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Public Enemy

When revolutionary rap was finding its mouth and hip hop was finding its feet in the fledgling months of the 80s, the Big Apple’s PUBLIC ENEMY emerged out of the pack. Tearing up the rule book and throwing in a pro-black consciousness political tirade not heard since the days of SCOTT-HERON and The LAST POETS, Chuck D, Flavor Flav and Co committed to the agenda of firing up the American system with both barrels of their gums. Sampling, cut ’n’ paste, splicing and DJ-ing to the max, it took a nation of millions to hold them in high esteem.
Formed in 1982, in Garden City, New York, graphic designer Chuck D (born Carlton Ridenhour) supplemented his time at Adelphi University on Long Island by MC-ing for a local DJ crew, Spectrum City. There he met the outfit’s mainman, Hank Shocklee (who would subsequently become PUBLIC ENEMY’s co-producer); the pair subsequently teaming up for Bill Stephney’s rap show on WBAU. Producing rough mixes and co-hosting the show, Chuck developed his hard-hitting lyrical style while Shocklee undertook his earliest experiments in creating funky noise collages. The inimitable Flavor Flav (born William Drayton) was an avid listener, eventually joining the show as a co-host; the stage was set for the formation of PUBLIC ENEMY.
Mulling over the offer of a record deal from Def Jam, via Rick Rubin, Chuck eventually formulated the concept of the group alongside co-conspirators Shocklee and Stephney. With a brief to combine the caustic hip hop of RUN-D.M.C. and the radical attitude of The CLASH, they appointed DJ Terminator X (born Norman Lee Rogers), Professor Griff (born Richard Griffin) as Minister Of Information, and a militaristic back-up troupe named the S1W’s (Security Of The First World); the latter guy was sacked but reinstated for album two. They also set up a formidable production team, the aptly-monickered Bomb Squad, consisting of Chuck D, Eric “Vietnam” Sadler, Hank and his brother Keith. At a time when RUN-D.M.C. and BEASTIE BOYS were taking over the airwaves, the ‘Enemy were shouting from a different pulpit, preaching directly to rebellious ghetto kids alienated against the system.
Taking their name from an early demo track (included in reworked form on the debut album), `Public Enemy No.1’, the mighty massive unleashed their debut album, YO! BUM RUSH THE SHOW (1987) {*8}. The intent was clear from the start; the sleeve depicted the crew standing menacingly over a turntable in a darkened basement, their faces semi-submerged in shadows while the PE logo featured a sniper surrounded by a mock rifle sight. The music inside was equally uncompromising, by 1987 standards anyway. Chuck D was clearly a man who meant business, not another mealy-mouthed hip hop boaster.
Opening with the pre-drive-by fury of `You’re Gonna Get Yours’ (still arguably PE’s finest moment), the record combined 70s funk samples (The METERS, FRED WESLEY, et al), punishing beats, noise collages and even a guitar solo by LIVING COLOR’s Vernon Reid (`Sophisticated Bitch’). The posse were pumping iron into a stale music industry awaiting the next big thing – or scratch. Their political campaign was kick-started with `Rightstarter (Message To A Black Man)’; Chuck D possessing one of the most loudest, most portentous voices in rap.
Set two, IT TAKES A NATION OF MILLIONS TO HOLD US BACK (1988) {*9}, was PE’s tour de force – hip hop’s tour de force, even. With the Bomb Squad creating a multi-layered blanket of noise (a hybrid of their trademark, screeching band-of JAMES BROWN horn stabs, incendiary political samples and dextrous scratching), Chuck D raged through what amounted to a whole new black manifesto. In terms of emotional directness and righteous anger, this record made even the most vicious “gangsta” album sound like a cash-in thrown together during a lunch break. Among the highlights were `Bring The Noise’ (later the subject of a collaborative re-vamp with ANTHRAX), `Don’t Believe The Hype’ and the pulsing paranoia of `Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos’. PE even managed to make a SLAYER riff sound groovy, mangling it up on `She Watch Channel Zero?!’ while the Bomb Squad seemingly provided the base material for MADONNA’s Justify My Love with the minute-long `Security Of The First World’. The album went Top 10, propelling PUBLIC ENEMY into the media spotlight.
The group were already the subject of much controversy and following anti-Semitic remarks made by Griff in a newspaper interview, the media circus went into overdrive. Although Griff and PUBLIC ENEMY soon parted ways, these events informed much of the group’s fresh material. Chuck D’s initial response was the inflammatory `Fight The Power’, the rapper railing against what he perceived to be a white, European conspiracy to wipe out the black race. The song was given added resonance after appearing in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing flick over scenes of race rioting. Much of `Fear Of A Black Planet’ (1990) portrayed PE as victims, hounded by a predominantly white media and while there were accusations of racism, Chuck had previously clearly stated that the group’s agenda was not anti-white.
`Welcome To The Terrordome’ was the next uncompromising 45, an awesome, intimidating narrative. Much of FEAR OF A BLACK PLANET (1990) {*9} portrayed PE as victims, hounded by a predominantly white media and, while there were accusations of racism, Chuck had previously clearly stated that the group’s agenda was not anti-white. Musically, the album wasn’t quite as resourcefully ambitious as its predecessor, although tracks such as `911 Is A Joke’ and `Burn Hollywood Burn’ (featuring ICE CUBE and BIG DADDY KANE) were classic PUBLIC ENEMY, the record becoming the posse’s biggest seller to date (Top 10 US, Top 5 UK). Later that year, it came to light that the group had been mentioned in an FBI report to congress, underlining the scale of PE’s influence. Another negative was when Flav served 30 days in jail that May for an earlier incident in which he was said to have hit the mother of his three children Karen Ross.
With Sister Souljah now on board, APOCALYPSE ‘91… THE ENEMY STRIKES BLACK (1991) {*8} was as militant as ever, at least lyrically. More commercial and with a cleaner production than PE’s previous releases, the album reached the Top 5. Expressing outrage at the American state’s refusal to celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday, `By The Time I Get To Arizona’ set swathes of towering funk against Souljah’s almost gospel tones and D’s irate rapping. Elsewhere, tracks like `Nighttrain’ and `1 Million Bottlebags’ saw the rapper railing against the self-destructiveness of his own community. Flav was again charged in late ‘93, this time for drunkenly attempting to shoot his neighbour, after he allegedly thought his wife was committing adultery.
After a spell in rehab for drug addiction, Flav was back in action for MUSE SICK-N-HOUR MESS AGE (1994) {*5}, scoring high marks with the funky `Give It Up’ and `So Whatcha Gonna Do Now’, wherein Chuck berated the pointless negativity of gangsta rap. Although the record was a relative success, PUBLIC ENEMY felt they had taken the concept to its limit, calling it a day the following year (one of their last shows was an emotional affair at England’s Phoenix Festival).
Chuck D had always been peerless both as an entertainer and an educator, but it was the latter route that he subsequently chose for his post-PUBLIC ENEMY activities, lecturing on the college circuit as well as writing a book and hosting a news show on America’s CNN. While this one-man think tank was not on the ball 100% of time (some controversial comments on the Northern Ireland situation at a Glasgow Barrowlands gig spring to mind), he remained a fiercely articulate voice for the disenfranchised among the black community. PUBLIC ENEMY’s legacy meanwhile, transcended all boundaries of race and culture, no hip hop artists have yet come close.
Following his contributions to 1997’s filmmaking spoof, Burn Hollywood Burn, Chuck D reactivated PUBLIC ENEMY (alongside Flav, Eric Sadler, Shocklee and Gary G-Wiz) for a full-length soundtrack which also doubled as a PE album, HE GOT GAME (1998) {*6}. Despite the sleeve proviso (“Public Enemy music ain’t never been pretty, nor does it cater fully to popular tastes”), the predictability of many of the samples and the paring back of the noise factor suggested otherwise. Still, if late 90s hip hop could have done with anything it was a bit of prettiness, and “…Game” earned PE the biggest UK hit of their career, reprising the vibe of prime DE LA SOUL via BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD’s `For What It’s Worth’, the gospel voices of the Shabach Community Choir and a creaky STEPHEN STILLS vocal.
`Shake Your Booty’ was higher in the cheese stakes, a Flavor Flav nonsense rhyme which leant heavily on the Philly disco chestnut, Do It Anyway You Wanna – it’s great fun, but hardly sonic terrorism. `House Of The Rising Son’ cleverly modulated the intro to The WHO’s Won’t Get Fooled Again, but when the posse resurrect Monty Norman’s James Bond theme on `Game Face’, it suddenly seemed like a lifetime since they tore up JAMES BROWN and copped SLAYER riffs.
Only the Danny Saber-produced `Go Cat Go’ harked back to past glories but the minimalist aesthetic – consolidated with the appearance of WU-TANG CLAN’s Masta Killa – framed Chuck’s fury more effectively when it didn’t quite rely on such obvious source material: `Revelation 33 1/3 Revolutions’ vented its spleen over a quietly menacing baritone sax loop and teasing glimpses of what sounded like the JB’s Blow Your Head; `Politics Of The Sneaker Pimps’ took on the trainer barons with a sinewy jazz guitar figure. But for all the gothic string credibility of a cut like `Unstoppable’ (featuring the mighty KRS-ONE), it was the colourful Lightnin’ Rod/GIL SCOTT-HERON-esque phrasing of closer, `Sudden Death’, which really showed how great hip hop could be when it looked to its own roots rather than lazy samples.
PUBLIC ENEMY duly emerged on the independent, Play It Again Sam (PIAS), although by and large, 1999’s THERE’S A POISON GOIN ON… {*5}, was poorly received; Chuck D’s concurrent project, Confrontation Camp, looked the more promising for the future. While hip hop had long since abandoned politics for vanity and violence, PUBLIC ENEMY were still one of the sanest voices in their field, even if not as many people – especially younger folks – were not taking as much notice as they once did.
REVOLVERLUTION (2002) {*5} was at least a partial attempt to reach out to that audience with a more contemporary, user-friendly batch of new tracks, remixes, interview clips, live cuts and the like. The group’s legacy was finally given its due, meanwhile, with the release of a Top 50 greatest hits set, POWER TO THE PEOPLE AND THE BEATS (2005) {*8}.
The gorgonzola-pungent pun of NEW WHIRL ODOR (2005) {*3}, didn’t promise much new on the horizon, however, with critics acknowledging the need for a conscious hip-hop figurehead yet lamenting the album’s one dimensional production, metal riffs and general lack of invention.
REBIRTH OF A NATION (2006) {*5} was a more focused attempt at updating their classic sound, written and produced in collaboration with fellow old-skool traveller, Paris. Despite lack of interest outside their inner circle of fans, PUBLIC ENEMY continued to strike a vocal chord for the disenfranchised, releasing three further sets: HOW TO SELL SOUL TO A SOULLESS PEOPLE WHO SOLD THEIR SOUL??? (2007) {*7}, MOST OF MY HEROES STILL DON’T APPEAR ON A STAMP (2012) {*7} and THE EVIL EMPIRE OF EVERYTHING (2012) {*6}.
Whereas the first of these sets was pre-Obama and derivative of old-skool PUBLIC ENEMY – its major shock was when `Harder Than You Think’ (subsequently used for Channel 4’s “The Last Leg” hit UK No.4!) – the latter pair were sandwiched between another inauguration for the sole black Pres. An impossible task to preach to the converted, PUBLIC ENEMY also struggled as much as their heroes to stamp out their authority on the people of counterculture America. Although the presence of ZIGGY MARLEY and TOM MORELLO boosted sales of the latter set (vocalists Sheila Brody and Gerald Albright featured on the single `Everything’), a commercial lull was upon rap progenitors PUBLIC ENEMY.
2015’s mini-set MAN PLANS GOD LAUGH {*7} was another to receive critical plaudits rather than commercial rewards. Reunited with producer Gary “G-Wiz” Rinaldo, PE were still fighting the power on a lyrical level, the team scratched out the grooves on the radical `Give Peace A Damn’, `Lost In Space Music’ and opener, `No Sympathy From The Devil’; the latter a title as close in connection to the Stones a la `Honky Tonk Rules’.
As Chuck D – now also a member of supergroup Prophets Of Rage – celebrated PUBLIC ENEMY’s 30th anniversary, summer 2017 unrevealed a stream-only album, NOTHING IS QUICK IN THE DESERT {*7}. Post-Trump and cutting as sharp as any rusty blade, there were pointers to the day’s politics through `Beat Them All’, `Smash The Crowd’ and `sPEak!’.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD-LCS BG+MCS // rev-up MCS Oct2014-Jul2017

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