Pop Grenade: From Public Enemy to Pussy Riot - Dispatches from Musical Frontlines

Pop Grenade: From Public Enemy to Pussy Riot - Dispatches from Musical Frontlines

by Matthew Collin

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An adrenalin-charged trip through some of the cultural flashpoints of the past few decades, Pop Grenade celebrates the power of music as a force for change. Based on first-hand, personal reportage from raves, riots and rebellions, it explores how music has been used as a weapon in struggles for liberation and attempts to create temporary paradises. From Berlin’s anarchic techno scene after the fall of the Wall to outlaw sound systems in wartime Bosnia, from Moscow during the crackdown on Pussy Riot to New York in the militant early years of hip-hop, it tells the extraordinary stories of some of the world’s most audacious musical freedom fighters, disco visionaries and rock’n’roll rebels with a cause.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781782798323
Publisher: Hunt, John Publishing
Publication date: 05/29/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 260
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Matthew Collin has worked as a foreign correspondent for the BBC, Al Jazeera and Agence France-Presse, and as editor for The Big Issue, i-D magazine, the Time Out website and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. He has written for many newspapers and magazines, including The Guardian, The Observer, The Wall Street Journal, Mixmag, The Wire and Mojo. His other books are Altered State, This is Serbia Calling and The Time of the Rebels.

Read an Excerpt

Pop Grenade

From Public Enemy to Pussy Riot: Dispatches from Musical Frontlines

By Matthew Collin

John Hunt Publishing Ltd.

Copyright © 2014 Matthew Collin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78279-832-3


The Prophets of Rage

Air-raid sirens howl out across the darkened hall as a platoon of young men in urban camouflage uniforms and red berets march purposefully onto the stage, paramilitary troopers clasping what look like semiautomatic pistols at shoulder height as they drill back and forth, their faces set hard in concentration. The sirens wail on, louder now, piercing the eardrums as the troopers raise their fists in a Black Power salute and their stern little sergeantmajor yells out his defiant invocation: "Armageddon is now in effect!"

A volley of turntable scratches and jagged-edge samples rips through the wall of screeching noise and a martial drumbeat hammers out of the speakers, clattering closer like a robotic marching band. The paramilitaries with their replica Uzis stand to attention and their commander lifts the microphone and shouts again: "Alright, let's make some noise! Let's break this shit up!"

And it's on, the show is on ... Chuck D is leaping, boxing the air and gesticulating frantically to emphasise the beats as they drop hard from the speakers, while his hype man Flavor Flav vamps and pranks his way around him, weaving demented figures-of-eight as he gambols across the floor: "Bass for your face!" he blurts out, as the Security of the First World troopers cock their ersatz weapons from podiums above the stage, their choreographed stop-motion poses halfway between militaristic menace and theatrical camp.

As they launch into Rebel Without a Pause, Chuck D looks set to spontaneously combust right here in front of the crowd, his eyes popping as his energy rush starts to hit escape velocity, as if the speeding rhythm might propel him upwards, out of the hall and away across the city skies. "Yo Chuck, you've got them running scared!" warns Flav as he sees his comrade about to catch fire ...

It's hard to remember now, so long afterwards, just how Public Enemy dropped like a sonic cluster-bomb into the collective consciousness of British youth back in 1987 when they first toured the country - an experience that was to be as life-changing for them as it was for us.

The anticipation had been rising steadily since their first British release, Public Enemy No. 1, earlier that year. Most of us had still only read about the band in the music papers: the 'Black Panthers of rap', the new militants of the hip-hop age, incandescent with revolutionary zeal, come to blast our brains apart with the kind of electronic assault we didn't even have the strength of imagination to dream about. I remember getting my copy back from the record shop one evening: the matt-black sleeve, the iconic Def Jam Records logo - the definition of where it's at, at that time - and putting the needle to the groove for the first time ... and then this unimaginable dervish howl, this frantic eruption of squalling frequencies that I would only later discover was sampled from Fred Wesley and the JBs' Blow Your Head ... and indeed, my head was blown; a few short minutes later, nothing could be the same again.

In 1987, the time was right: much of the dominant pop music of the mid-eighties was either glossy and aspirational, as fitted the Reagan-Thatcher years, or had retreated into anomie and introspection. But now here was a crew that was sketching out a new iconography of pop dissent and filing the latest dispatches from the frontlines of racial politics in the US, while making a noise that was as radical as their message. How could we resist?

The hyperactively trend-searching British music press, which at the time still had a crucial influence on public taste and was staffed with highly literate critical partisans yearning for a new sound with the subversive energy of punk rock, instinctively embraced Public Enemy and helped stoke an appetite for their debut album Yo! Bum Rush the Show, which received a largely tepid reaction from the US media but became a cult artefact in the UK.

To a British listener, Public Enemy had that dark thrill of forbidden knowledge as well as the infernal energy of a musical genre that was not yet fully-formed, hurtling into the future unconstrained by custom and practice, while their contradictory vibrations gave them an urgent, nervous buzz. "The British tabloid music press found this package irresistible, and with a strange mixture of fanboy irony, Frankfurt School skepticism and thinly disguised racial fear, they began calling Public Enemy the world's most dangerous band. Their music was so good it was scary," suggested US author Jeff Chang in his essential hip-hop history, Can't Stop Won't Stop.

A glance at some of the adoring articles written about Public Enemy in the British music press in 1987 gives an idea of what Chang meant. One journalist from the NME described the band as "street heavies with a PhD in Political Studies and a blade in their back pockets". In the Melody Maker, another awestruck writer declared: "Nothing has ever looked so malicious or so venomous. So overstrung or so outraged. So excessively executed and so savagely meant."

As well as ideologically-motivated music writers looking for something to dirty up the sterile façades of late-eighties corporate pop, Britain was also a relatively unsegregated country with a huge appetite for contemporary black music and a few crucial radio shows that promoted the most challenging of alternative sounds: from the late-night broadcasts of BBC veteran John Peel to the London pirate stations and regional radio DJs with specialist dance-music shows like Stu Allen in Manchester. The country also had its own racial tensions and right-wing government, making it fertile territory for Public Enemy, both musically and politically. "Public Enemy had much morecultural impact in England than they had in America when they came out," recalls Bill Adler, the band's former publicist at Def Jam. "It was remarkable. Public Enemy was hailed like the second coming."

Their first British tour in 1987, with LL Cool J and Eric B. & Rakim, came just a few months after a rambunctious visit by Def Jam label-mates Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys, who briefly served as pantomime villains in the tabloid press after violent altercations at a gig in Liverpool and a mini crime wave involving fans stealing Mercedes emblems from cars to hang around their necks as pendants in tribute to their bratty rap heroes' sartorial style.

When Public Enemy arrived however, the moral panic took on a more sinister, racial tone, with hip-hop linked to incidents of mass mugging by gangs of black youths running wild on Tube trains - 'steaming', the press called it. When the tour reached London's Hammersmith Odeon, squads of police officers were deployed along the route between the venue and the nearest Tube station, with busloads of reinforcements parked up in the back streets in case of unrest at what London newspaper the Evening Standard described as a "gangster music concert". A police spokesman explained to the BBC that hip-hop gigs attracted "thousands of the wrong types", and the Metropolitan force even appealed to the venue to cancel the gig, issuing an overtly racist statement that declared: "Rap music seems to encourage the worst elements."

The disproportionate extremity of the reaction was grounded in fear, says Malu Halasa, a journalist who covered Public Enemy in their early years for the British magazine Hip Hop Connection: "It does seem amazing, but if you have strong black men, dressed in uniforms, in a position of prominence in society, talking articulate politics, I think you would still see that reaction even now," she suggests.

Although Chuck D dissed the Queen and prime minister Margaret Thatcher from the Hammersmith Odeon stage and there were a few scuffles and a handful of arrests outside the venue, London did not burn that night - but the controversy did bolster Public Enemy's outlaw image and the tour unexpectedly turned Britain into their overseas stronghold, just as this country offered up its devotion to so many black American musical innovators before and afterwards, from the original Chicago bluesmen to the pioneers of Detroit techno.

Up to this point, the band had been speaking very specifically to their own people, their own community: to young black Americans, whose traumas they had set out to illuminate. Now they realised that they were being heard across the Atlantic Ocean, and by young whites too; something they had possibly never anticipated. "When we went to England and so many people embraced us and readily identified with what we were saying, that's when we realised that our message had gone through. It was like, wow!" marvels Professor Griff, Public Enemy's former 'minister of information', almost three decades later. For Chuck D, that 1987 tour was the "magical starting point" for much of the success that would follow.

In the audience at those first British gigs were the hardcore B-boys and B-girls, the original rockers who had been breakdancing and bodypopping to electro since the early eighties; there were the youths from the council estates and the teenage Def Jam obsessives who wore their bomber jackets festooned with hip-hop badges and purloined Mercedes emblems as pendants. But there were also disaffected post-punk renegades who had started getting into early rap, house and techno, seeking something with more spirit and purpose as independent rock lost its potency and vision. These were the people whose ideas about the transformative potential of pop had been shaped by punk rock and the more adventurous, politically-conscious bands that came in its wake, like The Slits, The Pop Group, the Au Pairs and the Gang of Four, who deconstructed capitalism and gender relations over serrated punk-funk grooves.

For many of us who rushed to buy the first Public Enemy records, they seemed to represent a fulfillment of the desire for genuinely progressive pop music. "When they came along, they just seemed like the perfect band because they gave you all this hinterland of politics and opened up the history of civil rights, challenged orthodoxies and tantalisingly raised issues like violence. People were just enthralled by this rebellious, noisy spirit," recalls journalist Stuart Cosgrove, who was one of Public Enemy's early supporters at the NME. Along with Mantronix, KRS-One, Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys and Eric B. & Rakim, here, it seemed, was music worth believing in again. Even if, in the beginning at least, we well knew that these records were never actually made for us, here was a sound, at last, that made us feel truly alive.

"The black artist's role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it. His role is to report and reflect so precisely the nature of the society, and of himself in that society, that other men will be moved by the exactness of his rendering and, if they are black men, grow strong through this moving, having seen their own strength, and weakness; and if they are white men, tremble, curse, and go mad, because they will be drenched with the filth of their evil."

Amiri Baraka, Home, 1965

Down on the Bowery, a place where all hopes have narrowed down to the next score, the next bagged bottle, the next panhandled quarter. A black man - or at least he looks like he could be, his face ingrained with dirt like a miner emerging from the pit-head, his eyes blank, his age unknowable - huddles in the cardboard bolt-hole he has built for himself in a corner shaded from the sun. He jerks to his feet as I pass, shrieking out high-pitched curses like he was blowing a feral soprano. Next to him, a man with one leg is rifling through plastic bags full of newsprint he has stacked away methodically in a shopping trolley, muttering a rhythmic monologue of staccato tics and clucks as he labours at his task: hobo glossolalia, the beatdown soundtrack of Skid Row, clacking out a nervy counterpart to his comrade's free-jazz screech.

Across the road, it's junkietown; the crackheads swaying and raving and sweating and tussling with each other over unknown petty disagreements. Black, white, Hispanic - critical cases of all races and colours, come together in desperation and the desire for oblivion, in the summer of 1988, in a New York City which has long since ceased to exist.

In the years before before mayor Rudy Giuliani came to office with his zero-tolerance mission to wash the scum off New York's streets, the area around the Bowery was still a raddled landscape of boarded-up storefronts and dilapidated apartment blocks with shattered windows, grimy façades spattered with cryptic graffiti, vacant lots strewn with tatty pieces of abandoned furniture, bits of broken-down cars and cast-off household detritus. When Chuck D told me later that day that "the American Dream is based on bullshit", I already had some idea what he was talking about.

Just over a year after I brought home that copy of Public Enemy No. 1, I was walking along the Bowery on the way to the nearby Def Jam offices, having quit my job to start writing about music. It was here, from the windows of his label's HQ on Elizabeth Street, that Chuck D had watched the cadaverous crack fiends and smack whores who inspired him to write Night of the Living Baseheads, his caustic sermon about the terrors that the devils of addiction were casting down upon his people. In the summer of 1988, Public Enemy were at their fearsome, compulsive, controversy-scorched peak, just days before the release of their masterwork, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back - and so, at this point, probably the most exciting band in the world.

"Challenge information, instead of taking it for what it is, do you know what I'm saying?" Chuck D instructs me, offering a bullet-point lecture in the basics of journalism within a few minutes of our meeting. This was his tactic with reporters at the time: confront, provoke, attack: "When you get information, challenge it, weigh it, use your logic. Try to get as much information as possible. Just don't believe all that bullshit they're throwing at you."

He's hurling out ideas, measuring up possibilities, scribbling down obscure diagrams on a piece of paper like a clandestine plotter as he talks - a stocky, muscled young man wrapped up in a black-and-tan leather bomber jacket, his eyes looking up momentarily from his arcane calligraphy and locking onto mine to demand acknowledgement. Then seemingly out of nowhere, he announces that he wants to make a film: a black Star Trek with Public Enemy's personnel in the lead roles. "Check out Star Trek, the only thing that makes an episode is that they're dealing with superior forces and they're the underdog. It's the same story," he insists.

Chuck, of course, would be the Captain Kirk figure: "Because I give all the orders and I make sure that if we're going to do this, we do it," he explains, before going on to outline a role for Professor Griff, the 'minister of information' who cries apocalypse as the band take to the stage: "Griff plays a role like Scotty; we can perform a task without Griff, but Griff has to be there to man the ship. He's the only one outside myself who can hold everything together."

The film never came to be, but the analogy of Public Enemy as a soul sonic force, boldly going where no band had gone before, was absolutely clear. Chuck as charismatic commander, doubting himself but always doing the right thing in the end; this made sense too. But Griff as his dour but faithful subordinate, moaning occasionally but always holding the conflict-battered ship together - well, this relationship would be tested in the tough times that were to come.

Then Chuck changes track yet again, his chain of thought switching to the possibility of the US electing a black president. That summer, veteran black activist Jesse Jackson was in the middle of a torrid and ultimately doomed bid for the Democratic presidential candidacy. But Chuck argues - to my surprise - that the US is not ready for a black leader. Jesse must lose, for the good of his people, he insists. "It's good that he runs; it's good that he puts up a fight. He shouldn't win, because Reagan has swept so much dirt under the rug that it's not fair to leave a man that's good and fair to deal with all that bullshit. Critics would rip him apart, black Americans would start believing in all that bullshit and they would lose every bit of hope and faith they have in the man. Right now it's a total mess and I'd rather see Bush or somebody else get stuck in the garbage."

George Herbert Walker Bush, he was referring to here - Bush Senior; Daddy Bush, who eventually won the presidency in that grubby contest to succeed Ronald Reagan in 1988. His son George W. Bush, 'Dubya', who would later become the 43rd president of the United States, was working for his father's campaign at the time, awaiting his own turn in the Oval Office.

"You can't talk about rebuilding a house when the foundation's got termites in it, which this whole system has. It has to be torn down and rebuilt," Chuck continues, before shutting the topic down: "Things are going to get worse before they get better." Of course, in 1988, we had no way of knowing how much worse they would get, in the bleak and violent years of the second Bush. Or how the hopes invested in a black president would be tested later still.


Excerpted from Pop Grenade by Matthew Collin. Copyright © 2014 Matthew Collin. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1 The Prophets of Rage,
2 Berlin Zero Hour,
3 A Free Zone in Babylon,
4 At the Court of the Disco King,
5 Freakout on the Bosphorus,
6 Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears,

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