It’s almost too fitting that the anniversary of Public Enemy’s debut album should fall during Black History Month. For people like me–’90s kids from majority-white towns where “Black History” meant half a class period on George Washington Carver every February–Public Enemy was our connection to an invisible history of Black radical thought: from Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois to Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton. Their music opened me up to ideas I didn’t even know existed; ideas that, in the wilderness of White (supremacist) America, were truly life-altering. Discovering P.E. as a teenager was an experience as radicalizing as discovering punk rock; more so, in fact, because they represented a threat to racial hegemony that even the likes of the Clash did not. They were insurrection in musical form, with a visceral cut-and-paste aesthetic that continues to sound cutting-edge to this day.
None of that, of course, was the point of Public Enemy. More than any other rap group of their era, P.E. was music by and for Black people; the radicalized white kids like me were collateral damage. But I can only speak from my experience, as someone for whom Fear of a Black Planet and, especially, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back were an introduction to an entirely new kind of politics, a new way of seeing the world. If nothing else, I have Public Enemy to thank for introducing me to a rich canon of African American literature and art: to Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, and for that matter to James Brown, John Coltrane, and Gil Scott-Heron. Without that initial spark of interest I felt the first time I heard “Bring the Noise,” I might have missed out on a whole universe of ideas that have made me a definitively better person.
Granted, not everything about the group has aged well. Public Enemy may have exposed millions of listeners like myself to Black Power and the Panthers, but they also regurgitated a lot of less progressive influences: the anti-Semitism and homophobia of Louis Farrakhan, most famously, along with a host of conspiracy theories and pseudo-history that contemporary listeners are likely to reject as Hotep bullshit. Their politics are more akin to a firebrand anarchist zine than a well-reasoned essay–which is probably why they appealed more to my teenage self than they do to me as an adult. But there will always be a place for firebrands, and P.E. were as incendiary as they came: it was what made us sit up and listen in the first place. And in early 2017–a time when racism in America is arguably the worst it’s been in my lifetime–their fire might just be needed more than ever. So this Black History Month, let’s look back on 30 years of one of the most important groups in Black music: a group without whose influence, these troubled times would be a lot harder to process.
Public Enemy originated in Long Island, New York as Spectrum City, a crew comprised of producer brothers Hank and Keith Shocklee (born “Boxley”) and M.C. Carlton Ridenhour (better known as “Chuck D”). In 1986, Rick Rubin signed Chuck to his label, Def Jam, on the strength of “Public Enemy No. 1”: a fairly standard boast track distinguished by the Shocklees’ menacing, minimalist production and Chuck’s stentorian vocal delivery, equally inspired by Melle Mel of the Furious Five and New York Knicks announcer Marv Albert. Chuck brought with him the rest of Spectrum City, along with Eric “Vietnam” Sadler and Bill Stephney, completing a production team known collectively as the “Bomb Squad.” They rounded out the group with hypeman William “Flavor Flav” Drayton and DJ Norman “Terminator X” Rogers. Richard Griffin, a.k.a. “Professor Griff,” joined from a military and event security background to lead the “Security of the First World”: a combination bodyguard and dance corps who would accompany the group on stage with a blend of drill maneuvers and Black fraternity step routines.
Critics tend to dismiss Public Enemy’s first album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, as a less explicitly political work than their later records. But opening cut “You’re Gonna Get Yours”–an anthem for rolling through the hood in a muscle car, blasting hip-hop and giving cops the finger–is pretty damn political, if you ask me: not to mention an indication that P.E. was a lot closer in spirit to N.W.A. than conventional wisdom would have it. More political in the usual sense of the word was “Rightstarter (Message to a Black Man),” an Elijah Muhammad-citing Black nationalist tract set against a backdrop of weaponized cyborg funk. The sound isn’t quite there yet–even stone classics like “Miuzi Weighs a Ton” sound more like a Rick Rubin productions than vintage Bomb Squad–but the elements are all in place.
It is true, however, that Public Enemy wouldn’t reach their full potential until “Rebel Without a Pause,” released as a single just five months after Bum Rush. This is where it all comes together: the rabble-rousing politics and the ultra-hard beats and rhymes, colliding with the full force of the Bomb Squad’s sonic assault. From its opening moments, “Rebel” sounds like nothing that came before: a booming Jesse Jackson sample (“Brothers and sisters, I don’t know what this world is coming to!”), followed by a turntable scratch and the screaming saxophone from the J.B.’s instrumental “The Grunt,” chopped and looped until it sounds like an air raid siren. It was, in its own way, as much of a sea change for rap music as Dylan going electric was for rock.
P.E. kept up the momentum with their next single, “Bring the Noise”: another aural Molotov cocktail with prescient lyrics framing hip-hop as an art form the equal of (or superior to) rock and roll. Their second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, followed in June of 1988. It was an instant classic, with songs like the Isaac Hayes-sampling prison escape fantasy “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” boasting some of the illest beats ever to terrify white people. And the closing track, “Party for Your Right to Fight,” is a powerful statement of purpose: pointedly revising the title of the MTV hit by their Def Jam labelmates the Beastie Boys, making militant political struggle its own kind of “party” in the process. If for some reason you only want to listen to one album by Public Enemy, Nation of Millions is it.
It was in the summer of 1989, however, when the Enemy reached their cultural zenith. “Fight the Power,” an automatic anthem written for and prominently featured in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, remains their trademark song, a rallying cry for Black consciousness at the turn of the decade that still sounds radical in 2017. Their third album, Fear of a Black Planet, followed in 1990; while not as groundbreaking as its predecessor, it remains a classic in its own right. The darkly comic “911 is a Joke” finally gave Flav a showpiece to rival Chuck’s; and on songs like “Power to the People,” the Bomb Squad’s sample collages reached newly baroque heights. Meanwhile, Chuck was taking white supremacy to task with his most intellectual sophistication to date: Fear of a Black Planet‘s title track is a surgically precise takedown of racist attitudes toward miscegenation, a far cry from the substance-free sloganeering he’d occasionally deployed on the first two albums.
The Bomb Squad were again the stars on P.E.’s next album, Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black, compensating for some comparatively lackluster material with their most assaultive beats yet. Check out opener “Lost at Birth” if you want the best kind of headache; ditto for the grinding, atonal “Shut ‘Em Down” and “Can’t Truss It,” which pairs the scratches from Black Planet‘s “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” with yet another horn line blissfully reduced to pure sound. On the other end of the musicality spectrum, there’s also the pro-M.L.K. Day protest “By the Time I Get to Arizona”: an infusion of the usual sonic barrage with gospel soul, explicitly connecting the loudest agitators of the ’80s and ’90s with the Civil Rights musical traditions of the ’60s and ’70s.
Appropriately enough, the 1992 compilation entitled Greatest Misses was Public Enemy’s first real misstep: an odd blend of newly-recorded cuts and remixes, neither of which were terribly essential. But at least one of the new tracks stands up to their earlier work: “Hazy Shade of Criminal,” a scorching response to the 1992 Los Angeles uprisings and the ways in which state-sanctioned violence against Black people has been justified in the name of “crime.” In other words, it’s another one that’s relevant to our current era, for the worst possible reason.
By 1994, the Public Enemy that released Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age was a remarkably different group from the one that had appeared on the scene seven years earlier. The legal wars over sampling in the early 1990s had hobbled the group’s dense sonic collages, pushing them into a sound with fewer samples per track, supported by live instrumentation. It actually sounds pretty good: lead single “Give It Up” in particular just might be the funkiest song in the P.E. canon, making fine use of a sample from Stax Records luminaries Steve Cropper, Pops Staples, and Albert King.
With its numerous references to the “New World Order” and other conspiracy-theory nonsense, however, Muse Sick is when the Enemy’s aforementioned “Hotep bullshit” quotient gets too prominent to ignore. And the punning titles are, like, dad-level wack: “Aintnuttin Buttersong” is a fierce takedown of the racist history of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but you’ll have to finish rolling your eyes at the wordplay before you can enjoy it. Fortunately for fans of both the classic P.E. sound and non-stupid titles, the album also featured a remix of their 1993 joint from the CB4 soundtrack, “Livin’ in a Zoo”: a deliberate throwback to the Nation of Millions era, arguably representing that period’s swan song.
From here on out, Public Enemy would continue to release vital music, but they were undeniably no longer on the cutting edge. The title track for their 1998 Spike Lee soundtrack He Got Game cemented their elder statesman status: pairing Chuck’s rhymes with an interpolation of Buffalo Springfield’s Baby Boomer protest anthem “For What It’s Worth,” including an actual guest feature by Stephen Stills (!). As Robert Christgau wrote, “Over-the-hill blowhards gotta stick together.” Once one gets over the shock of a middle-aged Chuck D, however, it’s easy to appreciate how the soundtrack concept lent some much-needed focus to his lyrics: take, for example, “Politics of the Sneaker Pimps,” a multi-layered commentary on the ugly triangle of corporate sponsorship, sweatshop labor, and inner-city violence surrounding athletic footwear. And on tracks like “House of the Rising Son,” the Bomb Squad continued to do more with less, taking a synthesizer sample from the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and jacking up the speed to near-manic levels.
Perhaps inevitably, Public Enemy and Def Jam parted ways after He Got Game; their next album, 1999’s There’s a Poison Goin’ On, was released on the independent label Atomic Pop. On paper, indie distribution seems like a perfect match for a group as doggedly anti-establishment as P.E. But at least early on, it brought out their worst tendencies: i.e., more conspiracy gibberish, plus the return of Griff’s anti-Semitism controversies of the late ’80s, with a deeply misguided Schindler’s List pun providing the title for the anti-music industry (and, quite possibly, anti-Jewish) screed “Swindlers Lust.”
2002’s followup Revolverlution, released on Chuck’s own label Slam Jamz, was at least better, if still not quite “good”: a kind of spiritual successor to Greatest Misses, it included some decidedly inessential remixes and live cuts alongside its new material. Of said new material, Revolver-lution‘s title track packs a punch, with its gritty, chopped-up samples offering a fine approximation of the now sadly-defunct Bomb Squad. Elsewhere, “Son of a Bush” indulges the group’s rap-metal flirtations–present ever since Vernon Reid shredded on the first album’s “Sophisticated Bitch”–with a George W. Bush takedown, a good year before the Iraq War made such sentiments mainstream. And “Get Your Shit Together” is a surprisingly cogent analysis of post-9/11 America: especially considering it marks the first (and, mercifully, the last) appearance of the word “sheeple” in a Chuck D verse.
For better or worse, Revolverlution established the formula for Public Enemy in the 21st century: pointed criticism of contemporary hip-hop and American culture (sometimes incisive, sometimes just grouchy), set to music that could be almost distractingly self-referential. 2005’s New Whirl Odor improved on that formula in practically every way, save for the unfortunate return of Chuck’s wince-worthy title puns. “MKLVFKWR” (short for “Make Love, Fuck War”) is an Iraq War protest burner featuring Moby, but it somehow knocks hard enough to make one forget how dated that phrase is; “Preachin’ to the Quiet” is a righteous plea for “real hip-hop,” but it somehow avoids coming across as the usual generation-gap griping. Closing track “Superman’s Black in the Building,” meanwhile, is goddamn 12 minutes long, but it’s also the best thing P.E. has done in the last two decades, with a lengthy jazz-infused coda on which Gene “Daddy G” Barge plays saxophone and Mistachuck gets downright sermonic.
Just a few months after New Whirl Odor, P.E. released Rebirth of a Nation, a collaborative project with San Francisco-based underground rapper Paris. The production isn’t up to the usual standards; but if you can get past the sometimes mixtape-quality beats, it’s a pleasure to hear an energized Chuck rapping alongside dead prez, Bay Area duo the Conscious Daughters, and N.W.A.’s MC Ren on the aptly-named “Hard Truth Soldiers.” Hell, even Professor Griff turns in a pretty solid verse on Rebirth of a Nation‘s title track–which also, if the lyrics are to be believed, features the welcome return of Terminator X. Finally, on the Hurricane Katrina track “Hell No (We Ain’t Alright),” Chuck demonstrates his still-formidable ability to formulate a searing response in the midst of social chaos.
Having released two solid albums in the space of a year, Public Enemy marked the 20th anniversary of the group with something truly astonishing: 2007’s How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul???, their best damn record since He Got Game. I didn’t listen to this album when it came out–mostly, I’ll admit, because I was turned off by the title, which smacks of that unique combination of corny and condescending that is Chuck D at his worst. And that’s a shame, because the group really is firing on all cylinders here: especially on lead single “black is back,” for which returning Bomb Squad member Gary “G-Wiz” Rinaldo effortlessly channels the bombast of the early Def Jam era.
Indeed, How You Sell Soul??? is the first Public Enemy album to make good use of their latter-day tendency toward self-citation. When Flav recites his lines from “Public Enemy No. 1” on the bristling, soulful “harder than you think,” it sounds less like an old man revisiting past glories than like an epic, 20-year song cycle coming full circle. And on the moving self-eulogy “long and whining road,” Chuck uses his own song titles–along with those of Bob Dylan–to reflect on the long, strange trip of the preceding decades.
There has of course been another decade, and another three albums, since the release of How You Sell Soul??? Due to the vagaries of contemporary music streaming, however, this is where our playlist ends. I will say that I listened to Public Enemy’s latest album, Man Plans God Laughs, when it was released back in 2015. Maybe I wasn’t in a charitable mood, but I found it pretty much unlistenable. The mid-2000s renaissance is apparently over.
But then, this is nothing new; as we’ve noted, Public Enemy’s relevance to contemporary culture has been tenuous since at least the mid-1990s. In 2017, a time when radical politics have never been more nuanced, intersectional, or heterogeneous, P.E.’s macho, monolithic, sledgehammer-subtle bluster can feel more out of step than ever. Chuck D sometimes reminds me of the Japanese soldiers who kept fighting in the Pacific islands years after the end of World War II; or of the Key and Peele military specialist character who insists he can still swat a bullet out of the air when his reflexes have long since given out. He’s an old soldier, and he’s going to keep fighting the only way he knows how, the rest of the world be damned.
Here’s the thing, though: I still believe in these crotchety bastards. Sure, Man Plans was a wack record, but they’ve come back from wack records before. And I’m still enough of a fan to want to see how Chuck responds to the Donald Trump era (Flav and Griff, not so much). Public Enemy may no longer be the voice of a generation–or at least, not the generation that matters. But their voice has informed other voices, the Kendrick Lamars and the Run the Jewels, who are ready and able to carry the torch. Hell, even Beyoncé performed at the Super Bowl last year in Black Panthers-inspired gear; is such a thing even conceivable in a world without Public Enemy? Here, then, is to 30 Februarys of rebellion, without a pause. May the Enemy keep making Black history, this and many years into the future.