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Monday, April 27, 2009

Welcome to the Errordome

Doing the wrong thing by Public Enemy

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Long Island, N.Y., rap crew Public Enemy is an elite musical entity: a long-lasting group that jolted popular music out of its apolitical stupor and inspired black Americans to learn their history and redirect their future. It's no mere trivia tidbit that Barack Obama's first date with Michelle was Do the Right Thing, a film sonically structured around Public Enemy's rhetorical gut-punch "Fight the Power."

Public Enemy leader Chuck D, a reluctant MC who became the favorite of millions, is a fascinating character. On record he sounds like Marv Albert spoiling for a fight, given to sloganeering and provocation; in person he is reserved, articulate and thoughtful. (In a recent talk at Marquette University, he spoke in considerable depth, with self-effacing humor, about education, economics, the environment, the future of live and recorded music, sexism and the prison-industrial complex.)

Whether he likes it or not, Chuck is a hero, a strong black man known for his mental agility and bravery in the face of heavy resistance. He didn't pursue music for money, drugs, groupies or status, but to raise people out of mental and material poverty. He's chosen strong-willed, outspoken collaborators, some of whose volatile behavior has threatened the integrity of the group, and maintained a remarkable optimism. His successes and failures have made for a compelling story for more than 20 years. Public Enemy's recordings still provoke and energize.

For his book Don't Rhyme for the Sake of Riddlin': The Authorized Story of Public Enemy (Canongate), Russell Myrie, arts editor of English paper The Voice, forsakes the real story in favor of reiterations of the well known and the obvious. The narrative lurches clumsily in and out of sequence, the storytelling is bland and overrun by platitudes like "undisputably" and "it goes without saying." The nuts-and-bolts details of the band's work are not discussed, major developments such as Chuck D's side project Confrontation Camp and the Stop the Violence Movement are glossed over or ignored, and Myrie offers no real description of the music.

His assessments of Public Enemy's work are puerile. He says "The 'Fight the Power' video is easily in hip-hop's top five videos of all time"; "For the record, the original version of 'Shut 'Em Down' is crazy fly too, and was also a massive hit down South" ; "[Public Enemy's] following is strong enough that a certain degree of success is guaranteed."

Myrie avoids the hard questions about Chuck rhyming live over vocal tracks, Chuck going solo after he swore on record not to, the band censoring their own recordings, the glamorizing of guns and militarism, or Chuck's MC partner Flavor Flav essentially becoming Channel Zero with his vacuous TV show. Factual and prosaic errors great and small abound, and glib speculation runs wild. Myrie's favorite adjective appears to be "perhaps."

How could the authorized story of such a great band be such a condescending, confused, cliché-soaked, flavorless myriad of mistakes?

Here's how: About 30 years ago, big book publishers decided it was better to rush certain titles to the shelves than have their editors read them critically. Sometimes it was because said titles were of only temporary interest, sometimes because the author was Norman Mailer and editors didn't question, let alone correct, the syntactical, grammatical, spelling or continuity errors of genius. And readers continued to buy the bullshit that ensued.

Then, about 20 years ago, during takeovers by huge multinational businesses like Bertelsmann, Holtzbrinck, and Murdoch, big book publishers decided to gut their editorial staff because book profit margins were too small compared to other mass-market media. The purpose of publishing became profit, not good books.

Now, aspiring-I suspect-to make their products look, smell and sell like those spewed forth by big book publishers, smaller presses like Canongate crank out shiny-covered crap like Don't Rhyme for the Sake of Riddlin', with hundreds of terrible mistakes, unsubstantiated speculations, infantile writing, no real story and worse-than-lousy photographs, and here I have to review it because editor David Luhrssen thought this might be the best of a bunch I suggested. So even smart-asses like Luhrssen and me get duped. Welcome to the Errordome.