In the most celebrated quote in a career full of them, Public Enemy’s Chuck D once proclaimed hip-hop as “CNN for black America”—a statement that’s cut both ways for the group. From its very conception, Public Enemy did promise a more honest, street-level reporting on black life than most of its rap contemporaries, positioning itself as a voice for serious issues in a sea of gangstas and braggarts. And it’s for that reason that Public Enemy has long been regarded by those not especially predisposed to the genre as rap music it’s okay, even admirable to like. (In that respect, perhaps Public Enemy is more like NPR.) But also like CNN, it’s been dogged every step of its career by accusations of bias and sensationalist punditry. Even more damning, the news isn’t all that fun to watch—and Public Enemy has spent more than 30 years now lecturing, occasionally shaming, and generally demanding higher standards from a listenership that vastly prefers wealth, weed, and women, with little regard for what it means for the group’s popularity.
Still, it’s easy to forget how Public Enemy made knowledge and empowerment seem far more exciting than any drugs-and-guns fantasy when it first arrived. When Carlton Ridenhour laid down the primitive demo tape “Public Enemy Number One” under the name “Chuckie D” at his college radio station, hip-hop was still riding a line between yes-yes-y’all party toasts and the social commentary of songs like Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” while the most successful artists, like Run-DMC, were simply rapping about how awesome they were at rapping. “Public Enemy Number One” didn’t offer much beyond Ridenhour’s own boasting about how every other MC should fear him, but his energy and conviction were enough to nab Ridenhour a record deal with Def Jam’s Rick Rubin. And with the help of early hip-hop guru Bill Stephney, Rubin pushed Ridenhour to devise an act that would channel his talents toward expressing an informed sense of anger and militant calls to action.
With Chuck D the voice of righteous fury, and Flavor Flav his court jester id, Public Enemy was to become the first overtly political rap group, boasting its own army, the Security Of The First World, a “Minister Of Information” in Professor Griff, and a platform that was steeped in the imagery and ideology of black nationalism. Where Rubin’s star group the Beastie Boys fought for your right to party, Public Enemy would “Party For Your Right To Fight.” To a nation still nervously eyeing the rise of this aggressive new genre, nothing could have been more terrifying.
The group’s 1987 debut, Yo! Bum Rush The Show, garnered critical acclaim for the austere, often relentlessly bleak production from in-house sampler virtuosos The Bomb Squad, but it wasn’t until the following year’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back that Public Enemy truly found its sound and realized those explosive, agitprop ambitions. In response to the album’s politically charged lyrics—which openly taunted the media to take the group seriously—came the kind of scrutiny that would establish the group as the threat it had declared itself to be. Accusations of racism have endured throughout Public Enemy’s career—most infamously surrounding a comment Griff made to a Washington Times reporter that “Jews are responsible for the majority of the wickedness around the world,” which led to persistent charges of anti-Semitism. Chuck D’s vocal support of Louis Farrakhan has also invited controversy, as have stray accusations of homophobia. Then there was the video for “By The Time I Get To Arizona,” whose gleeful depiction of Chuck D assassinating Arizona governor Evan Mecham got it yanked from MTV after a single play and inspired a national media firestorm. From its earliest days, Public Enemy’s iconic crosshairs logo became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Such infamy only boosts the legend, of course, and by the time Spike Lee commissioned “Fight The Power” for his equally incendiary Do The Right Thing, Public Enemy had already accrued the necessary aura to sound like it meant it. The three albums released around that late-’80s/early-’90s pinnacle—Nation Of Millions, Fear Of A Black Planet, Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black—cemented the group as a transcendent social force, respected (and feared) by critics and suburban rock fans alike. For several years there, Public Enemy was the most dangerous band on the planet, in any genre. And as far as many were concerned, it was hip-hop.
But as they always must, tastes changed. Gangsta rap, of the sort propagated by N.W.A.’s Dr. Dre and Ice Cube—who ironically borrowed a lot of inspiration, as well as The Bomb Squad, from Public Enemy—became the hot new menace to society. Against their radio-friendly tales of crime and partying, the sort of sermonizing rap practiced by Public Enemy began to feel stodgy, a homework assignment set to beats. It probably didn’t help that, after a three-year absence, the group returned amid an era dominated by Tupac and Biggie Smalls with 1994’s Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age, wagging its finger at gangsta rap’s trappings with songs like “Give It Up” and “So Whatcha Gone Do Now.” In just a few short years, Public Enemy had gone from dangerous firebrand to disapproving uncle—a reputation it then cemented with the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s He Got Game, an album that groused, in minute detail, about exploitation in the NBA and whose featured guest vocalist was ’60s rocker Stephen Stills. For a youth-chasing genre like hip-hop, Public Enemy might as well have released a record about the importance of pursuing a degree in something practical like business administration, backed by Yo-Yo Ma.
As such, even professed Public Enemy fans may be surprised to learn the group didn’t actually disappear in the late ’90s—even after an acrimonious fallout with Def Jam sent it to smaller and smaller labels, before releasing records directly to iTunes and Spotify. In fact, it’s continued steadily putting out music every few years, right up through July’s Man Plans God Laughs, an album that applies Chuck D’s fiery racial rhetoric to a fractious time that arguably needs it more than ever. In spite of shifting trends, Public Enemy has maintained its commitment to socially conscious rap—a mission statement that’s come full circle to feeling downright rebellious again. Granted, most of those records from the past decade-and-change rarely achieve the heights of Public Enemy’s earliest work (something that’s almost impossible without the full force of The Bomb Squad behind them). As such, it would be all too easy to suggest listening to Nation Of Millions, Fear Of A Black Planet, or Apocalypse 91 straight through as a perfectly fine Power Hour and be done with it.
But that would be a disservice to an artist that’s remained so commendably, stubbornly focused over its three decades of work. Instead, this list aims to touch on some of the immortal highlights in Public Enemy’s life, as well as a few potentially overlooked milestones from more recent years. Unfortunately, that inclusiveness—plus the length of most P.E. songs—means there will be a few agonizing omissions here (“Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos,” which is covered in depth here; “Louder Than A Bomb;” “Prophets Of Rage;” “How To Kill A Radio Consultant;” ”Can’t Truss It;” on and on and on). So just consider this a quick history lesson on a group that has always demanded closer study.
Though it’s developed a legacy as the debut that immediately set Public Enemy apart from the pack, Yo! Bum Rush The Show is almost lyrically indistinguishable from that of its 1987 contemporaries. Aside from a few lines in which Chuck D lightly tests the political waters, the album brims with boasts about rhyming skills, fly cars, and groupies—albeit all delivered with unusual ferocity. Where Bum Rush really finds its edge is the harsh, needling production from The Bomb Squad’s Hank Shocklee and Eric Sadler, who conjure urban grind and back-alley anxiety with just a few stark beats and sustained synth drones. And while it’s missing the sharp social commentary and sonic maelstroms that would later define its music, “Public Enemy No. 1” whittles the early Public Enemy down to its diamond-point essence. It’s also the first chapter in what would become a much larger mythology of the group as dangerous outliers, feared by The Man and other rappers alike.
By the time of 1990’s Fear Of A Black Planet, Public Enemy wasn’t just delivering the news; it was making it. Lead single “Welcome To The Terrordome” is like a live relay from that storm of media controversy surrounding Professor Griff’s anti-Semitism scandal, right down to the “Breaking News” alert of its jazzy horn intro. “I got so much trouble on my mind,” Chuck D declares over one of The Bomb Squad’s most dazzling compositions—a dense thicket of blaring sirens and James Brown samples—before adding emphatically, “Refuse to lose.” But like most P.E. songs, “Terrordome” casts a wider scope beyond just personal problems. Chuck D also covers current events, like the killing of a teenager in Bensonhurst and the 1989 Greekfest riots in Virginia Beach, as part of a far-reaching investigation of life under the bubble of racial tension his critics don’t even realize they’re living in—and that Chuck D is still trying to change, no matter what they throw at him. More than just refusing to back down from inflammatory speech, Chuck D tosses gasoline on the fire by telling “a Rab to get off the rag” and saying of Jewish leaders, “They got me like Jesus.” If Chuck D is black America’s news anchor, this is his mad-as-hell, Howard Beale moment. And it’s a perfect introduction to the chaos in which Public Enemy strives to be the angry voice of authority.
The arresting instant classic from It Takes A Nation Of Millions… sounded like nothing else when it hit, daring to speed up the loping tempo of most rap songs to a fever pitch that matched the frantic, innovative scratching of DJ Terminator X, and knifing through eardrums with a hook that sounds like a screaming teakettle. (In reality, an alto sax.) As Flavor Flav mock-pleads, “We got to slow down, man, we losing them,” Chuck D shrugs off all the radio station suckers who never play him and doubles down with a tricky, pummeling, listener-unfriendly rhyme scheme. For those who had already dismissed Yo! Bum Rush The Show as dated and undistinguished—a sentiment shared by Chuck D himself—“Rebel Without A Pause” was the first indication that Public Enemy had already leveled up.
The timeliest of all Public Enemy’s many news reports, “By The Time I Get To Arizona” took direct aim at the titular state and its then-Governor Evan Mecham for its refusal to acknowledge Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a national scandal that followed a similar decision in New Hampshire. But while the song’s Sister Souljah-delivered intro calls out that controversy specifically—and the scandalized video culminated in Chuck D blowing up Mecham’s car—the song has outlived its contextual specifics, thanks in part to the timelessly moving, sweltering-in-the-desert gospel swell provided by Bomb Squad vet Gary G-Wiz (with assistance from Mandrill and The Jackson 5). It also probably helps that Arizona hasn’t exactly made huge strides toward no longer being racist—so much so that a collective of rappers remade the song in 2010 to protest the state’s anti-immigration laws.
Rap and rock still seemed like separate states in 1987, to the point where Run-DMC covering Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” the previous year felt like a landmark cultural event. “Bring The Noise” made an even stronger case that the genre walls should be broken down. “Beat is the father of your rock ’n’ roll,” Chuck D reminds in this track from Nation Of Millions, but also warns, “Rap is not afraid of you,” shouting out living hip-hop legends like Eric B. and LL Cool J over a cacophonous, industrial-funk churn that rivaled anything the nearest rock band was turning out. That included the similarly name-checked Anthrax, who joined Public Enemy on a reprise of the song for Apocalypse 91, followed by a joint tour—a summit between hip-hoppers and teenage metalheads that, at the time, felt as epochal as Edward Furlong sporting a P.E. T-shirt in Terminator 2. Chuck D’s rhyme scheme is equally as dizzying as the music, hitting a rope-a-dope rhythm that requires multiple rewinds to appreciate the complexity of his allusions. “Bring The Noise” offered a whip-smart rejoinder to the oft-repeated criticism that rap wasn’t “real music” like rock, buried in a bona fide party-starter.
Flavor Flav’s contributions as hype man are an indispensable part of the Public Enemy dynamic—particularly when it comes to lightening the load of what are often some fairly preachy lyrics. But his shtick doesn’t always translate to actual rapping, as demonstrated in gibberish-filled solo cuts like “Cold Lampin’ With Flavor” that feel like little more than built-in Chuck D bathroom breaks. The first exception came with Fear Of A Black Planet’s “911 Is A Joke,” which sees Flav setting aside his addled, free-association style for a sharply observed commentary on how long it takes paramedics to respond to emergency calls in black neighborhoods. With its catchy, crowd-pleasing, “Get up, get get get down / 911 is a joke in your town” refrain finally making good use of Flav’s bouncy energy, the song quickly shot to No. 1 on the hip-hop charts, and it remains one of the group’s best-known. Even a stopped-clock necklace is right twice a day.
The most caustic and celebrated of Public Enemy’s many songs about being shit on in the press, “Don’t Believe The Hype” aims to set the record straight—again. Here Chuck D blasts through a laundry list of common critics’ accusations—he’s a racist; he’s advocating violence; sample-based rap is little more than musical robbery—while reminding his naysayers that they’re really just scared of him. “All the critics, you can hang ’em / I’ll hold the rope,” Chuck says, daring them to take him literally and dredge up another scurrilous story on their little notepads. Of course, most actual music critics were firmly in Public Enemy’s corner, and they often championed the group as a smart, serious-minded antidote to gangsta rap. But alas, being an outlaw demands an antagonistic, love-hate relationship with the press.
By the release of the unfortunately titled Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age in 1994, hip-hop had become the mainstream, and Public Enemy had been all but pushed out of it by a new breed of gangsta rap and G-funk that trafficked in the wheelings-and-dealings of the streets. In that pot-clouded climate, Chuck D seemed less like the most dangerous man in America, and more like the teacher who burdens you with a suggested summer reading list. That sea change was heralded by “Give It Up,” a single that sadly shook its head at all the blunts, 40-ounces, and “doing dumb shit” celebrated by modern rappers—a message that probably went over with the kids about as well as any lecture from Dad. Nevertheless, “Give It Up” became the group’s highest-charting single on the Billboard Hot 100, its fuddy-duddy message alleviated by Gary G-Wiz’s funky loop of a sample from Albert King, Steve Cropper, and Pops Staples’ “Optus De Soul,” and a catchy, dexterous flow that made it all go down easy.
This single from Apocalypse 91 takes direct aim at a subject most hip-hop artists and fans likely never gave a second thought to: corporations who appeal directly to black audiences, but don’t do anything to help the black community. “I like Nike but wait a minute,” Chuck D says over a stomping beat and some particularly impressive scratching from Terminator X. “The neighborhood supports, so put some money in it.” Still, beyond that line specifically, “Shut ’Em Down” can be felt as an all-purpose, we’re-not-gonna-take-it empowerment jam, as equally blood-pumping when it’s soundtracking a class war as it is a game of Madden NFL 10.
It’s the Buffalo Springfield-sampling, Stephen Stills-featuring title track that got all the attention, but Public Enemy’s soundtrack for He Got Game works best when it steps outside the often-dry dissertations on the exploitation of black athletes. In fact, it’s a shame that the creaky “He Got Game” reintroduced P.E. to a younger generation after its four-year hiatus, when tracks like “Resurrection” might have presented them as more than rap dinosaurs. Backed by a more concise and quietly ominous, yet no less cutting Bomb Squad array of sinister synths (on the album that would mark the Squad’s final collaboration), the track finds Chuck D trading verses with the Wu-Tang’s Masta Killa, and sounding every bit as intense as that on-the-rise group did during its ’90s prime. “Ain’t nothin’ changed / PE we be the same crew,” Chuck pronounces—and while it’s not technically true (Terminator X had already been replaced by DJ Lord), the sentiment still stands.
While much of Public Enemy’s output in the post-Def Jam era has been surprisingly strong, the more recent albums suffer from a sense that the group’s repeating itself, as the righteous anger of the younger man inevitably calcifies into middle-age crankiness. But it’s still capable of a surprising banger like this track from 2012’s Most Of My Heroes Don’t Appear On No Stamp, on which Chuck D continues to not give a damn that all his ranting against oppression—here with a then-timely shout-out to Occupy Wall Street—isn’t something you can dance or romance to, even though the funky, swaggering backbeat from Gary G-Wiz aims to prove him wrong. The song gets an extra lift from Brother Ali, an acolyte whose own consciousness has consigned him to the rap underground, as he offers testament to how Public Enemy continues to inspire.
Like its opening salvo says, Public Enemy’s most famous track burst onto the scene in “1989, the number, another summer,” blaring out of movie screens as Rosie Perez captured the turbulence of a fractious nation in her frantic dancing. As the theme song for Do The Right Thing, “Fight The Power” was something of a recurring character, floating in and out of scenes as a sort of pissed-off Greek chorus, and giving musical voice to the anger its characters were just barely suppressing. But even removed from the film, the song remains cinematic in scope, compressing a century’s worth of music into its incredible multitude of samples (The Isley Brothers, James Brown, Rick James, Branford Marsalis—most of them heard for just a few seconds or less), and evoking an epic battle that’s still being fought not just by black people, but anyone who’s ever felt disenfranchised by the system. “Fight The Power” isn’t just the most important Public Enemy song. It’s among the most important songs ever made.
If Public Enemy had ever shown any interest in quitting, this single from 2007’s How You Sell Soul To A Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul? would have made for an excellent swan song. But it’s not. Instead it’s a brash proclamation that the group, which Chuck D declares “The Rolling Stones of the rap game” in its opening lines, is similarly still alive and kicking. Samples of Flavor Flav’s rambling big-ups from “Public Enemy No. 1” add a hint of sweet nostalgia to the tune, as do the name-checks Chuck D gives to “Fight The Power” and “Bring The Noise.” But despite Chuck looking back on “20 years in this business” and offering a grateful “Thank you for letting us be ourselves” that’s the closest he’s ever tread to sentimentality, “Harder Than You Think” isn’t some greatest hits clips package cued up for P.E.’s final episode. It’s a firm restatement of purpose, one that Chuck acknowledges you’ve already heard plenty of times before (“Don’t mind me if I repeat myself / These simple lines be good for your health”), but delivered over a lion’s roar of a brass line lifted from Shirley Bassey’s “Jezahel” that only reiterates Public Enemy’s refusal to ever go quietly.
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