Power to the People and the Beats
t Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back tore my head off and messed it up. I bought Public Enemy’s 1988 landmark after reading so much positive press on them and reviews of the album—especially in Spin magazine, thank you John Leland—and this head wasn’t ready for it, but I took off and ran down that path anyway. I didn’t know what I was hearing, exactly, but it changed my life. My musical focus took a hard left, from trad rock guitar-bass-drums and top 40 pop to beat-driven musics, particularly then-still-nascent rap, but also R&B (on the cusp of new jack swing, oh those days) and soon after, techno and house. Yeah, Chuck D, Flavor Flav and Terminator X opened me up and prepared me for acieeed. I had to be broken, musically, out of a 4/4 mentality to get there, and P.E. were the ones to do it. To this day I’ve not heard an album that tops Nation of Millions.
Fear of a Black Planet followed, after which I went back and tracked down their first album, 1987’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show. To my ears, that was three albums and three classics (Yo! was raw, but undeniable and undeniably unique). By the time of Apocalypse ’91… The Enemy Strikes Black—the year that N.W.A.’s Efil4zaggin (in)famously hit #1 on the Billboard pop album chart—Chuck was beginning to sound a little long in the tooth, however, and suddenly the Bomb Squad was no longer behind the boards. They were replaced by the Imperial Grand Ministers of Funk, who may have been protégés of the Bomb Squad, but they weren’t the Bomb Squad, and you could tell. The following year’s Greatest Misses, well, missed, and 1994’s Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age was mostly a mess (I know these summations sound too easy, but the truth hurts sometimes, especially when it’s your heroes). P.E.’s 1998 soundtrack for Spike Lee’s He Got Game signaled a fresh(er) sound and was a success overall, but on it they also sounded like a group out of time.
For better or worse, Public Enemy is now a group trapped in amber. They continue to release new albums, but for most, their relevance and glory days are long behind them. But what relevance, and what glory days! As the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch points out in his liner notes essay,
No one has been able to approach the political power that Public Enemy brought to hip-hop. … PE completely changed the game musically. No one was just putting straight-out noise and atonal synthesizers into hip-hop, mixing elements of James Brown and Miles Davis; no one in hip-hop had ever been this hard, and perhaps no one has since. They made everything else sound clean and happy, and the power of the music perfectly matched the intention of the lyrics.As opposed to bands such as the Velvet Underground, or the Pixies, whose influence, like P.E.’s, far outstrips their Soundscan figures, no one sounds like Public Enemy—and no one really ever has. It would be foolish for anyone to attempt it, without the Bomb Squad behind the boards, without Terminator X behind the decks, without Flavor Flav and Chuck D on the mic. It’s easy to mock Flav these days, and he certainly seems to invite it, but remember that he was the perfect foil for Chuck D, the light to Chuck’s dark, the comic relief, while at the same time the ever-loyal sidekick. Chuck’s one solo album, The Autobiography of Mistachuck, is missing something without Flav there; he’s the yeast in the P.E. batter.
Bomb Squad architects Hank Shocklee and Carl Ryder coproduced P.E.’s debut Yo! Bum Rush the Show with Bill Stephney; Rick Rubin exec produced, and you can tell. This is the infancy of the Bomb Squad sound, with some of the clattering noisiness that was the hallmark of most of Rubin’s production (for the likes of Slayer and the Beastie Boys) at the time: check those screeching car noises scattered across “You’re Gonna Get Yours,” which opens Power to the People and the Beats. Also worth noting is the lack of samples; Shocklee and Sadler are credited with drum and “minimal” synth programming here (with a pre-Living Colour Vernon Reid helping out on guitar). Both “Yours” and “Public Enemy No. 1” are good-not-great tracks gotten over by the power of Chuck D’s voice, which was like nothing in hip-hop.
For all of the shock of the new in the Bomb Squad’s most classic productions for P.E., none of it would matter were it not for Chuck D riding the tracks like Laird Hamilton atop a 50-foot wave. His voice, so deep and booming, resonated with nearly everyone who heard it—and that was before you were even aware of what Chuck was saying. When he let loose the most political diatribes this side of the Last Poets, and combined that with Flav’s court jester, Terminator X’s on-point scratching (so underrated, go ask Invisibl Skratch Piklz and the X-ecutioners), and the production of Shocklee and company, well, the end result was so undeniable it kills me to this day that Public Enemy sold as little as they have (no album of theirs has ever been certified higher than platinum [sales of 1 million U.S.] by the RIAA). The true pioneers, however, are very rarely the superstars. We shouldn’t be surprised.
What can be said that hasn’t already about the singles from Nation of Millions? “Rebel Without A Pause” utterly shocked with its screaming drunken-tea-kettle horns (and to this day sounds like nothing else). “Don’t Believe the Hype” is the closest the album gets to a pop record, or at least accessible. “Prophets of Rage” is a big, beautiful loud soufflé of sound, while “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” is an updated Delta blues for Strong Island (near perfectly covered by Tricky on Maxinquaye). Then there’s the atom bomb of “Bring the Noise.” I rewound the cassette over and over and over, listening as intently as I ever had to anything, while reading the lyric sheet, until I got down not just Chuck’s rapid-fire lyrics but his cadence, his feeling. “Bring the Noise” is quite possibly one of the five or ten most important records ever released…
…Though an equally persuasive argument can be made for “Fight the Power,” which P.E. recorded for Spike Lee’s equally-atom-bomb-like 1989 opus Do the Right Thing. As the song repeatedly pumped out of Radio Raheem’s goliath boombox, and acted as the film’s de facto theme, “Fight the Power” had to ooze urgency, stridency, militancy, and sound like a summer jam for the ages. For Public Enemy, it was no sweat: signed, sealed, delivered (with a little help from Branford Marsalis on sax). “Fight” ended up on the following year’s Fear of a Black Planet, as did its first official single, where Chuck laid it all out for his critics. P.E. had had a rough year, with Professor Griff saying some incredibly stupid and racist things about Jews and Chuck getting caught between wanting to support his brother and not wanting to appear racist (which I still attest he—Chuck—isn’t). Chuck responded like he did best, through song: “Welcome to the Terrordome” doesn’t let up musically nor lyrically, with Chuck utterly refusing to back down (even after taking quite a bit of heat for the “Crucifixion ain’t no fiction … still they got me like Jesus” line).
They seemingly switched gears for “Terrordome”’s follow-up, as “911 Is A Joke” is a seemingly cartoonish 100% Flavor Flav record—but listen to what he’s saying. This is no cartoon; this is a scathing indictment of the emergency services sector (born out greatly by its accompanying video). P.E. just kept a-rollin’; for ‘91’s Apocalypse the aforementioned Imperial Grand Ministers did their best Bomb Squad imitation (which, admittedly, wasn’t bad) on singles like “Can’t Truss It,” with its screeching (and live) horns, and the superbly soupy “By the Time I Get to Arizona” (all fuzz guitar and late-‘60s keyboards), an angry riposte to that state which at that point still wasn’t honoring Dr. King’s birthday as a holiday.
Ultimately, from the pinnacle there’s nowhere to go but down, even for heroes. “Hazy Shade of Criminal,” a new track they tacked onto their odd Greatest Misses comp, just didn’t hold up to the absurdly high standards P.E.’d established for themselves by then. Neither did 1994’s “Give It Up.” But late-period missteps take nothing away from the towering catalog Public Enemy created, as Power to the People and the Beats shows. It’s a bit shocking that Chuck, Flav, and Terminator weren’t properly compiled until 2005, almost 20 years after their genesis, but the album we’re given is a true testament to the power and glory that was Public Enemy. The word is Gods, y’all.