Public Enemy – There’s a Poison Goin On….

There's a Poison Goin On....

Public EnemyThere’s a Poison Goin On…. Atomic Pop AP001 (1999)

After attempting to rethink the basis of Public Enemy’s music on the He Got Game soundtrack, which garnered mixed reviews at best, PE rethought their music again on There’s a Poison Goin On.  In a way, it sort of set the tone for a lot of what the rest of PE’s career would be about.  He Got Game catered to the more melodic R&B-inflected style of hip-hop that was gaining popularity at the time.  The title track was great, but the rest didn’t impress.  With There’s a Poison Goin On the group sort of splits the difference between more melodic beats and singing/raps and their old style.  The results?  Well, music nerds and hip-hop heads debate the best Wu-Tang Clan solo albums.  This might be the best Wu-Tang “solo” album made by people unaffiliated with Wu-Tang!  Chuck D is political, but less so than a decade earlier.  “World Tour Sessions” is the catchiest thing here, and it has a little bit of Chuck’s politics, but it has a softer hook than something like their early 1990s hit “Can’t Truss It.” “I” is great.  This was DJ Terminator X‘s last album with the group until a surprise reunion with the group more than a decade later.

Aside from the purely musical aspects of the album, Public Enemy established their new business model here.  They signed with a new label dedicated to online distribution (though this was released in physical format too).  The label flopped, as broadband internet access was not widespread yet.  But more than distribution channels, the group was ready to sidestep major labels and stick with a more independent path, allowing them to try new things and have more control over their work.

This is a middle-of-the-pack PE album, but one that is worthwhile for fans who have already heard the classics.

Don’t Believe the Hype: A Guide to Public Enemy

Welcome to a humble guide to the music of Public Enemy, one of the most iconic, innovative, and long-running hip-hop groups in history.  This guide focuses on albums, rather than singles.  Links to other resources are provided at the end.  Credits listed below are accurate to a point; the band tended to skip attribution — and often intentionally obfuscate — who contributed to producing individual tracks and entire albums.  Information on available releases is current for the United States as of early 2016, and focuses on physical formats.

A Brief History

Public Enemy (PE), formed in “Strong Island” [Long Island], NY, in 1982, emerged at the forefront of “conscious” or “positive” hip-hop.  Biographer Tim Grierson wrote, they had “little interest in the materialism and bloodshed that had quickly become two of [hip-hop’s] major selling points.”  Instead, PE wrote songs mostly about political and social topics.  At the same time their music earned a reputation for being dense and hard, as in the most densely layered in all of hip-hop.  At the peak of their fame in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they were deemed controversial by some — partly a conscious strategy —  and became embroiled in quite a few scandals — some deserved and some not.  As much as they tried to make intelligent music, sometimes looking back it doesn’t seem as intelligent as it aims to be (though usually it is).  They have survived for decades, innovated hip-hop music and various music production and distribution techniques, and fallen off from widespread public consciousness in later years.  Chuck D has engaged in various other projects, from speaking at conferences to TV hosting and more, and Flavor Flav starred in a number of “reality” TV shows (“The Surreal Life,” “Strange Love,” and “Flavor of Love”), a short-lived sitcom (“Under One Roof”) and launched some restaurants (he is a trained chef) that quickly closed.  Chuck D has maintained an anti-drugs (including anti-alcohol) approach, though Flavor Flav has had many drug abuse problems and his TV appearances are rather at odds with the core of Public Enemy’s artistic stance.  And yet, given that Chuck D has said that Flavor Flav “is the street,” the group’s willingness to include someone from a different sort of background faced with attendant challenges is worthy of respect.  The group was (and is) more than just Chuck (the MC) and Flavor (the hype man), though a self-serving (unaccountable and even hypocritical) opacity falls across much of their work as to who is involved (or not involved) in actually making the music on recordings — the credits that follow are accordingly incomplete.  There have been falling-outs, bitter rivalries, members ejected then later brought back, new members absorbed — accounts of those happenings vary widely and former members disagree with a few of the “official” accounts.  Technically, Chuck D and Flavor Flav are the band, in terms of who signs the contracts, and the others are their employees.  Professor Griff was forced out in the early 1990s, but he returned seven years later.  Hank Shocklee was perhaps the major innovator in terms of producing the beats on records from the band’s peak, through a combination of legal issues related to sampling, theft of the vinyl the band used for samples, and differences of opinion about whose contributions made the band successful, he left in the early 1990s.  Whether directly related or not, the band only briefly maintained both commercial and critical appeal following that split.  Then in 2020 even Flavor Flav and Chuck D got into a dispute, with Chuck’s faction performing as “Public Enemy Radio”.  And, despite all this, PE has made good music decades after they formed.  Most interestingly, they have taken bold steps to maintain independence from the corporate, major-label music world while still touring and recording.  There are few hip-hop acts as long-lived or as deeply beloved by fans.


⊕⊕⊕ = top-tier; an essential
⊕⊕ = second-tier; enjoyable but more for the confirmed fan; worthwhile after you’ve explored the essentials and still want more
⊕ = third-tier; a lesser album, for completists, with perhaps only one or so notable songs

Continue reading “Don’t Believe the Hype: A Guide to Public Enemy”

Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet

Fear of a Black Planet

Public EnemyFear of a Black Planet Def Jam CK 45413 (1990)

Fear of a Black Planet is still considered a watershed hip-hop album.  It was meticulously sequenced.  At a time when cassette tapes were a common format for releasing commercial musical recordings, this album was put together so that each side was essentially the same length (down to a matter of mere seconds), so that there was minimal silent runout at the end of one side of the tape (a byproduct of having sides of unequal length).  The use of non-musical recordings also took a big leap here.  Public Enemy had already done some of this on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, but now the skits were more elaborate and the excepts from mainstream media commenting on Public Enemy (“Incident at 66.6 FM”) were extended and clearly positioned to coincide with the provocative messages of the new songs.  These weren’t just isolated songs thrown together haphazardly, like in the early days of LP records when 45 RPM singles still held commercial dominance.  This was a cohesive album-length statement.

The band’s popularity was at an all-time high when Fear of a Black Planet dropped, thanks in large part to a hit song, “Fight the Power,” used in the Spike Lee movie Do the Right Thing and released as a single and soundtrack cut during the prior year.  Lee also directed a music video for the song — this also still being the height of popularity for MTV and music videos as promotional (and artistic) devices.  It is one of the most blunt statements of what the band’s music is about.  The thundering, irregular bass line, like a modern Bo Dilddley beat, is set against a metallic wash of noise, and an array of disjointed drum beats.  There is scratching and little snippets of vocals and keyboards too.  The lyrics go a little overboard, but they make a point that is not to far off from what the #blacklivesmatter movement would be about decades later.

Just to give a sense of what Public Enemy’s music meant around this time, here’s a story from Boots Riley of The Coup in Tell Homeland Security — We Are the Bomb (2015):

“A woman named Rossy Hawkins and her two twin sons who were eight years old got beat down, bloodied by the police in the Double Rock projects [of San Francisco].  The neighborhood immediately came out, hundreds of people, and surrounded the police.  What had happened a week or two before was a guy had gotten beaten up by the police and been taken in the police car and driven around until he died — because they didn’t take him to the hospital.  So people wanted to get Rossy and her kids away from the police and take her to the hospital because they feared for her life.  So they surrounded the police, and the police got scared and started shooting up in the air.  ***  And everybody ran away.  But at a certain point everybody turned around.  They turned around and came back, got Rossy and her kids away from the police, and sent those police out without their car.  The car was turned over.

“So two things.  One, none of this was put in any mainstream newspapers or anything like that the next day.  ***  And the other thing that happened is that what made everyone turn around was this:  It was the summer of 1989, and the number-one song on the radio was ‘Fight the Power’ by Public Enemy.  And somebody started chanting ‘Fight the power, fight the power, fight the power.’  And everyone said that then is when they knew that they all had a job to do.

“When that story was being told to me that day is when I realized the power that music could have, that hip-hop could be a rallying cry that consolidates our ideas into action.”

As inspiring as this was to Boots Riley, Public Enemy were (rightly) perceived as a threat to an established system of oppression.  Touring in late 1990 in support of the album, PE appeared at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom in late December with rock band Sonic Youth opening.  Following the show a police riot erupted.

Public Enemy was, for the most part, still a large collective at the time that Fear of a Black Planet was recorded and released.  Hank Shocklee had helped work up a lot of the songs on the album, some of which had percolated for years before being recorded, but he wasn’t directly involved in the production for the album.  It is still an album made in his style, with some constraints and omissions with regard to his predilections for unconstrained raw noise and atonality.  But given his lack of involvement, the name “The Bomb Squad” was coined as the production credit for PE recordings.  Calling the production team by that name obscured — quite intentionally — who was really involved.  Although a conscious strategy by Chuck D, this became kind of a contradiction in Public Enemy’s message.  They seemed like hypocrites by deceiving fans this way.  Yet, they still delivered some amazing songs.  Hank’s brother Keith stepped up.  He wrote “Brothers Gonna Work It Out,” one of the band’s best songs anywhere.  Professor Griff had also been booted from the band after a media dust-up about anti-semitic comments (despite his lack of involvement, his photo appears in the liner notes).  He would return in the late 1990s though. This was another semi-hypocritical move by the band.  Rather than stand together, and assert that Griff was not anti-semitic but rather made a mistake when caught off-guard as the result of typical anti-black “gotcha” journalism — during the black power movement journalists would often quote only the one extremist statement made in passing during hour-long speeches, to try to discredit black leaders with much to say.

The departures of Hank Shocklee and Professor Griff would have a big impact on the band in the coming years.  But for a time, inertia (and the efforts of the remaining crew) kept the band going full speed.

This may not be It Takes a National of Millions to Hold Us Back, but nothing is, and this comes as close as anything.  Well, truthfully, albums like this didn’t come along much in later years for one glaring reason.  A legal crackdown on sampling arrived just after Fear of a Black Planet, which effectively ended hip-hop of this sort — for instance, by some calculations, the cost of royalties (a contested topic by itself) for the samples on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back would have meant the band (and its label) would lose over $4 (US) on every copy sold.  There was nothing inevitable about the sampling crackdown, which could have been ruled a “transformative” fair use, and therefore not copyright infringement.  In the end, the legal battle was political.  The courts sided with the “vested interests” (to use economist Thorstein Veblen‘s term), meaning that what was effectively a new and unprecedented art form would be subordinated to the interests of self-important has-beens, greedy absentee owners of intellectual property rights who own large back catalogs of recordings, and lazy heirs and estate trustees.

“911 Is a Joke” was the song Flavor Flav delivered for the album.  It might be his very best.  His rhythm is impeccable.  He delivers his lines with his usual prankster humor, though the subject matter is actually incisive social commentary (about public emergency services being withheld from or limited in black neighborhoods for racist reasons).  Flav delivers “Can’t Do Nuttin’ for Ya Man,” which is a good song that occasionally shows up on compilations but lacks the benefits of the social commentary of “911 Is a Joke.”

“Welcome to the Terrordome” (probably a reference to the 1985 film Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome) is one of the harder-hitting tunes.  A looping, siren-like wail drones on through much of the song, setting a kind of baseline level of aggression.  Chuck D sounds absolutely fierce on the mic.

Fear of a Black Planet comes across as a very premeditated sort of album.  There is nothing that happens on this record that isn’t planned and then executed precisely.  It can be a bit exhausting, but it is just as exhilarating.

Public Enemy – Live From Metropolis Studios

Live From Metropolis Studios

Public EnemyLive From Metropolis Studios Universal 00602547228819 (2015)

If Public Enemy seemed to shun major labels in their later years, then Live From Metropolis Studios is an about-face.  Still, it’s a pretty strong album, recorded live in a studio before an audience of about 125, and is helped by a “greatest hits live” format (like, ahem, Fight the Power! Greatest Hits Live!; there is nothing from their recent studio album Man Plans God Laughs) and hi-fidelity made possible by the “studio” setting.  If live hip-hop usually only makes sense in person, with the energy of the interaction between the performers and the crowd fueling the experience, then live hip-hop recordings are often simply weak approximations of studio counterparts.  Of course, DJ scratching can take on a bigger, or at least different, role in a live setting.  But the real promise of recordings of live hip-hop is the use of a live backing band.  With Public Enemy, that means The baNNed, featuring Khari Wynn on guitar, Davy DMX on bass, and T-Bone Motta on drums.  Those guys lend some pretty tough punk/metal shadings to renditions of classics like “Black Steel in the Hour [of Chaos]” (which is performed sort of as a medley with snippets of songs like “MKLVFKWR” and “Do You Wanna Go Our Way???” worked in), “Shut Em Down” and “Harder Than You Think.”

Recorded in London in 2014, only part of the PE group is present.  Professor Griff is absent, and only Pop Diesel and James Bomb from S1Ws made the trip.  Although Terminator X reappeared on Man Plans God Laughs (his first recordings with the group in over 15 years), only DJ Lord appears here.

London is a special place for PE.  In the late 1980s they toured there, before they really broke to wide audiences, and snippets from London concerts were prominently featured on their classic It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.

This album is a nice opportunity for old PW fans to catch up with the band, and hear a select few of their newer tunes of the last decade or so that they may have missed, and maybe there’s an off chance that younger listeners might tune in to one of hip-hop’s greatest acts for the first time.

Public Enemy – Revolverlution


Public EnemyRevolverlution SLAMjamz/Koch 238 388-2 (2002)

The year 1999 was pivotal for Public Enemy.  That was when they committed themselves to being an independent act, releasing music on Chuck D‘s own SLAMjamz label (distributed by Koch).  Yet, the price paid for independence from corporate media is the near total critical/radio/etc. indifference that goes with a minuscule marketing budget.  Their sound changed a bit too, gravitating toward more live instrumentation — they had done that before but now it was a leaner, guitar-driven approach — and using rhythm rather than shrieking noise to create a sense of aggression and urgency.

This starts off strong.  “Revolverlution” and “Gotta Give the Peeps What They Need” are some of the best offerings of the new material.  But the nagging thing about this album is that it isn’t all new material, exactly.  There are live tracks, old interviews and radio announcements, and remixes.  All these things are intermingled.  Now, some of the miscellaneous live and remix material is quite decent. (“Welcome to the Terrordome (LIVE Winterthur Switzerland 1992),” “B Side Wins Again (Scattershot Remix)”).  But there are only a handful of really compelling cuts across the whole album, and there is plenty of rather dubious filler.

Revolverlution is perhaps the group’s album with the most input from “minister of information” Professor Griff.  He is the lead MC on “Now A’Daze” and the rather good metal/hip-hop hybrid “What Good Is a Bomb” with 7th Octave.  In the past it was somewhat hard to tell what Griff contributed to recordings, specifically, but here his contributions are unmistakable.

Neil Young gave an interview talking about Living With War, his album indicting war in Iraq and President George W. Bush’s global “war on terror”.  He said he wondered where people like Bob Dylan were on those issues and felt like he had to do it himself.  Well, if old Neil was listening (he probably wasn’t) he might have noticed that Public Enemy was already making songs about just those topics (“Son of a Bush”).  The philosopher Hannah Arendt famously wrote about the trial of a Nazi officer Adolph Eichmann after WWII by coining the phrase “the banality of evil.”  As Judith Butler summed up Arendt’s concept, “that for which she faulted Eichmann was his failure to be critical of positive law, that is, a failure to take distance from the requirements that law and policy imposed upon him; in other words, she faults him for his obedience, his lack of critical distance, or his failure to think.”  If there is one characteristic that would define Public Enemy in their later years, it was that they tried harder than before to be the band that didn’t let things go, but did what they could to step outside the machinations of a music industry that they felt was going in the wrong direction, despite the commercial price they paid for their integrity.

The Chuck D has been a vocal proponent of remixes, emphasizing how it is part of an ongoing process of reinterpretation that is really an extension of sampling in hip-hop.  He has claimed that the album format was declining in relevance as digital downloads shifted interest to individual songs — something the group took seriously as the first major act to release an album (There’s a Poison Goin On….) for download online.  Yet, the cynical might take another view and say that the way old raps remain over new beats in these remixes could be a way for Chuck to lionize his own contributions while undermining the legacy of classic beats from producer Hank Shocklee, who acrimoniously split from the group years earlier and was at the center of a disastrous reunion attempt making a soundtrack album.  Anyway, the group had a contest for fans to remix classic PE tracks and the six “winners” are here on this album.  No one will confuse them with classic PE material, though there is at least one successful remix (“B Side Wins Again (Scattershot Remix)”).

Greatest Misses was a kind of precedent for an album like this, with a blend of unreleased material plus remixes and such.  But the former was a much stronger set of remixes, still coming from the band’s peak and involving some of the original (and now legendary) producers.  Revolverlution is one of the band’s weakest albums.  Now, if the group had taken the best new material here used it in place of the weakest stuff on New Whirl Odor or How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul??? (or merging the best selections from all three albums), now that would have been a killer album.  But it is still a good idea to check out a few of the best individual songs here, because they are great.

Power to the People and Beats: The Best of Public Enemy Mix

Public EnemyA virtual playlist of the best of Public Enemy, configured to fit on four CDs.  These aren’t just the obvious choices, though most of those are here too.



Disc 1

It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988) (the album in its entirety)

Disc 2

Fear of a Black Planet (1990) (the album in its entirety)

Disc 3
  1. “Can’t Truss It” from Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black (1991)
  2. “Hazy Shade of Criminal” from Greatest Misses (1992)
  3. “By the Time I Get to Arizona” from Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black (1991)
  4. “I Don’t Wanna Be Called Yo Niga” from Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black (1991)
  5. “Nighttrain” from Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black (1991)
  6. “Whole Lotta Love Goin on in the Middle of Hell” from Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age (1994)
  7. “Live and Undrugged Part 1 & 2” from Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age (1994)
  8. “Bedlam 13:13” from Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age (1994)
  9. “Revolverlution” from Revolverlution (2002)
  10. “Say It Like It Really Is” from The Evil Empire of Everything (2012)
  11. “World Tour Sessions” from There’s a Poison Goin On…. (1998)
  12. “Shut Em Down (Pe-te Rock Mixx)” (1991) (single)
  13. “He Got Game” from He Got Game (1998)
  14. “Give It Up” from Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age (1994)
  15. “Harder Than You Think” from How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul??? (2007)
  16. “I Shall Not Be Moved” from Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp (2012)
  17. “Don’t Give Up the Fight” from The Evil Empire of Everything (2012)
  18. “Electric Slave” from Beats and Places (2006)
Disc 4
  1. “Me to We” from Man Plans God Laughs
  2. “Gotta Do What I Gotta Do” from Greatest Misses (1992)
  3. “I” from There’s a Poison Goin On…. (1998)
  4. “Escapism” from How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul??? (2007)
  5. “See Something, Say Something” from How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul??? (2007)
  6. “… Everything” from The Evil Empire of Everything (2012)
  7. “Watch the Door (Warhammer on Watch Mixx)” from Bring That Beat Back: The Public Enemy Remix Project (2006)
  8. “As Long As the People Got Something to Say” from New Whirl Odor (2005)
  9. “Yo! Bum Rush the Show” from Yo! Bum Rush the Show (1987)
  10. “Public Enemy No. 1” from Yo! Bum Rush the Show (1987)
  11. “Catch the Thrown” from Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp (2012)
  12. “Truth Decay” from Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp (2012)
  13. “Hoovermusic” from Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp (2012)
  14. “Black Steel in the Hour” from Live From Metropolis Studios (2015)
  15. “What Good Is a Bomb” from Revolverlution (2002)
  16. “Honky Talk Rules” from Man Plans God Laughs
  17. “Like It Is” from Beats and Places (2006)

Public Enemy – Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age

Muse Sick‐N‐Hour Mess Age

Public EnemyMuse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age Def Jam 523 362-2 (1994)

The demise of Public Enemy?  Hardly.  Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age certainly heads in a different direction than earlier PE albums, but it still is a worthy album from this seminal group.  It does, however, go on far too long, with a few total duds (“I Ain’t Mad at All”) and more than a few songs that are simply mediocre filler (“Thin Line Between Law & Rape,” the commercials).  Yet the best cuts (“Whole Lotta Love Goin on in the Middle of Hell,” “Live and Undrugged, Parts 1 & 2,” “Give It Up”) are still killer and Chuck D delivers one of his finest performances at album length as a pure rapper.  And, more often than not, the political statements are actually more convincing here than before.  The group had experienced much turmoil in the preceding years.  Significantly, the great crackdown on sampling in hip-hop had begun, creating insurmountable legal barriers to making an album like It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back or even Fear of a Black Planet.  So the beats here rely more on newly-recorded live instruments and something closer to an R&B groove than the early records.  The complaints that this lacks the “sense of unstoppable purpose” the group once had are fair, but really that sense of unstoppable purpose is in the album, just inconsistently and sometimes struggling to find its way past all the barriers put in its path over the prior years.  To put a finger on one of the culprits, you could identify the sameness of some of the bass-heavy grooves as being more stagnant than the unsettling, constantly changing sampled beats of four to six years previous.  Fans of the classic early albums should definitely seek this one out, but the unconverted will probably see it as merely a good album that stops well short of blowing their minds.  If it had been trimmed back ten minutes or so, maybe that would be a different story.

Public Enemy – Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp

Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp

Public EnemyMost of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp Enemy Records ERSD002LC (2012)

It would be easy to write off Public Enemy as a hip-hop group long past its time of relevance, but that would be a mistake.  Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp, released in the group’s third decade (and 25 years after their debut album), is about as relevant as anything in hip hop.  There is only one dud (“Rltk”).  The rest might not feature anything as powerfully catchy as their biggest hits of their early days.  Still, the simple, utilitarian beats get the job done.  The group isn’t innovating when it comes to beats — if anything, they are looking backwards somewhat, more so than on The Evil Empire of Everything released the same summer.  Yet these are the sorts of beats that made hip-hop what it is, providing a hardness that provides momentum, and most importantly are ones that fit the talents of the MCs and the message they have to offer.  Chuck D is still one of the smartest and most compelling lyricists in the genre.  On “Truth Decay” he raps, “The truth dies while lies make a living.”  And on “”I Shall Not Be Moved” he goes on about the “senior circuit” in a funny way.  Sure, it might help if he (and the rest of PE) was a little more of a feminist and less prone to advocate for the Nation of Islam, but those are petty quibbles.  On the interludes that talk about “heroes” that should be on stamps, as referenced in the album title (which quotes a lyric from their iconic 1989 song “Fight the Power”), that statement has to be qualified quite a bit.  Without speaking for S1W James Bomb, who wrote and performs the spoken parts, he has to concede that Malcolm X was on a U.S. stamp issued in 1999 (Chuck D cites Malcolm X as a hero on some notes to the album).  When Elijah Muhammad is mentioned on “…Don’t Appear on No Stamps (Part I)” as “one of the great ones,” well, it is hard to agree agree — Elijah Muhammad deserves that honor as much as Richard Nixon, which is to say not at all.  But this is really the wrong way to look at the album title, and the interludes of the same name.  The point is that there are a lot of heroes out there and they aren’t all celebrities.  Chuck D raps, “To some of my heroes/ be most of y’all’s foes,” going on to mention “Belafontes to Bikos / some dying incognegro / Che, Chávezes and Castros.”  Flavor Flav name-checks Huey P. Newton, H. Rap Brown, Marcus Garvey, Angela Davis, C. Delores Tucker, Cynthia McKinney. And those are just a few.  Harvey Milk, John Brown, Leonard Peltier, Subcomandante Marcos and others are mentioned too.

Future president Jimmy Carter gave a speech to a room full of lawyers on “law day” (an occasion created as a rebuttal to the international workers holiday May Day) in 1974 where he sharply criticized what lawyers do, and how they resisted Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s reforms, and concluded by discussing Leo Tolstoy‘s novel War and Peace:

“And the point of the book is that the course of human events, even the greatest historical events, are not determined by the leaders of a nation or a state, like Presidents or governors or senators.  They are controlled by the combined wisdom and courage and commitment and discernment and unselfishness and compassion and love and idealism of the common ordinary people.”

Public Enemy is saying something similar.  They are all over the Occupy Wall Street slogan the 1% vs. the 99%.  As they put it, “Never have so many been screwed by so few.”  As Chuck D said, “While I like artists like JAYZ and KANYE WEST and consider them giants who are afforded to project their opinion through culture, Its been difficult for me to like and respect their viewpoint in theses times. . I must fight for the balanced art projection of the real side of life as opposed to the fantasy world which most likely cannot be attained by many.”  The liner notes to the album, too, are a history of PE’s efforts to use alternative and independent media, and to escape the clutches of greedy entertainment corporations.

It is great that PE is still around, still making music, and just as committed as ever — maybe more so — to making music that matters.  The group’s heart is in the right place, and just as often their heads and fists are in the right place too.

Public Enemy – It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

Public EnemyIt Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back Def Jam BFW 44303 (1988)

No one could have expected It Takes A Nation of Millions. It was too much of an album to expect.  Chuck D packs thought provoking messages into a bomb he detonates before you. It Takes A Nation of Millions wakes listeners to a whole new level of consciousness.

Flavor Flav was out there. Complete with clock (though Chuck D still wore one too), he was the wild card that made Public Enemy work. His crazy rhymes kept coming. He injected a different sense of rhythm into the whole. It was an attack from many sides as long as Flavor Flav was there.

Terminator X, Professor Griff and the others tend to be forgotten, as they aren’t even on the album cover. They were critical. Terminator X’s (and Johnny Juice‘s) aggressive scratches and the hard beats of The Bomb Squad were relentless. Looping again and again, the most powerful elements were isolated. The push was overpowering. Public Enemy had a sound that might have been a lot of things, but it certainly could not be ignored. It Takes A Nation of Millions dominates as long as it is playing.

The density of what is on a Public Enemy record had roots, but this was a new kind of concentration. Miles DavisOn the Corner provided the layered street funk attitude. The harsh beats and fondness for raw noise resembled industrial music too (for instance, Mark Stewart‘s As the Veneer of Democracy Starts to Fade, Ministry).  As Michael Denning wrote in Noise Uprising about early sound recordings just before the Great Depression, “If noise is unwanted sound, interference, sound out of place, it is also a powerful human weapon, a violent breaking of the sonic order. *** In this frame, these musics represented the refusal of deference, the assertion of noise for noise’s sake, the singing of the subaltern . . . .”  This revolutionary attitude also — even if by chance — echoed punks like The Pop Group. Public Enemy sorted through every possibility to direct their efforts. They created chaos as needed, and could cut through it at will. Chuck D and his crew had control. That was the difference. They weren’t held back by the ordinary expectations of continuing to build on the past. It was more about striking out in the proper direction. Working with exactly the same sounds other musicians used, Public Enemy used them as ammunition to make sure their path was clear.

There is definitely a surplus of ideas here.  There is more in a single song here than in many artists’ whole careers.  Public Enemy works very hard to put so much across in every song.  It helped, perhaps, that the band was so large. There were many talents to draw on.

It is also obligatory to mention that this was a record made before the advent of sample clearing.  So no one makes them this way anymore.  Not that anyone really did at the time either.  When jazz pianist Cecil Taylor got started he did something unique, but it wasn’t long before he ratcheted up the speed and complexity by a factor of ten.  It is like that here.  Run-D.M.C. and the early hip-hop pioneers were no doubt influences and precedents, but It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back took all that and delivered it at hyperspeed.  If that weren’t enough, all the samples come at the listener in a barrage of noise, squawking repetition and booming thuds.  The samples draw on history, allusion and implied meaning, but also refuse to simply restate existing meaning, instead insisting on imposing further meaning.  Put another way, PE and the Bomb Squad didn’t just appropriate the proven appeal of the material they sampled, but took that as merely a starting point, a contextual reference point, to fashion something of their own that had significance beyond that of the sample.

The band uses the samples in a way that really creates a platform for the political messages.  Although the harshness and aggression of the beats seems like a way to frighten listeners, it was also a way to draw in the willing.  Like heavy metal?  Well, PE threw out some metal samples, but just shards and slivers, enough to make a listener who is into it find some common ground, but only enough to catch her attention and propose a deeper connection.  It is the same for the vintage soul and funk samples.  They provided some basis for their stance too.  There is rapping about not believing the hype, but they also include a snippet of a radio DJ calling them “suckers”.  And when building momentum, they play a live recording from a London show.  This wasn’t just a bunch of conclusory opinions.  This is an album that makes the effort to provide some evidence to contextualize its stances.  But what really made this band — and this album in particular — so special was that they built everything from very elemental concepts.  Chuck D and the Bomb Squad didn’t just present political programs, they built them up from more fundamental positions.  They get into deeper, abstract philosophical questions, and their political stance unfolds from them.

Public Enemy was self-aware of their own controversial status in the music industry.  This comes to a head on songs like “Don’t Believe the Hype.”  They engage this controversy, without defining themselves entirely by it or dismissing it outright.  They don’t get caught up in merely self-referential excess either.

One of the great albums of its day, or any, It Takes A Nation of Millions raised the bar. Public Enemy were an exceedingly intelligent group. It was the minds behind the music that made the album. They still focused all their attention on being levelheaded champions of their people. Fuck the finer points, it’s just good to listen to.