Being Black: The 80's with Touré

Public Enemy x Mass Incarceration

Episode 4

“Black Steel In the Hour of Chaos” is Public Enemy’s look at prison and mass incarceration. In this ep we leap from that song into talking about the New Jim Crow and mass incarceration and how being in America is like being in a prison.

NEW YORK – FEBRUARY 22: Chuck D and Flavor Flav(in his orange prison uniform) of Public Enemy performs during the 2003 Rock the Vote Awards at the Roseland Ballroom February 22, 2003 in New York City. (Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images)


Muhammad Ali [00:00:00] Kind of hard to put a black man or any Black person in this country in jail. 

Toure’ [00:00:05] That’s Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali [00:00:06] Because if you ask the average one, we’re already in jail. You know, we’ve been in jail 400 years. 

Toure’ [00:00:12]  To be Black in America can feel like being born a criminal. 

Living in the City [00:00:17] Come on get in the cell nigger. 

Toure’ [00:00:19]  It can feel like being an enemy of the state. 

Public Enemy [00:00:23] Posing a threat, you bet’s it’s fucking up the government. 

Toure’ [00:00:26] It can feel like the system is at war with you. 

Public Enemy [00:00:30] This is what I mean an anti-nigger machine.

Toure’ [00:00:33] So, given all that, can a Black person ever work for the system? Can we go to war and risk our lives for the system that does not give us justice or respect or peace at home? Public Enemy’s legendary 1988 record, Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos gave us a main character who gives the government the middle finger and ends up incarcerated because of it and then launches a prison riot. This was a powerful song at a time when mass incarceration was on the rise and sending hundreds of thousands of Black people to prison. 

Hank Shocklee [00:01:11] Most of my cousins was impressed. 

Toure’ [00:01:13] That Hank Shocklee from Public Enemy. 

Hank Shocklee [00:01:15] My uncle’s been 25 years, then comes out. My my little nephew did 30 years and he did 30 years as a teenager. So that that’s in our community. That’s what all of us ever jailed or inprisoned. 

Toure’ [00:01:29] This is Being Black: The eighties I’m Toure’. And this is a look at an epic decade through the lens of some of the great songs of the era. Not necessarily the best songs, but the songs that speak best to the issues that shaped the eighties. The fight to make the King holiday into a law. This time we dive into mass incarceration through the lens of Public Enemy’s Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.  A landmark 2012 study called Why Do Criminals Obey the Law? Found that one of the key reasons why some people break the law is because they do not believe in the legitimacy of the law. It’s not force compliance that makes us behave. It’s that we believe the law and the procedures around it are fair and make sense. If you think highway speed limits are stupid because you know how to drive fast. You don’t need someone telling you how fast you can go and you see cops hiding in the bushes like rats pulling cars over just so they can make money. 

Jay Z Problems [00:02:32] Well, you was doing 55 in the 54. 

Toure’ [00:02:34] And then you don’t think the law and the way it’s applied is legitimate. So even if you do get stopped by a cop and ticketed, you’ll soon be speeding again, just like me. But if you believe that speed limits makes sense and driving slower saves lives, and being safe on the road is more important than getting there fast, then you believe the law is legitimate and you’ll follow the speed limit even if there are no cops on the road. This goes for any law and it plays out in Public Enemy’s Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos from their legendary 1988 sophomore album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back. The song opens with a man getting an order to join the military. 

Public Enemy [00:03:17] I got a letter from the government the other day. I opened and read it and it said they were suckers. They wanted me for the army or whatever, picture me giving a damn, I said never. 

Toure’ [00:03:28] He doesn’t believe in the legitimacy of the government of his country because that government has been part of mistreating his people for centuries. He rejects their demand because America’s centuries of injustice toward Black people makes it impossible for him to feel like he should serve America. 

Public Enemy [00:03:46] Here is a land that never gave a damn about a brother like me or myself, because they never did. 

Toure’ [00:03:52] There was no military draft in the eighties. The draft ended in the seventies. But Chuck’s story recalls Muhammad Ali in 1967, famously refusing induction into the Army during the height of the Vietnam War. 

Muhammad Ali [00:04:07] My conscience let me go shoot my brother. Or some hungry people in the mud . For a big, powerful America and shoot them for what? And they will call me nigger. 

Toure’ [00:04:17] Ali was then the heavyweight champion of the world, but he refused to join on ideological grounds and Black nationalist grounds like Chuck’s character in the song. But Ali didn’t go to prison. Chuck takes Ali’s story and makes it the reason he lands in prison, and it makes the character an heroic figure. He’s heroic and sympathetic because he’s a principled person, someone who refuses to fight for a country that doesn’t respect him, someone who puts his loyalty to Black America ahead of his duty to America. He’s someone we feel doesn’t belong in prison. Did he really do something wrong when he refuses to fight for a government he feels is? Illegitimate because they won’t fight on his behalf at home. He’s someone we can root for, and if we respect him for how he landed in prison, then we surely support his attempt to escape. It’s a righteous prison riot because it’s an illegitimate incarceration. But what really made Blacks Steel  in the Hour of Chaos fits so deeply into the culture of the eighties was that it was a song about prison at a time when the War on Drugs was putting hundreds of thousands of people in prison for nonviolent drug crimes. This is the beginning of mass incarceration. During the eighties, America’s prison population grew by 134%. In 1980, we had about 330,000 people in prison. In 1990, we had 771,000. This is largely the fault of the war on drugs. 

Michelle Alexander [00:05:54] We declared a literal war. 

Muhammad Ali [00:05:56] That’s Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, talking to PBS. 

Michelle Alexander [00:06:01] Lock people up, put them in literal cages, and then relegated them to a permanent second class status for life. Destroying families, destroying entire communities and neighborhoods. There are more African-American men under correctional control today in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the civil war began. 

Toure’ [00:06:26] In Alexander’s powerful book, The New Jim Crow. She locates mass incarceration as a new form of slavery, a new way of controlling and profiting from Black bodies. And in a world where Black and white people use and sell drugs at similar rates, yet Black people are punished far more often and far more harshly for drug crimes, sending them into a criminal justice system where others make money from their incarceration. It feels a lot like a new form of slavery. Like if we can’t make money from owning them, we’ll make money from controlling them. Chuck references the slavery like nature of prison in his song. 

Public Enemy [00:07:07] Four of us packed in a cell like slaves,  oh, well, the same motherfucker got us living  in hell. You have to realize,  what is a form of slavery Organized? 

Toure’ [00:07:17] This ability to control people is critical to the American economy, just as it was slavery that led to America becoming a global economic superpower in the modern world, incarcerating more people than any other country in the world boost our economy. Because just as in slavery, those people are the product that others can profit from. 

Michelle Alexander [00:07:41] Whenever I think of mass incarceration. I actually think of that letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote a friend of his in. It’s called It’s The Wolf by the Ear Letter.

Toure’ [00:07:50] That’s Fordham Professor Chrissy Greer, who’s also an analyst for The Grio. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:07:54] And they’re talking about possibly ending U.S. channels and he’s like right now we’ve got the wolf by the ear, but we don’t know what to do if we let the wolf and the wolf isn’t  the Negro who’s going to turn back and bite people like they’re not worried about Black people killing them, because mentally we already got them in check, by and large, You know, like we saw some insurrections, but like, we’re not worried about Black people taking up arms and killing us. We’re worried about if we free these people economically, can our country survive? Because the way we’ve set it up, we actually need X percent of people not in the workforce not being paid. We need free labor for a certain percentage of people for this country to work. This is the foundation of our nation. And I see mass incarceration as that same iteration of the wolf by the ears. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:08:37] The War on Drugs was announced by Ronald Reagan in 1982, at a time when less than 2% of America felt drugs were the most important issue in the country. The crack epidemic didn’t begin till almost two years later. Given the all out assault of the war on drugs and the rush to incarcerate as many people as possible as fast as possible. Public Enemy song about going to prison was right on time, and it felt as rugged and as chaotic as the situation it portrayed. The song is rough and angry. It has no real hooks, no catchy chorus. It’s not danceable. It’s like it doesn’t want to be liked. It’s bleak. But Public Enemy songs weren’t supposed to be easy to listen to. Chuck D wanted them to challenge you. 

Chuck D [00:09:26] Our sole intent was to destroy music sonically. We set out to do that to redefine what people thought of as music. I said, at least in the Black urban sense, in rap. 

Toure’ [00:09:38] So did Hank Shocklee, who produced the song. 

Hank Shocklee [00:09:41] I’m always down, You know, It’s like, I like to take P.E. and pick it apart from the metaphysical aspects of it, because I think that what it has done is taken music and used it as a frequency, not use it in a way where relaxing you not use it in a way where we’re trying to make you shake your behind or make, you know, this is thing the mission is to take the frequencies and make it alter something in your being that changes you. 

Toure’ [00:10:12] On Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos, Shocklee wanted something dark. 

Toure’ [00:10:17] That particular song, Man, was about darkness. It was the first time that we that we’ve ever used those dark melodic vibration. And the idea was, yeah, we wanted to let you know that not only are we unified, but we are strong and we are confident. And that’s what the visual cortex represented of the song, because to me the song has a visual energy as well that people don’t really realize until they get it a little bit afterwards. And so the idea idea was that subcreated a prison break that was basically all in his mind because he was on the day of his execution. And keep in mind, this was the for all the brothers that was sitting down. I don’t care whether you’re facing execution or you’re not, you feel like you’re facing execution  people  and guess what? You’re always thinking about how to how to get the fuck out of this. What? This lost that hallucination, if you want to call it that, that dream, if you would, to get out of this particular situation. 

Toure’ [00:11:23] Shocklee saw the song have an impact on people’s lives. 

Toure’ [00:11:27] And I’ll just tell you one little story. I was in Miami and I was at  the winter music conference, and this brother came up to me and he was like, adamantly, he was like, Yo, I need to talk to you. I really need to talk to you need to. I said, okay. You know, we sat down and talked and the one thing that he told me, he said, Yo, I’m a fan. I listen to your music. I get a lot of people saying that, right? They go they go, Yo, yo, I’m a I’m I’m really a fan. He said, I was sitting down. 

Toure’ [00:11:53] Sitting down as his euphemism for being locked up. 

Hank Shocklee [00:11:56] I was sitting down when I was listening to the Public Enemy Records, and I listened so intensely that when I got out, I went and got. My not on my G.E.D., but also got my law degree and now I’m helping young kids. That was in the situation that I was in to get out of that. That brought tears to my eyes because now we now you see the affect of what you have as a communications people. Public Enemy was about communication, not about entertainment. 

Toure’ [00:12:30] Now a word from our sponsors. 

Toure’ [00:12:34] From the beginning, Chuck wanted his music to be deeply meaningful. 

Chuck D [00:12:38] And being that my first records, I’m 26, 27 years old. I’m not going to try to sound like a 13 year old kid, and I’m not going to try to appeal to them either, because to me, rap was a grown person’s sport as as a hit myself. So obviously, being a child of the sixties, I’m going to see what I know. Let’s see what had an impact and influence on me, myself and Hank and others. We would promote gigs and put Malcolm X on the cover of flyers and some cat would roll up to us and say, Yo, who’s this Malcolm the 10th? That’s when we say it is important to see if we can use the music as it reaches people and just fill it with something that means something. 

Toure’ [00:13:22] And in the midst of mass incarceration, of course, Public Enemy had to do a prison song like none other because mass incarceration was destroying Black communities and Black families. 

Jim Jones [00:13:35] I’ve seen a lot of incarceration throughout these years. 

Toure’ [00:13:37] That’s rapper Jim Jones. 

Jim Jones [00:13:39] From my father, from my uncle to most of the people in my family being incarcerated it’s rough, and it’s not easy on a kid who misses his father. It is just terrible for the kids is a terrible impact it has on our community. These Black kids lose their father and we don’t have fathers figures in our community inside these kids lives, then these kids start to go astray. As much as a mother says she’s the mother and the father is, it’s kind of hard to be that father figure when it comes to certain things, and therefore we choose to use other things to fill the void. And usually that’s run into the street as we run into gangs. 

Toure’ [00:14:19] That’s how mass incarceration is criminogenic, meaning it creates crime. Breaking up Black nuclear families left so many kids vulnerable to the worst opportunities in their neighborhoods. I mean, here’s a kid in Harlem or Detroit or Chicago or L.A.. And mass incarceration has removed their father or maybe their mother from the community, people who provide them with economic stability and guidance. Meanwhile, there’s a series of thriving underground companies, drug selling operations all around that kid that he or she can join at a very young age and make thousands of dollars a week, enough to take care of their family. And that kid has been set up to fail. But the whole community has been set up to fail. In the New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander points out that in the early eighties, inner city communities were suffering through a major economic collapse.  The blue collar factory jobs that were available to inner city people in the fifties and sixties, the jobs that had gotten their parents through were suddenly disappearing. Manufacturing jobs were going to workers in other countries. Technology and robotics were eliminating jobs. The American workforce was shrinking. Meanwhile, Alexander explains, the war on drugs was popular among white voters, especially those who were resentful of Black progress and affirmative action. The war on drugs, she says, offered white people who were opposed to racial reform an opportunity to express their hostility towards Blacks without sounding like racists. They just wanted safe streets, but they empowered police who used tactics that would have been unthinkable in white neighborhoods and politicians who just got tougher and tougher and tougher on crime. 

Michelle Alexander [00:16:06] The drug war had relatively little to do from the outset, with genuine concerns. 

Toure’ [00:16:12] That Michelle Alexander. 

Michelle Alexander [00:16:13] About drug addiction and drug abuse and had much more to do with politics, particularly racial politics. We saw in our country a rush to exploit our nation’s racial divisions for political gain. And this has birthed get tough and movement and a war on drugs has resulted in millions of people being swept in to our prison system, primarily for nonviolent and drug related offenses. The very sorts of crimes that occur with roughly equal frequency in middle class white neighborhoods and college campuses but go largely ignored. 

Toure’ [00:16:54] So it was a world where the traditional job market was shrinking. The war on drugs was a political winner. Tons of Black adults were being sucked out of the community, and yet Black people were finding it strangely easy to acquire tons of coke, even though there were no airplane landing strips in the ghetto. That’s a recipe for disaster. The problem wasn’t simply that they were incarcerating more of us for lesser crimes and giving us sentences like basketball scores. The problem was also the lack of economic options for millions of Black people and the way white people stepped on us to score political points. And the way the police invaded our neighborhoods and occupied them and patrolled them like soldiers in a foreign land and treated our bodies like walking dollar signs. The whole system was a problem and Public Enemy, more than any other group in hip hop, in any genre of popular music. Public Enemy was talking about all of this in their music. They were speaking to the oppressed and giving them knowledge and encouraging them to rise up. 

Public Enemy [00:18:02] Fight the power. Burn Hollywood, burn. Fear of a Black planet

Toure’ [00:18:19] So given Public Enemy’s catalog and the political mission in their music, Black Steel and the Hour of Chaos is perhaps more than a song about mass incarceration. It’s a symbol of the Black experience in America. For us, America is a prison. 

Malcolm X [00:18:36] Don’t be shocked when I say I was in prison. 

Toure’ [00:18:39] That’s Malcolm X. 

Malcolm X [00:18:40] You still in prison? That’s what America means, prison

Toure’ [00:18:51] A place where we are chased by police and held down by the system and treated unjustly. A world of multigenerational racism, wage theft, redlining, lynching, white mobs, destroying Black towns, Black unemployment, double white unemployment. If all of America is a prison, then Chuck D. being incarcerated in the song is symbolic of being Black in America and him fighting to escape from prison. It’s symbolic of Public Enemy’s mission to break Black America out of prison. And his path in the song is a classic hero’s journey. First, he’s minding his own business. 

Public Enemy [00:19:31] I got a letter from the government. 

Toure’ [00:19:33] When his enemy attacks him. 

Public Enemy [00:19:35] And said they were suckers. 

Toure’ [00:19:36]  And it’s an enemy more powerful than him. 

Public Enemy [00:19:39] The suckers have a party. 

Toure’ [00:19:41] They thrust him into hell. 

Public Enemy [00:19:43] Cold sweat as I dwell in my cell,. 

Toure’ [00:19:45] He plots his revenge. 

Public Enemy [00:19:47] I’ve got to get up with that thought before. 

Toure’ [00:19:49] At the right moment. He leaps into action. 

Public Enemy [00:19:53] I’ve got my steel in my right hand. Now I’m looking for the fence. 

Toure’ [00:19:56] And against all odds, he succeeds. He escapes. 

Public Enemy [00:20:02] And we are gone. 

Toure’ [00:20:03] And it’s not just a victory for himself. 

Public Enemy [00:20:06] Now the chase is on, I’m telling you to Come on. 

Toure’ [00:20:11] Telling you to come on. That may be the most important line in the whole song. He’s talking to you. This is the first time in the song he’s talking directly to the audience here at the end. The moment where the escape from prison is happening. And it matters that he breaks the fourth wall to tell you his Black and Brown brothers and sisters to escape prison with him. Public Enemy was never about them getting rich or them getting free. They were about spreading knowledge and liberating as many people as they could. Their whole ethos was community liberation. We’re all getting out. 

Public Enemy [00:20:49] Telling you to come on. 

Toure’ [00:20:50] Because the prison isn’t just a specific facility. America is the prison. And he’s powerful enough to break himself out. And he can bring you along, too, because the prison that is America ain’t strong enough to hold him. Some Black people have responded to the notion of America being a prison for us by leaving, returning to Africa or moving to Europe or the Caribbean. But for many of us, the point isn’t to leave America. It’s to stay and fight, to make America not be a prison. The real answer is not to escape America leaving others behind in this prison. It’s to fight to end the way that America treats Black people. What good is it to escape prison and leave the others behind? Public Enemy is bringing the others with them. They’re telling you to come on. We need to escape mass incarceration together. We need to destroy the prison that is America together. That doesn’t mean destroy America. It means destroy the parts of America that are destructive to the Black community. The parts that make us gristle for the prison industrial complex. The parts that keep us down. Public Enemy is my favorite rap group of all time because they were all about fighting to liberate Black people from the prison of America, fighting to make America great for once. Except there’s one thing where the song concludes with Chuck and his crew and you escaping from prison. The video for Black Steel in The Hour of Chaos concludes with Chuck being hung. We see them put a noose around his neck and we see the warden smile as he’s executed, which is a shocking and difficult thing to watch. 

Adam Bernstein [00:22:45] Yeah, I think we were just trying to cook up a much more a much more harrowing, much more shocking ending to the to the video than what the song had. 

Toure’ [00:22:55] That’s Adam Bernstein, who directed the video. 

Adam Bernstein [00:22:58] We want to do a story of a person who outside the prison system is driven to violence by all the violence around him, and he’s transformed from a radical into animal by like the prison itself. 

Toure’ [00:23:11] But damn, watching Chuck  die is hard. 

Adam Bernstein [00:23:14] It wouldn’t have been done that way if Chuck hadn’t asked for it to be that way. I can only think the intention was to have a less hopeful, more ironic ending to the video. You know, to pull the rug out from under the audience a little bit. Idea things are not okay. 

Toure’ [00:23:34] So while the song gives us hope that we can escape the prison that is America, the video forces us to watch our hero be executed, showing there is no hope. I think this relates to Public Enemy’s impulse to make shocking videos. Remember, Hank SHOCKLEE said. 

Hank Shocklee [00:23:51] The whole idea of, okay, well then fuck it, let’s just make more videos that get banned. 

Toure’ [00:23:57] But also, again, it’s the push and pull of Black history, the twoness of blackness. We’ve shown time and again this season where Black history is one step forward, one step back, and this moment encapsulates that. Public Enemy’s art gave us both a hero escaping and being executed, and both ends are familiar to us. For every Harriet Tubman, who lived a long life, there’s a Nat Turner who was brutally executed. For every Assata Shakur and Elaine Brown, who lives. There’s a Fred Hampton and a Huey Newton who die too young for every Jesse Jackson or Barack Obama, who lives a long, inspiring life. There’s a Dr. King and a Malcolm X who’s was assassinated in front of our eyes. Black history is the resoluteness of We Shall Overcome and the pain of damn, they killed another one of our heroes. But the pain has made us stronger and made it certain that one day we will overcome. Join us next time where we’ll talk about Diana Ross’s I’m Coming Out and disco and the Black gay and lesbian liberation movement. I’m Toure and this was Being Black: The eighties. The next episode of this show is already available and soon we’ll be back with Being Black: The Seventies. This podcast was produced by me, Toure and Jesse Cannon and scored by Will Brooks with additional production by Bryan de Meglio and executive production from Regina Griffin. Thank you for listening to this podcast from the Grio Black Podcast Network. Please tell a friend and check out the other shows on the Real Black Podcast Network, including Blackest  Questions with Chrissy Greer, Dear Culture with Panama Jackson and The Grio Daily with Michael Harriot and Writing Black with Maiysha Kai.