25 Years of Public Enemy: Still Louder Than A Bomb
Posted Sunday, July 15, 2012 3:26 PM
It’s been 25 years since Rap’s finest practitioners, Public Enemy, arrived on the Hip-Hop scene with their powerful aural assault, uncompromising message and high-octane live performances. The group marks its quarter century with two new concept albums, Most Of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear On No Stamp released in July and The Evil Empire Of Everything coming in September.
At this year’s Detroit Movement Festival, Rapper, actor, and director, and longtime friend Ice T introduced them as the most important group in the history of music. Not everyone will agree with the sentiment, but there’s no doubt that the band has produced some of the most important politically and socially engaged records of our times.
It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back and Fear of A Black Planet are to date Public Enemy’s most critically acclaimed albums. Sonically and artistically, It Takes A Nation is unique, the combination of The Bomb Squad’s raw production values, cut-and-paste sampling techniques, Chuck D’s commanding voice, and Flavor Flav’s hype man interjections produced an album with an energy and sheer force that has never been equaled.
Fear Of A Black Planet took things a step further. With anthems like ‘911 Is A Joke’ and ‘Fight The Power’, featured in Spike Lee’s ‘’Do The Right Thing, ’and the stop start sampling on tracks like “Burn Hollywood Burn,” Fear was an album with all the force of It Takes A Nation. Its dense sound collages, mastery of dynamics and vocal intensity of Flavor Flav and Chuck D gave it a tension that no Hip-Hop album has achieved since.
Preceding both of these was their 1987 debut ‘Yo Bum Rush The Show.’ it came at a time when Hip-Hop was in a party mood, not a political one. Grandmaster Flash’s ‘message rap’ style was a distant memory as Run DMC and Aerosmith’s ‘Walk This Way’ were enjoying huge chart success and The Beastie Boys were flying with ‘Fight For Your Right to Party’.
The media criticized the macho posturing on the album and the suggested violence of tracks like ‘miuzi weighs a ton’ and ‘Sophisticated B****’. As Chuck D explained in his book Fight the Power: Rap, Race and Reality, “I bragged about myself in my early records, because we’ve never been taught to talk positively about ourselves, and I thought that was good”. Incorporating rap’s populist themes, bravado, cars and women, meant they avoided alienating their audience, while tracks like “Rightstarter” and “Timebomb” hinted at their future political and social focus in their music.
Public Enemy’s objective has always been to impart knowledge, to educate their audience. They encouraged Black people to understand their roots, to be in touch with themselves and their history. The group had vivid memories of the Black Power era, The Nation of Islam and Black Panthers were groups they were familiar with in their youth, and they sought to reignite the Black power movement.
Following in the footsteps of their influences such as the late, great musician, poet, activist and writer, Gil Scott Heron and groups such as The Last Poets, who emerged from the 60s Civil Rights movement, as well as drawing inspiration from other genres such as Punk (Chuck D is a fan of The Clash). Public Enemy sought to raise the political and social consciousness of a new generation and bring their message to mainstream popular culture.
The group came up through Long Island’s Rap scene in the late 1970s and early 80s. Chuck D had a popular radio show on his university radio station and MC’ed in Hank Shocklee’s DJ crew, Spectrum City. Def Jam Records Rick Rubin heard him and tried to sign him as a frontman for another group. Chuck D wanted a posse, and instead recorded a four-track demo with Shocklee; Rubin gave them a deal off the back of it.
Hank Shocklee became part of Public Enemy’s infamous production team, The Bomb Squad, and was joined in the group by his brother Keith and Eric ‘Vietnam’ Sadler. Spectrum City’s Dj Norman Rogers became DJ Terminator X while Professor Griff, who led security at the Spectrum gigs, joined them as the minister of information. Their publicist Harry Allen, Chuck D’s friend from university, completed the lineup. Public Enemy was (in their words) “in full effect.”
The political climate of the ‘80s was turbulent and had a huge influence on the band’s artistic and creative direction. As Chuck D explained in an interview with Progressive Magazine, “It was a time of heightened right-wing politics…The Berlin Wall was up. Nelson Mandela was in prison. Margaret Thatcher was running the U.K. Reagan was out of control in the White House. And Bush Senior was vice president and soon to be president. You can say we were up against it”.
Unlike much Rap of the time, their message wasn’t confined to their town or city, they had a world view they wanted all people toknow, from the offset their ambition was to take their message outside of America. After the release of Yo Bum Rush The Show, they concentrated on an area no one was concentrating on at the time: the international market, touring and building their fan base across Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia.
This international perspective in their music has aided their longevity. As Chuck D said himself, “Oppression is a global industry that crosses geopolitical boundaries”-- their lyrics were such that people of all cultures, races and walks of life could relate. “Fight The Power’ and Don’t Believe The Hype’ are timeless classics, as relevant to the struggles of the ‘80s, as they are to today’s Occupy Movement, able to take on a new meaning, resonate with a new audience, and be part of a new history.
If Fear Of A Black Planet took a universal view, by their fourth album, Apocalypse 91: The Enemy Strikes Black, they were ready to turn their focus closer to home. It contained outbursts against radio stations that wouldn’t play their music, disgust at the casual use of the N word by the Black community and anger at the state of Arizona’s opposition to a national holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., documented in the album’s most memorable track, ‘By The Time I Get To Arizona’.
Their albums after Apocalypse did not enjoy so much critical acclaim and Hip-Hop and Rap changed rapidly, as it moved ever further into the mainstream. The group has been increasingly vocal about the commercialization and commodification of Hip-Hop, and the culture's disconnect from its roots as it gradually sold its soul to brands and corporations. Hip-Hop culture has been co-opted by those with no stake in it, and sold back to the people who do.
In January of this year, the group co-organized a local street festival with Los Angeles Community Action Network in one of America’s poorest areas, Skid Row Los Angeles. Only a few blocks from City Hall, the plight of the people who live there is largely ignored. The concert was designed to bring the Skid Row community together and raise awareness about issues facing the people and the area.
In an interview with Billboard Chuck D said the aim of the concert was to align Rap music with public service and leave behind American Hip-Hop's reputation as a vehicle for brands and blatant greed.
Chuck D reflects, "My place in Hip-Hop is not to be a tycoon, making trillions with a yacht; my place is maybe bringing people together and me being able to identify and illuminate a cause”.
Into their 81st tour and celebrating their 25th anniversary, the Public Enemy legacy continues.
Liz Appleby is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.