Just as sages of the hippie era discovered that a shared musical culture had created a fairly cohesive longhaired nation, someone was bound to recognize the political potential of rap for African-American youth in the ’80s. (It doesn’t sound like a revolutionary idea at this point, but the leap-of-faith recognition of rap as a political medium back then had little more than “The Message” and the Last Poets to go on.) That person turned out to be Carlton Ridenhour, an Adelphi College student DJ from New York’s “Strong” (Long) Island. Taking the handle Chuck D, the self-styled lyrical terrorist formed Public Enemy with comic foil Flavor Flav (William Drayton) and DJ Terminator X (Norman Rogers), making the group a militant mouthpiece for an abstractly violent form of black nationalism that owes its aggressive stance (if nothing in the way of a cogent vision) to the Black Panthers. Unlike other educational rappers (most notably Boogie Down Productions), PE is big on image and attitude and, as a result, caused a lot of controversy in the music community. But as a role model for hip-hop fans interested in provocative ideas, Chuck D is an articulate spokesman. He also happens to be, hands-down, the strongest, most exciting MC of his day to rock a microphone.
Loaded with the bracing, bustling sound (by Hank Shocklee, Bill Stephney and others) that would become PE’s trademark as much as Chuck’s commanding delivery, Yo! Bum Rush the Show is a brilliant combination of hard- edged guitar (largely supplied by Vernon Reid) and off- kilter samples of all descriptions, topped with in-your- face raps by Chuck and Flav. But for a record that seemed to shake the firmament upon its release, surprisingly few tracks are political — even “Public Enemy No. 1” and “Miuzi Weighs a Ton” are standard MC boasts, and “You’re Gonna Get Yours” is about a car. But amid such wheel-spinning, “Rightstarter (Message to a Black Man)” and “Timebomb” reveal the stirrings of an incisive thinker with something far more potent on his mind.
The blistering It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back — the cover of which pictures Chuck and Flav in a prison cell, under the group’s gunsight logo — pays off on the debut’s promise with topical classics like “Don’t Believe the Hype,” “Rebel Without a Pause,” “Party for Your Right to Fight,” “Bring the Noise” and “Prophets of Rage.” Making masterful use of knowledge and language, Chuck fires off salvos in a dozen directions, dropping names from Marcus Garvey to Minister Farrakhan, J. Edgar Hoover to Margaret Thatcher. While the music’s titanic power is undeniable, the album’s polarizing content makes it one of the first pop records to turn politics into an aesthetic criterion.
Before PE could make another album, a very public ruckus broke out over crude anti-Semitic assertions made by Professor Griff (Richard Griffin), the group’s minister of ignorance, in a newspaper interview. Attempting to salvage the situation, Chuck D cut Griff loose in June of ’89, then briefly dissolved the group. When PE returned to action, Griff was (temporarily, as it developed) back in the lineup. The following January, a couple of provocative lines in a pointed new single about the band’s troubles (“Welcome to the Terrordome”) fanned the embers back into flames, and set the stage for Fear of a Black Planet.
Produced by Shocklee’s peerless Bomb Squad, PE’s third album is a masterpiece of art and articulation, a roaring subway train of rhythmic noise over which Chuck and Flav (aided, news-style, by relevant spoken-word bites and guests) deliver harangues flowing from a haphazard but rising Afrocentric consciousness. Beyond “Fight the Power” — a spectacular call to arms initially recorded for Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing — Black Planet‘s power is in its topical specificity. “Burn Hollywood Burn” attacks racism in the movies; “911 Is a Joke” takes a potshot at the efficiency of emergency services; “Pollywanacraka” dissects black sexism. “Who Stole the Soul” and “Revolutionary Generation” complain, respectively, about the mistreatment of culture icons and women. (While PE has transcended common rap attitudes about women, homosexuality still gets the shaft on “Meet the G That Killed Me.”)
Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black has the careening energy and topical juice of its predecessor, but Public Enemy is showing its vulnerability. Rather than handle the production personally, the Bomb Squad oversees a small group of newcomers, who leave a few weak spots. Five years after Run-DMC paired off with Aerosmith, the metallic remake of “Bring tha Noize” with Anthrax doesn’t mesh and smacks of crossover anxiety; Flav’s personal “A Letter to the New York Post” and “How to Kill a Radio Consultant” take the group further down a narrow solipsistic alley, fighting the power of the big historical picture Chuck marshals so effectively in “Can’t Truss It” and “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” a slam at the state’s refusal to celebrate Martin Luther King Day. Even worse, “More News at 11” displays a bunker mentality, raising and dismissing significant questions about the group’s future. The album does uphold PE’s righteous opposition to oppression, regardless of source — “I Don’t Wanna Be Called Yo Niga,” “1 Million Bottlebags,” “Get the F– Outta Dodge” — but the group had passed peak power. Its turf chopped up by success, competition, internal troubles and inertia, Public Enemy was beginning to show erosion of its vitality and sense of mission.
In the face of gangstarism and rap’s loss of political consciousness, PE issued Greatest Misses, an uneven collection of six substantial remixes (an enigmatic stack o’ tracks that betrays nothing in terms of artistic intent), a live version of Apocalypse 91‘s “Shut Em Down” and a half-dozen new creations, interspersed with comical and/or self-serving soundbites that turn the record into a scrapbook more than a retrospective. Chuck’s tragic sports fable “Air Hoodlum” is the strongest of the previously unissued numbers, and Flav’s bouncy “Gett off My Back” is alright, but the others lack passion and punch. Of the remixes, Chuck Chillout’s sketchy edition of “How to Kill a Radio Consultant” and Sir Jinx’s boisterous “Who Stole the Soul?” make the most difference.
A subject of great critical concern prior to its release and the object of disdain afterwards, Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age is another sprawling, boisterous, courageous missive that is hardly the creative disaster detractors described. Chuck’s vituperative pre-emptive “I Stand Accused” (“They say I’m fallin’ off/Yeah, they better call it off…Sick and tired of critics/But I can take a hit”) and Flav’s real-life problems with drugs, guns and the law don’t set an especially inviting table. But even though Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age regrettably abandons the Bomb Squad’s densely packed tumult in favor of a varied, less distinctive patchwork, Chuck D remains rap’s sharpest, deepest thinker and music’s most riveting orator. Keeping his wide-ranging eye open to destruction from within and without, he connects social and political oppression with its effects on cultural achievement. He accuses the historical white power structure in “Thin Line Between Law & Rape” (“…took the rest/We ain’t got jazz, rock and roll…a few fat ladies left singin’ da blues”). “So Whatcha Gone Do Now?” slams real gangstas and, obliquely, the rappers who praise them; “Give It Up,” “Live and Undrugged” and “They Used to Call It Dope” disdain drug use. An accusation against the World Health Organization (“Race Against Time”) comes off nutty, and “Hitler Day” gets far too exercised about the racism of national holidays, but otherwise the album’s buttonholers discourse with sharp ideas and solid reason. And repeatedly answer the question of PE’s contemporary relevance-to hip-hop and the world at large. Still, Chuck’s next move was to release a solo LP.
After bouncing out of Public Enemy for the second and last time, Professor Griff made a pair of solo albums that move beyond the group’s articulate anger with the esoteric imaginings and didactic conviction of the 5% Nation, his chosen sect of the Muslim faith. Although its strong rhythm tracks are gripping enough, the baldly proselytic Pawns in the Game isn’t about entertainment. In one typical example of Griff’s outlandish beliefs about science, history and world events, he describes the UPC bar code as “an anti-Christ mechanism.” Also brought to market by Luther Campbell, Kao’s II Wiz*7*Dome pulls Griff (billed alone) closer to reality, with flaming nationalism and self-righteous victimhood rather than crackpot theories. But this time, over beats that are boring (with a disconcerting near-subliminal layer of bass), Griff articulates little, even in “My Ideology.”
Terminator X has also cut a pair of solo albums. Like Marley Marl, the DJ writes and produces his records, using guest rhymers to verbalize the songs. The Valley of the Jeep Beets features little-known artists (except for Chuck D and Sister Souljah on “Buck Whylin’ “) with average skills; the Terminator’s beats are likewise less than monumental. Super Bad is a much more ambitious and successful project. Rallying the Godfathers of Threatt — old-school stars including Whodini, Grandmaster Flash, DJ Kool Herc and the Cold Crush Brothers, plus some of Jeep Beets’ cast — Terminator X leads a good-natured A-to-the-Z romp through rap’s early history. Tripping from Jamaica to the Bronx and back, the diverse album is kinetic, jazzy, soulful, cinematic and absurdly entertaining.