In the Crack Era, hyperbolic news segments like 48 Hours on Crack Street ruled the scene. Few dissenting voices were able to marshal necessary counternarratives in the face of panic and political opportunism. One unexpected, but historically rooted set of voices smashed through the hushed tones of fear and alarm: the voice of politically conscious rap. Namely, Public Enemy, the self-dubbed “prophets of rage.” PE’s 1988 offering, Night of the Living Baseheads is both a critique of the crack trade, and media coverage of crack’s ascendance. In short, Night of the Living Baseheads is a clear counternarrative to histrionic anti-crack news specials like 48 Hours on Crack Street which blitzed nightly news throughout 1986 and 1988—both conveniently during election cycles.
The track begins with a grainy recording of Malcolm X: “Have you forgotten that once we were brought here, we were robbed of our name, robbed of our language. We lost our religion, our culture, our god… and many of us, by the way we act, we even lost our minds.” At first glance, this might be PE joining the chorus line of African American voices comparing the scourge of crack to the crushing, systematic exploitation of bondage. However, a closer look at their accompanying music video makes it more clear who exactly lost their minds in the Crack Era, television news.
Welcome to PETV, the “Black CNN” according to Chuck D. Less a politician, Chuck D was by his own admission a “dispatcher of information.” In the words of scholar Tricia Rose, Public Enemy’s work “keeps poor folks alert” from being misled or placated by “media stories and official ‘truths.’” At a broader level rap music by the late 1980s had become “Black American TV,” a public and highly accessible place where black meanings and perspectives could be shared by people with lived experience rather than fetishized by commentators on nightly news. If rap had truly become “Black American TV,” Public Enemy positioned itself as its most incendiary channel.