- 12 Mar 01
Or how PUBLIC ENEMY changed the landscape of popular culture forever. Words: Peter Murphy. Snapping with The Enemy: Sasfi Hope-Ross
1988. Public Enemy dropped, louder than a bomb, into the mainstream.
The release of 'Bring The Noise' and 'Don't Believe The Hype’ made for a one-two combination of heavyweight power and flyweight agility, and when PE’s coming of age album It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back began booming from every street corner beatbox and Utility Vehicle’s sound system in urban America that July, it sounded like there was a riot going on.
Public Enemy were less a wake-up call than a stress-metal klaxon; sounding for both black and white America. They were also the first truly scarifying emissaries of the hip hop nation: an educated, agitated, organised rap-attack unit out of Long Island, whose Nation Of Islam manners were as unnerving to Mr. and Mrs. America as the stage get-up (black berets, khakis and plastic Uzis) toted by their bodyguards/back-up dancers, the security Of The First World.
Of course, whitebread USA had borne witness to black radical chic before: James Brown, War, The Last Poets, Sly Stone – from Stagger Lee and Shaft to NWA and Ice T, black bogeymen have always stalked white suburbs, and the record business never fought shy of exploiting racial phobias to the full. But PE pushed the envelope that bit further: white captains of industry weren’t quite used to insinuations that their ancestors had enjoyed congress with monkeys, or song titles like ‘How To Kill A Radio Consultant’, or being branded ‘grafted devils’.
Despite the shock tactics though, Public Enemy weren’t the Stones on Ed Sullivan, or the Sex Pistols on the Bill Grundy show. This was serious shit: young, college-educated black men in uniform (an image which plays on pressure points of which most white folk are barely aware) advocating self-empowerment and the economic, social and spiritual advancement of their race. The closest precedent in rock ‘n’ roll was probably the MC5 kicking out the jams with the White Panthers 20 years before.
"It scared the crap out of a lot of people because we were so fuckin’ real," Flavor Flav, aka William Drayton, says now. "We weren’t backin up and we was not afraid to say on records what a lot of people were afraid to say."
"That’s what black youth have always done in America," adds Professor Griff (Richard Griffin to his mother), PE’s Minister Of Information, head of the SW1s and spokesman for the group’s political wing. "But (they) weren’t really intellectually vocal about it, y’understand what I’m sayin’? A lot of music groups came along but they didn’t do it like Public Enemy did it. We actually came out and said it. And carried guns on stage. And bulletproof vests and army fatigues, and we yelled and screamed at America.so for whitebread America to see organised black men, of course it struck fear. But our main target wasn’t to destroy whitebread America, it was to destroy the niggardliness in black people, get them to stand up and be real men and women."
The group didn’t even allow themselves the odd wry chuckle that they’d managed to play media hysteria to their advantage. Griff, who researches the group’s lyrics as well as running study groups and giving lectures at jails, youth centres and women’s centres, insists they were as serious as cancer. Almost literally.
"Visiting AIDS patients in the hospital was serious business, he says. Visiting people in jail is serious business. Going from community to community feeding the poor, that’s serious business, that’s nothing to play with."
Indeed, Griff’s S1Ws existed before Public Enemy itself, evolving from a security firm called Unity Force, which not only provided gig and club security, but also held socio-political and religious discussion groups. Further on down the line, they would go so far as participating in drill sessions, cultivating an awareness of the body as a tool. Or a weapon. Under Griffin’s direction, the SW1s went far beyond simply protecting PE on stage: their concept of ‘security’ applied to black culture in its entirety.
Public Enemy first convened in Long Island, New York, hooking up through a local sound system called Spectrum City and the Adelphi University’s radio station, WBAU. Chuck D, known then as Carlton Douglas Ridenhour, was studying graphics at the college (Dr. Dre was one of his classmates), when he met Hank and Keith Shocklee (real name Boxley) - the brothers who would become the group’s production team, The Bomb Squad.
Chuck offered to design flyers for the sound system, and when Bill Stephney (the station’s programme director, and soon to be co-producer on Yo! Bum Rush The Show) offered the trio their own show, the PE posse began to come together. Flavor Flav stumbled on the scene when he showed up to play keyboards with a Shocklee-produced hip hop outfit called Townhouse 3, while Griff provided security for the gigs.
This motley collective bonded through staying up all night listening to everything from Kool & the Gang and Grandmaster Flash to The Clash, and discussing hip-hop ideology. These bull sessions were crucial in formulating the PE mindset, establishing them not just as a musical but a philosophical unit.
"Yeah man, that’s one thing that we would do," Flav remembers. "It was a more family oriented type thing within us, you know? We used to sit around after the radio show for hours and just crack jokes, crack jokes, just crack jokes, aaaaall night til’security came and kicked us out the building. And those were the best times, you know what I’m sayin’?"
Bill Stephney convinced Chuck D of his calling as a rapper, and the latter began working on his distinctive basso profundo (frequently described in the press as a ‘stentorian bellow’), in part derived from NBA announcer Marv Albert’s delivery. Then there was his knack for catchy sloganeering: ‘Miuzi Weighs A Ton’, ‘Don’t Believe The Hype’, ‘Party For Your Right To Fight’. Throughout the summer of 1986, Chuck, Flav and the Shocklees worked out the basis of their debut album while doing the rounds in a furniture delivery truck.
In late ‘86, Public Enemy signed to Russell Simmons (brother of Run DMC’s Run) and Rick Rubin’s Def Jam label, by which time the company had already scored major hits with LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys. Rubin, an NYU film student also from Long Island, took to the band big time when he first heard a tape of the WBAU show. The quintessential noise freak with long hair, hermit’s beard and shades, Rubin was a rebel-MC visionary and one of the first producers to understand the possibilities of a rap/heavy rock hybrid.
Over the next two years, Public Enemy’s sound rapidly developed to the point where it represented as much of an up-yours affront to heartland rock conservativism as their politics did to right-wing Republicans. Skip over Yo! Bum Rush The Show - an annoyed and paranoid debut, but not their masterpiece - and cut to Nation Of Millions . . . Back then, the opening salvos of ‘Countdown To Armageddon’, ‘Bring The Noise’ and ‘Don’t Believe The Hype’ sounded as if the future black nation had constructed their own terminator and sent him back in time to get medieval on white hegemonists in the late 20th century. Indeed, the group’s scratch ‘n’ mixmaster Norman Rogers sported the handle Terminator X, while Hank Shocklee later professed, "I wanted to go out to be music’s worst nightmare."
The band’s cacophonous cut-ups - collages of brutal breakbeats,snatches of sax and keyboards and backwards loops - sounded like four radio stations attempting to broadcast on one wave band (Chuck D famously dubbed hip hop ‘the black CNN’), challenging established notions of aesthetics, musicality and even authorship.
"Those again were manufactured by those corporations that controlled the music industry, Professor Griff maintains. "We didn’t fall into that. We called it ‘organised noise’."
Melody Maker’s Simon Reynolds called it "the opposite of fusion: a kind of suspended animation fission, where inconsistent sounds are frozen in mutual contradiction, within the same soundspace."
"The sampled sounds come from everywhere," Chuck D told him in October of 1987. "Take ‘Rebel Without A Pause’. A lot of people said that noise came from a James Brown grunt, but what they didn’t realise was that it was a blend of the grunt and a Miles Davis trumpet, which produced a sound that wavered. And then we took that tone and stretched it. The drone on ‘Terminator X Speaks’ and ‘M.P.E.’ is a backwards fire truck!
Village Voice writer Greg Tate, one of PE’s shrewdest champions and critics, had this to say of the second album’s sonic boom: "Shocklee’s reconstructive composition of new works from archival bites advances sampling to the level of microsurgery. Ditto for cyborg DJ Terminator X, who cuts incisively enough to turn a kazoo into a dopebeat on ‘Bring The Noise’.
Added to this, Chuck’s tightly coiled rhymes rocked the listener’s head back with complex combinations of consonants worthy of that other verbal bruiser and black power advocate, Muhammad Ali.
But probably the PE apogee is the monumental ‘Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos’ from Nation, part talking blues, part murder ballad, part agit-prop polemic, later stunningly retooled by Tricky on his debut album. Here, Chuck D pounds through verse after verse, assuming the POV of a man who refuses military service ("I’m a Black man/And I could never be a veteran"), gets sent down, then orchestrates a jailbreak with the help of the S1Ws.
Even the shape of the hobnailed blocks of text stamped into the album sleeve seemed to confirm Chuck’s literary heavyweight status. And in diametrical opposition to the slacker shruggishness that would soon be in vogue, he met the spokesman-for-a-generation challenge head on: hitting the college lecture tour/talkshow circuit; talking of’sparking a Black Panther revival and meeting with Oakland activists who d’successfully imposed order on their own troubled turf. He also pledged allegiance to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, whose anti-Semitic remarks embarrassed Jesse Jackson in the midst of his Presidential campaign, not to mention earning the ire of Lou Reed on ‘Good Evening Mr Waldheim’ from 1989’s New York album.
Public Enemy had much more in common with rock bombast than velvet soul or silky r&b, but their political intent couldn’t have been further from traditional white noise nihilism. In fact, PE were hell-bent on dismantling the existing star system, and had no shortage of sacred cows to slaughter.
Cue ‘Fight The Power’, commissioned by Spike Lee for his film Do The Right Thing, a watershed for both parties. The combo’s armour-plated co-option of the old Isley Bros slogan was to become an integral part of the film, not just as accompaniment to Rosie Perez exquisite bump ‘n grind in the opening sequence, but as a ghetto-blasting Greek chorus throughout the tale. Indeed, the volume at which Radio Raheem blasts out the song on his boom-box becomes the bone of contention which sparks a riot at the local pizza parlour - perhaps Lee’s wry acknowledgment of the incendiary potential of the PE sound.
Furthermore, Chuck D and Flav’s redneck-baiting refrain of, "Elvis was a hero to most/But he never meant shit to me you see/Straight up racist that sucker was/Simple and plain/Motherfuck him and John Wayne" amounted to nothing less than an iconocataclysm: a blunt rebuttal of four decades of WASP hero worship, issued at earthquaking volume.
"Well, a lot of times we don’t revere the white icons like white people do," Professor Griff reasons now. "We don’t give a fuck about who John Wayne and Elvis are. Do you understand what I’m saying? They mean nothing to us. They were forced upon us by the white media in America, so we had to digest the Tarzan syndrome and the Barbie and Ken dolls and the GI Joe and that kind of thing, but they don’t mean anything to us, especially when you know a guy like Elvis stole his style from a black man."
The accompanying video, shot by Lee, recreated the 1963 March on Washington, and New York magazine predicted that Do The Right Thing would incite rioting in the summer of 1989. It never happened, but in musical terms at least, the walls of Jericho were coming down. By Flavor’s Flav’s outsized clock, it was always Armagideon time:
"This is the DIS TOPIA," Melody Maker’s Simon Reynolds had written in October 1987. "An eternal now forever teetering on the brink of extinction, a world without narrative (that’s why ‘Rebel Without A Pause’ is like a locked groove); the hip hop ego traverses a treacherous soundscape, constantly faces sonic ambush or mined terrain, always overcomes, never can rest."
But as Reynolds also pointed out, there was a whiff of the right wing gun-nut extremism about PE’s rhetoric, black or white supremacy dissolving into the same poisonous cant. Even now, one can imagine Griff’s rhetoric alongside dialogue from Charlton Heston and the Unabomber on some lost Godspeed You Black Emperor field recording.
PE’s lingo was not so much end-times as post end-times: the secret handshake/shorthand slang of demobbed Vietnam vets wearing dog-eat-dog tags, prophesies of fires, earthquakes, looting, vigilante justice, corporal punishment. Ironically, much of the group’s apocalyptic texts could ve been appropriated by white Christian soldiers gone off the grid as much as black militants.
It’s no wonder Chuck D found a fan in Henry Rollins – PE soundtrack life in a survivalist boot camp, the musical equivalent of a man caught in perpetual mid sit-up. Only Flav’s Groucho Davis Junior buffoonery on tunes like ‘Cold Lampin’ With Flavor’, even his lurching pimp roll of a walk for God’s sake, provided any kind of light relief.
In fact, there were too many times when Public Enemy got it badly wrong, tainting their agenda with kneejerk homophobia, anti-Semitism and misogyny, particularly Chuck D’s remarks about their being no room in the black race for gays, or his ill-advised attempts to defuse Farrakhan’s "Hitler was a great man" comments.
Many black academics felt let down by this aspect of the group, expecting better from an outfit who were so on-the-ball about issues like drugs, poverty, black nationalism and prison life.
Professor Griff is having none of it. "Yeah," he shoots back, "because the black academia have letters behind their name validated by white people."
But it wasn’t only the elder berries and intellectuals who had an axe to grind. Greg Tate, a co-founder of the Black Rock Coalition alongside Vernon Reid from Living Colour, was not shy about calling the band on the "wack retarded philosophy" they espoused in jams like ‘She Watch Channel Zero’ and ‘Sophisticated Bitch’.
"Well my thing is, when we deal with terms like ‘Sophisticated Bitch’, we don’t mean the actual woman," Griff responds, "we mean America as a young whore, as it speaks of in the Bible - she slept with everyone imaginable, so if America has this whore-ish kind of way about her, you might find her in the bed with every despicable despotic leader across the globe."
Tell it to the Marines - the AIDS sensationalism of ‘Meet The G That Killed Me’ off Fear Of A Black Planet can hardly be fudged over with metaphor. However, Griff won’t be swayed, attempting to laugh that one off with, "I think something like that on a personal level is possible. You meet a woman like that at a concert, you have sex with her that night, you could actually meet the G that kills you."
Cheap ‘n’ nasty stuff for sure, but nothing compared to the shitstorm that happened in May 1989, when Griff gave an interview to the Washington Post in which he declared that Jews are responsible for "the majority of the wickedness that goes on across the globe".
The Professor, of course, pleads media conspiracy, reckoning that the whole thing was a set up, and the Post journalist was sent out with an agenda, to "lean towards getting that kind of information to doctor up a tape to make it seem like, ‘Okay, well, this guy’s really attacking you as opposed to laying out facts written by your people.’"
So Griff felt suckered?
"Yes." (Laughs) "Very much so."
In the aftermath of the Washington Post debacle, Chuck D fired Griff, reinstated him, then disbanded PE, claiming they were boycotting the music industry. When, in another interview, Griff attacked his bandmates and called Hank Shocklee "full of shit", Chuck decided to sack him permanently. Griff still seems aggrieved that he received more support from Ice T… who went on the record with ‘This One’s For Me’ from ‘Freedom Of Speech’, than his bandmates during this period.
Yet in the face of a turf war between blacks and Jews, Chuck refused to distance himself from Griff’s remarks, instead blaming the dismissal on the fact that his lieutenant wasn’t a team player. It was a compromised response which satisfied no-one, especially not when ‘Welcome To The Terrordome’ was released in December ‘89. Written one Friday night while Chuck drove his Bronco from Long Island to Pennsylvania and back, the song became notorious for lines which referred to ‘a so-called chosen people’ and in which the rapper declared, ‘they got me like Jesus’. Now Chuck himself was accused of anti-Semitism. Again, he hedged, giving Rolling Stone and Vibe writer Alan Light some garbled nonsense about wanting to show example to black people by spotlighting the fact that, as he saw it, "the Jewish community has been fucked with so long, they’re always on point of attack when they feel something. And I thought doing (‘Terrordome’) would show the black community how we need to be."
Ironically though, the group were in no shape to be setting examples for their communities. Even now, Professor Griff maintains that his bandmates refusal to back him up fatally undermined PE’s credibility.
"They were kind of stuck in between," he says. "You’re either gonna go with him or you re gonna go against him. And it’s sad because . . . stand up for the truth. Don’t stand up for me as an individual. God has no respect of persons. He doesn’t care who you are. When you fall under the law you fall under the law. If the law finds you doing wrong, you’re wrong. I don’t care if you re a doctor, lawyer, white, black, Jew or gentile, it doesn’t matter - stand up for the truth. And that’s what they should’ve done."
So he felt he’d been thrown to the wolves?
"Exactly. That’s how I feel."
How does he live with that in present day Public Enemy?
"Well I don’t really have this real close interaction with them, just me and Chuck. And that we’ve talked about in private,so . . ."
The way he sees it, Griff’s presence validates the band as a political entity, and after his departure, they were mere entertainment. There may be a grain of truth in this, but nonetheless, 1990’s Fear Of A Black Planet focused its sights on juicy new targets such as LA Babylon (‘Burn Hollywood Burn’), racial prejudice in the emergency services (‘911 Is A Joke’) and welfare culture (‘Can’t Do Nuttin For Ya Man’), while Shocklee’s soundscapes grew ever more dense. And for all the racial controversy (such as chastising black sisters for chasing moneyed whites in ‘Pollywanacraka’), the group did not advocate a policy of musical separatism, and were as apt to sample Queen as Coltrane. More remarkably, as a live act PE literally went into the arena with the rock acts, touring with everyone from the Sisters Of Mercy and Sonic Youth to U2. Chuck, hyper-conscious that hip-hop acts had a bad rep as lame live draws, set two S1W’s to work training as sound and lights technicians, and found a common audience with co-headliners and fellow noise-bringers Anthrax: white collegiate radicals and bored suburban brats with boomboxes and baggy pants.
"That really surprised us," Griff concedes. "But I think what young white angry rebellious kids see in us is the fact that we re standing up for principles, and then I guess the music transcended the racial thing to the point where they understood that the struggle we were going through is something similar to what they were going through."
The group’s fourth album Apocalypse 91 . . . The Enemy Strikes Back emerged as a bass-heavy sonic diagnosis of the problems within the black community; from liquor abuse to welfare dependency. The band appeared on Saturday Night Live with Michael Jordan, Spike Lee and Jesse Jackson, Chuck D spoke up to defend Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer for helping to popularise hip-hop, while Fresh Prince Will Smith cited the band as a positive force in young black culture.
Apocalypse 91 . . . went platinum and became the band’s biggest ever mainstream hit, but over the next couple of years Public Enemy lost impetus: all this consorting with white rock acts and dissing the homies had soured certain of the faithful. True, the video for ‘By The Time I Get To Arizona’, which seemed to prescribe the assassination of the state’s governor on account of his refusal to acknowledge Martin Luther King Jr. Day, stirred up some good old controversy, but the band’s lacklustre 1992 collection of B-sides and outtakes Greatest Misses lost them a lot of ground. Throughout this period, Public Enemy sounded confused.
"Man, everybody’s gonna always consider us confused," Flavor Flav retorts. "Why? Cos the motherfuckers been tryin’ to confuse us and they couldn’t ever do it. Motherfuckers tried to put Chuck in one room, put me in the other room and them motherfuckers still came up with zeros? They confused. They can’t take us down. Yo, yo, even if me and Chuck was to be divided we could still conquer."
Professor Griff is more philosophical about PE’s decline.
"The group has to go through the changes and the refining stage," he rationalises. "I guess you have to welcome all trials and tribulations because, as I was taught, they’re there to purify you."
Worse than the group’s loss of musical direction though, was the fact that Flavor Flav was going off the rails. His frequent no-shows at gigs caused tension with Griff, who was acting as tour manager and often had to commission one of the S1W’s to dress up in his garish garb and deputise as ‘Flavor with the flu’.
All this carry-on significantly undermined the band’s no-shit reputation. "The only people that we scared is the people that thought they would not see us after they paid their money," Flav cackles.
He can laugh now. Back then he was repeatedly arrested: in 1991 for reputedly punching his girlfriend, and in ‘92 for outstanding warrants on traffic violations, drugs and firearms charges, and even a count of attempted murder after he allegedly discharged a .38 calibre revolver during a dust up with a 54-year-old neighbour. In 1993 Flav finally checked into the Betty Ford clinic for treatment of a variety of addictions. Years later, he seems somewhat oblivious to all the havoc.
"I don’t think it caused that much tension in the group," he maintains. "It caused a lot of tension within myself because you know, it was about my personal life and how everybody perceives the Flav, you know what I’m sayin’? Then I had to deal with me bein’ embarrassed, this an’ that, that an’ this."
The band’s 1994 ‘comeback’ album Muse Sick ‘N’ Our Mess Age had its moments, but frequently sounded fuzzy and somewhat anachronistic in the prevailing climate of guns ‘n’ gangstas. By now PE was effectively a part-time pursuit. All the members had solo projects on the boil, and Chuck, who had also written a memoir and signed on with Fox television, began referring to the group as a kind of rap equivalent of the Grateful Dead; an unkillable touring machine whose fortunes might fluctuate but would nevertheless remain a perennial presence in American music.
In 1998, the band reunited for the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s He Got Game, and although it wasn’t exactly a return to former glory, there were flashes of greatness.
And given that so much of Public Enemy’s early work amounted to a heart-stoppingly apocalyptic wake up call, it was fitting that they should cover Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What It’s Worth’ (‘Stop, children, what’s that sound?’) with the blessing of Stephen Stills.
The group subsequently headlined the Smokin’ Grooves tour with Cypress Hill and Wyclef Jean, and by the end of the century, were back in the news as one of the few music business insider advocates of free music over the Net. After Def Jam and Polygram forced Chuck to remove free downloadable songs from the band’s website, relations between band and label broke down, resulting in their last album, the impressively brawny There’s A Poison Goin’ On, being released over the web and also on the indie label Atomic Pop.
Again, there was yet more anti-Semitic controversy, this time over an anti-industry rant entitled ‘Swindler’s Lust’ (Chuck’s latest soundbite was: "If you don’t own the master, then the master own you"). Most recently, the rapper went head to head with Metallica’s Lars Ulrich defending Napster in an Internet debate, an argument that mirrors the sampling furore which announced the band as a revolutionary force in the late eighties.
In the current climate, it’s tempting to view Public Enemy as black radicalism’s last stand in the realm of pop culture.
Or in the words of Professor Griff: "Public Enemy’s a lot larger than individuals - it’s the concept of what we represent. I could die tomorrow. Once a people bond together and get a hold of the principle of what we represent, regardless of their complexion, I think it means something a lot more than me as an individual. And I think a lot of times what we tried to do was raise the consciousness level of people, to get them to understand that, okay, ours may be a black struggle for dignity and human rights and self determination and self respect, yours may be on another level, but our struggle is similar."
There’s A Poison Goin’ On is out now on Atomic Pop, distributed by Vital