Public Enemy changed my life.
No, really, I’m serious.
Their arrival in the late ‘80s was epochal. They expanded the notions of what music, not just rap , but all music could be and sound like, and their influence is still being seen in artists all over the spectrum, from hip-hop to rock to pop.
P.E. is the collaboration of rapper Chuck D, rapper and hypeman Flavor “I once scored Brigitte Nielsen and all I got was this big-assed clock–YEAH BOIIIIIII” Flav, part-time manager/full-time conspiracy theorist Professor Griff, and elusive deejay (and ostrich farmer?) Terminator X. They came up out of Long Island in the early ’80s as Spectrum City, a music collective based around a college radio station which had a few songs on their resume. Chuck, a student, a DJ of the station, and one of the prominent members of Spectrum City took notice of the nascent genre of hip-hop from afar, but never really took it too seriously until Def Jam, the heavyweight hip-hop label of the day, came knocking. Though reluctant at first, Chuck eventually came around, and decided that if they were going to do it, they were going to do it big.
While most rap at the time concerned partying, good vibes, and endless boasting, P.E. wanted nothing to do with that. The situation in America was dire in the 1980s. Melle Mel‘s 1982 hip-hop classic “The Message” had already warned about the issues facing Black communities, such as poverty, racial injustice, crime, drugs, and the neglect by the powers that be, and the future wasn’t looking much brighter. Someone had to step up, and P.E. was that group. In one of the group’s most famous interviews Chuck mentioned rap music as the Black CNN, and I guess they were its Anderson Cooper. They idolized figures such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Louis Farrakhan. They adopted a militaristic, Black Panther-esque image and an attitude which could rival Run-D.M.C.‘s. They called for justice, preached Black empowerment, and leveled their sights at the American government and white supremacy.
And with the Bomb Squad, they just had a chance.
The Bomb Squad was P.E.’s production crew. Taking cues from a variety of sources, from hip-hop to funk to even death metal, the Squad created sounds unlike anything popular music had ever heard up to that point. It was aggressive. Intense. Chaotic. Extremely sample-heavy. Fast-paced. Full of air-raid sirens, static, intense scratches, and electronic outbursts. It was a wall of unrelenting noise, the kind of soundtrack that heralded the end of the world.
And holding it down on doomsday was Chuck D, a master orator, a man who would get on the mic and simply explode, delivering deft commentary and incisive lines. He made you want to get up and fight. Hell, Flav was on hand just to stop you from rioting too damn hard.
In 1988, Public Enemy released their second effort entitled It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and after that nothing was the same. Nation of Millions was my first true foray into hip-hop, and for me as a teenager it was an album of rage, rebellion, confidence, knowledge, and immense power. Without it I don’t think I would’ve been half as big a hip-hop head as I am today. My life would’ve been pretty different, come to think of it. It influenced a lot of my studies, interests in music and culture, and critical thinking. Without this group you certainly wouldn’t be reading this blog, for one thing.
To pick one song to feature from this record was actually pretty easy. “Rebel Without A Pause” is one of the band’s standout jams, a top listen from a record full of them. Over a screeching sample from The J.B.’s “The Grunt,” this listen is an aural assault with Chuck letting off like a street sweeper, Flavor jumping in with the haymakers, and the Terminator’s flawless scratching. It’s a powerhouse of a listen, and one mighty fine introduction.
Geeze. I could go on all day about this group and this record, but you know what? I’m gonna stop talking here and let the music speak for itself. This one is more than capable. But just me just make clear that right here that you’re listening to the some very best that hip-hop has to offer. So enjoy the end of the world, huh?
Originally posted on my old blog, Emaciated Wildebeest, on March 7, 2011.