Public Enemy’s classic album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back is about to turn 30 and Getintothis’ Banjo looks into their back catalogue.
Public Enemy burst into the public consciousness in 1987 with their debut album Yo! Bum Rush the Show.
Although the album failed to chart in the UK and only made it to 125 in the US, it created ripples throughout the music industry like no other album since Sex Pistol’s debut ten years earlier.
Its impact was immediate and massive. The NME marked it 9/10 and made it their album of the year, while Melody Maker responded by saying ‘It wasn’t just a new sound, a discovery. It was like being struck by a meteor’
The album ushered hip hop into the public consciousness, with all its attendant controversy and philosophy. The NME put Public Enemy on their front cover, declaring them ‘the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world’ and setting the scene for what became known as The Hip Hop Wars, where the paper’s staff were bitterly divided on PE and whether the paper should even feature Hip Hop in its pages.
Incendiary as their debut album was, nothing could prepare us for what came next. Their second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, was where Public Enemy truly crystallised their sound, their message and their reason for being. The Bomb Squad‘s production was incendiary and Chuck D’s lyrics were equally as inflammatory. Everything came together perfectly in one package – Public Enemy had arrived.
Now getting ready for its 30th Birthday, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was the world’s first great hip hop album. There have undoubtedly been more since, and it was far from the first hip hop album to be released, but all hip hop that came after can be traced back to this. It was a game changer.
Nation of Millions has lost none of its fire, its energy or its intensity over the last 30 years. While some albums from 30 years ago sound tethered to their time, Public Enemy had created a timeless classic.
From the dense, multi-layered production to its conscious lyrics to its creative use of sampling, at last hip hop had an album that gave it credibility on a world stage. PE‘s righteous anger was now being broadcast across the whole world,
Their gigs were also controversial affairs, with PE’s bodyguards, the Security of the First World, patrolling the stage and armed with Uzis.
Third album Fear of a Black Planet was, quite simply, a masterpiece. A dense, brooding, vital reflection of the world they found themselves in, this became their defining record and sold over two million copies in the US alone. In 2003 it was deemed to have such importance that it was added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry.
In 1992, Public Enemy became the first black band to headline Reading Festival, giving what was one of the greatest gigs this writer has ever witnessed.
On a personal note, my own conversion to Public Enemy came about when I asked about Fear of a Black Planet in a local record shop. The person behind the counter, who had been singing their praises, took a cassingle (remember them?) from the shelves, stuck some sellotape over the security tabs, recorded 4 PE tracks over the single and gave it to me. I took it home and cranked up Welcome to the Terrordome as loud as it would go and the experience was an epiphany to me. Chuck D’s lyrics were like little grenades going off in my mind, providing me with a viewpoint that I’d never had before and making points of justified anger against the powers of oppression.
For example, 911 is a Joke referred to the fact that ambulances in America took longer to respond to calls from black neighbourhoods than they did for their white equivalent. This was something that I, as a middle class white kid from England, had no experience of, but the directness of the lyrics and their delivery sent the news round the globe and made this fact known to people the world over. No wonder they became known as ‘the black CNN’
Album number four, Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Back, continued this incredible run of form. Tackling topics such as black self-pride, black-on-black violence and use of the word ‘nigga’, the album also introduced Rap Metal to the world, as they collaborated with thrash band Anthrax on a joint cover of Bring the Noize.
A three year gap before their next album stole some of PE’s momentum and meant that rap had moved on in their absence. Gangsta rap had replaced PE’s sonic consciousness as the dominant form of hip hop and from here on their flame started to wane a little.
This isn’t to say that they lost their way or that the fire in their belly waned. In many ways it was a shame that this happened, but this is the way of mass movements. In a similar pattern from a different age, punk’s leading lights and their original sounding angry noise was eventually replaced by dumber, more lowest-common-denominator bands or watered down poppier versions – Hip Hop followed the same path.
As more violent records came out and part of the rap scene was distilled into ‘urban’ pop music, hip hop became the most popular form of music in the world. As the saying has it, pioneers get the arrows while the followers get the gold.
Public Enemy still continued to innovate, becoming early adopters of the Internet download and MP3 albums. Their latest album, 2017’s excellent Nothing is Quick in the Desert, is a free download from their Bandcamp page and came strongly recommended in these very pages on its release.
Their later albums see Public Enemy tone down the drum machines and samplers and operate as a fully fledged band, with a drummer, guitarist, bassist and the whole works. As a result, their sound is more rock based and perhaps has a more organic sound. But the twin attack of Chuck D and Flavor Flav coming at you, whether on record or on stage, will never fail to thrill.
With 15 albums to their credit, choosing just ten songs is something of a challenge.
And while it is easy to focus on their glory days, this would be doing them a disservice and ignoring a huge amount of excellent records. So if we have missed out on some classics then we apologise, but choosing ten songs from these fourteen albums means that, by necessity, some whole albums must be overlooked. Personally I would be quite happy to make this a Top 100, but then once Public Enemy got their hooks in me, I was there for the long haul.
- He Got game (from the album He Got Game)
Centered around a sample of the guitar harmonics from Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth, He Got Game comes from Public Enemy’s soundtrack to Denzel Washington’s film of the same name. The sample from such a 60’s hippy standard gives the song a feel of De La Soul’s Daisy Age hip hop from the late 80s.
At first listen, this seems like an odd fit, but the song and the groove soon work their way under your skin. Listening back to it now, it sounds like a massive summer hit that somehow got away.
- Do You Wanna Go Our Way (From the album There’s a Poison Going On)
1999’s There’s a Poison Going On is hardly classic Public Enemy. A lot of it’s songs seem to jar rather than flow and instrumentation is sparse, often little more than a drum machine and faint samples or scratching. Do You Wanna Go Our Way however is an absolute stormer! Looking at the state of hip hop as the new millennium dawned, Chuck and Flav seem to despair at what the see around them.
The nihilism and black on black violence of the gansta rap scene leaves Chuck concerned about the future as he asks ‘Why destroy what you love? Look around, surrounded by chalk marks on the ground, where the lost got found’ and wondering ‘Who got Biggie, and who shot 2Pac? What’s forgot? Ain’t no Eazy, no Scott La Rock’ For a band concerned with black rights and empowerment, these were troubling times.
But Public Enemy, as ever, seem at their strongest when the forces of the world seem stacked against them.
- Lost at Birth (From the album Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black)
Still on a roll, PE’s underrated 4th album, Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black, is, to these ears, yet another stone cold classic. Lost at Birth revolves around a wailing siren-like noise high in the mix and introduces the band members one at a time.
Often used as an intro to their gigs, with each member arriving on stage for their intro and standing stock still until the song started properly with Chuck D announcing ‘Clear the way for the prophets of rage’
Public Enemy have long had a knack for opening their albums with a killer intro, and Lost at Birth is possibly the best example of this, setting the scene for another incendiary album.
- Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos (From the album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back)
Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos nicely demonstrates PE’s approach to their songs at the time, whereby the music is taut and focused and the lyrics are the main aural focal point. Dealing with a scenario where Chuck D refuses to be drafted into the US army and is jailed as a result. The points come thick and fast as Chuck raps ‘They wanted me for the army or whatever, picture me given’ a damn, I said never’ and ‘they could not understand that I’m a black man and I could never be a veteran’
Instead, Chuck enlists the Security of the First World to spring him from prison and, again, lyrically sets himself directly the powers that be that would keep him, and all people in his position, firmly stamped down.
Towards the end of the song, Chuck inadvertently sums up his whole persona and reason for being in Public Enemy – ‘I’m a rebel so I rebel’
- 911 Is A Joke (From the album Fear of a Black Planet)
Even before his journey into reality TV show fame, Flavor Flav has always been someone you either love or hate. Fans of Public Enemy’s essential message sometimes see him as something of a distraction, a court jester whose comic interludes and on stage antics distract from the points being made. Those who love him see him as some welcome light relief, a breathing space. His role as difficult to identify but still as essential as that of Bez’s role in the Happy Mondays.
But even his sternest critics can see that his performance on 911 Is A Joke provides an absolute classic PE moment. As mentioned above, this song looks at the fact that that response times for ambulances called out to black neighbourhoods took longer to arrive than they did for white ones, and again the flame of righteous anger burns through the lyrics.
The chorus that sees Flav rapping a stuttering ‘Git up a git git a git down, 911’s a joke in yo town’ became a massive part of the 90’s cultural lexicon. It became a vocal riff that you heard people singing at gigs and festivals the country over. Faith No More co-opted this line into their live shows, notably at their 1990 Reading Festival appearance. 911 Is A Joke was everywhere.
Not that this detracts from the song’s valid points or the success in which Flav’s rap brought this to the world’s attention. Yet again, Public Enemy were broadcasting their news to the world.
- Harder Than You Think (From the album How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul)
Public Enemy are one of those acts who, when you might think their peak has passed and they are treading water to maintain a career, suddenly blindside you with a brilliant album and yet another classic song. Like Iggy Pop with his stunning late career masterpiece Preliminaires, PE’s How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul album is such a record.
Harder Than You Think sounds massive! A classic soul horn section riff forms the song’s hook, and Chuck D proclaims ‘‘Fight the Power comes with great responsibility. F tha police, but who’s stopping you from killing me?’ On Harder Than You Think, D again sounds urgent and informed, the fire in his belly and concern for his beloved rap music still burning bright despite the passing of years.
Harder Than You Think is the kind of song you are likely to hear as part of a modern film soundtrack, and one that will stop you in your tracks and make you wonder just who the hell is making that glorious noise.
- Louder Than a Bomb (From the album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back)
Louder Than a Bomb is everything that is good about Public Enemy distilled into one single song.
After a slow build up gives way to huge beats kicking in and Chuck D imparting his wisdom as only he can. The man has an enviable knack of writing a catchy hook for his raps that ensure they stay in the brain. Lyrically, Louder Than a Bomb is concerned with PE being monitored by the FBI. Given the level of concern they were generating in America, I would be amazed if this wasn’t the case.
But on the other hand, the fact that the FBI should concern themselves with a rap group speaks volumes about the effect this’ black CNN’ had on the authorities. This was a viewpoint that had never had such a worldwide platform before, and it was being broadcast to the world uncensored. As D states on the song ‘Tapping my phone, whose crew’s abused? I stand accused of doing harm ‘cos I’m louder than a bomb’
Louder Than a Bomb also sees Chuck tell us about his initial; ‘The D is for Dangerous.’ You better believe it.
- Fight The Power
People may be surprised that this stormer of a song did not make it to No 1. Written for the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Fight The Power is probably Public Enemy’s best known song and the one that is most recognisably them. Quite simply, Fight the Power changed the face of hip hop as we know it.
The lead single from Fear of a Black Planet, Fight the Power signalled that Public Enemy had moved on once again. A punchy, powerful track, Fight the Power again caused controversy, this time not least with the line ‘Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me’
This dismissing of one of the USA’s most sacred cultural icons caused acres of press across the land, but signaled that here was a music that owed nothing to the line that was then drawn from early rock n roll to all modern music. With that one line, Public Enemy told the world that hip hop had no allegiance to the age old tradition that something new was taking over. Chuck D followed it up by asserting that, unlike Presley, ‘most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamp.’
Seldom has anger seemed so righteous and targeted.
- Welcome to the Terrordome (From the album Fear of a Black Planet)
An uncomfortable song, full of background noise and tension, Welcome to the Terrordome tells of how life was in the PE camp at that time.
The paranoia inside Public Enemy makes its way to Terrordome’s taut grooves, this was not an easy time for the group. The band compared the troubles facing the black population to The Holocaust, thereby attracting much controversy and some condemnation, and later founder member Professor Griff was removed from the line up after one too many controversial and anti-Semitic comments, such as when he told the Washington Times that ‘Jews are wicked. And we can prove this.’
The line ‘Still they got me like Jesus’ was cited as proof of further anti-Semitic feelings still left within their ranks.
Griff brought a genuine sense of menace to Public Enemy and was a committed, fierce and intelligent foil to Chuck D in a way that Flav’s comic sidekick role could never fill. For the first time, PE’s controversial views were coming back to bite them.
The Bomb Squad’s production here set them streets ahead of the rest of the rap pack. With each new album Public Enemy increased the distance between themselves and their rivals. For a while there, Public Enemy were the only band that mattered.
The atmosphere of persecution, paranoia and a feeling that there were assembled masses outside the group looking to pounce on any missteps or shortcomings may be likened to that of the Rolling Stones recording Gimme Shelter; maybe there is something in living inside the eye of the storm that brings out the best in some bands. Whatever the catalyst may have been, Welcome to the Terrodome remains one of the high water marks of modern music.
So whether Public Enemy still are still the black CNN or not and regardless of any debate to the current relevance, their place as one of music’s most innovative, influential and downright brilliant bands is beyond question.
Most bands are lucky to create one classic masterwork in their entire careers, so it’s astonishing that Public Enemy managed to create three in succession.That they also gave credibility to a whole new musical movement and inspired a generation of kids across the world to think about things differently puts them into the rarest of categories for a band. Public Enemy changed the world.