Public Enemy, as their fans are already aware, are innovators, radicals and politicised artists, using rap music in the same way the likes of the painter Basquiat and Dark Magus-era Miles Davis used their respective modernist art forms to equally confront and entertain their respective audiences, using their art to promote pro-black issues and pushing these into generally white-controlled cultural areas.
Musically, hip-hop was still really in its infancy as an art form and while effective, it was much the attitude of the street in music form. Public Enemy pushed it further, much further, as Hank Shocklee, member of seminal producers The Bomb Squad, remembered:
Me and Chuck were both modern art fans…especially when it’s that Jackson Pollock-ish, Basquiat-esque style. Forget about the discipline or the textures. Don’t try to create a landscape, but rather delve into an area where it’s almost noise. That’s the area, to me, that was most intriguing, and what jazz represented. It represented that true freedom. These guys like Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler, they created their own tones, their own language, their own vibration.
By bringing such influences to bear on hip-hop, and infusing it with radical politics, Public Enemy proved there was much more that could be done with the genre’s aural blank canvas than had been previously imagined. N.W.A. might have brought the gangsta cool, but Public Enemy brought the art. And both brought the attitude and attack.
Here is my personal Perfect 10 for Public Enemy. Let me know your Perfect 10 in the comments!
Track 1: “Lost at Birth”
“The future holds nothing else but confrontation!”
So says the sample at the start of this storming track, and I’m sorry to say, 29 years after its release, that it wasn’t lying.
Forgive me by starting with some over-the-top hyperbole, but “Lost at Birth” is one of the greatest introductory tracks on any hip-hop album. Functioning very much as a hype track to pump you up for the album, in the same way a band might have prolonged walk-on music to pump up a crowd, “Lost at Birth” is a statement of intent: this is music with the shackles off, that refuses to compromise.
Anchored by a driving drum loop sampled from Deep Purple, an unidentified drone sound (a distorted horn sample? A keyboard?) repeatedly blares, an air raid siren melting into a metaphysical dread. Brace yourselves. Prepare for impact.
It’s this driving dread and the track’s short length that gives the track its immediacy, but what pumps me up is the way it keeps you on your toes, in suspense, offsets us with samples and introductions whilst making us wait for Chuck D to drop that verse of fury that you know is coming. Once it drops, it runs itself ragged on its own momentum, Chuck D giving us his mission statement: “Info to flow and heal all below/Let’s go and find the piece of mind that’s taken/Or else the black starts breakin’.”
Track 2: “Bring the Noise”
One of the great hip-hop tracks, and a great proclamation of self-believe and self-justification, “Bring the Noise” is a tour de force of intricate, hard layers of sound playing against and into each other as the beat throws a hectic tempo out for Chuck to preach to.
It’s interesting that, certainly in the ’80s, and perhaps now too, hip-hop doesn’t venture away from mid-tempo at its fastest. Here, Public Enemy and producers The Bomb Squad—who were well informed of rock as well as R&B, hip-hop and jazz—took the sheer, visceral aggressive rush of rock without being rock, instead putting the energy to use servicing the dense grooves being laid down. In the process, they created something new and vital, a risk that paid off.
Chuck is the real MVP here as he lays down a masterclass in rhyme style, spitting each verse in a different style to a varied beat, which really shows his versatility (apparently Chuck had become frustrated and couldn’t decide which style to go with, until he was told to rock all three).
Opening with the world-famous “BASS! How low can you go?” intro, Chuck and Flavor Flav proceed to lay down a classic rap defending their right to use “noise” as a musical tool, and promote themselves as teachers (“listen for lessons I’m saying inside music that the critics are blasting me for”) as opposed to the criminal reputation their genre and image was perceived to reflect (“Can I tell ’em that I really never had a gun? But it’s the wax that the Terminator X spun“).
One of the greatest hip-hop tunes ever. Period.
Track 3: “Don’t Believe the Hype”
Researching this article, what’s really impressed me anew about the Bomb Squad’s excellent collage approach to production is not only the exquisite connoisseur’s taste they displayed in the artists and tracks they sampled from, but also in what parts they took from them.
Beats are the most obvious thing, but in terms of other instrumentation, especially in the earlier days, the Bomb Squad very rarely went for the most obvious hook or riff (“She Watch Channel Zero’s” use of Slayer being an obvious exception).
Instead the Bomb Squad would take a snatch of horn, a brief passage of piano, something that might get played just once on its original track and so was not the most obvious thing you would think of when you thought of the original track. The Squad would take these fleeting moments and build tracks around them, transforming them into absolute beasts. The ears of the Squad for cool and different sounds were that good.
“Don’t Believe the Hype” was a case in point. Taking a three-second atonal squeal of horn that appears on James Brown’s 19-minute(!) funk epic, “Escape-ism,” they mixed it with a two-chord rhythm guitar part from another Brown track, “I Got Ants In My Pants” to make an aggressive, confrontational mix of funk that hurt your ears in a good way as much as it made your feet want to move.
This was the genius of the Bomb Squad: piecing sounds together like a collage to make a brand-new whole. Sometimes there’d be dissonance and that was absolutely fine. They had grown up with jazz as well and funk and soul, and clashes of sound appealed to the free-jazz parts of their taste. And “Hype” is most definitely genius.
The lyrics of Chuck and Flavor manage to be both playful and serious, addressing the negative press the group had received whilst misconceptions about them abounded, while at the same time managing to famously introduce “Media Assassin” Harry Allen and Flavor’s brilliant response to reporters complaining of having their tape recorders snatched: “No, you can’t have it back, silly rabbit!”
Track 4: “So Whatcha Gone Do Now?”
By 1994 hip-hop was slowly but surely taking the place that rock music had held in popular culture for so long, influencing everyday common language and fashion to the point that it is now the everyday norm and rock culture is actually more of a sub-cultural thing now.
The most popular rap artists of the time, though, were generally those who promoted the “gangsta” lifestyle—“rap, guns, drugs and money” as this sublime track describes it—and the lyrics to such tracks often promoted misogynistic attitudes to women, the mythologizing of building empires through drug dealing, and violence—gun-related or otherwise—to police and to other black gangstas. So-called “backpack” rap or conscious rap this was not.
To Chuck D, deadly serious in his intent to educate and promote positive attitudes of black self-perception and self-respect, particularly took umbrage at the fact that most of the violence they were promoting and perpetuating was black on black violence and therefore only repeating the crimes of which such rappers were criticising white people for. Someone like Chuck, with his pro-black positivity, wasn’t going to take all of this lying down.
The days of sample collaging were over by 1994, with copyright laws becoming much tighter, but Public Enemy found a way with this track to embrace sparseness to bolster the intent of their attack.
Rocking a looming, ominous baseline sampled from Mandrill’s “After the Race,” and dressed in hushed, jazzy keyboards and a funky treated mouth organ refrain, the music mimics the warning laid down by Chuck D, pushing back against rappers who used same-race genocide as method to make their fame and fortune (“talkin’ that gat talk/walkin’ that catwalk“)
The montage of various racist voices as recorded in different films or documentaries, giving anti-black rhetoric in queasy soundbites, is genuinely disturbing, the pro-black messages in-between them almost drowned out by the surrounding hate. But it goes to show: like Chuck, they’re still there and they’re never truly defeated.
Track 5: “Hazy Shade of Criminal”
Time and fashion wait for no one, as Chuck D was well aware in 1992. Changes in copyright law meant that if Public Enemy were to carry on creating their abrasive blasts of sample collages, they were going to be very out of pocket. It just wasn’t financially feasible anymore. Not only that, but with The Chronic coming out the same year, change was in the air. This was the beginning of the G-Funk era, and breakneck sonic terrorism was not on the popular agenda.
Knowing this was the last time they were going to be able to blast musically like that, Public Enemy put their all into one of their greatest yet most underrated tracks. As Chuck D stated in the track’s lyrics, “only if I had one more time/to kick the rhythm/that keep rippin’ down the door.”
Taking the bass line and the “rebel base“ voice from Ultramagnetic MC’s “Break North” and assaulting it with layers of blaring horns that rage at the listener’s ears, this gem of a track is musically a spiritual successor to the likes of “Night of the Living Baseheads” and “Can’t Truss This.”
Lyrically, Chuck takes aim at the difference between how white criminals and black criminals get treated (“Jeffrey Dahmer enters the room without cuffs”), with black prisoners getting substantially worse treatment (“How the hell do we set stuffed in the back of a cell on a isle, ain’t it wild?…Indiana trees hanging us instead of leaves”).
Not only that, he takes to task the politicians who are just as criminal as those they incarcerate, if not more so, allowing institutionalised racism to become so embedded in American society, especially in the police force (“So the real criminals get exposed behind the clothes, doors and the suits that make and break the law”). The times might have been changing but some things unfortunately remained (and remain) the same.
Track 6: “Night of the Living Baseheads”
One of my favourite all-time tracks by any artist ever. The word “fun” is never much associated with Public Enemy, but that’s what this track is to me: big time fun.
Firstly, it’s that manipulated horn sample from The J.B.’s “The Grunt” that runs through and anchors the track and in its obnoxious, repeated blurting comes across like a demented car alarm that the owner can’t get to switch off. It goes beyond the realm of annoying into genius. I always get an extra bit of swing in my stride as soon as that horn honks.
Then there’s the way Chuck D, always a deep booming voice of a rapper, slams down that “I’m talking ‘bout BASS!” heading into the chorus with its “twas the night” Kurtis Blow vocal hook rooting into your brain. It’s hard not to get excited when being slammed by that much energy.
Thirdly, it’s the way the song moves between seemingly unconnected sections, often in different keys, like some crazy hip-hop prog track and yet it works! Musician Branford Mansalis, when discussing working with Public Enemy on a different track, said it “was not a normal chord progression. If it was C minor then it went to A-flat 7…A musician would never do that. But it works. It unwittingly helped me expand my brain in a way.”
“Baseheads” is a case in point. The way the track switches between its different parts is astonishing. It shouldn’t work, but it does. When a sample of David Bowie’s “Fame” drops near the end of the track out of nowhere it transforms something amazing into some next-level magic. In fact, the way the track weaves and stitches together its 22 samples (!) is magic in and of itself.
A song dealing with the problem of Class-A drugs infiltrating poor black communities and bringing them to their knees should not be so enjoyable. But people didn’t count on Public Enemy to do so.
Track 7: “By the Time I Get to Arizona”
A righteous trip into the desert to validate those who died in the struggle to bring peace and equality and have that validation upheld, “By the Time I Get to Arizona” is a march on those who would deny the efforts of people who tried to make a difference, solely due to the colour of their skin.
In 1988 then-Governor Evan Mecham had cancelled Martin Luther King Day across the state, finding his own validation in this from the good people of Arizona, who, in 1990, voted down proposals to have a state holiday in King’s honour. Mecham was quoted as saying the racially loaded phrase “I guess King did a lot for the colored people, but I don’t think he deserves a national holiday.” What a gentleman.
Chuck D, remembering the anger he felt at how King was assassinated when Chuck was just a child, resorted to use his music to make a violent statement back at the people of Arizona, who had reminded him of the pain and hurt the treatment of King had wrought in him.
This is a lyrical violence, not a musical violence. The track itself is smooth, laid-back, almost bluesy, with gorgeously soulful gospel backing vocals against a chilled but funky beat. The days of the musically bombastic attack were coming to an end and producer Gary G-Wiz gave Chuck’s word a more palatable yet no less potent audio tapestry for him to rhyme over.
The video only aired once on MTV at a time when MTV was such a big deal in terms of making or breaking a single’s success. They didn’t take kindly to a representation of Mecham being killed in a car bomb by Chuck D. In Chuck’s view, though, Martin Luther King wouldn’t have taken kindly to being assassinated and then being insulted by having a day named after him vetoed.
As Chuck put it, “Read between the lines, and then you see the lie/Politically planned, but understand, that’s all she wrote/When we see the real side that hide behind the vote/And they can’t understand why he the man/I’m singin’ about a king.”
Track 8: “Harder Than You Think”
In 2010, I saw Public Enemy live for the first time, completely by accident and on the spur of the moment during a long weekend in Paris. It still sits in my mind as one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to. The energy in that room from both group and audience was palatable, the S1W’s were awesome to see in person, and the live band behind them really gave the songs an electric group.
At that point I was only familiar with the run of albums from Nation of Millions to Apocalypse ’91. So when an incredibly hooky horn- and guitar-led jubilant track hit me over the head halfway through the set, with a chorus hook of “just like that!”, I was gobsmacked. What the hell was this life-affirming slice of genius?
As a quick Google search would reveal on my return from the UK, the track in question was “Harder Than You Think,” from 2007, and it would receive a new lease of life in the UK when it was used to advertise Channel 4’s coverage of the Paralympics, earning it a place as Public Enemy’s highest charting UK single, placing at number 4.
Taking its basic build from the backing track to Shirley Bassey’s “Jezahel,” the music never fails to give me that feel-good, summery feeling that puts a spring in your step and a smile on your face. Meanwhile, in a rare spirit of playfulness that sees the group playing off their first track, “Public Enemy No. 1,” Chuck D outlines a personal essay as to why he continues to use rap as his outlet to fight for what he believes in: “if you don’t stand for something/you fall for anything/harder than you think/it’s a beautiful idea”. Indeed.
Track 9: “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”
One of Public Enemy’s most famous songs, taking a high-pitched trilling piano section from Issac Hayes’ “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic” and attaching it to a stiff, unrelenting groove, this is the tale of a prison break from the point of the view of the oppressed, justified and righteous based on the right to refuse service and the racial overtones of the punishment for refusing to serve.
Nothing like this had really been heard in hip-hop at this point. Sure, there had been tracks that told stories, but most of these were relatively based in reality and related to the protagonist’s experiences on the street. Here, Chuck D was spitting out an action film in rap form, and yet the politics behind it weren’t amoral or conservative.
Every man and woman should have the right to conscientiously object to joining the military if they should so choose. For a black American, however, the right was perhaps even more profound. Considering that American society was institutionally skewed in favour of white skinned people, it is not surprising that black people would decline to serve and fight for those that had beaten them down and disdained them. That the majority of prisoners in American prisons are black raises questions about the severity of punishments in relation to race.
Hence, here Chuck is rapping about an injustice done to his fictional self, filtered through a fantastical story but based in the reality of racial tensions and their relationship to prison sentences.
Like any good action film, the good guys prevail, and Chuck and his band of brothers see the prison tower blown up by the S1W’s. Our heroes are on the run, but are they truly out of danger? Wait for the sequel…
On a side note, I heartily recommend Tricky’s excellent cover of this excellent track. Well worth your time.
Track 10: “Fight the Power”
Last but not least, this demand to resist harmful authority will go down in history as one of hip-hop’s top 10 tracks of all time, I truly believe it.
Written at the request of Spike Lee so that he could use it in his film Do the Right Thing, Chuck D and Co. put together a smooth yet dense production that managed to be equal parts soulful and confrontational, as such a demand as to fight the power deserves. Twenty-one samples were used in a mind-boggling collision of different sounds and voices that conflicted with each other across keys and yet came together through their dissonance, like a great free jazz record, except one with the civil disobedience of the streets.
Musician Branford Marsalis has said about the track “it has the same sensibility as a James Brown tune, which is completely where they got it from. If you listen to when they go, ‘Fight the Power’ and you hear that voice that goes, ‘Aahh,’ that voice is not in the same key as the other sh*t…but it works.” Which perhaps sums up Public Enemy better than anything else.
Lyrically, the track sees Chuck D drop some of the Enemy’s most quoted lines: “Don’t worry be happy/Was a number one jam/Damn if I say it/you can slap me right here” and “Elvis was a hero to most/But he never meant s**t to me you see/Straight up racist that sucker was/Simple and plain
Motherf**k him and John Wayne”, which, as an act of cultural terrorism, is a perfect assault on two of the biggest celebrity male figureheads of American culture. Cultural power is often as valuable as political power and Elvis, for all of his talent, is seen by many to be a usurper of what started as a black musical art.
A perfect Chuck target and a perfect Public Enemy track to close my Perfect 10.