By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
Despite all the hoopla over Public Enemy making There's a Poison Goin On . . . . their first proper album in five years available exclusively on the Internet, the marketing novelty of the new MP3 technology may end up being overshadowed by some Old School demonology, as rapper Chuck D is once again being viewed in the Jewish community as a rebel without applause. Last month, the Anti- Defamation League issued a statement condemning the final song on the PE album as "offensive," "outrageous," and "suggestive of age-old anti-Semitic themes and rhetoric," then fired off a letter to PE's record company saying the song's lyrics contain "classic anti-Semitic code words and seem to blame Jews for the plight of financially underprivileged Blacks." The label, Atomic Pop, the new digital-centric venture launched by former MCA and CBS exec Al Teller, quickly responded with a letter stating flat out that the song had "no anti-Semitic references." To paraphrase Woody Allen, Jew talking to me?
As the ADL sees it, the problems begin with the song's title, "Swindler's Lust," a play on the name of a certain Steven Spielberg film about a certain genocide. The song's subject matter initially concerns the exploitation of black artists by the music industry a business where a number of prominent players, including Teller, happen to be Jewish but the lyrics quickly progress from the chorus's clever turn-of-phrase ("If you don't own the master/Then the master own you") to more dubious assertions: "More dollars more cents for the Big Six/Another million led to bled claimin' innocence/Is it any wonder why black folks goin' under?" Aside from the larger question of what is meant by the couplet is this a Holocaust reference, and if so, does it mean to suggest that the exterminated Jews were less than "innocent" and therefore deserved their fate? putting "six" and "million" in the same sentence, even if the former may refer to the number of preUniversal/ PolyGram-merger music conglomerates, is at the very least guilty of questionable taste. Making the leap from the notion of greedy music bizzers lining their pockets to the plight of all African Americans is equally troubling, invoking as it does the "bloodsucker" tropes of Louis Farrakhan and Khallid Muhammad.
But the song's real bombshell comes in the middle of the third verse: the return to the PE fold of tenured bigot Professor Griff, dismissed from the group in 1989 after delivering an anti-Semitic harangue to Washington Times writer David Mills in which he blamed Jews for the "majority of the wickedness that goes on across the globe." Griff is conspicuously missing from Atomic Pop's promo photos of the band, though his image appears inside the CD booklet, and sure enough he contributes a bizarre spoken rant to the song, his only appearance on the album: "They came and sat at the feet of our ancient ancestors, they learned, they took it back; they came back, and then they imitated; once they got enough, they came back and they destroyed" (itself mysteriously left off the lyric sheet that was sent by Atomic Pop to the ADL office as "proof" that the song contained no anti-Semitic content). Immediately after Griff's cameo, Chuck drops some weird science of his own: "Laughin' all the way to the bank/Remember dem own the banks/And dem goddamn tanks/Now what company do I thank?/Ain't this a bitch heard they owned slaves/And a ship that sank." While Chuck's dems and theys are deliberately vague, this certainly seems to allude to the scurrilous nonsense that European Jewry controlled the Atlantic slave trade, a pernicious entrant in hip-hop's conspiracy sweepstakes ever since the early '90s, when Ice Cube endorsed the Nation of Islam's publication The Secret Relationship About Blacks and Jews. As for the "ship" Chuck refers to, well, your guess is as good as mine. The Titanic? The Andrea Doria? The Exxon Valdez? The box-office grosses of Spielberg's Amistad?
Adding to the question of Chuck's intentions, of course, is the fact that he's no stranger to accusations of blood libel. In 1990's "Welcome to the Terrordome," PE's response to the media fallout that followed the Griff flap, the rhyme "Crucifixion ain't no fiction/So-called chosen frozen/Apologies made to whomever pleases/Still they got me like Jesus" was widely interpreted as referencing that oldest of calumnies, that it was the Jews and not the Romans who executed Jesus Christ. So is this a case of insensitivity or oversensitivity? As Atomic Pop's letter to the ADL admits, "art is always subject to interpretation." In some ways, "Swindler's" may actually be one of Chuck's most artfully constructed lyrics, employing double entendres to convey multiple messages without using any overtly derogatory epithets, the same way that white politicians use euphemisms like "urban" or "welfare queen" or even "hip-hop" to stand in as shorthand for the hate that dare not speak its name. Instead, "Swindler's" can be read as anti-Semitic only by inference, playing as it does upon centuries of stereotypes and a decade of hostile discourse in Afrocentric circles, a wink-wink-grudge-grudge approach that allows Chuck to have it both ways. Connect the dots in one fashion, and you'll find a six-pointed Star of David; add them up differently and you've got nothing but riddles and paranoia.
Tackling the topic of shameful behavior on the part of some Jews in the record industry is not itself an act of bias there was no outcry, for instance, when a plot twist on The Sopranosproposed that mobbed-up money-lender Herman "Hesh" Rabkin was the former boss of "F-Note Records," a '60s r&b label that scammed a fortune from singers like "Little Jimmy Willis" (likely a nod to the exploitation of Little Jimmy Scott by Savoy Records owner Herman Lubinsky, the innovator of the recoupable expense, in which recording and manufacturing costs are paid for out of an artist's royalties) but to attribute such avarice to their Jewishness is sheer prejudice.
Perhaps the saddest part of this whole affair is that considering all he's been through, if anyone should have learned the lesson that there's absolutely nothing uplifting about scapegoating, it's Chuck D. Jew-baiting in hip-hop is more tired and played-out than a "Funky Drummer" sample, and with PE's recent sales lagging and their very relevance to the hip-hop nation in question, at this point in their career this is a distraction PE hardly needs or it's exactly the louder-than-a-bomb PR boost they sought. Requests for an interview with Chuck went unheeded, but he did issue a statement through Atomic Pop (whose roster ironically includes Jewish rappers Blood of Abraham), more or less telling the rab to get off the rag one more time. "I'm not anti-Semitic and the song is not anti-Semitic," insists his statement. "The song is antimusic industry, directed at an industry, not a people. Swindlers come in all shapes and sizes." Any further dispatches will have to wait till next Wednesday, July 21, at Tramps, when Chuck is supposed to unveil his new side project with Griff as part of the Digital Club Festival. By now, it should probably come as no surprise that the group is named Confrontation Camp.