Hip-hop activist and “Media Assassin” Harry Allen discusses his career working with legendary rap group Public Enemy and his new lecture series about his photography titled, Shooting the Enemy.
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JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome everyone, back to the Real News Network here in Baltimore. I’m Jared Ball. For anyone familiar with hip-hop and hip-hop history, particularly that of Public Enemy, they would have to be familiar with at some point with the man himself, the media assassin, Harry Allen. And we have a chance now to talk with Harry Allen, who joins us here in our studios at the Real News Network in Baltimore. Harry Allen, welcome to the program. HARRY ALLEN: Jared, thanks so much for having me. BALL: Let’s get into some quick history for the, I don’t know, like the two people watching this who don’t know who you are. And it can’t be more than two. ALLEN: I’m sure there’s a lot more than that. BALL: I introduced you as the media assassin. I know this is the name you’ve given yourself. ALLEN: Yes. BALL: The other name that I liked that was given either to you or you self-selected at the time was the director of enemy relations. ALLEN: Yes. BALL: Could you talk first about why those titles? And why, as you’ve said recently, that they remain important to you? ALLEN: Well, they were functional. Hip-hop activist and media assassin was a term that I used to describe myself in terms of what I wanted to do with my writing. I wanted my writing to be active for hip-hop. But I also believed that hip-hop could be active for other things. I felt it was a bi-directional kind of thing. Hip-hop could be served by other things, and other things could serve hip-hop. So I said hip-hop activist in that sense. And then the media assassin, I liked the word assassin because it’s a person who takes strong action, even to kill, but who doesn’t do it for personal reasons. It’s business. It’s to be effective and to cause a change. And I thought that in terms of media that we needed someone who saw the media as a way to act on behalf of black people, but do so with precision, with effectiveness, with care for detail and who wasn’t personal about it. It was just like, this is what I have to do to make the best situation for my people. So that’s what that moniker meant. In terms of director of enemy relations, I took over handling a lot of Public Enemy’s public relations after the so-called Griff offensive. And I was working with their public relations firm, but also doing certain kinds of media on behalf of Public Enemy. So I wanted something that said Public Relations, but that was direct and kind of like, sharp, in another way. And I thought that enemy relations not only evoked public relations but also was a good pun. BALL: And something that again, as I think you’ve also said recently, that it’s still valuable as an approach. That is, that because for me, and I think many others who may not have even been familiar with the origins of those titles, it spoke to a condition, a relationship between media and black people in particular that resonated. This idea, we needed an assassin for media that was aggressively, negatively depicting us. That was how I, and I think some of my colleagues or cohort might have taken that, and still take it, for that matter. ALLEN: It was a title that I took, hip-hop activist and media assassin, as it pertained to my work as a journalist, as a writer. And that work continues. And the need for that work continues. It was popularized through public enemy. Most people came to know of me and my work through [inaud.] Chuck D saying my name on Don’t Believe the Hype. BALL: And you saying don’t believe the hype. ALLEN: Which I just did. So I’m not going to say it again. BALL: I did it. ALLEN: You did it. You got me to–. BALL: That was one of the goals, to get you to say–. ALLEN: You got me to say it. You can sample that as long as you like. [Don’t Believe the Hype plays] ALLEN: But those conditions still exist. They are indeed futuristic. And so from my perspective, that name continues. It’s not something that I did for PE, it’s something I did for this work. BALL: Right. Because there is, obviously, a before-PE for you. So you were involved in photography. ALLEN: Yes. Well, it’s interesting. I first started writing about hip-hop in 1983. A college paper that I did, The Lyrics of Recorded Rap. That’s what it was called, and I turned it in. And I wasn’t doing too well in my class, Black Music and Musicians. But I ended up I think getting an A in the class just on the strength of this paper, where I talked about what the lyrics of rap music meant in terms of traditional black values. In terms of friendship, camaraderie, the crowd. Things of that nature. And it did very well. And then Chuck, Hank, and Bill Stephney, one of our close associates, read the paper and said, you should do this. You should write about hip-hop more. And I was interested in photography, but I wasn’t getting as much support in that way, you know, like you should be a photographer. But when they said that, I said like, okay, and started doing more and started getting more response from hip-hop artists and others in terms of my work. And so that pushed it forward. BALL: Now maybe I, it’s interesting. I want to, if we can, go back to your point about when you came to work with Public Enemy officially. Around, as you said, the Griff incident, or offensive. ALLEN: Well, I was always an aide to [cam]. We were always together, you know. But when the Griff offensive happened–. BALL: And for those who don’t know, quickly recap that history, particularly as you remember it. ALLEN: Absolutely. It was a situation where a Washington Times reporter interviewed Professor Griff. And Griff made comments that were taken as anti-Semitic. And it caused a huge kerfuffle, or for lack of a better word a conflict, in terms of Public Enemy and the public and the media, et cetera. And so when that happened there was a question of whether Public Enemy was going to continue as a group, whether they would disband. What should Griff’s relationship to the group be. And certainly it was a hard time to actually get professional services, in terms of even getting people to work with the band, because no one wanted to be connected with the anti-semitic rap group. BALL: Which is how they had become labeled. ALLEN: Exactly. BALL: And everything else about them had seemed to have faded away. That’s right, that’s right. ALLEN: Vanished. Yes, exactly. Or got corrupted by this controversy. So I agreed to take over some of those duties. I was working as a journalist, but in a way publicity is journalism reversed. And I felt that I could handle it. So I took over some of the work of doing that for them in the absence of other people who were willing to do so. BALL: Just very quickly, that incident is often remembered by those of us who were around at the time, paying close attention, as in many ways a conspiratorial incident meant to disrupt and dis-unite this group, this revolutionary rap group that had been seen by many of us as if not one of, if not the singular impetus moving us out of our previous political state of nature into something else. How do you respond to those–I’m sure you’ve heard them, in discussions of them or that perspective. How do you respond to that, having witnessed it firsthand and being brought in officially to respond to that incident? ALLEN: Well, I think first of all, the word conspiracy is one that really shuts down a lot of conversations. And so–and conspiracies are often best read in retrospect. Like, it’s kind of hard to tell when you’re in a conspiracy that you’re in one, or that one is coming. So I just leave, I don’t know, in terms of that. That’s something for CIA papers years from now or something like that, maybe, to reveal. I think the way we looked at it at the time was that Griff had made statements that were not in line with Chuck’s philosophy or thinking. I remember Chuck saying, truthfully, like–and this is something that’s funny. We were speaking I think before we came on camera about NWA, and the new movie. And there’s one point in the movie where Eazy-E says, most black people don’t even know what anti-semitic means. And this is something that Chuck said. Like, this wasn’t even, like–. I remember at one point on Welcome to the Terror Dome, there was that crucifixion ain’t no fiction line. BALL: He got in trouble for that, too. ALLEN: Yes, exactly. And Chuck said, like, I’ve never even heard of these things that they’ve charged me, or these things that supposedly we are part of. So I think the way I look at it was that it was, it was a breakdown of order. And I know for a fact that when there is a breakdown of order, forces that are against you can usually move in and attack. And there are certainly a lot of people who, especially at that time, did not like what Public Enemy was saying. Or even where hip-hop was going, in terms of this political charge and call for change. BALL: Right, right. So now we–well, we brought it up. Let me ask you this question about the NWA film. As I said to you off-air, one of the few critiques I have, and we’ll invite people to check out our interview with Sikivu Hutchinson on her critique of NWA bringing rape culture into hip-hop, or helping usher in rape culture into hip-hop. But one of the other critiques that I have of the film is that I felt like it did not do enough to make the point that when Ice Cube broke with NWA he went to work with Public Enemy. And I felt like as a viewer of the film this is part of what would have to be intentionally downplayed, to deny the trajectory that some in hip-hop were going in, politically. The influence that people like Public Enemy had on audiences around the world. I mean, I think one of the things that got Public Enemy in trouble politically was that they had white people around the world with their fists up talking about fight the power, and you know, having rebellious and revolutionary attitudes expressed. So when I saw the film, you see the quick reference. I didn’t remember what you just told me off-air, so I’ll get you, you can say that. But I saw the quick shot of Farrakhan, and the Nation of Islam is referenced in that critical discussion Ice Cube has with one of the journalists there. But I wanted somebody to say, and I’m working with Public Enemy now. And Chuck D is having this influence–I wanted that point to be made for younger audiences who are not familiar with that history, or those in my generation who may not remember that for some reason. But you corrected me at least a little bit in terms of Public Enemy being, at least visually on camera briefly. But tell me what you think about my general critique there, of that particular point of the film. ALLEN: Well, I think that it was handled well. I mean, I don’t know what Chuck or Hank Shocklee think. I haven’t spoken to them about this particular scene or about the film in terms of its content. But I thought it was handled well. It was clear to me that that’s what this scene was signifying, the work that they did. It said Green Street Studios, where we spent many hours. So it was very clear to me that this was the scene and that’s what they were talking about. And I didn’t find the need for them to go more into that work with PE. But then again, I can’t speak on behalf of younger people who don’t know the history. BALL: They’re not going to know the Green Street reference. ALLEN: Yeah, they’re not going to know it. It was clear to me. It might not be clear to them even what that meant. So I could see your point certainly in terms of if you wanted to make that more clear to that audience. But I’m not sure that that was the film’s goal. I think the film was really trying to tell a very linear story about the rise and fall of NWA, which was a group that had this enormous effect, released I think it was just two albums, and really just one as a whole group, Straight Outta Compton, after which the film is named. And it had this massive effect. The fact that that wasn’t emphasized was not–I understand it in terms of storytelling. It’s not as big an issue to me. BALL: Well, but what about even the critique that there should be a film of this caliber for Public Enemy? You’re talking about NWA only had the one album, Public Enemy many more than that. It just, a quick thought on that if you have any, if that has come up for you. ALLEN: I think certainly Public Enemy would be worthy of a biopic. BALL: Oh, definitely. ALLEN: I certainly think they would. And I think that if one were ever done I certainly would want to see a lot of attention given to how the story is told, what is emphasized, even how it’s delivered artistically. So I would say, say that. I don’t know that Public Enemy’s story is as sexy for mainstream media, in terms of a crew that had this kind of critique and this kind of political position. I’m not sure that that’s–you can’t have the bacchanalia that you have with NWA. You have scenes of unclad women in swimming pools. You’re not going to see that in the Public Enemy film. BALL: Well that’s one of my, one of the things that–. ALLEN: And that’s not a critique of NWA. I’m just saying that’s just not going to happen, just two different things. BALL: No, if anything for me it’s a critique of the film industry, media in general. And we can use this to sort of segue to this last part about your latest project, and why this media assassin title has always resonated with me ever since hearing it back in the day is that media want, the popular commercial media, that is, want the pathology associated with black stories. That like you were saying, you’re not going to get, at least in the same way, with a Public Enemy story. ALLEN: It’s not as interesting to–. BALL: Well, and that’s the point. ALLEN: It’s not as interesting to most white people for whom films are made. BALL: Exactly. ALLEN: And so it’s like, okay, where do we go with this? Like, what are the hooks. BALL: I’m in full agreement. I’m glad that that point was at least quickly made, briefly made. But then you also have your continuing work, and this project Shooting the Enemy. ALLEN: Yes. BALL: Please tell us about that. ALLEN: Well, Shooting the Enemy is a lecture that I’ve been going around to a number of universities and colleges presenting. And what it is, it’s a series of photographs that I made of Public Enemy and other hip-hop artists in the early days of PE, what I call their salad days, before they were even signed. I started taking pictures when I started college, and I started–I met Chuck D in college at Adelphi University. And so I was interested in photography, and these were guys that I was hanging around whose work I was really interested in. So they just kind of blended and I just started shooting pictures of them. Didn’t have any idea that this would mean anything or be of any worth. But it was only much, much later that when the magazine Wax Poetics was going to do something on PE, they licensed some of my images. And Bill Adler, who was [Rush] communications publicist for a number of years by then had a photo gallery called Eyejammie. And he saw my images in Wax Poetics and he contacted me and said, do you have more? So I brought over stuff that I had. And he was bugging out, he just couldn’t believe it, so he said, we should do a show. So in 2007 we did a gallery show. It was I think one of the last shows before the gallery closed. But it brought about in me a new kind of appreciation of my work. A lot of my work had only existed as negatives and contact sheets up to that point. So when I saw it blown up and I saw people’s reaction to it I said, I should really show this to more people. So I put together a presentation where I show these images, talk about making them, talk about my relationship with Public Enemy, what our lives were like getting into the music business and coming of age, I guess you might say. And I’ve gone to a number of schools presenting this, and it’s been so well received. So I’m very excited about it. BALL: Well, I definitely look forward to seeing the whole thing. ALLEN: Great, yes. BALL: We’re going to have to do this again, man. We’re going to have to have you on to talk much more about your work and your career with, without Public Enemy, but a lot to get into, man. Harry Allen, thank you for joining us here at the Real News. ALLEN: Thanks for the excellent work that you’re doing here at the Real News Network. BALL: And thank you for joining us here at the Real News as well. And as always for all those involved, I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore saying as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace, everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.
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