A week ago, Chuck D was likely tipping his baseball cap to the crackers in Radiohead, admiring their decision to digitally self-release their latest album, In Rainbows. Beyond a determination to bring the recording industry to its knees, what could the whitey-hating Public Enemy loudmouth and the pasty-faced Englishmen of Radiohead possibly have to bond over, you might ask? Well, singer Thom Yorke and company may be among the most ghost-faced rock stars this side of Edgar Winter, but you can damn well believe they know something about getting jiggy.
Admittedly, there's little evidence of this in their music, which is alternative rock at its most humourless and joylessly self-important. Quite frankly, I'd be the first to call bullshit on the band's hip-hop fixation if I hadn't seen it myself. Flash back 12 years, when Radiohead was on a Vancouver press tour to promote its second album, The Bends. Back in the day–a time when major labels could afford Starbucks rather than Folgers classic-roast crystals–record companies would fly relatively unknown artists into town to try to break them through face time with journalists and reviewers. On your lucky days, you'd find yourself staring at a hung-over former Michael Jackson backup singer named Sheryl Crow.
In the spring of '95, I found myself sitting across the table from bassist Colin Greenwood and his guitar-playing brother Jonny at the Railway Club, talking about The Bends. The latter made gracious attempts to answer questions about a record that I secretly found about as exciting as the Stone Temple Toilets. Like a true twat, Colin, meanwhile, sat there reading the N.M.E., finally throwing it aside mid-interview to shriek "Fuck me–Eazy-E died." What does this prove, besides the fact that four out of five English rock stars are bigger cunts than Oasis? That's eazy, err, easy: it was proof that Radiohead knew a thing or two about rap.
Logic dictates, then, that the Greenwoods and their bandmates are more than passingly familiar with the teachings of the great prophet Chuck D. It's therefore not a huge stretch to suggest they were paying attention eight years ago when the former Carlton Douglas Ridenhour announced that Public Enemy was going to revolutionize pop music by distributing There's a Poison Goin On”¦ over the Internet two weeks before the album's release on CD. The Brooklyn hip-hop antiheroes even made the then-radical move of posting the album's criminally overlooked single, "Do You Wanna Go Our Way???", on their Web site as a free download.
Assuming you've heard of Al Gore's greatest invention, you already know Radiohead ripped a page from the Public Enemy manifesto for In Rainbows. The band then took things further by letting fans pay what they wanted for the disc, which ironically proved a wickedly smart business move. Even though Radiohead has blown chunks since Kid A, suddenly the band is bigger news than David Lee Roth stroking the shaft of Eddie Van Halen.
What's hilarious is that for all the bleating Radiohead has done about making music available to the masses for next to nothing, there's a catch to the way In Rainbows is being distributed. No sooner had a reported million-plus people downloaded the disc off the band's Web site than fans began bitching about sound quality. In Rainbows was encoded at 160 kilobytes per second, half the compression rate of a standard iTunes file, which is already considerably poorer than what you hear on CD. Translated, that means any Radiohead fan who cares about sonic purity will end up buying the disc all over again. The band itself is now hinting that the Web release was a promo tool to set up In Rainbows' early-2008 release on CD. We should have seen it coming. As Chuck D once said, don't believe the hype, especially when it's coming from the other man instead of the brother man.