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Bring That Beat Back

Public Enemy still not surrendering

It’s hard to believe it was 28 years ago that it all began at Adelphi University’s WBAU radio station on Long Island. That’s where Public Enemy, a force that helped make rap music a worldwide phenomenon, first started.

In a few years, Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons’ inked them to Def Jam and the group crafted a crew helmed by the dead-serious Chuck D delivering the message, while the flip of his coin, jester Flavor Flav, brought the light side, Professor Griff and his military-trained S1Ws provided security and a Black Panthers vibe, Terminator X spoke with his hands, and a production crew called the Bomb Squad built beats like studio mad scientists.

Public Enemy became global superstars by bringing the politics to the streets. They were never afraid to make a statement, never afraid to speak up, never afraid to act out. Quite simply, they were never afraid.

Like Miles Davis or Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles or the Clash, Public Enemy were revolutionary. They changed music.

Nearly three decades on, Public Enemy is still at it.

Carlton D. Ridenhour—that unmistakable baritone virtuoso MC who will forever be known as Chuck D—just turned 50. Flavor Flav is a 21st-century superstar not because his records but because of reality television. Terminator X retired to an ostrich farm in the Carolinas 10 years ago.

So what does Public Enemy mean in 2010?

Like the old adage says, you can’t know future if you don’t know the past: Try to take Public Enemy out of the landscape and fabric of hip-hop music and culture. You simply can’t. Not only did they sell millions of records and push hip-hop’s social consciousness and political awareness, they helped change the course of rock and underground music and were even the first major artist to sell a record exclusively online, a good five years ahead of that particular curve.

With a new album slated to be released within the year, the entire crew of Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Professor Griff, the SW1s, and long-standing turntablist DJ Lord (who permanently replaced original DJ Terminator X over a decade ago) are bolstered by an entire live band. They make their first area appearance in over a decade on Wednesday, August 11 at Town Ballroom as the Fear of a Black Plan Tour makes a stop in Buffalo, for what all accounts say is an unforgettable live spectacle.

So does Public Enemy still matter in 2010? I can sum it up in two words: Yeah, boyeeeeeee!

Tables Turn / Suckers Burn To Learn: The Selected Public Enemy Legacy on Wax

Yo! Bum Rush The Show (1987)

PE’s explosive burst onto the scene is not nearly as musically dense or as pointedly politically conscious as the work the crew would be known for; it’s more of a gritty b-boy salvo heavy with street savvy and braggadocio. Still, no one in rap had made a record any like this up to that point. Chuck D does the heavy lifting here and the brother’s Uzi weighs a ton! Musically, it’s the rawest but still sets the blueprint, as illustrated by the lean funk rock of “Sophisticated Bitch” (complete with searing solo from Living Colour’s Vernon Reid) and the sparse electro anti-crack “Megablast.”

It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back (1988)

One of the four or five most important hip-hop records ever made. Many writers, fans, and adherents of the music (this one included) consider it one of the highwater marks of late 20th century music. Of course, it’s not just about the music. It’s a document of the times. A wake-up call of blaring air raid sirens, Nation of Millions is charged with righteous anger, social awareness, and thought-provoking protest, delivering “rhymes politically bold” as Chuck D says on “Louder Than a Bomb.” You can a pull a quote from almost anywhere on the record to sum it up: “Reach the bourgeoisie and rock the boulevard”; “Take a stand, black man!” With tightly meshed production from PE’s house production team, the Bomb Squad, the sonic backdrop often takes the forefront. Stoked by colliding beats, sliced samples, and abstracted hooks from vintage records, the music fits the climate of the rhymes. It’s a front-to-back perfect record: Not a moment is wasted, not a soft track to be found. Nation of Millions opened the floodgates. Not only did political consciousness become key in hip-hop music after this point, it also signaled the beginning of deft, widescreen production of pastiched samples and whole new sonic palate. A single beat or looped hook would simply never cut it again. Look at the cover: Chuck and Flav peer out from behind prison bars. They’re trapped, but they clearly have a plan to get out. Rap music never got bigger or better than this record.

Fear Of A Black Planet (1990)

The follow up to Nation of Millions found the group at war with the world and themselves. Internal struggles, the dismissal of Professor Griff for making anti-Semitic remarks during an interview, and the heat of the spotlight made for another socio-political powder keg of an album. The track and single “Welcome to the Terrordome” is like a state-of-Public-Enemy address meets manifesto for the future with Chuck D in full-on hard rhymer mode. He blasts for over five straight minutes, declaring, “When I get mad I put it down on a pad/Give ya something that ya never had” while the Bomb Squad furiously cuts up a bevy of James Brown samples. In the mix of political furor boiling over, the record digs deep into issues as varied as interracial love (“Pollywannacracka”), Uncle Tomming on the big screen (“Burn Hollywood Burn”), and the failure of first response services (Flavor Flav’s cold lamping comic complaint “911 Is a Joke”). The anthemic “Fight the Power”—the group’s single from the summer before—was tacked on to the end of the record, but naturally it fit well.

Greatest Misses (1992)

Meant as a stop-gap between proper albums, this record of half all new material and half unreleased remixes remains a favorite among hardcore Public Enemy fans. Why? Aside from the fact that it was such an under-the-radar release, it also has some of PE’s most potent material of the 1990s. The dark and lean “Tie Goes to the Runner,” where Chuck has a “rhythm to ride/a thought provoke”; the gritty bounce of “Hit the Road Jack”; Flav getting P-Funk in “Gett Of My Back”; and the basketball morality tale “Air Hoodlum”—all are prime Public Enemy. Add the backside with sly remixes from the legendary likes of Sir Jinx, Chuck Chillout, and the late Jam Master Jay, and it’s clear why Greatest Misses hits big.

Rebirth Of A Nation (2006)

Playing on the title of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 racist epic, PE’s qualified masterpiece, Rebirth of a Nation, is ultimately more of a record by Paris—the lauded, radical left-wing MC/producer from San Francisco who helmed the project—with Public Enemy more the supporting cast and the inspiration. Still, the results make for some of the group’s most fiery and inspired work since the 1990s.

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