Article Title

Extending the Breaks: Fires in the Mirror in the Context of Hip-Hop Structure, Style, and Culture


Steve Feffer


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

In New York City in the late-eighties and early-nineties, hip-hop music not only expressed some of the tensions that existed between Jews and African-Americans, but it was characterized in the media as part of the problem. Most of this media attention was focused around charges of anti-Semitism that were being leveled against the hip-hop group Public Enemy, who at the time were among the most popular and critically acclaimed hip-hop artists. In their 1988 song “Bring the Noise,” from the It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back album, Public Enemy’s leader Chuck D rapped that Louis Farrakhan was “a prophet” and someone “to listen to” and “follow for now,” at a time when Farrakhan was coming under media scrutiny for comments he had made in regard to the Jews.1 A year later, Professor Griff, Public Enemy’s “minister of information,” implicated the Jews for “the majority of wickedness that went on across the globe.”2 In 1990, Public Enemy revived the controversies over anti-Semitism in their 1990 song “Welcome to the Terrordome,” from the Fear of a Black Planet album by referring to the Jews as the “so-called chosen frozen,” and rapping that the “crucifixion ain’t no fiction.”3 At the same time, a number of Jewish leaders, and television and radio personalities were using the media to speak out against hip-hop and Public Enemy by claiming that hip-hop was not music, and did not deserve the critical attention that it was receiving.4 By the fall of 1991 when tensions between Jews and African-Americans exploded into the Crown Heights riots, hip-hop culture hardly seemed the artistic site to explore relations between the two groups in an inclusive and productive manner.5


1 Public Enemy. It Take a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Def Jam, (1988). LP.

2 As quoted in Craig Werner, A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race, and the Soul of America (New York: Plume, 1999), 288. Professor Griff was more of a public relations person for Public Enemy, rather than an actual performing and recording member.

3 Public Enemy. Fear of a Black Planet. Def Jam, (1990). CD.

4 Public Enemy samples some of these media comments that were recorded from New York radio on the songs “Welcome to the Terrordome” and “Contract on the World Love Jam” from Fear of a Black Planet.

5 For a detailed musical and sociological analysis of Public Enemy and the African-American/Jewish controversies of this period, see Werner, Change, 284–89. Werner’s consideration of these events was invaluable in framing this introduction.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.