Public Enemy, “Burn Hollywood Burn”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

public_enemy_-_1990_fear_of_a_black_planet

Talk about ahead of their time: More than a quarter-century before the #OscarsSoWhite controversy erupted, some of rap’s premiere artists put the spotlight on Hollywood’s mistreatment of black actors and actresses. “Burn Hollywood Burn,” featured on Public Enemy’s unforgettable 1990 album Fear Of A Black Planet, was figuratively and literally incendiary, as PE frontman Chuck D joined fellow icons Ice Cube and Big Daddy Kane to torch racial stereotypes perpetuated by the writers, directors and producers of major motion pictures.

The song started with just a title and Chuck D’s intention to collaborate with Kane. In the book Lyrics Of A Rap Revolutionary, Chuck explained how “Burn Hollywood Burn” grew from there. “Finally when it came time to do it I had my topic ready, which was basically talking about the messed up side of the film industry, which I had studied from all of the pressure that Spike Lee had gotten, and I was pretty much making a knock on Hollywood, because black people have been made to look like fools and buffoons through that form of mass media through the early parts of the 1900’s, and how it’s controlled by everybody else but us. That was my angle on it.”

Ice Cube happened to be in the studio while the track was being recorded and asked to contribute as well. But “Burn Hollywood Burn” begins with Chuck’s voice booming over a typically frenetic Bomb Squad production, “Burn, Hollywood, burn, I smell a riot goin on’/ First they’re guilty, now they’re gone.” He references both the glorification of gang wars on the evening news and Stepin Fetchit, whose portrayals of lazy characters earned the scorn of black viewers. The verse closes out with the match being lit: “For all the years we looked like clowns/ The joke is over, smell the smoke from all around.”

Ice Cube steps up to the mic next, and, in his brief time on the track, he makes a decided impact. His verse demonstrates the underside of Hollywood’s glamorous façade, and he even manages to up the ante on a landmark Public Enemy song with some trademark profanity and sound effects: “Pulled to the curb, getting played like a sucker/ Don’t fight the power [sound of machine gun blasts] the motherfucker.”

From there, Big Daddy Kane puts the icing on the cake with his rapid-fire flow massaging some thoughtful lines about the hard choices forced on black performers. Kane suggests that both genders were victimized. “Many intelligent black men seemed/ To look uncivilized on the screen,” he raps, and then later: “And black women in this profession/ As for playing a lawyer, out of the question/ For what they play, Aunt Jemima is the perfect term/ Even if now she got a perm.”

The track ends with Flavor Flav blowing off a mock casting session and the three rappers groaning when they go to the movies and end up at a screening of Driving Miss Daisy. Ice Cube then drops one more final F-bomb on the City of Dreams to add the ideal exclamation point. While the Oscars purport to celebrate the best in cinema, “Burn Hollywood Burn” serves as a harsh and still-relevant reminder that all the glitz and glamour can sometimes distract from the film industry’s ugliest truths.

Read the lyrics.

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