Public Enemy: Power to the People and the Beats

[24 October 2005]

By Pierre M. Hamilton

If you say you’re hip-hop, but never took the time to heed the sonic lacerations or the incite-a-riot rhetoric of Public Enemy, you’re not. Public Enemy was the rap group of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. They packed a punch like water cannons fired at full force and unleashed a militant assault on the minds of those stuck in the rut of political apathy. This collection wrests their revolution from yesteryear and condenses 12 years and seven albums into an 18-track manifesto of the sound that erupted from the underground.

Yo! Bum Rush the Show (1987) hit hip-hop upside the head with its political gusto, but this album starts with corny ass MCs glancing up to catch the front end of a ‘98 Oldsmobile barreling down on them (“You’re Gonna Get Yours”). It’s four-plus minutes of squealing tires and lyrical bombast that explodes like a bomb blast over the staccato drumbeats that would define and dominate Public Enemy’s raw aesthetic (as defined by the Bomb Squad).

From there, it’s on to the futuristic tone drone of “Public Enemy No.1” and choice cuts from the album that changed everything abruptly: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back...

“Bass! How low can you go? / Death row, what a brother knows / Once again, back is the incredible, rhyme animal, the thyme animal / The incredible D, Public enemy number one / Five-o said ‘Freeze!’ and I got numb / Can I tell ‘em that I really never had a gun?”

Read it again. “Bring the Noise” was the rallying cry of the rebellion, siphoned through the angriest black man to hijack the mic since Huey Newton and the Black Panthers. Public Enemy was an Afrocentric monolith, a group of grim-faced, clock-wearing militant motherfuckers who, like the Panthers before them, used America’s obsession with guns to threaten revolution by any means necessary. They were a media conscious movement mobilizing a generation to fight the war for the future of Black America.

Songs like “Don’t Believe the Hype”, “Prophets of Hype”, “Rebel Without a Pause”, and “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” prove it. They were revolutionary manuals, anarchist’s cookbooks for black folks—the educational key to fight the powers that be.

Chuck D was ruthless; he attacked the media’s depiction of black and white, bludgeoning the tradition of American heroes in the process. “Elvis was hero to most / But he never meant shit to me, you see / Straight up racist, the sucker was / Simple and plain”, with Flava Flav chiming in, “Mother fuck him and John Wayne!”. But who knew Public Enemy’s attempts to condemn institutionalized racism, explored by Flav on “911 Is a Joke”, would ripple across American televisions a decade later when Kanye West said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”?

It took rap’s most hypocritical MC to see, in New Orleans, the promises of the present ring as hollow as those of the past. So, he vented.

This greatest hits album is channeled frustration, a disc that easily surpasses 2001’s poorly compiled 20th Century Masters: Best of Public Enemy because it includes the group’s most corrosive material (except maybe the incendiary “Burn Hollywood Burn” or “Night of the Living Baseheads”) and tracks Public Enemy as they developed, splintered, and found their message exiled to the fringes.

The voyage ends in 1999 with “He Got Game” (titled after the Spike Lee film scored by Public Enemy). It samples Stephen Stills’s “For What It’s Worth”, features a choir, and the obvious observation is that the hose through which the geyser of Public Enemy’s aggression once spewed is now a soft stream. And while spinning rims and crack still command the attentions of rap fans, it took a hurricane to prove why, after all these years, Public Enemy’s back catalogue retains its relevance with a venomous sting.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/publicenemy-powertothepeople/