I was about 10 years old. It was late summer 1988 – music CD’s were on the market but not everyone, especially in my family’s income bracket, could afford the players for them. It was the Era of the Cassette Tape. Mailboxes were checked often for the Colombia House ordering booklet. “Ghetto Blasters” still perched on quite a few teenage and early-20’s shoulders. My older brother was singing along to the lyrics of a song called “Bring The Noise” by the rap group Public Enemy. I, and my younger brother and sister, had to get permission from my parents and him to listen to anything with explicit lyrics (putting groups like N.W.A. and Too Short in the Forbidden Zone); this song, and a few others on that tape, were relatively clean, so I got the green light to check out the song and the album It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. I became a fan on that day. A little over a year later, my brother bought PE’s Fear Of A Black Planet. I was immediately hooked.
25 years later, I am still hooked.
Public Enemy is not your ‘typical’ Rap group (thankfully!), so their appeal may not match that of, say, Jay-Z, Eminem, or Lil Wayne at their heights. For starters, they don’t have the same recycled triplet flow that 90% of rappers are using these days. Their weaving of original beats and extensive sampling gives them a fresh, unique sound lacking in today’s Rap.
Then there is the political theme to PE’s music.
Public Enemy and some of its members – most notably frontman Chuck D, hype man Flavor Flav, and off-and-on members Sister Soulja and Professor Griff – have found themselves in hot water over both song lyrics and public stances and comments on various topics. The group caught fire for their video response to Arizona’s then-governor canceling a state holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; the video of the song, entitled “By The Time I Get To Arizona”, showed the governor’s limo exploding via a remote-controlled bomb operated by PE. Sister Soulja gained national notoriety for the following comment to the Washington Post in May 1992, regarding the L.A. Race Riots: “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” Professor Griff and Chuck D have both been accused of anti-Semitic lyrics in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.
Despite the controversies, Public Enemy continued to rap about a variety of issues, mainly affecting the Black Community. This is what I think hooked me as a kid; I didn’t hear too many rappers or singers take on the Race Riots in L.A., the problems with beer companies targeting Blacks and Blacks refusal to “put the bottle down, G” (from the song “One Million Bottlebags”), the aforementioned MLK, Jr. elimination in Arizona, or even criticize emergency responders’ time in Black neighborhoods (the song “911 Is A Joke”). Their songs and albums weren’t the hardcore gangsta rap that N.W.A., Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, 8 Ball and MJG, and others were putting out in the early 90’s but it wasn’t exactly the less-threatening, more ‘fun’ rap that Will Smith, The Beastie Boys, Heavy D and the Boyz, or Chubb Rock had out around the same time.
Although It Takes A Nation… was my first exposure to PE, Fear Of A Black Planet was the album that really started my fandom. It is still among my 5 favorite albums by any artist, in any genre. Heck, the name of this blog is the title of one of the singles from that album. “Brothers Gonna Work It Out”, “911 Is A Joke”, “Welcome To The Terrordome”, “Fear Of A Black Planet”, the instrumental “Final Count of the Collision Between Us and the Damned”, and “Fight The Power” pretty much made up the soundtrack of the Summer and Fall of 1990, although I didn’t understand or appreciate the political messages (outside of “Brothers” and “Fight The Power”) until I was a little older. My Public Enemy library expanded when both myself and my brother bought their 1991 release Apocalypse 91…. the Enemy Strikes Black. “Can’t Truss It” (especially for the beat) was my favorite track but “Night train”, “Shut Em Down”, “By The Time I Get To Arizona”, “Get the F*** Outta Dodge”, “1 Million Bottlebags”, and “More News At 11” were also heavily played, rewound, and played again.
Since those early 1990’s summers, I have owned (in some form) over half of Public Enemy’s albums and heard nearly all of them. The subject matters of the songs still intrigue me, perhaps even more so as an adult, including: the public warning about
the upcoming Y2K crash in “Crash” (from There’s A Poison Goin’ On), the dissecting of the George W. Bush presidency and his similarities to his father in “Son Of A Bush” (from Revolverlution), the reluctance of some in the Black community to speak out in “Preachin’ to the Quiet” (from New Whirl Odor), and PE’s protest over celebrating Columbus Day in the song “Hitler Day” (from Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age). The beats, the usage of so many interwoven samples, first started by The Bomb Squad on earlier PE albums, and the music are still a refreshing alternative to the same, stale stuff that’s in a majority of today’s Rap. I have also ‘rediscovered’ It Takes A Nation… and many songs from the soundtrack/album He Got Game.
If I had to put a Top 5 list together of Public Enemy albums that I like (and would recommend to anyone not very familiar with, or new to, PE), it would be:
Honorable Mention: He Got Game (1998)
5. Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age (1994)
4. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988)
3. There’s a Poison Goin’ On (1999; Internet release, originally)
2. Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black (1991)
1. Fear of a Black Planet (1990)
In 2013, Public Enemy became the 4th rap group to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. A well deserving honor for a group that was there near the beginning of Rap, outlasted Gangsta Rap, made it past Material Wealth Crap Rap, and is still producing decent albums with relevant messages.