated—during a May interview for Sun-Myung Moon's notoriously conservative Washington Times—that Jews were responsible for "the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe." 3 This was not the extent of his offensive commentary, the brunt of which was anti-Semitic as well as homophobic and which endeavored to cite Henry Ford's The International Jew. At the June 21 press conference announcing Griff's dismissal, Public Enemy's leader Chuck D insisted, "We are not anti-Jewish, we are not anti-anybody—we are pro-black, pro-black culture, prohuman race.... You can't talk about attacking racism and be racist."

Four days after the press conference, a small-scale riot broke out when Chuck announced from the stage in Philadelphia that this was to be their last show. This would have been an extraordinary claim in any circumstance, given Public Enemy's stature at the time: the foremost hip-hop act in the United States, and thus the world. They would re-form shortly, but the sequence of events signaled the beginning of the end for their preeminence within the genre, and for the genre itself in its then-current form.

Largely forgotten is that Public Enemy shared the bill that night in Philadelphia with N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude). The latter band had released their own epochal album on January 25, 1989: Straight Outta Compton. While scarcely lacking in conflict, the collection, first circulated in 1988, was entirely absent the programmatic commitments of Public Enemy and their compañeros in Black Power and Black Nationalist hip-hop; recorded for less than $10,000, it would shortly match Nation of Millions in platinum sales. It's worth recalling that, while increasingly ambitious historians trace rap to the dawn of the seventies and before, 1989 was the first year that the Grammies awarded a prize to the genre, then only three years from its first number one album.

The Spectrum show was thus a chiasmus in the genre's history. By year's end, N.W.A. would replace Public Enemy as hip-hop's cause célèbre. The Griff episode would be early in a swift series of sometimes calamitous events, culminating in the riots at the acquittal of the police officers accused of beating Rodney King and the release of N.W.A. producer Dr. Dre's solo album, The Chronic—a sequence that would shift the genre's celestial mechanics and cultural imaginary to Los Angeles, eclipsing New York entirely.

But this shift was not simply one of industrial geography, comparable to rock-centered pop music's move from New York to the rising media capital of Los Angeles in the late sixties and early seventies. It also took part in a rejiggering of the popular representation of Black youth and the Black underclass in general, one with substantive problematic social implications and lineages.

This is the emergence traced in this chapter: not of a new genre, but of a change within a genre so substantial, with such cultural force, that it feels more unsettling than the simply new—as if the earth had suddenly reversed the direction of its spin. The shift can be glossed as that from the style of Nation of Millions to the style of Straight Outta Compton; or of East Coast to West Coast; or from soul samples typified by James Brown to funk beats exemplified by Parliament-Funkadelic. In such topsy-turvy moments, as one set of formal habits shatters and another begins to condense, a frontier feeling comes; the period is, among other things, an era of chaotic, dead-end stylistic inventiveness most familiar from the birth of genres.

Still, it would not do justice to the situation to equate the emergence in question entirely with style or geography. It takes place at the moment when hip-hop is under attack on numerous fronts: aesthetic, cultural, legal. The terms of the change from Public Enemy to N.W.A. are just as much thematic, social, political; it is equally a leap from Black Power and Black Nationalist hip-hop to gangsta rap. That is to say, the conversion is a matter of styles and worldviews at once. It is a formal and ideological tandem which haunts this book; they change together or not at all. This chapter is concerned not with naming the change so much as understanding its particulars—in grasping the fires of the moment and the forces that helped reshape a genre in the era's crucible.


Harry Allen, journalist and one-time "Media Assassin" for Public Enemy, referred to Islam as "hip-hop's unofficial religion"—though not one which is unified. Multiple and sometimes-competing Muslim sects and faiths played a role in hip-hop's rise. Increasingly this influence has tended toward the older tradition of Sunni Islam; in its earlier period, hip-hop was more identified with modern, United States – based teachings (a history inseparable from the oft-overlooked fact that as of 1992, according to the American Muslim Council, the largest demographic component of Islam in the United States was African-American: 42 percent.)

By the end of the eighties, hip-hop was strongly identified with the Nation of Islam (NOI), under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan. The Nation was founded in 1930 by Wallace Fard Muhammad in Detroit, drawing early membership (including future leader Elijah Muhammad) in part from unemployed autoworkers—an irony, given Henry Ford's views on race and religion. Their teachings would be interpreted and disseminated most famously by Malcolm X, ambivalent martyr of Black militancy and post-Bandung Pan-Africanism, who before his death completed the shift from the Nation to Sunni Islam. The shift was echoed structurally when, at the time of Elijah Muhammad's 1975 death, NOI moved closer to traditional Sunni Islam and changed its name to the Muslim American Society. This in turn made way for Farrakhan's refounding of the Nation—an occurrence almost exactly contemporaneous with the appearance of rap's first national hit in 1979.

However, rap had a parallel and longer-standing affiliation, through Afrika Bambaataa's Zulu Nation, with the Nation of Gods and Earths (most often known as the Five Percent Nation, or Five Percenters). This breakaway sect was begun by Clarence 13X, who had attended Malcolm X's Nation of Islam temple in Harlem before departing in 1963. "The focus of the 5 Percenters' belief system includes numerology, cryptic scientific theory, and a more extreme race theory. In this theology, 85 percent of the masses are ignorant, 10 percent are 'bloodsuckers of the poor,' and only 5 percent know the truth." each Allah, each obligated to be a "poor righteous teacher," eloquent and committed to the transmission of sacred knowledge. Similarly, the Five Percent doctrines of the Supreme Mathematics and Supreme Alphabet provide ready content and hermetic shelter for the marginalized; significantly, they also authorize measures of lyrical formalism while suggesting that formal systems such as numerology themselves have content. One can see the appeal of this formation for a rhetorician.

The emphasis on teaching, and on verbal formalism as a pedagogical tool—mnemonics, acronyms, anaphoric theses—is shared with Nation of Islam, and numerous emcees have shifted fluidly between the beliefs of the two sects, sometimes as matters of lyrical convenience, other times in synthesizing a vision for themselves and their audience. The power of preaching and teaching, of divine and secular knowledge, in turn figures as the foundation for a program of self-empowerment.

Of tantamount importance, the project of Black self-empowerment aligns the teachings of both the Five Percenters and the Nation of Islam with rap's early development as an art form. The material, technological conditions allowing for rap's genesis were orchestrated by the use of consumer electronics (most famously the turntable) as tools for the production, rather than reproduction, of music. This development is of course inseparable from rap's struggle to be recognized as a legitimate music. Such a sequence—new art made by non-professionalized performers, followed by a backlash that pretends to police not the social eruption but the terms of the aesthetic—is not a new story. In this case, the backlash has been as extended and contentious as it is racialized. Such a conflict can only be understood as an attempt to maintain the barriers of entry which this new material empowerment had battered down, effectively allowing artists from a previously excluded class and race position to produce material for mass culture (albeit still mediated by certain studio and radio demands). New form, new social access, new content.

Thus it was inevitable that the content of hip-hop would swiftly come to express the possibility, novelty, and force of such self-empowerment, and so gather in the self-empowerment discourses circulating in the hip-hop and broader Black community. These discourses would equally mutate rap's artistic structures in a way that encapsulates the dialectical development of ideology and aesthetic form—a development most apparent in formidably talented emcee Rakim (Rakim Allah, born William Michael Griffin, Jr.), who effectively reimagined the lyrical possibilities of rap on his first two albums with Eric B, Paid in Full and Follow the Leader (1987 and 1988, respectively). Stretching enjambed sentences across syncopated and densely rhymed lines, Rakim did for rap something on the order of what Bob Dylan had done for rock and roll. Beyond technical triumph, Rakim fashioned a new rhetorical machine, able to articulate extended ideas as persuasively as catchphrases. He was pleased to use both, to connect old-school hustles about moving the crowd with doctrinal rallying cries in a style that instantly rendered obsolete the end-stopped couplet and quatrain format of early rap:

From century to century you'll remember me In history, not a mystery or a memory— God by nature, mind raised in Asia, Since you was tricked, I have to raise ya From the cradle to the grave, But remember you're not a slave Cause we was put here to be much more than that But we couldn't see it because our mind was trapped But I'm here to break away the chains, take away the pains Remake the brains, reveal my name

Rakim's formal revolution was thus also a revolution of ideas, or of the potential for ideas. The effect was to identify rap's cultural power and Black Power explicitly, and to do so with a particular understanding: that the rhetoric of Black self-empowerment, now indistinguishable from eighties hip-hop, was not a bootstrapping self-determination but an oppositional stance, a Black nationalism based on a racialized theology.


Numerous Five Percenter – and Nation of Islam – influenced emcees circulated through hip-hop in the eighties and after. What bears most directly on our story is not so much that such figures existed, or that they played a role in hip-hop's development, but rather their increasing salience over the second half of the decade—the fact that there was a desire, a market, for such representations and polemics. This desire was by any measure encompassing. By the end of the eighties, hip-hop style meant Afrocentric commitments, fashions, and rhetoric—and crucially, this style was neither apolitical nor vacantly "positive" but embraced a consciously confrontational politics. Public Enemy was both producer and product of this sea change, more intimately bound up in its workings than any of its cohort. The group's intensity approached the millenarian: "Countdown to Armageddon, '88 you wait." By 1989, Chuck could claim with considerable authority, "Public Enemy is the official voice of the rap world, Black youth, oppressed youth and yes, many white youth in the western world." 8 At the end of the year, leading pop music critic Robert Christgau saw the group as almost pure cause, and was specific about the effects wrought: "they have actually instigated a species of leftish Afrocentrism among kids who three years ago thought gold chains were dope."

Public Enemy achieved this reputation in part because of its insistence on articulating the new politics as a historical development—as a supersession of rap's early ethos, that of partying and self-celebrating proclamations (self-empowerment as contentless desire, one might say). This supersession preserved the earlier tradition within itself, even while turning it upside down. The best-known example is the inversion of a Beastie Boys title from 1986, "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)," which returns as Nation of Millions' closing track, "Party for Your Right to Fight." "Bring the Noise" at once celebrates Run-DMC's formative role in the genre ("Run-DMC first said a deejay could be a band") and announces why their spirit is no longer adequate to the situation. This is again achieved through inversion of source lyrics: "Never badder than bad 'cause the brother is madder than mad."

Inversion is a suggestive effect, as if the restructuring of the tradition toward anger and conflict was a way of setting hip-hop on its feet so as to address actual conditions. This political mode of confrontation is not identical to Black Nationalist aspirations but is consistently aligned with them. The same song from Nation of Millions hazards the cry of what should rightly follow rap's formative "Old School" years: "Farrakhan's a prophet and I think you ought to listen to / what he can say to you, what you ought to do."

Such progressions, keeping faith with rap's roots while growing toward the most radical social engagements, made Public Enemy both the figures and figureheads par excellence for hip-hop's political turn, as did the group's deftness at addressing overlapping but varied audiences. This was achieved in part by the interplay of Chuck's role as a prophet of rage and the more wayward, everyman charms of sideman Flavor Flav; and in part by the insistent scale-jumping from street scene to allegorical narrative to historical lesson and systemic analysis, all of which allowed the group, in one of its best-known passages, to "rock the hard jams, treat it like a seminar / reach the bourgeois, and rock the boulevard."

The couplet marks the time. It offers two pairs, and insists on the necessity of both: aesthetic success must accompany political content as a pedagogical necessity, and communication must cross lines of class, race, and geography to exceed subcultural status. This double synthesis, then, is the program for a political art. This is the measure of Public Enemy's achievement, rather than articulacy or militancy as such. That is, their significance lies in their realization of an explicitly social-political, confrontational problematic in relation to an aesthetic form that expressed the same problematic otherwise: a total work that solicits engagements and generates affects in multiple ways.


Excerpted from 1989 by JOSHUA CLOVER Copyright © 2009 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents



1. The Bourgeois and the Boulevard
BRIDGE: da inner sound, y'all

2. The Second Summer of Love
BRIDGE: I Was up above It

3. Negative Creep
BRIDGE: Just a Stop down the Line

4. The Billboard Consensus


5. The Image-Event and the Blind Spot


What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"[A] dense, provocative, wonderfully written little book. . . . Masterful."—The Progressive

"[It] is an academic book, but also one that fans of politics and pop culture would savor."—Boston Globe

"[An] extraordinary work of political aesthetics. . . . Clover is a gifted music writer, and his descriptions are vivid, surprising and politically sharp without ever being moralistic."—New Statesman

"Astute . . . [A] vivid snapshot of a tumultuous moment in pop and history."—Foreword Magazine

"Up close, Clover's analysis is interesting an occasionally brilliant. . . . Rich with historical and musical insight. . . . It's the smaller discoveries along the way that make 1989 worth your time."—Bookforum

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