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Public Enemy - A Guide to Hip Hop's Most Powerful Force

  by Jeff Thiessen

published: 20 / 7 / 2011

Public Enemy - A Guide to Hip Hop's Most Powerful Force


In his 'This Metal Sky' column Jeff Thiessen lists thirteen reasons why he believes Public Enemy are the greatest hip-hop act of all time

I like making the case for obvious causes. This may sound like a chicken-shit way to go through life, but in this day and age many times it proves to be the exact opposite. With all the revolting corruption and treachery we’ve all seen from so many different angles in our morally decaying contemporary society, many people are starting to sincerely believe that anti-intelligence and counter- common sense is not only the clear cut way to analyze most events on a personal, objective level, but it’s the only way to perceive any situation that has even the slightest scent of not being completely on the up-and-up. The Kennedy assassination is the most prominent example of people not knowing how to intelligently react to a day in history that forever shaped it. The logic seems to be this: if the consequences of a single event, in this case, what the American public was forced to absorb following seeing their president’s brains splattered all over TV one afternoon, is dominant to a degree that nobody can really even talk or think about anything else for months, years after it occurs....than that means the catalyst that spurred the whole thing on in the first place, should be on the same level of magnitude on the cultural Richter scale. The utter discrepancy between a lone, whacked out loser yielding the power to bring an entire nation to their knees with the simple pull of his trigger finger is just too much for many to comprehend. Nobody likes to think their entire belief system hinges on an inherent conviction that fragility does not apply to figures like John F. Kennedy, but Oswald’s bullet was a startling reminder otherwise. So out came the conspiracy theories, so prevalent in fact, that it’s almost at the point where those who are convinced of Oswald’s guilt are now the conspiracy goons. Of course that’s a bum rap, if you read the Warren Commission Report and/or ‘Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy’, there should be absolutely no doubt in anybody’s mind with even a shred of logic in their brain that Oswald was the lone killer. I’m more certain of this than I am of the gravitational constant. I enjoy/detest proving such blatantly obvious cases that have been distorted in the face of time, so, with that said, this article will be somewhat bittersweet. On a final Kennedy note, I think when all is said and done, that assassination was tragic in death only. That murder finally forced the American public to see the world through their own eyes, through a newfound cynicism and hostility that was previously masked by a voracious dedication to viewing their society through a rose-colored glow instilled in them by their rock-star president. No longer could they blindly believe in a utopian world that absolutely nobody had a hope of providing. Instead they had no choice but finally see themselves and shortcomings for what they actually were, and not as a reflection of their immaculate JFK perception. Oswald’s bullet was the ultimate call-to-arms in that regard. That’s what Public Enemy was. They were the musical equivalent of November 22, 1963. The power in their music is staggering on so many levels it transcends traditional hip-hop analysis, and seats them with all those that have lent their gifts and influence to literally shape the world we live in. They were so ahead of their time that rap still hasn’t caught up to them and in many ways regressed even further away from the ground PE broke time and time again. Really it’s sort of embarrassing how much ahead of the pack they continue to be. It’s embarrassing for the genre because save for a couple big names MCs/crews in the genre (Kanye West and Wu-Tang are the only two examples I can think of that seem to be inspired by the hip hop tradition and not insipidly bound by it), none of them can even hold a candle to PE’s best work, and that’s sad considering it’s been like almost thirty years since that material was released. You guys have had time. Listen to what they did, learn from it, and evolve. Darwinism. I Ching. Adapt. Roll with it. That’s usually how it happens. I love Velvet Underground’s ‘White Light/White Heat’ with all my being, but it no longer sets the standard for fuzzed-out, mind warping guitar-driven rock. But that’s a good thing, since it was released in 1969. At the risk of stating the obvious, forward progress is much more thrilling than running in place. Unfortunately that’s exactly what seems to be happening in the rap world, at least for the time being. For sure until those household names start to view their music has having the power to accomplish more than leaving them with big checks in the mail, there is work to be done here, both sonically and from a message standpoint. It just seems every time I see rap take a step forward that a year or two later it takes a few back. To me it’s obvious that Public Enemy have nobody even close in their field in terms of innovation, aural assault, and sheer power. And I’m not saying they’ve been forgotten, but aren’t embraced on the level they ought to be. They should be the fucking benchmark for what every rap group or MC strives to be, not just an interesting footnote on the golden age of rap (which they personally ushered in by the way). So, because I like making arguments for shit that should be incredibly obvious but for whatever reason, seems to be the counter-stance for most of you over-thinking, sanctimonious victims of Generation Y (or whatever letter we’re at by now), I will simply list the reasons why Public Enemy is the most important force in the history of hip hop music and trust me when I say it’s a pretty simple argument to make. For better or worse, here is: Thirteen Reasons why Public Enemy is the G.O.A.T. 1. Chuck D has the most bad-ass delivery rap has ever witnessed, bar none. The only other one I can think of who could command an entire stadium with a single note of this voice would be KRS-ONE (or perhaps latter-day Pac), but the difference here is Chuck always seemed intent on proving to the people he’s earned this power, as opposed to an authoritarian gift like KRS seemed intent on reminding people of. His flow is impeccable, but actually has a lot of subtle nuances in terms of changing tempo and rhyme patterns to fit whatever the song needs. Of course it always contains the boom bap that is unmistakably Chuck D, but he was never afraid to put the music ahead of his own delivery. Who gives a shit he doesn’t freestyle? Last time I checked, it’s the right answer that gets you good grades, not whatever got you there. 2. Thom Yorke claimed his favourite song to have sex to is ‘911 is a Joke’. Now, he was probably in one of his sardonic, post-modernist, glitched out, pseudo-ironic moods when he said this (Actually come to think of it, that’s the only mood I’ve ever seen him in. Man, first dates must be very difficult for that cat), but it still counts for a lot. I mean what if it’s true? There’s a very good chance I’ve pondered this for entirely too long... 3. Their opinions are often wrong. Anytime a person is constantly racking their brain to present people with new ways to look at things, there will be several instances when they just come off as ignorant or in a best case scenario, heavily misinformed. This happens to the best of scholars, I mean look at Chomsky. Now, PE certainly doesn’t have this occur often.Chuck D is undoubtedly on many’s shortlist as one of the smartest working musicians still alive right now, but it does happen from time to time and you know what, they should be absolutely commended for this. It shows how committed they are to their vision and beliefs and we know that every single time we buy a PE record, we’re getting nothing neutered whatsoever. It proves that whatever gets the axe in the studio is due to a concern over quality, not over a possible reaction to a stance they were getting behind. When I’m driving and I hear one of those rare lines that does seem a bit out to lunch, I don’t shake my head in disapproval. I rewind that section of the song so I could be reminded of the fact that at one point there was music out there that wasn’t afraid of making us uncomfortable if it meant being honest and sincere in their beliefs. That’s just hard to find these days. 4 .They did rap-rock right, the ballsy way. Another area they helped pioneer by the way, but they sure didn’t wimp out like Run DMC and enter the rap-rock world with some cheesed out Aerosmith romp. No. Instead, they brought the noise (hard) with Anthrax, but before that, they sampled the half-time riff found in Slayer’s seminal ‘Angel of Death ‘classic on their ‘She Watch Channel Zero’ track. Let me say that again: Public Enemy sampled Slayer’s ‘Angel of Death’. And not just slyly either. That was the overt beat for the entire track. Run DMC’s little cutesy collaboration may have got them a bunch of new white fans who now found it ok to dig on rap music (since it now boasted a staple of rock, guitars), but cmon....PUBLIC ENEMY SAMPLED SLAYER. The production team behind PE was just off the charts brilliant; to this day I haven’t heard anything in rap that risky/hard as fuck. 5. Public Enemy does not have a popular single entitled ‘Big Pimpin’. 6. Flav. Before he was roasted by D-list celebs, and before he was on celebrity rehab, he was the best hypeman rap has ever produced. He was the perfect compliment to Chuck’s no-nonsense approach, and his presence ensured none of the songs entered a hardcore, militant approach that many of PE’s songs could easily have drifted into. He made Public Enemy a fun group, not to mention providing many of their most memorable hooks. Many argue his contributions are marginal, but they’re missing the point. His involvement gave Chuck the goofy muse his tough exterior sorely needed. The balance they strike is perfect, and Public Enemy just wouldn’t have been the same without the Flavor. Plus he performed one of their best songs, the aforementioned ‘911 is a Joke’. Flav’s definitely ok in my books and, despite his checkered rep, he held an integral role in rap’s most important group. Credit where it’s due, folks. 7. They weren’t afraid to attack the shortcomings of black culture. ‘Apocalypse 91....the Enemy Strikes Black’ was largely a commentary on a lot of the problems black Americans seemed to be facing on a daily basis and nothing was off limits for Chuck and the crew to bring up. Man, what guts. It’s all too easy to bash on white cops, and George Bush, but when you risk alienating an entire fan-base by showing them exactly what’s wrong in their culture, I’m sure that was something Def Jam was seriously sweating. Other than Nas with his ‘Hip Hop is Dead ‘and infamous ‘N’ word slur album, I haven’t seen anybody in the genre so willing to take a step back and examine their own brotherhood from such an objective, but passionate viewpoint. 8. ’Fear of a Black Planet’. Have you heard that album recently? It’s insane. It will thrash you time and time again with no hint of mercy. ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’ was a hell of a way to bust onto the scene, but ‘Fear’ just took everything to an almost absurd level of inventiveness. The sonics are so intense on that album that it’s almost prog-rock at times. Without a doubt, this is rap’s finest hour and easily one of the best albums ever released. Just please go listen to it, and if you don’t think ‘Welcome to the Terrordome’ is skull-shatteringly awesome, than we’re done here, and you have just lost the right to have an opinion on anything, ever again. 9. ’Muse-Sick-N-Hour-Mess-Age.’ Dropped in the middle of the grunge era so it went largely unnoticed, but it’s much, much better than the reception it received. The whole album is a must-hear, but the single ‘Give It Up’ might be the one of the best singles they released. It continued the theme from ‘Apocalypse 91’, and again had the gall to be heavily critical of their black community. Not quite up there with their absolute best work, but very, very close to it. 10. Paul Simon set the standard for the love lyric with “My love for you is so overpowering/I’m afraid I’ll disappear.” Iggy set the standard for the punk lyric with the opening verse of ‘Search and Destroy’. Now Chuck D did the same thing for rap music with his ‘Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me/Straight up racist/That sucker was simple and plain/Motherfuck him and John Wayne/Cause I’m black and I’m proud/I’m ready, I’m hyped, and I’m amped/Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps” found on another one of their classic cuts ‘Fight the Power’. That verse is immortal, and has rightfully contributed to that track being one of their most renowned ones offered. 11. They hated on Arizona state laws way before it was cool to do so, as proven on ‘By the Time I Get to Arizona’, which rightly mocked the state (and others) who refused to recognized Martin Luther King Day as a national holiday. 12. If rap died as a whole tomorrow, and actually left a will....I have no doubt in my mind it would request to be buried with PE’s ‘Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos track’. Well, that one or ‘Fight the Power’. 13. The ‘big three’ in rap all can’t hold a candle to Public Enemy. To be clear, most consider it Pac, Biggie, and Jay-Z. And to be very clear, all made a lot of money by glorifying a gangster, hustling lifestyle that provided very little of actual substance. They all have talent, and a ton of it, I’m not denying that. But look at it like this: Biggie made his money by saying things like “I wouldn’t give a fuck if you’re pregnant/Give me the baby rings and the number one mom pendant (when admirably explaining how he likes to rob people in his ‘Gimme the Loot’ track). Pac’s two most famous songs include bragging about “fucking a man’s bitch”(Biggie’s wife at the time), and an entire verse consisting of nothing of coastal gang bravado (‘California Love’). And then we have Jay-Z. Well, we’ve been over this. The guy actually wrote a song called ‘Big Pimpin’. I’m not saying these three put nothing positive forth in their music, but it was just mired by an onslaught of some of their worst possible characteristics. Did it make them lots of money? Of course. Was some of their deplorable content exaggerated to satisfy the public’s yearning for shock and hardness in their music? Most likely. But that doesn’t mean these ‘icons’ should be let off the hook. It’s completely embarrassing these are the icons of the genre. Even their most tame material is so morally bankrupt that I wouldn’t cross the street to spit on any of them. I’m also not saying rap has to be something Eddie Cleaver would dig. But if you look at those three objectively, their lyrics are just horrific to a point we shouldn’t be applauding such recordings anymore, even if the beat is bangin or whatever. C’mon. It’s 2011. We’re now smarter than this. I realize catching what PE accomplished may be a daunting task but let’s go already guys. Thom Yorke’s on board. Time for everyone else to join his miserable ass. Forget all that big three bullshit. Those guys are all overrated hood rats. It’s Public Enemy, and then there’s everyone else. Until something drastic happens, that’s how it’s going to stay.

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