In 1988, right in the thick of what has since been canonized as hip-hop‘s golden age, the trailblazing rap outfit Public Enemy issued one of the all-time musical reckonings America has ever received with sophomore album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. With breathtaking force, tracks like “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”, “Louder Than a Bomb”, “Night of the Living Baseheads”, and “Prophets of Rage” demanded that a society that mythologized itself as the greatest nation on earth take a long, hard look in the mirror. On its release, Nation of Millions‘ chaotic, revolutionary din left such a sizable blast radius in the American pop culture psyche that it shifted the worldview for an entire generation of listeners. In a single game-changing blow, Public Enemy introduced radical politics and black nationalism to b-boy culture on an unprecedented scale while also connecting with a growing contingent of white suburban kids. It’s easy to see why.
Regardless of your politics or your stance on organizations like the Nation of Islam, it’s impossible, even three decades later, to deny the electric charge that courses through the album, as if the music itself might detonate at any moment. Public Enemy—which then included frontman/leader Chuck D, his comedic (and strangely apolitical) foil Flavor Flav, and the in-house production team the Bomb Squad—induced an adrenaline rush that made it feel almost rapturous to confront ugly truths about the US past, along with their horrific late-20th-century repercussions: the crack trade, the prison-industrial complex, brutalist economic policies. Unflinching in his candor, Chuck D (née Carlton Ridenhour) point-blank accused his country of nothing less than engaging in a sustained, centuries-long genocide. America, in thrall to its self-aggrandizing brand of cognitive dissonance, could simply not afford to ignore this truth any longer—not when it was set to such a thrilling soundtrack. Or so it seemed at the time.
To whatever degree that we can say anything’s changed, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that things have changed enough. But if it seems naive in retrospect to have ever believed that music could change the world, back in Public Enemy’s heyday, Chuck D projected the image of someone who had fully bought-in to his hip-hop-as-revolution rhetoric. By contrast, on the group’s new album What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down?, there’s a newfound uncertainty in Ridenhour’s voice when he asks, “Can a song save the world?” The question lingers, unresolved even after 45 minutes filled with stinging insights. But it’s precisely that uncertainty that makes Grid Goes Down more relatable and, thus, more resonant with the present. It’s not an accident that there’s a question mark in the album title, and in this case, Chuck means for the audience to take his query literally as the whole world teeters at the precipice of… well, we’re not quite sure yet, but it certainly feels like it’s going to be heavy.
Interestingly enough, where it would have been easy to indulge in end-times fire and brimstone, it’s clear from the outset that this album chronicles an internal apocalypse as much as it speaks to the cataclysmic upheavals screaming from today’s headlines. On “GRID”, which features prominent guest turns from both Cypress Hill and Parliament-Funkadelic mastermind George Clinton, Chuck muses on what might happen to us if we were forced to survive without the internet. Of all the doomsday scenarios he could’ve chosen to imagine for what it might look like if the systems we’ve come to depend on were to fail, it’s telling that Ridenhour chose social media addiction to attack first. “No GPS, what will you do? No emails or WHATSAPP coming through.” And when he rhymes that “No grid is what we need for new human contact”, there’s an undercurrent of optimism, which becomes more explicit when he continues: “Folks might have to pick up a book, pick up a pen / Hey! back to basics again.”
Likewise, on “When the Grid Go Down”, an ominous yet funky mood-setter that kicks the album off, Clinton sets the table on a hopeful note, sing-speaking in his gruff, grandfatherly voice that “Face-to-face, I got your back / We do it like that.” Clinton paints a picture of a dystopian future/present defined by its absence of sound. According to Clinton’s narrator, it’s not the degradation of kindness that makes the grid going down so daunting—because, for him, the human spirit endures in the end—but the soundlessness that ensues instead. This is key because, when it comes to Public Enemy, sound and message are impossible to separate. Classic titles like Nation of Millions and its 1990 follow-up, Fear of a Black Planet, would likely have secured Public Enemy’s place atop hip-hop’s Mt. Rushmore on the footprint they made with their production style alone.
It was, in large part, Public Enemy’s utterly unique sound, crafted as it was by the Bomb Squad (Ridenhour along with production architects Hank Shocklee, Eric Sadler, and Keith Shocklee), that made the messages so enticing whether you were already onboard with them or whether you held any reservations. So it was only a matter of time before Chuck D and company were overtaken by subsequent waves of producers who parlayed Public Enemy’s influence into innovations of their own. And as the years went by, starting with 1994’s Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age, the approach drifted further and further from the classic formula. Depending on how you count, What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down? is the band’s 17th studio offering and its second album of this year. At this point, we have to admit that, for better or worse, the majority of the band’s catalog falls outside the template with which they once made history.
Lost in the story, though, is the fact that somewhere along the way—long after Sadler and the Shocklees left the picture—Public Enemy morphed into a rather quirky electro-funk act. While the group’s use of live instrumentation dates back to Living Colour guitarist/bandleader Vernon Reid’s guest appearances on the band’s 1987 debut Yo! Bum Rush the Show, the organic element has grown more dominant. Both albums from this year showcase surprisingly vital live playing that powers the music as its new heartbeat. This time it’s mostly courtesy of producer, multi-instrumentalist, and longtime Public Enemy collaborator David “C-Doc” Snyder. Countless hip-hop artists have sampled P-Funk, but the Public Enemy of 2020 often looks more like a loose, big-band funk ensemble jamming out in the George Clinton/Fela Kuti mold than an old-school rap group.
No surprise, then, that the grooves on What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down? breathe a lot more than the older material does, even though plenty of the songs—”State of the Union (STFU)”, “Toxic”, “Beat Them All”, “Smash the Crowd”, “Rest in Beats”—roll along on hard-hitting, cosmetically modernized but otherwise traditional boom-bap beats. So if you’re hoping to be jolted out of your seat by that familiar wall of noise, you’ve got to adjust your expectations to appreciate this album. It’s been a long time since Public Enemy crossed the attitude of London Calling, the disorientation of Bitches Brew, and the cacophony of the urban streetscape to invent the musical vocabulary you hear on tracks like “Don’t Believe the Hype” and “Welcome to the Terrordome”. That said, Grid Goes Down shows that Public Enemy can still be mind-bending when they push themselves beyond simply re-tracing P-Funk’s acid-rock footsteps.
Produced primarily by C-Doc (with additional contributions by the likes of DJ Premier, Threepeech, DJ Pain 1, Racer X, DJ Infinite, and even Flavor Flav on the somber jazz piano loop “R.I.P. Blackat”), What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down? flickers between vintage and futurist expressions of hip-hop, funk, and soul with inflections of jazz. At their most adventurous, C-Doc and Chuck D nearly arrive at their own take on dub, which is actually spotlighted to a far greater extent on the earlier album from this year, titled Loud Is Not Enough (and released under the name Enemy Radio in the wake of the embarrassing but short-lived split with Flavor Flav this past March). Due to their contrasting styles, Grid Goes Down and Loud Is Not Enough come to light in relation to one another and are best understood as a package deal. One thing they do share, however, is a relatively subdued attack that, believe it or not, suits the moment rather well.
Other than the Questlove remix of 1989 classic “Fight the Power” and “State of the Union (STFU)”, where Flavor Flav drops his comic demeanor to tell “sorry-ass motherfucker” Donald Trump to “shut the fuck up”, Public Enemy seem content to cede the air-raid urgency that once defined them to their spiritual descendants like Run the Jewels. In interviews published within days of the new album’s release, Chuck D stressed that optimism is crucial in order to sustain the motivation to keep fighting, and also that it’s important to play the long game. Time intervals that might feel long when viewed through the lens of culture, he offered, look a lot shorter in the larger flow of history, or even a single lifetime. That the new album relays such a strong sense of encouragement makes sense in this context.
In an interview from June of this year, Hank Shocklee described Public Enemy’s evolution over the course of its classic period as a journey “from angst to healing to ascension.” Shocklee elaborated: “The [initial] idea was to create angst, to create discomfort, to shake people up. I believed that everybody was asleep. They really didn’t know what was going on with the world around them.” Of course, as Chuck D suggests on the new album, these days we know a little too much. We’re bombarded with information, so some kind of counteracting medicine is needed in order to not only stay on-task but to retain one’s sanity. The temperament of the album is best encapsulated by a single transition when longtime auxiliary PE member S1W Pop Diesel says in a spoken-word interlude that “America has brought all her troubles upon herself. She alone is to be charged with being the cause of the [world’s troubles].” Diesel’s indictment is immediately followed by silly banter between King Ad-Rock and Mike D of the Beastie Boys on a remake of “Public Enemy No. 1”, the first track the group ever made.
Mike D and Ad-Rock reminisce about the time they first heard Public Enemy’s early demo tape while touring in a van way back before either group had released an album. Flavor Flav then comes in and recites Chuck D’s original verse—a nice touch that gives the track a fresh wrinkle—before Run and DMC of Run-DMC take over. The track reunites the lineup from when all three bands toured the States together in ’87 under the banner Together Forever. Comparing the new version to early work from each group, we hear just how much Flavor, Chuck D, Mike D, and Ad-Rock’s voices have all aged. That Run-DMC and the Beasties have each had a member pass away adds poignance to an otherwise rollicking good time. On paper, the party vibe might seem out of place given the album’s overarching subject matter, but that’s not the case: without coming out and saying so, what all three groups are implying is that it’s a miracle they’ve survived.
You can’t overstate how marginal rap music was when the careers of Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy were just getting off the ground. No one back then could have envisioned that these artists would achieve the venerated cultural status they hold today.
Grid Goes Down is, in fact, crammed with guest appearances by Public Enemy’s peers: Ice-T, PMD, Nas, Black Thought, and others. The rare case of an album that actually benefits from so many hands on deck, Grid Goes Down gives off a family-barbecue kind of vibe that lines up with Chuck D’s view of hip-hop as a space to gather. If you read between the lines on Public Enemy records, it’s clear that Ridenhour is also criticizing what he identifies as self-destructive behaviors and attitudes within the African American community—and, by extension, hip-hop itself. Still, he has always refrained from criticizing other rappers directly (with the exception of Flavor Flav). At times, his starry-eyed romanticism of the genre tips over into hagiography.
Surely, the same intellect that set its crosshairs on America’s blindness to its own demons could also be turned towards interrogating the imperfections inherent to hip-hop culture and protest movements, rather than fall back on flower-power sloganeering that lacks nuance. After all, is there no one better positioned than Chuck D to hold a mirror to a genre’s place within a social movement? It’s easy to prescribe
Grid Goes Down as a much-needed soundtrack to a revolution, but that’s a lazy, convenient interpretation. The truth is that the album would carry a lot more weight if Chuck D and company admitted there’s a danger in allowing hip-hop culture to be co-opted as a prop in a time when Spotify algorithms can generate playlists that coldly reduce rap music to one in an infinite array of user preferences that exist to be exploited.
Which is not to say that Ridenhour needs to go as far as the recently deceased jazz critic Stanley Crouch, whose
blunt views on rap music, on the surface, were hard to distinguish from panicked outcries from conservative white America. (The same year that Nation of Millions came out, Crouch punched a fellow Village Voice contributor for suggesting that Public Enemy was on-par with John Coltrane.) But, as filmmaker Byron Hurt suggests at the beginning of his 2006 documentary Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes—a film Chuck D appears in—having a lifelong love for this music gives one license, perhaps even a responsibility, to examine it critically. At no point does the new Public Enemy album approach the depth of Chuck D’s 2015 dialogue with Hurt about the questions Hurt raises in his film. Alas, if What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down? is any indication, Ridenhour isn’t the tough-love type, preferring instead to support rather than chide.
Even when presenting listeners with the prospect that we’re all going to have to find new ways to survive following an impending societal collapse, Chuck D chooses gentle guidance over causing alarm. It may seem counter-intuitive to turn to Public Enemy for comfort music, but with
What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down?, the band have concocted a balm for so much of what that ails us. There’s certainly something to be said for that.