A few years ago Skinnie Entertainment Magazine asked if I could interview Public Enemy for a story that would end up on the front cover. Of course I said yes.
Writing about a band that had been part of the very reason I had listened to so much hip-hop when I was young was a tremendous honor, but the opportunity to interview them never happened. They were on the road for a reunion tour, never got the chance to talk.
The magazine asked me to write about the band anyways, so here it is. For people who are new to hip-hop, here is something truly old school for your edification.
Since 1987 Public Enemy has been more than just wicked beats, controversial lyrics and a supercharged fusion of sound that, in the words of Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, “Blow your wig back.” Since the beginning the band has also been about information, education, evolution and revolution.
If you flipped on your radio and tuned in to a rap station in 1986, you’d quickly detect that beyond the whimsy of the Beastie Boys, Salt ‘n Pepa and The Fat Boys rap was starting to get dangerous with the intrusion of a gritty, street-quality sound from bands like N.W.A. and Run D.M.C. But there was still space for something furious.
Public Enemy brought that fury with Yo! Bum Rush the Show in 1987. To listen to the album even now is to get a taste of a face full of barely controlled chaos. Live guitars grinding over heavy drums with blaring horns, smashing beats and sheer goddamned noise pound out of your speakers while Flava Flav and Chuck D hit you with lyrics that make you think:
"You spend a buck in the 80's, what you get is a preacher
Forgivin' this torture of the system that brought 'cha
I'm on a mission and you got that right
Addin' fuel to the fire, punch to the fight
Many have forgotten what we came here for
Never knew or had a clue, so you're on the floor
Just growin not knowin about your past
now you're lookin' pretty stupid while you're shakin' your ass."
-Rightstarter (Message to a Black Man)
It was lyrics like that which made the band so incendiary. Certainly, Terminator X had the talent beyond talent to put all the beats together (with all due props to Public Enemy’s production team, “The Bomb Squad”) but it was the band’s message, a righteously indignant challenge to inner-city youth (and, really, all youth) to defeat a system that wanted to defeat them that placed the group high above the silly antics and blasé cool the rest of the industry was spraying.
Chuck D got his start in Long Island, New York in 1982, developing his abilities while he delivered furniture for his father’s business. While involved in a radio training program known as “Spectrum" Chuck D met Flava Flav, Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee, Eric "Vietnam" Sadler and Professor Griff, the team’s Minister of Information.
Flava Flav and Chuck D had released a song called “Public Enemy #1” in response to a challenge made against Chuck D by a local rapper to describe the tension the two felt from the local scene. Hank Shockleee suggested that the name would be a good title for a band, and the legend was born.
While Yo! Bum Rush the Show was Public Enemy cracking its knuckles, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is the band crushing skulls. “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” is a black revolutionary indictment of the prison industry as another form of slavery. “Caught, Can I Get a Witness” is Chuck D telling his contemporaries in the rap industry to get off their asses and start composing material that meant something.
Wherever Chuck D went, just when it got too serious Flava Flav was there, the fuzzy logic apparatus of the entire thermonuclear supercomputer to counter Chuck D’s harsh, heavy code. It made you pay attention.
When a band can screw around once second and turn around and get serious the next with equal aplomb, you know they have talent and depth. Yes, Flav's goofy, and he's made a lot of money just playing himself, but his contribution to the overall sound of Public Enemy should never be overlooked, just because the artist funs around.
At one point in music there existed this silly notion that rap and rock were two antithetical elements that couldn’t be simultaneously enjoyed. In our more enlightened era, we have bands like Limp Bizkit, Quarashi, and Rage Against the Machine to give us all the rapcore we can eat. But guess what genius gave us that?
In 1991 Public Enemy and the New York thrash metal band Anthrax teamed up to produce the song “Bring Tha Noize” which broke new ground all the way from the bedrock to the magma core. Doubters and haters had to sit down and listen when the two bands toured together to entertain audiences that wanted both sounds. To this day you can’t listen to that song at high volume without driving far over the speed limit.
Public Enemy didn’t stop there, and have been going strong to this day. Fear of a Black Planet hit the airwaves in 1990. More albums followed, with Revolverlution in 2002 and New Whirl Odor in 2005.
In their long and influential lifetime Public Enemy has gone on 56 tours and performed 1300 concerts in 45 countries. What else can be said? They’ve done it all and they are still doing it.
Check out their website at www.publicenemy.com.