In Review: 911 is a Joke

Yes, we’ve reached this infamous point on the Thank You album. Truthfully, we approach the song with a fair amount of concern. The much maligned cover couldn’t possibly be that bad, could it?

The song was originally recorded by Public Enemy, and appeared on their third album, Fear of a Black Planet, in 1990. It addresses the lack of response by paramedic crews to emergency calls in a black neighborhood. Unfortunately, a very widely held misconception is the track is referring to the police. (Watrous, Peter (April 22, 1990). “RECORDINGS; Public Enemy Makes Waves – and Compelling Music”The New York Times. ) The 9-1-1 in the song is the emergency telephone number used in the USA.

Back to the question at hand. Could this song really be that bad??

Read on, and find out!

Lyrics

Now I dialed nine one one a long time ago
Don’t you see how late they’re reactin’
They only come and they come when they wanna
So get the morgue truck and bag the goner

They don’t care ’cause they get paid anyway
They treat you like an ace that can’t be betrayed
I know you stumble with no use people
If your life is on the line then you’re dead today

Late comings with the late comin’ stretcher
That’s a body bag in disguise
Y’all I’ll betcha
I call ’em body snatchers
Quick they come to fetch you
With an autopsy ambulance
Just to dissect ya

They are the kings ‘cos they swing amputation
Lose your arms your legs to them it’s compilation
I can prove it to you watch the rotation
It all adds up to a funky situation

So get up get get get down
911 is a joke in yo town
Get up get get get down
Late 911 wears the late crown

So get up get get get down
911 is a joke in yo town
Get up get get get down
Late 911 wears the late crown
911 is a joke
911 is a joke

Everyday they don’t never come correct
You can ask my man right here
With the broken neck
He’s a witness to the job never bein’ done

He would’ve been in full effect 911
They the token to your life when it’s croakin’
They need to be in a pawn shop on a
911 is a joke we don’t want ’em
I call a cab ’cause a cab will come quicker
The doctors huddle up and call a flea flicker
The reason that I say that ’cause they
Flick you off like fleas
They be laughin’ at ya
While you’re crawlin’ on our knees
And to the strength so go the length
Thinkin’ you are first when you really are tenth
You better wake up and smell the real flavor
Cause 911 is a fake life saver

So get up get get get down
911 is a joke in yo town
Get up get get get down
Late 911 wears the late crown

So get up get get get down
911 is a joke in yo town
Get up get get get down
Late 911 wears the late crown

Ow, ow 911 is a joke
911 is a joke
911 is a joke
911 is a joke
911 is a joke

So get up get get get down
911 is a joke
911 is a joke
911 is a joke

So get up get get get down
911 is a joke
911 is a joke
911 is a joke

Audio

Rhonda

Admittedly, I am going into this review wondering why on earth—out of all the Public Enemy songs—they chose this one. Right out of the gate, Duran Duran seem to be the last people that should really be covering a song about the lack of speed with which 911 responds to emergencies in a black neighborhood. They’re not black. With the exception of Warren, they’re not from the US. Probably didn’t have problems getting emergency services to come to their homes if needed, but hey – maybe they did. I’ll give them that. Regardless, here we are.

The song begins with the familiar hiss of a vinyl record on the turntable, along with some very twangy guitar, not unlike what I’d expect to hear in the depths of the south. I can’t imagine that is by coincidence, unfortunately though, it does nothing but add to the unintended cringe the track seems to cause the listener. The difference between the Duran Duran cover and the original is striking. Where the Public Enemy version presents a very believable, stark, and cold reality, Duran Duran performs the song sounding like a band of swamp people from the south, complete with a banjo, harmonica, and cigar box guitar. There’s almost no way to even review the song, because it’s impossible to take it seriously. Even with all of the effects added, the song doesn’t ever make it out of the “You have got to be kidding me” column for me. If the music weren’t enough, we’ve got Le Bon (I may or may not have initially described in this review to be “the cousin of Howdy Doody”) rapping away, begging to be taken seriously. Or is he? Is this song meant as a parody?

I sit here wondering if I’ve somehow missed the point. Why would a white, very privileged pop band record like this? It sounds like it is recorded straight from the deep and sticky, honky tonk south, supposedly to address a serious racial injustice, and it just doesn’t make sense. Surely Duran Duran had different intentions? It was a severely tone deaf misstep, at best. I struggle with awarding this song any cocktails at all, although I can say that the band definitely reimagined the original, turning it completely on it’s head (and then some). Musically, there was a theme constructed and carried throughout, and if nothing else—the band took this experience on with them to other later albums.

one cocktail

Amanda

I’m not sure what this song says about Duran Duran or what it says about us that this review is coming out on Martin Luther King Day but here we are. Unlike some of the songs and artists that Duran covered on this album, I feel like I have some knowledge of Public Enemy. I would even go so far as to say that I have an appreciation for them. When I was in high school, they opened up for U2 so I got to see them perform live. The stage set-up, the images that they used shook me and made me think about issues of race and racism that I needed and am still appreciative of, to this day. Fast forward a few decades to a few years ago when my teacher team won a district equity award. At the award ceremony, we could choose a song to accept our award to. We chose “Fight the Power.” Trust me when I say that it was fitting in more than one way. My point in sharing all of this is that I can respectfully say that I can understand and even cheer Duran’s idea of acknowledging and celebrating this significant artist in the history of music and hip hop music, specifically.

All that being said, I have to wonder why they chose *this* one over the other choices. Now, I have seen a fair number of interviews from the Thank You era to know that a big part of deciding what they could and could not cover is whether or not Simon could do the vocals. Again, I get that. Perhaps, this song was the only Public Enemy song that he or they thought Simon could do. Still, the lyrics of the song are so very, very specific to a unique problem within communities of color in the United States. Is it complimentary to repeat this problem? Some might say. Maybe Duran tried to cover it to bring more awareness to the problem. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, that seems possible. After all, this is why lots of people on social media retweet or share posts. Even with that, I am not sure that I would have recommended it, if they had asked me. Too often, throughout history, white artists have co-opted black artistry for their own gain, even without being aware of it. Therefore, this makes me uncomfortable.

Ignoring all of that surrounding the song, how did Duran do? The musicality between the two are very different. The Public Enemy version feels pretty minimal to me, instrumentation wise, relying on the beat and samples. Duran did not do the same. Instead, they added a bunch of instrumentation and effects. The most noticeable of that being whatever the heck they did to try to make Simon sound more…something…or less..something. It all adds up to feeling like they were trying too hard. Maybe they wanted to make it their own to avoid some of the questioning. I don’t know. I’m just not sure that the Duran version works. Does it even keep the flavor (no pun intended) of the original? I’m not even sure that it does.

All in all, it does not work for me and certainly created a lot of criticism when the album came out by many, many reviewers and music critics. I wonder how they feel about it now. Would they do it again? The one piece that I will say in defense of the song is that they were brave for doing it and I can appreciate them wanting to give props to Public Enemy. I’m just not sure that this was the way to go about it.

One and a half cocktails

By Daily Duranie

Once upon a time, there were two Duran Duran fans. One named Amanda, the other named Rhonda. Over many vodka tonics, they would laugh about the idea of one day writing a book about their fan experiences. While that manuscript is still being composed...Rhonda thought they should write a blog. (What was she THINKING?!) Lo and behold: The Daily Duranie was born.

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