As Def Jam marks the 25th anniversary of Public Enemy’s seminal albums ‘It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back’ and ‘Fear Of A Black Planet’ with expanded reissues, we look back at the crucial early years of the New York rap legends.
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Public Enemy’s first four albums cemented their legacy as true rap pioneers. From 1987 to 1991, the collective defined rap as a burgeoning musical movement, sharpened its political teeth and provided a savvy – and downright angry – critique of America’s racial and societal inequalities. And during those heady years, the group, who met at Adelphi University in Long Island, pushed their own boundaries to redefine their innovative sound, assuring their position as one of the most important American musical acts of the century.
Amazingly, it’s still difficult to dissect exactly what makes these albums truly tick, with The Bomb Squad production team since admitting they were crafted out of hundreds of samples all meticulously spliced together to power the high-concept architectures. Whatever their construction, Public Enemy’s message of confrontation was always more important than the medium in their first “red-hot 110 degrees” rap albums.
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‘Yo! Bum Rush The Show’ (1987)
Few debut albums contain a song that so effectively spells out a group’s vision and musical trajectory as ‘Public Enemy No 1’. It’s a bristling manifesto of their identity; equal parts braggadocio, roll call and blinding word play mixed with just a bit of gun play. With Chuck D’s breathless attack, it stands as one of his most inspired staccato displays as he rattles through a litany of topics set against its surreal acid bassline. It still seems fresh today as Chuck D threatens:
“I’m not a law obeyer / so you can tell your mayor
I’m a non-stop, rhythm rock poetry sayer
I’m the rhyme player / the ozone layer
A battle what? Here’s a bible, start your prayer”
Meanwhile, the building blocks of their next three albums are all here. Yes, the production appears less complex than later albums, but its raw vibe and impressive cameos from Flavor Flav – before he settled for his cheerleader hype man role – make it an essential listen and a critical blueprint. For instance, Flav’s solo verse on ‘Too Much Posse’ reveals a clever anti-establishment rant. Elsewhere, the stripped-back bump of ‘Megablast’ eerily predates the cosmic flow of today’s rap genre pushers Shabazz Palaces, while the creepy descending NIN-style keyboard line in ‘Raise The Roof’ still sounds fresh. And Vernon Reid’s guitar work on ‘Sophisticated Bitch’ is certainly still fly. Here lies the glittering past, present and future of rap in just a dozen Public Enemy cuts. Consider yourself warned.
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‘It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back’ (1988)
With an intro sampled from a 1987 Hammersmith Odeon gig that sounds more like a political rally, this is the album which sees PE burning at their brightest. The sense of urgency is everywhere as Chuck D ups the tempo and shreds through his incendiary anthem, ‘Bring The Noise’. The anniversary reissue contains a fascinating a cappella version showing Chuck’s lyrical fury in stark isolation. But crucially it also reveals how much heavy lifting was done by the backing track to create the powerful whole.
While PE later became mainly Chuck D’s vehicle, at this point it clearly took the full posse to bring the noise. With the arresting cover image of Chuck and Flav behind bars drawing a parallel between prison and slavery, the group are still developing their political stance as ‘Don't Believe The Hype’ and, especially, ‘Louder Than A Bomb’ with Chuck’s verse (below), are remembered for the way they began to rattle and unpick popular American narratives:
“Your CIA, you see I ain’t kiddin’
Both King and X they got ridda’ both
A story untold, true, but unknown”
But for sheer power, the album’s siren call is the plaintive sax solo intro sampled from the Lafayette Afro Rock Band that sets fire to the two-minute ‘Show ‘Em Whatcha Got’. With its Frederick Douglass quote borrowed from the Wattstax concert (commemorating the seventh anniversary of the Watts riots) it’s positively dripping in with messages of self-empowerment. But in the next breath they throw in a crunching Slayer riff sampled on ‘She Watch Channel Zero?!’.
And that's part of PE’s unique ability to attract listeners, black or white, which saw the group successfully widen their appeal – as well as expand their list of lyrical targets. Few rap groups have used their righteous anger to straddle multiple American audiences so effectively.
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‘Fear Of A Black Planet’ (1990)
But things would only get hotter. And when ‘911 Is A Joke’ became the topic of the television news across America it was clear that PE had finally head-f*cked the country’s mainstream conscious, courtesy of a top-drawer Flav verse:
“Late comings with the late comin’ stretcher
That’s a body bag in disguise y’all betcha
I call ‘em body snatchers quick they come to fetch ya?
With an autopsy ambulance just to dissect ya”
Dr Octagon, eat your heart out. And when PE weren’t shining a light on the endemic racism of police, politicians or the media, they were writing sublime black power anthems such as ‘Brothers Gonna Work It Out’. The newly remastered Def Jam sound shows off how the album’s proto-funk groove harnesses the cold, cold lampin’ grooves forged by James Brown decades earlier. And sonically the album shows the group at its cohesive best, boasting a supremely recognisable Chuck D verse on the pulsing intro to ‘Welcome To The Terrordome’ as he spits:
“I got so much trouble on my mind
I refuse to lose
Here’s your ticket
Hear the drummer get wicked”
Lurking way back on the album’s 20th track is ‘Fight The Power’. The song, like the album’s title, shows how well the group had now distilled its message, and its anthems are boiled down to their very essence. But it was the game-changing video to ‘Fight The Power’ coinciding with the height of MTV that forever changed what was possible in rap – namely, that geographic and cultural unity was possible (after all, how else can you explain a Queens-born rapper wearing a Phillies cap?) – while the S1W’s choreographed combat boots stomped all over the psyche of America’s youth. It was positive, it was powerful and it was immortalised in Spike Lee’s equally provocative film, Do The Right Thing. America never looked – or sounded – the same again.
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‘Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black’ (1991)
One year later and the first seismic change of the group arrived. Terminator X left to pursue a short-lived solo career, Professor Griff bowed out on a low tide of anti-semitic comments, while The Bomb Squad’s Hank Shocklee and Bill Stephney were replaced by the Imperial Grand Ministers of Funk and Sister Souljah. But the mission remained the same as Chuck D invoked their long-running ‘Public Enemy No 1’ tag on opener ‘Lost At Birth’, with its hypnotic atonal grind that inspired a new generation of rappers, notably Run The Jewels.
The album’s stark production makes it seem less joyous and its vision of the “KKK wearing three-piece suits” is certainly more stark. But the 1991 album remains a masterpiece from the group, albeit their final one, with ‘Can’t Truss It’ and ‘Shut ‘Em Down’ stone-cold classics securing Billboard chart successes. This is the height of PE’s reach in America and you sense they know it, packing punch after punch.
Once again, it’s the combination of song and video that proved most powerful for PE in the soul-infused ‘By The Time I Get To Arizona’, as Chuck D kicks it in unusually laconic style against state politicians refusing to acknowledge the national holiday in Martin Luther King’s honour:
“Another n*gga they say and classify we want too much
My people plus the whole nine is mine, don’t think I even double dutch
Here’s a brother my attitude is hit ‘em, hang ‘em high
I’m blowing up the ‘90s, started ticking in ‘86
When the blind get a mind, better start fearing while we sing it”
Public Enemy never flew this high or burned this bright again. But by this point, they had already changed the face of not just rap but America as well, in ways few of their peers could even dream of doing. Public Enemy No 1, indeed.
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Words: Geoff Cowart
The expanded reissue of ‘It Takes A Nation Of Millions…’ is out now, with ‘Fear Of A Black Planet’ released on December 8th. Public Enemy online.