Public Enemy – 10 of the best

From the anthemic to the polemic, here are some of the most influential songs by the self-proclaimed ‘Rolling Stones of rap’

1. Miuzi Weighs a Ton

What made Public Enemy so different from their contemporaries, according to Russell Simmons of Def Jam Recordings, was that “Public Enemy didn’t rap about partying … Public Enemy talked about the state of black America, and how every black kid in America was a public enemy.” But leader Chuck D had yet to perfect his fiery blend of rhetoric and polemic on the 1987 debut album Yo! Bum Rush the Show, which – the storming Rightstarter (Message to a Black Man) aside – often avoided explicit politics in favour of boasting about their rides (You’re Gonna Get Yours), bigging up their crew (Too Much Posse) and occasionally slipping into ugly sexism (Sophisticated Bitch). Miuzi Weighs a Ton was the genesis of Public Enemy at their apex, however, with Chuck’s extended machine-gun metaphor talking up the firepower between his ears, while the stone age drum-machine beats and sonic-boom scratches and samples were muscular and heavy. A sly tempo change between verse and chorus, meanwhile, suggested that production team the Bomb Squad – Eric Sadler, and brothers Hank and Keith Shocklee – had ambitions beyond early hip-hop’s sparse, simple template.

2. Rebel Without a Pause

Def Jam dragged their feet getting Bum Rush in record stores, so by the time it was released in 1987, Eric B & Rakim’s landmark debut single Eric B Is President had just pushed hip-hop a step further, leaving Public Enemy sounding like relics by comparison. PE’s response was swift, with their next track arriving six weeks after it was recorded. The B-side to the Bum Rush single Your Gonna Get Yours, Rebel Without a Pause was the first fruit of a new creative approach Public Enemy embraced on their second album, with tracks taking shape in cacophonous, collaborative sessions where Chuck, jester/hype-man/sidekick Flavor Flav, DJ Terminator X and the Bomb Squad manned samplers and turntables. The result was dense and disorientating, but held its nerve as it flirted with chaos: Rebel Without A Pause keyed hip-hop’s tempo up to a breathless 109 beats per minute, swapped 808 brutalism for an edgy beat razored from James Brown’s Funky Drummer, and filled every millimetre of space between beats with samples, skronky flourishes of turntablism and, punctuating every bar, an urgent saxophone scream lifted from the JBs’ 1970 jam The Grunt. The track opened with the Reverend Jesse Jackson hollering: “I don’t know what this world is coming to!” Chuck’s verses served up a reply, the 26-year-old “poet supreme” serving as the solid anchor amid the sonic anarchy, spinning his worldview with an ad man’s knack for wordplay. As Run-DMC’s Darryl McDaniels observed, Chuck “wasn’t a preacher – he was a leader”.

Watch Night of the Living Baseheads on Public Enemy’s YouTube channel

3. Night of the Living Baseheads

In 1988, Glen E Friedman, whose photography chronicled the early days of hardcore punk, skateboard culture and hip-hop, took an unforgettable snap of Chuck and Flav sporting T-shirts promoting punk band Minor Threat, whose anti-booze-and-drugs anthem Straight Edge had possibly struck a chord with Chuck. The PE frontman was similarly abstemious, and these blitzing three minutes from the game-changing second album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back offered Public Enemy’s take on the drug problem, in particular the freebase frenzy that was about to give birth to the US crack epidemic. The track’s titular callback to George A Romero’s zombie movie classic is echoed by the lyric’s nightmare landscape of users left homeless and living in their cars, “like comatose walking around” – though the track is nuanced enough also to aim its state-of-the-ghetto rage at the US government’s war on drugs. But it’s the drug dealers waging war in and on their own communities that catch most of the flak. “The ones that deal are the ones that fail,” spits Chuck, adding: “Shame on a brother when he dealing / The same block where my 98 be wheeling.” Professor Griff delivered the controversial sign off, scorning “kids who make cash selling drugs to the brother man, instead of the other man”. The Bomb Squad’s production, meanwhile, was the album’s most frenetic yet, a hallucinatory, funky headspin of loops and samples: blaring horns, tornados of percussion.

4. Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos

It Takes a Nation of Millions made an art form of its overload of samples and full-pelt found funk, but the Bomb Squad stripped back the noise to bare, powerful elements here, ceding the foreground to Chuck’s voice spinning a tale of prison rebellion that unfolds like an action movie. Over a needling, loose piano loop (lifted from Isaac Hayes’s Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic), Chuck narrates the escape of a prisoner serving time for rejecting his draft notice and refusing to fight for “a land that never gave a damn about a brother like me … I’m a black man / And I could never be a veteran.” The final two verses are as gripping and expertly paced as an entry from the Die Hard franchise, Chuck grabbing a sleeping guard’s gun and kickstarting a mass prison break under heavy retaliatory fire. The cool disdain of the track’s deathless opening couplet – “I got a letter from the government the other day / I opened and read it, it said they were suckers” – remains one of Chuck’s most famous lines.

Watch Black Steel … on the band’s YouTube channel

5. Fight the Power

Originally recorded as the theme for Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Fight the Power might be Public Enemy’s greatest anthem of all. “I wanted it to be defiant, I wanted it to be angry, I wanted it to be very rhythmic,” Lee told Time magazine, explaining why he chose PE. The Bomb Squad ran a library’s worth of soul and funk – including five James Brown/JBs tracks, classics by Sly Stone and Syl Johnson, and even the Isley Brothers’ own 1975 stormer Fight the Power – through the blender to create the track’s frenetic, frenzied, fractured funk, while for the movie version Hank Shocklee sliced up three different sax solos Branford Marsalis had recorded especially for the track (“One funky solo, one jazz solo, and one just completely avant-garde, free-jazz solo,” he later told Rolling Stone) and added them to the stew. Chuck’s lyric nodded to Malcolm X and invoked Martin Luther King as he addressed the PE faithful as his “beloved”, imploring them to get down to the business of revolution. “It was written to be an anthem,” Chuck explained, “and it was written at a particular time that needed an anthem.” Its most controversial lyric drew on one of the movie’s key scenes, where activist Buggin’ Out stages a boycott of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria because its owner won’t allow pictures of black celebrities on his “wall of fame”. Fight the Power suggested a similar boycott: Chuck noted that “most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamp”, and declared “Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant shit to me,” adding that the departed king of rock’n’roll was “straight-up racist … simple and plain.” In later interviews, Chuck would make a more nuanced argument, suggesting that Elvis represented the racism of a music industry that oppressed black artists while making stars of white artists who played “black” music, but was not actually racist himself. “It was the first time every word in a rap song was being scrutinised, word-for-word, line-for-line,” he later commented. “A lot of people will tell you that controversy is good. I didn’t ask for the controversy at all.”

6. Welcome to the Terrordome

Controversy continued to dog Public Enemy throughout work on their third album, Fear of a Black Planet. Griff had been fired in 1989 after telling the Washington Times that “Jews are responsible for the majority of the wickedness in the world,” while the group had offered vocal support to the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan (described by Anti-Defamation League chairman Nathan Perlmutter as “black Hitler”). A direct response to all the controversy and group turmoil, Welcome to the Terrordome was an uncharacteristically personal track on an album that explored themes of global white supremacy and black empowerment. As mutated wah-wah from Psychedelic Shack by the Temptations rang out like a police siren, Chuck railed against his foes and painted himself as a persecuted hero. Usually one of rap’s sharpest rhetoricians, he clumsily invited further accusations of antisemitism, wailing that “crucifixion ain’t no fiction”. But Welcome to the Terrordome isn’t about coherent polemic – it’s all about a cornered Chuck lashing out, a cyclone of paranoia giving a hint of the group’s embattled mindset.

7. 911 Is a Joke

Chuck D needed his Flavor Flav to provide comic relief amid the barbed polemic and righteous fury. But if Chuck was the teacher, then Flavor was more than some wicked clown; he was the ordinary man, fallible and human next to the superheroic Chuck. 911 Is a Joke saw Flav focus his comedic spiel as protest, alleging that the emergency services neglected black neighbourhoods and left African American people dying on the sidewalk. It was Flav’s looseness that helped drive the message home, less a lecture and more a hard-edged comedy routine (the beat featured samples from an Eddie Murphy bit about getting knocked down by a car in Bushwick, “where they never call the ambulance”. The song doesn’t play its message too straight – the first verse closes with Flav imagining doctors and paramedics butchering dead corpses for kicks – but proves that Flav was up for more than just Cold Lampin’ and inspired nonsense, and that he could land a punch almost as effectively as his bandmate.

8. By the Time I Get to Arizona

By the Time I Get to Arizona remains one of PE’s most incendiary tracks. Evan Mecham had won the governorship of Arizona after campaigning on the issue of refusing to recognise the national holiday in honour of Martin Luther King Jr, revoking its status as a paid holiday for state employees after taking office in 1986, and declaring: “King doesn’t deserve a holiday.” Following racist comments and the calamitous impact of his actions on Arizona’s tourist industry, Mecham was impeached for obstruction of justice and misuse of government funds, and left office in 1988; two years later, however, Arizona voters rejected recognising Martin Luther King Jr Day, inspiring this slow-burning broadside. The track opens with PE comrade Sister Souljah announcing that, owing to Arizona’s “psychological discomfort in paying tribute to a black man who tried to teach white people the meaning of civilisation”, PE were heading out to combat “white supremacy scheming”. Chuck trained his fire on the people of Arizona (“The whole state’s racist,” he spits) and their erstwhile governor, “the sucker over there, try to keep it yesteryear”. Even if he was no longer in office, Mecham – who, among other lamentable acts, infamously defended using the word “pickaninny” to describe black children – was a worthy target.

Watch By the Time I Get to Arizona on Public Enemy’s YouTube channel

9. Live and Undrugged (Pt 1&2)

There was truth behind the unwieldy title of the band’s fifth album, 1994’s Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age. The LP dropped as gangsta rap hit its commercial peak, and Muse Sick reflected Chuck D’s belief that rap glorified street violence and drug and alcohol abuse to the black community’s detriment, and for the entertainment of a new white audience. The finest of Muse Sick’s fiery tracks was this bravura blast, and in particular its second half, where Chuck – having just called out drug-dealing gang-bangers as Uncle Toms and daydreamed of casting their gats aside and facing them down with his bare fists – declares himself the “rhymer in the zone” and sets off on a breathtaking 150-second spiel with the energy of a freestyle but the focus of Chuck’s finest verses. It’s a dizzying stream of consciousness, zipping from anti-booze bromides to visions of neighbourhoods on fire, via revolutions, revelations and an impossibly thrilling closing lap where, as drummer Nathaniel Townsley III’s live beat winds tighter and tighter, Chuck unleashes a final shoutout to his PE comrades and sets their mission in terms of “right versus wrong, good versus evil, god versus the devil – what side are you on?”

10. Harder Than You Think

It was another four years before PE followed up Muse Sick with the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s film He Got Game, during which time Chuck recorded a solo album and penned an autobiography, Flav fielded charges of domestic abuse and drug possession, Griff rejoined the fold and Terminator X retired following a motorcycle injury. Before the century was out, Public Enemy had left Def Jam and set up their own label, Slam Jamz, to release subsequent PE output. And there was a lot of it: eight albums between There’s a Poison Goin’ On (1999) to Man Plans God Laughs (2015). This stormer from 2007’s How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Souls is one of their finer late-period gems, Chuck riding anthemic horns to restate their mission (“My soul intention / To save my brothers and sisters”), hailing PE as “the Rolling Stones of the rap game, not bragging” and taking bleak stock of rap’s lack of radicalism in the 21st century (“spittin’ riches, bitches and this new thing about snitches”). Adopted as the theme to the 2012 Paralympics, the track’s bold, righteous swagger proved that, even if Public Enemy no longer shook the mainstream with their “CNN for black culture” broadcasts, Chuck’s muscular flows and Flav’s askew interplay could still make for electrifying pop moments.


Stevie Chick

The GuardianTramp

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