One of the most poignant assertions of black America’s age-long struggle for racial equality is that the Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Harlem native Gil-Scott Heron originally coined the term decades before the millenium, recording a poem of the same title for his collection Small Talk at 125th and Lenox in 1970. Nine stanzas of variations reiterate the opening lines: “You will not be able to stay home brother./ You will not be able to plug in, turn on, and cop out.” Heron’s words served as a wake up call to the oppressed, that change is only incurred from action, not the wait for it to appear across a television screen.
From the hollering mouths of Public Enemy, however, a verbatim restatement of Heron’s words sounded more like a warning throughout Countdown to Armageddon: Public Enemy’s revolution wasn’t going to be televised, because Public Enemy’s revolution wasn’t going to be so TV-friendly.
People often confuse militancy with terrorism; It’s a misconception that put bullets in the brains of Fred Hampton, Malcolm X, and a sizable chunk of the Black Panther Party – but, to be militant is simply to deny an oppressor the satisfaction of turning the other cheek.
Public Enemy was militant. Public Enemy was radical. And Public Enemy had no intentions of making either cheek available.
The album launches with the unmistakable impression of a riot, the collective roar of the audience and the canine growl of Professor Griff meshing with sirens sure to evoke nightmares for any protective parent. “Alright, let’s make some fuckin’ noise!”
The MC’s command fades perfectly into its fulfillment. On the very next track, Bring the Noise, consecutive screams of “too black, too strong” set the tone for what ends up being a hectic exposition of anger in musical form.
The chaotic production of the album is presumably uncomfortable to the first-time listener. But America didn’t need another record to bop it’s head to. Public Enemy yelled every word, because the studio was the only place that opened its ears. America was more eager to consume black music than it was to consume black radicalism – and if it wasn’t going to listen to the streets, it was definitely going to listen to the radio — because African-American voices only mattered to the U.S when they provided a new dance, trend, or culture to be appropriated without credit.
When Public Enemy screamed into the mic, it sounded like a command – and that’s exactly what America needed.
Prophets of Rage, the namesake of a radical rock supergroup to be formed decades later, sees the philosophical lack of the encouraged revolution put on blast: “Attack lies in the books that you’re readin’/ It’s knowledge of yourself that you’re needin’.” Chuck D cites that colorism is indeed written into the English language, and the casual association of malice with any “black” insignia (“black magic,” for example) has long been rooted in a problematic concept that light signifies good, and dark, evil.
But if your parents haven’t told you the solution, Public Enemy will: “Yo, why don’t you just back up from the TV, read a book or something/ Read about yourself, learn your culture, you know what I’m saying?” (She Watch Channel Zero?!)
And it’s kosher. Because, after all, the revolution will not be televised.