Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

“As for now I know how to avoid the paranoid” says Chuck D, but either he’s lying or there aren’t any mirrors in his house. “Terrordome” is back-to-the-wall paranoia and little but: pop-eyed, claustrophobic, lyrically ugly and musically beautiful. It’s not the best ever Public Enemy track but it is the ultimate one, the point where the classic PE feedback loop of media attention, public confrontation, spiralling record sales and hothouse radicalism finally reaches overload.

On Fear Of A Black Planet, “Terrordome” is prefaced by the extraordinary Incident At 66.6 FM, a Negativland-style cut-up of radio talkshow snippets and camera-flash beats whose collage effect is to show the media which Public Enemy had invaded doing its best to turn them into a two-minute news object. This was an inevitable consequence of the band’s desire to be seen as part of a public, not a pop agenda, but equally inevitable was PE’s reaction: that a band so wised-up about its own image would fight tooth and claw to keep control of it. “Welcome To The Terrordome” is the sound of that fight on vinyl.

You might have expected the apocalyptic, but that would be too easy: what “Terrordome” wants is to musically reproduce the siege-stage the band had got locked into. The mocking fanfare that kicks it off is as near as the track ever comes to a hook, and immediately afterwards you’re pitched into the Bomb Squad’s finest, furthest-out hour, five vicious minutes of gunmetal drones and militarised beats. Chuck’s head is a media warzone, “intellectual Vietnam”, and his unit is under heavy fire, as strangled horns, cut-off guitar licks and bare-knuckled scratches strafe the grooves. There’s no denying that the rap this awesome music backs up is as ferocious and effective, though it’s a pity the scapegoats in Chuck’s conspiracy theories turn out to be so typical. But the star performer turns out to be Flavor Flav, taken so far out of his usual laidback surroundings that you can hardly remember him being on the record at all. He’s there alright, his friendly counterpoint twisted in strange directions, half confirming D’s worst fears (“Hey Chuck, they out to get us, man!”) half personifying the forces ranged against them. And when the old Flav briefly surfaces, to proclaim “PE, 1990, in full effect” he trails off into a half-cough, half-cackle, like he knows it’s a lie, and the track just marches on past him.