I had a conversation with some friends while driving to Holyoke Mall the other day about being excited about super-pop release dates, *NSYNC’s No Strings Attached dropping and stuff like that. I was forced to admit that this really wasn’t part of my childhood. I didn’t listen to much pop music as a kid, or much music at all generally. The friends were taken aback and started heavily quizzing me about my music listening past which is a-typical and sort of a shame; so not a conversation that I want to have while driving. Not a conversation I want to have sprung on me at any time, actually. I’m writing now about one of the first albums I bought, a few years after it was released: Public Enemy’s There’s a Poison Goin’ On.
I bought this album at a store called Val’s Halla Records. A picture of what the store looked ten years ago (before it moved) is above. It was a cramped and busy store – alot to take in for a novice junior high music listener. They did not have a great rap selection, which was the only section I was interested in at the time.
My decision to purchase There’s a Poison Goin’ On over other rap albums was determined by: (a) vague name recognition as a ‘political rap’ group and (b) the album cover was much less embarrassing to purchase than other rap covers. A scandalous standout stuck in my mind is Ludacris’ Chicken and Beer cover. I didn’t even realize until I walked out of the store that the cover’s got racial implications.
Escaping the store safely with a CD – without being judged or my parents being told or anything – was the hugest concern at the time. Hence the concern over the album cover. I was scared enough about the Parental Advisory label. The albums were located in those locked cases on the right side of the picture. You had to ask an employee to get them out. I honestly was not sure if it was allowed for me to ask for a rap album; I was terrified. In case you were wondering what it’s like for white kids in the suburbs.
There’s a Poison Goin’ On is a difficult rap album to get into. Okay first: I missed basically every reference to anything in this album. In “Do You Want To Go Our Way?” alone I would have not understood that “Terminator’s back” refers to the DJ Terminator X or that “It takes a nation of sellouts to hold us back” refers to Public Enemy’s previous record. Absolutely no clue who a “Def Jam negro” would be. I do remember looking some references up though. Out of curiosity about what “41:19” could mean, I learned about the Amadou Diallo shooting.
Another reason Poison is difficult is because, as Chuck D says on “..Our Way,” “sound is insane!” The production on this album is out of this world. Listen to “41:19” for a second. Every piece of production sounds like it comes from a junkyard: ringing telephones, static, a trombone rising and falling in lower registers. On “Swindler’s Lust,” I could not tell you what manner of tinsel is being played in background (to speak nothing of the art-house spoken word going on at the end of that track). “Kevorkian’s” bass line, I’m pretty sure, was recorded and then sampled backward. I could go on and on. PE’s beats are designed to break up, and that makes it difficult to follow the lyrics sometimes, especially given Chuck D’s unvaried flow. One of my favorite songs on the album as a kid was “41:19” almost certainly because in comparison to Chuck it’s pretty difficult to ignore what Flavor Flav is saying.
So I had a hard time falling in love with Poison as a kid. I listened to it a bunch, but so much lyrical and musical significance was lost on me. That’s okay though. Doing ‘subversive’ things like buying and listening to a weird rap album was important to my self-image back then. I think that bumping Public Enemy in 2002 has had positive resonances in my politics and music interests today.