"Brothers Gonna Work It Out": Cultural Representation as Sound in Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet

By Daniel Spencer.

Published by Journal of Communication and Media Studies

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Despite numerous studies that have considered the representative value of popular music through power and politics, few critics have tackled the issue of sound itself as a vehicle for representation. This is particularly true of rap music, where lyrics are often analyzed for their socio-cultural import. However, the growing literature on hip-hop aesthetics has widened the field for popular music analysis. Sound, in the form of sampling and electronic manipulation, has become a valuable representational tool. In this paper, I consider the question of sound-based hip-hop aesthetics through Public Enemy's "Fear of a Black Planet" (1990), an album renowned for its sonic experimentation. Through musical examples, I examine how sampling and other sonic assemblage techniques critique notions of "fidelity" (i.e., sound quality and representation of non-musical sounds) and historical narrative. That is, Public Enemy appears to use sound fidelity itself to challenge the idea that mimesis is the sole representative tool of music, and gear their critique toward other sights, namely, the reinterpretation and reorganization of the white, historical narrative of American popular music. Ultimately, I demonstrate how Public Enemy makes it possible to do socio-cultural musical analysis through timbre and recorded sound.

Keywords: Representation, Popular Culture, Power

The Journal of Communication and Media Studies, Volume 2, Issue 1, pp.11-19. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 703.146KB).

Daniel Spencer

Interdisciplinary Master’s Student in Music History and English Literature, Graduate College, Ohio University, Athens, Ohio, USA

Daniel Spencer is a Master's Student at Ohio University.