Public Enemy albums
Public Enemy are one of the giants of rock music and a galvanizing force to be reckoned with. Their approach to music is to hit you over the head with a sledgehammer while nursing you back to health with a dose of truth and a little bit of soul power. Their influences range from classic rock, to the 50’s and 60’s rhythm and blues, to the uprising funk of the 70’s, to the defiant punk, to the new age philosophers. Chuck D, main lyricist and rabid preacher, raps at the listener with the voice of God himself (as Run DMC is quoted as saying) and all of the words he says seem like more like commandments. Without confidence, a band like this could not exist, because the band itself is a movement and gets to the heart of the main reason that rock music exists: to stimulate the ears while educating the mind.
There is an element of surprise to their music as well, as the hard hitting edge of Chuck D is often softened by the exact opposite: the lively, cartoonish banter of Flavor Flav, which often serves as a much needed contrast to the seriousness of their music (simultaneously inventing the hype man persona very prevalent in hip hop music to this day). Not only does the band serve a mighty purpose (make beautiful albums), they rebel while also uniting as all races, colors, and creeds are invited along for the ride. Do not confuse the truths they speak with talk of hate, as that is not the message of this band. Just rebellion against the norm.
I said rock music in that first sentence on purpose. Yes.
Chuck D (Carlton Ridenhour) – Lead Vocals
William Drayton (Flavor Flav) – Lead Vocals
Richard Griffin (Professor Grif) – Vocals
The Bomb Squad (Keith Shocklee, Hank Shocklee and Eric Sadler) – Production, Background Instruments
Terminator X – DJ (1987-1994)
DJ Lord – (1997 – current)
Khari Wynn – Guitars (1999 – current)
Fear of a Black Planet and It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
Run DMC, Parliament / Funkadelic, James Brown, The Beastie Boys, Gil Scott Heron, The Clash
1987 – (4.5 / 5) – Yo! Bum Rush the Show
1988 – (5 / 5)+ – It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
1990 – (5 / 5)+ – Fear of a Black Planet
1991 – (4.5 / 5) – Apocalypse 91: The Empire Strikes Black
1994 – (5 / 5) – Muse Sick N Hour Mess Age
1998 – (3 / 5) – He Got Game
1999 – (2 / 5) – There’s a Poison Going On
Yo Bum Rush the Show – (4.5 / 5)
The first Public Enemy album showed a rap band that was heavily influenced by the rising style, but also had plenty of ideas of their own. The humor of the Beastie Boys meets the hard edge of Grandmaster Flash and Run DMC’s 1986 Raising Hell album, plus a bit of social commentary. Chuck D’s hard hitting presence recalls Grandmaster Flash and George Clinton at their fiercest, while certain songs come across as simply statements to startle the listener. There are the prime singles, some released prior to the full album being completed: “Your Gonna Get Yours” is a blistering opener and a prime example of the mix of heavy metal guitar and rap lyrics that set a new standard for hardcore rap; “Public Enemy Number One” is a mission statement that speaks of being true outsiders against conformity; “My Uzi Weighs A Ton” is an interesting take on gun control, spoken like a true advocate for the John Steinbeck version of a rap song (long winded and full of allegories). Other tunes are similarly succinct, adding to the albums ‘single ready’ posture, “Sophisticated Bitch” and “M.P.E.” being the most hard-hitting and real while showing off the band’s theme of aggressive hate towards lazy people.
The side of the group that makes it an act to be remembered, emphasis on ‘group’, is the production team of Hank Shocklee and Eric Sadler a.k.a. the Bomb Squad. Songs such as “Yo Bum Rush the Show” and “My Uzi Weighs a Ton” are layered with samples and instruments not yet common to hip hop like piano, marimba, saxophones, backwards vocals, and other bits of experimental collage techniques. “Megablast” is a brief albeit shining example of this; an almost a capella tune of dueling vocals preaching against the use of hard drugs by the youth in America. Not every song is a winner, as minor inconstancies include Flavor Flav’s naive “Too Much Posse” and Chuck D’s overwrought “Timebomb”, while closing tune “Terminator X Speaks With his Hands” should have been regulated to b side territory. But still, the debut album is mostly entertaining and even if it lacks a cohesive tone, there is enough hope and positivity in a catchy rap song like “Rightstarter” to influence thousands of young rappers into grabbing the microphone and speaking their minds.
Greatest Songs: Mega Blast, M.P.E., Yo Bum Rush The Show, Rightstarter
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back – (5 / 5)+
While their debut was a step forward for Hip Hop music, but their second album It Takes a Nation of millions to Hold us back was where they proved to be a staying force for change in rock music. The way that Chuck D’s forceful decrees on how to live one’s life mixed with the controlled chaos of The Bomb Squad’s samples and production truly was new to the music world, and that was only part of their genius. While songs such as “Bring the Noise”, “Party for Your Right to Fight”, and “Louder than a Bomb” combine catchy choruses with meaningful lyrics, it would borderline on ‘preachy’ if not for the side comic relief of Flavor Flav, that truly shines in his own song “Cold Lampin’ with the Flavor” and serves as a much needed hype man throughout many others with Chuck D (listen to the contrast between the rappers on “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” and “Don’t Believe the Hype”). This kind of added accessibility is what makes Public enemy shine the brightest of all rap groups of their time, as the band had a great sense of what people WANTED to juxtaposed with what they NEEDED to hear. Few bands have ever achieved such a synthesis.
All twelve songs on the record are solid, mind altering tunes. In lyrics, Chuck D provides ample proof that people should expand their minds (“rock with some pizzazz / it will last /why you ask?”), stay away from entertainment that will try to brainwash them (“revolution in a solution for all of our children but her children don’t mean as much as the show”), and not go with what is popular and fashionable (“Don’t believe the hype / it’s a sequel / as an equal can I get this through to you?”, “caught in the middle and not surrendering / I don’t rhyme for the sake of riddling” – this is probably Chuck D’s defining line and one of the greatest verses of any songwriter). In music, the reparative screeching of the Bomb Squad (“Rebel Without a Pause” and “Terminator X to the Edge of Panic” for the famous tea kettle squeal, one forward and one backwards) is very addictive and threatening at the same time. The innovative techniques used on these songs to cram in as many samples as possible has influenced everything that came after it, in terms of people being lazy and copying it (the gangster rap pop of the early 1990’s) as well as people that leaned from it and expanded on it from DJ Shadow and Massive Attack’s well thought out soundscapes to the Dust Brother’s maximizing the impact on the sample, making it more important than the “lyrics” of a song pushing music towards a sound that is universal and not confined to a genre. After this album, the Supreme Court changed the way musicians could sample songs and while still it was possible for dozens of samples to be easily used, warped, and incorporated into the music for songs, it was rare that HUNDREDS could be used because it was far more regulated and expensive.
The mix of live concert sampled in with the starts or ends of songs is also very effective, as it gives the songs a sense of urgency that would not otherwise exist as well as increasing the flow of the album. The four shorter song snippets rarely over stay their welcome, as “Countdown to Armageddon” and “Security of the First World” add to the ambiance of the record, however “Show Em What You Got” is almost two minutes long and could have been trimmed a bit as it is very repetitive. On the same note, “Caught, Can I get a Witness” is easily the weakest song on the record, trying a bit too hard to push the ‘soul power’ side of the band. Public Enemy is always more interesting when they are being futuristic rather than when they are trying to be retro. But any minor issues are outshined by the amazing, life altering tunes: the Slayer sampling “She Watch Channel Zero”, their manifesto on the anti-drug “Night of the Living Baseheads”, and the closest thing the album has to a power ballad (in a good way) with the prison-horror tale “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” may be the greatest one-two-three song line up on any Hip Hop album; “Prophets of Rage”, “Don’t Believe the Hype” and “Terminator X to the Edge of Panic” are powerful statements that critique a culture that treasures awards and ceremonies over actual substance; and “Party for Your Right to Fight”, “Rebel Without a Pause”, and “Louder Than a Bomb” continue to compact the single ready format of Yo Bum Rush the Show. It is nice when classic records are as good as their reputation, and it is hard to be disappointed by Public Enemy’s second album which still resonates in the present day.
Greatest Songs: Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos, Terminator X to the Edge of Panic, She Watch Channel Zero, Night of the Living Baseheads, Don’t Believe the Hype
Fear of a Black Planet – (5 / 5)+
While their previous record quite literally changed the world and prompted both positive and negative reactions from critics, Fear of a Black Planet is a reaction to any negative opinions they received. Lyrically, Public Enemy responded in kind to any kind of critique about their approach to music, their tendency to speak their minds, and general uneasiness in the black community. Musically, they threw in everything including the kitchen sink. The Bomb Squad take the same approach as It Takes a Nation, but it comes across like they are fulfilling a dare that they had to work harder and pay more for their samples because of the new laws in place, and so everything is twice as thick and layered, twice as dense and sprawling. Basically, it is the previous record but longer in length (a true double album) and instead of having a live album feel there are hundreds of talk show and radio snippets scattered throughout. When I say the album would still be amazing without words AT ALL, it is not meant as a diss on Chuck D and Flavor Flav, because the lyrics are important and as hard hitting as ever and of course they all wrote the structures of the songs together, but The Bomb Squad are what make the album the masterpiece that it is, crafting some form of music collage that recalls the psych rock of the 1960’s and 1970’s such as The Residents, Frank Zappa, and especially George Clinton.
The idea of using negative criticisms as positive sound effects is perfected on this album, and it had been done before but never this well. Even songs that would be counted as short filler tracks are essential to the thread and flow of the album. “Leave This Off Your Fucking Charts” and “Incident at 66.6 fm” are supremely entertaining, as is the beginning of “Anti-Nigga Machine” and “Contract on the World Love Jam”, the best one is using samples of people calling in on a talk show and talking about how much the audience members hated the band on a recent tour. “Pollywannacraka” blends in with the topic of mixing races, musically and sexually, with meaningful insights like “no this young mister / he don’t like sisters / he couldn’t find that special one / he know why he missed her” (sung by Terminator x!) and “Fear of a Black Planet” that tackles the same topic with more of a humorous tone (“excuse me for the news / don’t you know white comes from black / no need to be confused”). “Brothers Gonna Work it Out” is one of the more optimistic songs in the band’s oeuvre, saying that one day there will be peace throughout the world if we all learn to get along. All of these pieces use vocalized overdubs, pitch shifting, backwards guitar, gospel choirs, and bizarre alien sound effects to experiment and contrast with the lyrics.
While half of this massive record is devoted to the controversy of a band like Public Enemy existing in the modern world and finding their place in it, the other half are your typical subject-songs that the band has perfected so well. “911 is a Joke” and “Can’t Do Nothing For Ya Man” are the best songs Flavor Flav EVER did, while the former is still timely to this day and the latter is one of his hilarious nonsensical rambles that have few precedents in rock music (“can’t do nothin’ / nothing fooorrrr yaaa”). “Burn Hollywood Burn” is pure nirvana for people that love good cinema and hate cookie cutter, exploitation films; “Welcome to the Terrordome” is genuinely frightening sonically, with a chorus made up of solid noise, but also about black on black violence; “Power to the People” and “Who Stole the Soul” are chord pleasing anthems and never fail to move; “Revolutionary Generation” is the most underrated song on the record, and a must hear for fans of old school punk music as the duo’s delivery is a classic rousing call (“every single generation / they teach us how to teach our sisters / strange as you say I say revolution / need for change bring the revolution”). This key song paints Public Enemy as true feminists and it is a topic that few other bands have tackled well.
The final side of the record, or the last five songs, are kind of a production masterwork that blend into each other. “Regaee Jax” though “War at 33 and 1/3” can be off putting at first, and do don’t stand out as strong on their own as some of the other single ready songs, but they an integral part of the record and in a way a culmination of the kind of synthesis used on the record. “B-Sides Wins” is probably the stand out of these tunes, but even so Chuck’s voice is super reverbed and blurred out to the point that is comes across as more of a percussive instrument. The final stretch of tunes are murky, dirty, but also groovy and psychedelic and it’s important to note that the album ends this way. The final track is perhaps the greatest rap song ever, an anthem last will stand the test of time – “Fight the Power.” On this track, Chuck and Flavor Flav take back control of the record from the insanity of the production and culminate it all to say never stop fighting for your beliefs and your rights. “Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me” and “most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps” are not so much bold statement as they are personal opinions, which is what the band really fights for. Fear of a Black Planet is the album where all of the right ingredients were used in all the right ways, and it has the distinction of being the band’s most experimental, most popular, and overall best record. Like all great rock legends that are worth hearing, Public Enemy value unique expression above everything else and Fear of a Black Planet exemplifies that better than anything else they ever did.
Greatest Songs: Fight the Power, Revolutionary Generation, Can’t Do Nothin’ for Ya Man, Burn Hollywood Burn, Brother’s Gonna Work It Out, Fear of a Black Planet
Apocalypse 91 – (4.5 / 5)
Like a cooldown after the car has been running too long, Apocalypse 91 is another great record form the unstoppable machine that is Public Enemy that blows away any comparison. The difference this time, is a little bit of wear and tear is visible. It is nice to hear the band embrace the hard rock aspect of their sound more than ever, from the announcement in the lead track “Lost At Birth” that “HARCORE WILL NEVER DIE” or just the intense approach that Chuck D and Flav have to these songs. On the singles front we have some of the most serious of the band’s career with “Can’t Truss It” the story of slavery that still goes on to this day despite what people say, “Shut em Down” which contains another one of my favorite Chuck D lyrics ever (“I like Nike but wait a minute / the neighborhoods are poor so put some money in it”), and the granddaddy of them all, the heavy, fuzz-bass riff “By the Time I get to Arizona” which is a fantasy (?) about killing the then governor of Arizona because he refuses to see Martin Luther King Day as a holiday (which has a music video that has to be seen to be believed). So yeah, they are more extreme than usual on here J There is usually at least a song or two about everyone loving each other on their previous records but not on Apocalypse 91, as anything friendly has been put on the back burner.
The album tracks are a little more experimental in nature than the singles, as “I Don’t Wanna Be Called Your Nigga” is a tirade by Flavor Flav about the use of the N-word in modern society, “One Million Bottlebags” is about how cheap beer and liquor is used to exploit poor people, and the magnificent “How to Kill a Radio Consultant” rivals “Arizona” as an angry rant on payola in the radio business. “Get the F*** Outta Dodge” and “Nighttrain” are other great examples of the band in furious mode, and it is not hard to see Chuck D’s point as even though he’s angry (“I hope the cracker gets crushed / I’m rollin wit the rush / leader of the bum rush”) he is always fair and insightful in his opinions. Sometimes the band forgets to make the music as compelling as the lyrics, as Flav’s “Letter to the New York Post” and “More News at Eleven” are interesting subject matters with hardly any music besides a minute drum track, so they come off as a bit lazy and forgettable. “Move” and “Rebirth” are similarly simple minded, thought the latter is not long enough to drag the album down and contains a lyric about a “TV in a Radio” certainly inspiring that great future band for their name! The lack of humor can be off putting too, as Flav is still on his game but I feel like he is not allowed to be as wild and crazy on this record. Overall, through using simpler song topics and streamlined approach, this is still a killer run of hard hitting, hip hop protest anthems. Apocalypse 91 sums up the fear and paranoia the band saw the world in the early 1990’s, and it’s still fate we are all headed to if we continue in our self-destructive ways.
Greatest Songs: Shut Em’ Down, By the Time I Get to Arizona, How to Kill a Radio Consultant, Night Train
Muse Sick-N-Hour Message – (5 / 5)
Muse Sick N Hour Mess Age is Public Enemy’s most misunderstood album. All great bands have one, and this record has been often criticized as outdated or just out bad and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Everything about it from the production by the always amazing Bomb Squad to the new blend of styles present sounds like a revitalization of sound that needed a revamp. Apocalypse 91, as great as it is, was as far as the band could have gone with that old school sound. They needed a complete rehauling of their sound and a bit of a break, and this album fulfills that promise in every way. There are a couple of things people never point out about this album. For one it is a double album, therefore, like most double albums, it is all over the place and extremely ambitious. The styles of music are just about every kind imaginable, using instruments and elements of jazz, reggae, blues, rock, and soul into their hip hop mix. Another point is how consistent it is. Besides the overlong skit “Death of a Carjacker” and the generic bass-heavy “Aintnuttin Buttersong”, there is not a tune or skit that I would call boring. It really draws you in as an album as it flows from one tune to the next and there is no song that can be considered bad, very similar to Fear of a Black Planet. It is more of a successor to Fear than Apocalypse was, that’s for sure. The dense, impenetrable quality of the album is probably what turns most people off, I don’t think it’s just because gangster rap was getting big or that these guys were being ignored- it’s just that it is a dense, double album.
The songs are similar to the trajectory the rap band was on, and still stand out as pioneers of their unique brand of hip hop. “Bedlam 13:13” and “Hitler Day” are blistering slices of hardcore rap, with a frenzy that is rarely matched by and other band hip hop or otherwise; “Give It Up” and “So What Chu Gonna Do” have that ready for radio kind of charm that P.E. always bring; “What Side You On” and “Race Against Time” ask hard questions about your personal reality with outstanding riffs. The band also has a chance to expand like never before with “Thin Line Between Law and Rape” tackling date rape and featuring a great reggae artist Rochester, “I Stand Accused” featuring a rare Professor Griff performance and his response to being kicked out of the band for the previous 5 years over what the media portrayed as anti-Semitic remarks, and “Godd Complex” features Flavor Flav in a rare serious mode a la “911 is a Joke” and asks about the use of money among the upper class w.a.s.p.s in America (track was actually written by non P.E. member Alafia Pudim). “Hitler Day” in particular makes interesting points on how we as a country celebrate a man who history claims discovered America, but in reality used slaves in very harsh circumstances and brutalized the Native Americans as well; in short Chuck D questions who we consider heroes all in a time before we could use the internet or Wikipedia to be aware of such travesties. “So Whatcha Gone Do Now” in a curious turn of events, tackles African-American culture and how women, drugs, and guns are portrayed in gangster-rap, something Public Enemy is staunchly against; in fact if might be the single best argument against the entire genre of gangster rap, and it is genius in what it says: “Talking that gat talk / walking that catwalk / don’t even go there with that rap / guns drugs and money / is all you know how” and “where I come from see, the brother’s ain’t dumb / sense goes over nonsense.”
The albums 73-minute runtime definitely makes it the band’s longest record, and while it is not quite as compact as Fear of a Black Planet (only compact in compared to this one, haha) it plays kind of like a version of The Clash’s Sandinista to their London Calling (which would be FOABP), another way in which the legendary punk band influenced them. Like Sandinista, Muse Sick is very far reaching politically and emotionally, and people looking to find flaws will undoubtedly find some. The only nit-picks I hear, beyond the ones I mentioned earlier, would be the beginning and ending tunes (“Whole Lotta Love Goin’ On In the Middle of Hell” and Livin’ In a Zoo”, which are still good songs) probably could have been trimmed all together, as the skits leading up to “Give It Up” and after “Hitler Day” would have made fine bookends. Still, there is so much to love about Muse Sick, including the band’s most punishing and intense track lyrically by Chuck D, “Live and Undrugged”, which lasts six minutes and contains more lyrics than any other song the band ever did surely, beyond “Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos” as well as one of the most fun Flavor Flav songs ever in “I Ain’t Mad At All”. It shows a band that is not afraid to be itself and defiant of the trends and to be honest, one of the reasons I started writing reviews in the first place was to defend albums like this against lazy, negative criticisms. White or black, good or evil, love it or hate it, this is the band in its purest form. It is definitely the most intense album the band ever did, and the most abrasive lyrically. I would be surprised if someone told me they were not moved in some way by Muse Sick N Hour Mess Age.
Greatest Songs: So What Cha Gonna Do Now, Live and Undrugged, Hitler Day, Bedlam 13:13, Thin Line Between Law and Rape, I Ain’t Mad at All
-More to come soon, it’s a work in progress guys 😀