[8 August 2006]
Legendary rap group Public Enemy has decided to issue yet another lyrical assault. Public Enemy’s Bring That Beat Back is a ten-song collection showcasing eight remixed gems from the group’s post-Def Jam albums: There’s a Poison Goin’ On (1999), Revolverlution (2002), New Whirl Odor (2005), and Rebirth of a Nation (2006). The exceptions are the superb remix of the classic, “Public Enemy No. 1” (from Public Enemy’s 1987 album Yo! Bumrush the Show) and a “megamix.”
The New Whirl Odor album receives the most remix treatment. Odor‘s “Bring That Beat Back” gets transformed from a catchy pop anthem to a funkier jam in the “Back to the Breakbeats Mixx”. Alternatively, “MKLVFKWR”—the would-be license plate for “Make Love Fuck War”—gets stripped of its sonics in the “DJ Johnny Juice on the Loose Remix”. (Although, with that title, they could easily have made a “Hey, Vanna, Can I Buy a Vowel Mixx?”) Originally big on noise, like the Public Enemy of the late ‘80s and ‘90s, the remix scales the production down to good effect, focusing on the beat (which fits the title of the album) and emphasizing Chuck D’s huge delivery. When Chuck D refers to “grand theft oil” in this version, it hits harder because he doesn’t have to compete against the background for attention.
New Whirl Odor‘s album version of “Superman’s Black in the Building” is a whopping 11 minutes and 50 seconds, built on a bluesy guitar riff. A saxophone joins in near the four-minute mark. At that point, Chuck D philosophizes about the definitions of “heaven” and “hell” before the blues carries the song to conclusion. On Bring That Beat Back, Mauly T’s remix opens with a subdued snippet of “The Star Spangled Banner” and ends with a woman’s brief statement about the conditions in U.S. prisons. Musically, the revision replaces blues with rock flavor, built around guitars that recall those of the Rare Earth. Vocally, the remix adds robotic voices that sound like Roger Troutman. Between Mauly T’s mix and the album version, it’s a toss up as to which is better. Five days out of the week, I’d probably choose the original album version because it’s the more musically daring of the two.
“Gotta Give the Peeps What They Need” and “Put It Up”, both from Revolverlution, get royal treatment as well. “Gotta Give the Peeps What They Need”, as it was originally conceived, brought the wickedest beat around. That beat was strong enough to accommodate vocals by both Chuck D and Paris. Bring That Beat Back‘s “Impossebull Soul Power Posse Mixx” moves faster as it substitutes the wicked drums for an equally wicked bassline. On the other hand, the “Molotov Cocktail Assault Mixx” for “Put It Up”, with its horns and banging chorus, makes the album version seem plain and unfinished.
“Do You Wanna Go Our Way?”, flows better on Bring That Beat Back‘s “23 Skidoo UK Remix” than the original on There’s a Poison Goin’ On. The remix has better bass, groovier music, and fits Chuck D’s laid back flow. However, if anybody had asked me, I probably would have included a song from the under-referenced He Got Game soundtrack (the title track would have worked nicely) in lieu of “Do You Wanna Go Our Way?” Meanwhile, “World Tour Sessions”, also from Poison, gets a foot-tapping remix as well.
Rebirth of a Nation‘s “Watch the Door”, featuring Paris, combined two of hip-hop’s biggest voices. The album version was fine, but the “War Hammer On Watch Mixx” blows it straight out of the water. It’s funkier, and smoother, two adjectives you wouldn’t necessarily associate with Public Enemy. The usual associations are “rough” and “loud.”
Finally, the last track—the “supermixx”—is a montage of classic and recent Public Enemy hits. Those “megamix” deals don’t usually deserve more than a listen or two and, while this one might deserve a third listen, I haven’t yet been able to justify their appeal.
All things considered, Bring That Beat Back is a remix project that stands as an enjoyable album in its own right. In this regard, it’s light years ahead of Public Enemy’s first attempt at a retrospective, 1992’s Greatest Misses. As such, it mostly breaks free from the problems that plagued the group in the ‘90s. Identifying those problems, however, has been the subject of debate, ranging from pointing the finger at Flava Flav’s appearances on VH1’s smorgasbord of reality shows (which doesn’t really explain the ‘90s) to pointing out Chuck D’s twin demons of paranoia and preachiness. Other ideas are that Public Enemy was displaced by the rise of gangsta rap and that the group lost its edge with the ouster of Professor Griff.
Chuck D himself has advanced the theory that copyright law impacted the way Public Enemy’s songs were crafted. Basically, when you use hundreds of samples in a song, as opposed to a single loop, the amount you have to pay in clearance fees and mechanical royalties becomes ridiculously expensive. Consequently, Public Enemy’s sound changed.
The copyright-law-did-us-in explanation is plausible. After all, who can assess the problem better than Chuck D? He’s the one who lived through it. But, as a hardcore Public Enemy fan, I’d like to offer my own theory to help illustrate why Bring That Beat Back seems to get things right.
Essentially, it’s a matter of presentation. Sure, there were minor hiccups in quality, but when you get right down to it, Public Enemy’s output has been richly and consistently entertaining and thought provoking. The problems came when Public Enemy changed its presentation from a bold, truth-talking New York crew to the cast of characters from some type of Black Power comic book. In fact, such a comic book is coming out soon from American Mule Entertainment, featuring Chuck D, Flava Flav, Professor Griff and the S1W’s as its heroes.
The progression is simple enough to trace, just peep Public Enemy’s discography, starting with their debut. Yo! Bumrush the Show was, as the title said, all about the “show.” Then came It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, one of the best hip-hop albums ever recorded. Public Enemy’s concern for “the show” had grown into concern for “a nation.” They warned us against the media (“Don’t Believe the Hype”), the effects of the television age (“She Watch Channel Zero”), and the dangers of drugs (“Night of the Living Baseheads”). Flava Flav provided the comic relief on “Cold Lampin’ With Flava”, while DJ Terminator X scratched his way to fame on “Terminator X to the Edge of Panic”. The formula was set.
Unfortunately, Public Enemy’s image continued to float up, up and away. Check out Public Enemy’s third release, Fear of a Black Planet. The release is a classic, but the New York crew had nevertheless gone interplanetary. The album cover showed two planets about to collide, with the words “the counterattack on world supremacy” running across the bottom. One planet looks like it could be the Earth; the other, appropriately enough, looks black and is tattooed by a blazing version of Public Enemy’s logo of a man standing in crosshairs.
It’s incredibly dramatic, almost to the point of hyperbole, as many of the song titles will attest, such as “Welcome to the Terrordome”, “Anti-Nigger Machine”, “War at 33 1/3”, “Final Count of the Collision Between Us and the Damned”, and the title track. On the back cover, Chuck D and crew pore over a globe and a map. The liner notes even advertised a soon-to-be-released Fear of a Black Planet DVD, touting the “emergence of the Black superheroes.” All of this raises an important philosophical question: once you go “Black Planet,” can you still “reach the bourgeois” and “rock the boulevard”?
Enter Apocalypse 91: The Enemy Strikes Black to answer that question with, “Yeah, we can still do that, but we’ll do it from outer space.” As this album title suggests, a Star Wars theme is in full effect. But if the enemy is striking black, like the empire of the Star Wars series struck back, then who’s the “enemy”? Is Public Enemy the enemy and therefore analogous to the empire? Isn’t that, like, not a good thing? Is there a Jedi concept to match? My head hurts.
Musically, the group was still relevant. Presentation-wise, Public Enemy had gone beyond Black Planet. It was anybody’s guess what would come next. I half expected the next album to be “The Enemy’s Guide to the Galaxy”, with song titles like “Fore-Tee-Too” and “So Long & Thanks For All the Fish”.
Public Enemy’s next full length took the group out of reality completely and committed the group firmly to the world of animation. Even the album title, Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age, was cartoonishly out of control. The cover art didn’t help, featuring a cigarette-smoking skeleton wearing headphones and holding a gun to its skull. On a table in front of the skeleton, we see 40-oz. bottles of malt liquor. In front of the bottle, there’s a book that appears to say “Law” on the left and a bag with a green leaf, presumably marijuana-inspired, on the right. Behind the skeleton, there’s a Klan member on the left and a white dude in a suit on the right, laughing fiendishly. On the back cover and throughout the CD booklet, we find black and white drawings and more sketches of Chuck D, Flava Flav, and Terminator X. They look like they should be in the funnies, in a 3-panel comic strip named after Flav’s well known “Yeah Boyeeee.” All of this obscured the fact that the album actually contained some great music.
The animation effect still clouds the group, as Public Enemy has licensed tracks to various videogames, and Chuck D plays a deejay on one of the radio stations in Rockstar’s San Andreas installment of Grand Theft Auto. It’s not that Chuck D’s lending of his voice to GTA is inconsistent with Public Enemy’s philosophy or that Public Enemy shouldn’t rake in cash for licensing tunes. On the contrary, GTA: San Andreas itself is quite politically charged, with its main character combating gang violence, crooked cops, and government conspiracies. Ideologically, it’s a decent fit. And since the game also features an all-star ensemble for its voice work, from rappers like MC Eiht to actors like Samuel L. Jackson and James Wood, what sane person would pass up the opportunity to be involved? Still, there’s a residual effect. If I’m wreaking virtual havoc to the sound of Chuck D’s voice and Public Enemy’s music, sooner or later I’m going to identify that voice and those tunes with the world of animation. It’s not necessarily an association of music with violence; rather an association of Public Enemy’s ideology and membership with fantasy and cartoons. Songs like “Superman’s Black in the Building” reinforce that identification.
What results is a group with an intelligent political and musical agenda continually being presented as a cartoon and, ultimately, as unrealistic. It makes it more difficult for the average fan to (a) relate and (b) take the group seriously. That’s unfortunate, given the fact that Chuck D is one of the deepest, articulate, and knowledgeable social commentators around. This year’s Rebirth of a Nation brought Public Enemy’s sights back down to the national scale, simultaneously recalling Public Enemy’s classic It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back and the film Birth of a Nation.
While Public Enemy’s affection for puns hasn’t abated, this collection manages to keep the corny stuff to a minimum. It concentrates on exactly what the title demands—the beats. In the end, the deejay approach matches the material and allows Public Enemy’s music to be musically reinterpreted, which is a bonus for both fans and casual listeners. Bring That Beat Back repositions the spotlight where it belongs—on those monster beats to accentuate those poignant lyrics. And when this occurs, Public Enemy definitely rocks the universe.