Roosevelt, New York, is a beautiful social experiment gone awry. As post-war urban renewal squeezed black families into towering inner-city housing developments and whites out into their sprawling suburbs, Roosevelt, a hamlet near the south end of western Long Island’s Queens bordering Nassau County, served as a template for suburban integration. Blacks and whites cohabited there for years until real estate agents’ racist scare tactics pushed white families to sell at a loss and funneled new black ones into the same homes at inflated prices. Roosevelt’s methodical transformation would have a profound effect on Nassau local Carlton Ridenhour, better known as Chuck D. On the short trip from home to nearby Adelphi University, where he studied graphic design, Chuck could watch the soft segregated lower-middle-class black community of Roosevelt give way to the golf and country clubs of the affluent, predominantly white Garden City, home to Adelphi and a pair of prestigious prep schools. First-hand experience of the startling power of racialized contempt and a rich education from civil rights activist parents would spark a righteous ire in Chuck that would burn hot and bright in the years that followed.
Public Enemy formed around Chuck’s gig at Adelphi’s student radio station, gaining momentum as he and his friends’ forays into rap music grew increasingly accomplished. The squelching, skeletal “Public Enemy No. 1” won Chuck’s growing collective a fan in Rick Rubin, Def Jam‘s co-founder. Rubin began a lengthy courtship of Chuck, sidekick Flavor Flav, DJ Terminator X and producers Hank Shocklee and Eric Sadler that ended after two years with the group caving and signing to Def Jam. A debut album (1987’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show) and a package tour with Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J followed. The music was boldly gritty, if a touch late to the party, scooped by advances in landmark singles by Big Daddy Kane and Eric B. & Rakim released the same year. The live show was gripping, Chuck and Flav stalking the stage as “Minister of Information” Professor Griff cut in with searing political diatribes and the S1w’s, the group’s security detail, performed silent combat exercises with toy rifles in the background. It was black power theater. It shocked American audiences cold. Concerns about P.E.’s image and intent quickly arose: Were they gangsters? Terrorists? Separatists? Yo! stalled out around 400,000 units sold, a modest turnout in the wake of the Beastie Boys’ blockbuster Licensed to Ill, and Public Enemy entered into a contentious dance with the media that would precipitate their greatest successes and their darkest hardships.
In retrospect, Yo! Bum Rush the Show was a blueprint. What came after it was the work of a well-rehearsed unit keenly aware of its purpose and capabilities. Released the following summer, Public Enemy’s sophomore album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was a brash refinement of the themes of Yo! and a jab at the jaws of detractors, high and low. “Bring the Noise” and “Don’t Believe the Hype” railed against the press, holding up the lurid sensationalism surrounding the group as a warning against trusting anything you read. “Caught, Can We Get a Witness?” is a nightmare where P.E. gets nabbed for sampling. (More on that later.) Nation teemed with a didactic social consciousness too. “She Watch Channel Zero?!” strikes out against junk television, while “Night of the Living Baseheads” addresses the crack epidemic, and “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” leads a draft-dodging conscientious objector through a vengeful jailbreak. Chuck’s booming ministerial baritone sparred with Flav’s piercing yawp in a masterful hero-and-sidekick interplay. The message couldn’t entice the masses without the levity; the levity was gimmicky without revolutionary grit giving it weight.
Nation found a way to expound on the explosive soundscapes of the debut without exhausting listeners or cluttering the mix. Chuck, Sadler, and the Shocklee brothers’ production as the Bomb Squad was as thick as its source material was diverse; it was rap, soul, rock, funk and musique concrète all at once. “Most people were saying that rap music was noise,” Hank Shocklee told Rolling Stone in 1989, “and we decided, ‘If they think it’s noise, let’s show them noise.’” “She Watch Channel Zero?!” pulls its central riff from Slayer’s thrash classic “Angel of Death”. “Night of the Living Baseheads” outfits a stable of trusty James Brown samples with over a dozen assorted soul and rap tidbits and bridges, folding in elements of ESG’s “UFO” and David Bowie’s “Fame”. Snippets of legendary speeches from Jesse Jackson and Malcolm X and stage banter from Public Enemy’s successful European tour formed connective tissue between songs for a unified listening experience that only let up briefly in the middle and finally, at the end. The Bomb Squad built beats like ships in a bottle, delicately stitching tiny pieces of black history into layered blasts of sound. Public Enemy looked and sounded a fright to the uninitiated, but careful attention showed every piece of this black radical machine moving in perfect concert.
Nation of Millions netted Public Enemy the elusive American audience and platinum sales their debut couldn’t, and it changed the face of rap music. The hip-hop landscape of ‘89-’90 was dotted with sample-heavy sons of Nation. Chuck sent early copies of the album out west to Dre and Ice Cube, and N.W.A.’s landmark Straight Outta Compton cropped up like a gangsta rap rejoinder to the Bomb Squad ethos. (Cube would later tap the team for production on his post-N.W.A. solo debut AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted.) De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising and the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique added a playful, psychedelic charm to the proceedings. Nation’s message of black self-sufficiency resonated through the proudly Afrocentric art of A Tribe Called Quest, X Clan, Brand Nubian and more. Beyond the ’80s, the music of Nation of Millions would continue to find new life in unexpected places: Weezer’s 1996 comeback single “El Scorcho” nicked its “I’m the epitome of public enemy” barb from “Don’t Believe the Hype”, and Jay-Z’s 2006 post-retirement salvo “Show Me What You Got” is a nod to Nation’s “Show ‘Em Whatcha Got”. (Without Public Enemy we don’t get Kanye West; in addition to sampling the Long Island legends liberally, Kanye inherited a bit of his fearless politics and kitchen sink beat construction from here.)
Critics warmed to Public Enemy in the wake of It Takes a Nation of Millions but remained suspicious of their political affiliations. “If Farrakhan’s a prophet my dick’s bigger than Don Howland’s,” Village Voice scribe Robert Christgau quipped in a year-end roundup, “but that doesn’t make Nation of Millions anything less than the bravest and most righteous experimental pop of the decade.” Others would be less warm as Professor Griff’s incendiary ethics began to strike sour notes. He publicly accused white America of bestiality during a press-filled gig at Rikers Island in 1988 and voiced a shocking disdain for Jews and gays in various interviews overseas. In the spring of 1989, Washington Times scribe David Mills sat Griff down and coaxed out a rant charged with cold, ugly hate speech that would quickly torch the group’s reputation on both sides of the Atlantic.
Privately, Chuck struggled with how to respond to the controversy. At first, he stood by Griff, then he announced Griff’s expulsion from the group, then, amid a growing media firestorm, he disbanded Public Enemy entirely. The hiatus was short-lived. Spike Lee’s blistering racial relations passion play Do the Right Thing debuted a week after the firestorm with a new Public Enemy song as its theme. “Fight the Power” summarized the mood of both the film and the climate it was released into. It telegraphed the tense discomfort of a New York summer where innocent youth from Central Park to Bensonhurst would pay the ultimate price for being black in the wrong place at the wrong time. By July, the seemingly inactive group had a #1 Billboard rap single, and work was quietly underway on a Nation of Millions follow-up.
Fear of a Black Planet from 1990 made kindling of the previous summer’s anti-Public Enemy sentiment, quoting the group’s biggest critics in interludes and ribbing them in the songs. “Contract on the World Love Jam” weaves negative news reports into a scene-setting intro; later “Incident at 66.6 FM” sets outraged calls from a Chuck D squareoff with New York political radio host Alan Colmes over sedate keys and drums, playing the grumps for squares without even responding to their charges. A late album Terminator X showcase snarkily titled “Leave This Off Your Fuckin Charts” is a tenacious dare. Elsewhere, Fear pulls the camera off P.E. to speak to community issues. “Anti-Nigger Machine” and “Who Stole the Soul?” levied heavy accusations of censorship while “911 Is a Joke” explored black community police mistrust and “Fear of a Black Planet” tackled apprehension about interracial dating. Sourcing Public Enemy’s media struggles back to age-old racial strife was a brash, heavy-handed play, but Fear’s genius trick was coating its righteous rage in music that aimed to groove where earlier songs seemed to want to maim.
Fear of a Black Planet finds the Bomb Squad at the height of their powers, assembling deeply intricate grooves out of infinitesimal building blocks. “Pollywannacracka” cycles through a breakneck array of sounds inside of its first 10 seconds and modulates between spacious verses and a jam-packed chorus, bubbling into bedlam whenever Chuck stops rapping. “Fight the Power” manages to cram over a dozen different samples into five minutes of shockingly smooth funk. What sets these songs apart from the last batch is that their structure was often as varied as their list of ingredients. They didn’t just modulate between similar verses and choruses. These compositions breathed, moved, changed from one refrain to the next, from one second to the next. A new sound showed face on every listen. Fear of a Black Planet deftly stated the case for hip-hop as savvy collage art rather than pastiche. Sure, they borrowed liberally from pre-existing music, but these patchwork symphonies bore scant resemblance to their source material.
It should be noted that none of this can ever happen again. Biz Markie was sued over an unauthorized sample in 1991, and the judge’s ruling required future producers to seek the original artist’s clearance before incorporating a sample into a new composition. Overnight it became forbiddingly difficult and expensive to incorporate even a handful of samples into a new beat. The nightmare of “Caught, Can We Get a Witness?” had become the hard reality. Producers scaled back their creations, often augmenting one choice groove with a bevy of instrumental embellishments. This is how we arrive at the lush live band pomp of West Coast G-funk, the cold synthetics of early 2000s East Coast rap, and the gothic textures of Southern crunk and trap. The early Public Enemy masterpieces remain unique and inimitable now, relics of a world irreparably changed though in a few notable ways, very much the same.
The strife that birthed Nation of Millions and Black Planet is mirrored in some of the upheaval of 2014. The business of hip-hop has changed, as free mixtapes have supplanted retail albums as the chief method of kicking off a rap career. Artistic freedom can evaporate at the drop of a gavel. (see: Lord Finesse’s pursuit of Mac Miller for borrowing a beat on a free release.) Hip-hop has again had its political mettle tested by social injustices too systemic to deny. Returning to It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet for these just-released reissues is an encouraging reminder of what a hip-hop album can be to the world, a peek back at that one time a rap act pissed square into the mouth of adversity and came away unscathed. Hear the drummer get wicked.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1uzHVEp