Monday, March 3, 2008

Public Enemy's "911 is a Joke"/Somebody Call an Ambulance!

Public Enemy, who once called rap "the CNN of the ghetto," did a little reporting here in "911 is a Joke" (1989)--that 911 emergency responders weren't coming to inner city neighborhoods. For this suburban off-white kid, this was indeed news. (Is this still true?!) This is black humor in both senses of the term, and the video, which shows somebody either having a seizure or doing some breaking of some sort, makes it even scarier.

About this song, which I chose for my list of docupoems for a Poetry Foundation piece, I wrote:
Chuck D, the mastermind and principal lyricist of Public Enemy, once called rap “the CNN of the ghetto.” The acclaimed rap group stormed onto the popular music scene in the late 1980s with Fear of a Black Planet. One of many topical songs on this album, “911” decries the failure of emergency services to respond swiftly to calls made from black neighborhoods. Sung by Flava Flav, the comic sidekick of Chuck D, the song is nonetheless a blistering indictment of the broken social contract. What is remarkable about “911” is that this news was, of course, not news for the ghetto (whose denizens were well aware of the problems of getting medical help) but news about the ghetto (for the group’s suburban white listeners).

Yet despite its grim subject the song contains plenty of poetry in its relentless allusions, both musical and linguistic; when Flav compares the loss of limbs to “compilation,” for instance, he uses the metaphors of the music industry to lay bare the brute economics of emergency medical treatment. I can’t help but think of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” in which the poet juxtaposes the selling of a quadroon girl with the amputation of a diseased limb that “drops horribly in a pail.” For Whitman, as for Flav, black people have been reduced to expendable appendages.

I was thinking of Whitman's section 15:
The malform'd limbs are tied to the surgeon's table,
What is removed drops horribly in a pail;
The quadroon girl is sold at the auction-stand, the drunkard nods by
the bar-room stove...

"911 is a Joke"

Hit me
Going, going, gone
Now I dialed 911 a long time ago
Don't you see how late they're reactin'
They only come and they come when they wanna
So get the morgue embalm the goner
They don't care 'cause they stay paid anyway
They teach ya like an ace they can't be betrayed
I know you stumble with no use people
If your life is on the line they you're dead today
Late comings with the late comin' stretcher
That's a body bag in disguise y'all betcha
I call 'em body snatchers quick they come to fetch ya?
With an autopsy ambulance just to dissect ya
They are the kings 'cause they swing amputation
Lose your arms, your legs to them it's compilation
I can prove it to you watch the rotation
It all adds up to a funky situation
So get up get, get get down
911 is a joke in yo town
Get up, get, get, get down
Late 911 wears the late crown

911 is a joke

Everyday they don't never come correct
You can ask my man right here with the broken neck
He's a witness to the job never bein' done
He would've been in full in 8 9-11
Was a joke 'cause they always jokin'
They the token to your life when it's croakin'
They need to be in a pawn shop on a
911 is a joke we don't want 'em
I call a cab 'cause a cab will come quicker
The doctors huddle up and call a flea flicker
The reason that I say that 'cause they
Flick you off like fleas
They be laughin' at ya while you're crawlin' on your knees
And to the strength so go the length
Thinkin' you are first when you really are tenth
You better wake up and smell the real flavor
Cause 911 is a fake life saver

So get up, get, get get down
911 is a joke in yo town
Get up, get, get, get down
Late 911 wears the late crown


tyrone said...

Great posts Philip--the P.E. videos took me back!


Philip Metres said...

Thanks Tyrone, nice to hear. I need to update my hip hop references in a big way, so plan on seeing some more recent stuff as well, as I get educated.