Public Enemy ready to bum rush the show

Hip-hop legends about to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

By Peter Lindblad

Chuck D. and Public Enemy were itching to unleash Yo! Bum Rush the Show on a world that wasn’t at all
Public Enemy - It Takes a Nation of
Millions to Hold us Back
prepared for its incendiary political and social commentary or its revolutionary sound collages. In 1986, however, their record company had different priorities.

While working at the radio station WBAU, the emcee with the powerful, hard-hitting delivery and a keen intellect had already rapped on the Public Enemy #1 tape put together by PE’s sonic mastermind Hank Shocklee.  

As Chuck D. recalls, “It actually was a demo for radio promo in 1984 that created a lot of havoc,” and it was passed around from “Yo! MTV Raps” host Doctor Dre and then “… to [Run DMC’s] Jam Master Jay and then [Def Jam Recordings founder/record producer] Rick Rubin and the Beastie Boys as well. It was my first record, and it was actually supposed to come out in ‘86, but because it was in the CBS system … [Bruce] Springsteen pushed back the Beastie Boys and pushed back us, so we got caught up into releasing our first record in ’87 instead of ’86. By that time, a lot of the terrain of hip-hop and rap music had changed, and [Public Enemy #1] would have been groundbreaking if it had come out in ’86, but it’s interesting at least.” 

Coming off the massive success of Born in the U.S.A., Springsteen was about to unveil the five-CD box set Live/1975-85, and the music industry was abuzz with anticipation. Hip-hop wasn’t the proven cash cow it would become, and Public Enemy was put on the back burner.

However, their time would come, and when Public Enemy arrived, emcee Chuck D., hype man Flava Flav, the Bomb Squad production team, DJ Terminator X and the Professor Grif-led, fake Uzi-toting Security of the First World dance team turned hip-pop – and popular music, as well – on its collective ear. Touted as the “Black CNN,” Public Enemy addressed subjects important to African-Americans that white America was too scared, too apathetic or too bigoted to confront.

Against a backdrop of sirens, a crazy mix of samples, hard funk rhythms and minimalist beats, Chuck D. voiced his truth with all the subtlety of a howitzer, while Flava Flav – sporting his trademark big clocks – played the court jester. What they had to say was vitally important, as was how the 2013 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees said it.

Born Carlton Ridenhour, Chuck D. attended Adelphi University on Long Island in the early ‘80s. While studying graphic design, Chuck D. worked as a DJ at the school’s radio station, WBAU, where he met Shocklee and Bill Stephney. Sharing an interest in politics and hip-hop, the three bonded, and Ridenhour began appearing on Stephney’s radio show as Chuck D.

As for Flav, he grew up as a self-trained musical prodigy in Roosevelt, N.Y., playing multiple instruments. His teenage years were troubled ones, however, as he found himself in hot water with the law on numerous occasions and eventually dropped out of high school. Around that time, Flav and Chuck D. began hosting their own college radio show, while also working for Chuck D.’s father’s delivery service.

Soon, the various components that made up Public Enemy coalesced, with Chuck D. and Flava Flav out in front. Featuring Hank and Keith Shocklee, Eric “Vietnam” Sadler, Gary G-Wiz and Kerwin Young, the Bomb Squad was assembled, stacking a wide-ranging variety of samples on top of one another in a single track with an innovative cut-and-paste approach and avant-garde sensibilities. Whipping up a frenzied racket, with the noisy scratchings of Terminator X adding to the sonic mix, Public Enemy drew the attention of Rubin, who wanted them for his Def Jam label.

Though known for his production work with the likes of thrash-metal titans Slayer, Rubin took a hands-off approach with Public Enemy.

“Truthfully speaking, we never really worked hand-in-hand with Rick,” says Chuck D. “It was probably the first time he let something be autonomous, and we wanted to be autonomous. But at the same time, we welcomed Rick to add in whatever he wanted to add in. And I think he’s proud of that fact.”

Still, with Rubin around, the Run DMC-influenced Public Enemy assimilated elements of heavy rock, pushing guitars to the fore on their raw debut Yo! Bum Rush the Show in startlingly original fashion. Further on down the road, they would take it to another level. “I should say the first time we went into a rock-rap was Vernon Reid [Living Color guitarist] playing on ‘Sophisticated Bitch’ on Yo, Bum Rush the Show, and then on the second album, we had that Slayer sample [‘Angel of Death’] on ‘She Watches Channel Zero,’” recalls Chuck D., who says that Rubin did the mix for “She Watches Channel Zero” and loved the results.

While Yo! Bum Rush the Show finds Public Enemy in its developmental phase, 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was a fully realized vision of radical sociopolitical diatribes set to the Bomb Squad’s game-changing, wildly original aural murals of stomping funk, free-jazz insanity and slamming hard rock. Doors didn’t just open for them. They kicked them down and rushed in, demanding everyone’s attention with irrepressible singles “Don’t Believe the Hype” and “Bring the Noise.”

Anthrax was among those who were already listening. Drummer Charlie Benante and guitarist Scott Ian were Public Enemy’s biggest ambassadors among the thrash-metal community, and in 1991, they asked Chuck D. about doing a thrash-metal remake “Bring the Noise,” who wasn’t interested initially.

“Scottie Ian was a fan from the jump, man,” says Chuck D. “Charlie and him thought it was cool to wear our t-shirts in front of a hundred thousand people at the Monsters of Rock gig. People were asking, ‘Ooooh, who’s Public Enemy?’ So, he was our first guy, man (laughs).”

With Ian in their corner, Public Enemy suddenly had crossover potential, and to show how much he thought of Anthrax, Chuck D. invoked the name of New York City’s most aggressive thrash-metal street gang in the fiery original version of “Bring the Noise.”

“That was what made me name check them in the song, ‘Bring the Noise,’” says Chuck D. “I was telling ‘em that music is all the same – ‘Wax is for Anthrax.’ And so I’m name checking everybody from Eric B. to Sonny Bono and Yoko Ono and Anthrax – imagine (laughs)? So Charlie and Scott came back and said, ‘Look, we want to do a thrash version, Chuck. Let’s get on it.’ And I was like, at that time, ‘Well, I mean, I already did the song. You guys cover it.’ They said, ‘But we want you on it.’ And they just went ahead and did it, and I got on and we did the video, and we did the tour and Charlie and Scott made history.”

So did Public Enemy, releasing a series of powerful and oftentimes controversial records like 1990’s Fear
Public Enemy - Fear of a Black Planet
of a Black Planet
– their most successful album, with singles such as “911 is a Joke” and the blazing anthem “Fight the Power,” a track which figured prominently in the Spike Lee film “Do the Right Thing” – and Apocalypse ’91 … The Enemy Strikes Black. Even as they endured Flav’s drug problems and a media firestorm over Grif’s alleged anti-Semitic remarks in the press, with each LP, Public Enemy pushed the envelope.

“The whole key was to make them totally different,” explains Chuck D. “The whole thing about rock is to never repeat yourself … over the course of a catalog, you should be able to say, ‘Okay, wow! Now there’s something different,’ but you’re not going to not sound like yourself. But you can actually say that we went over here, and we knew that people wanted this particular sound, and we went the opposite way.”

Eventually, Public Enemy, hugely influential in bringing about a golden age of rap during the 1980s and 1990s, left Def Jam to go independent. In the years since, Public Enemy has resurfaced numerous times to challenge the status quo, experiencing a surprise revival in England with the hit “Harder Than You Think” off 2007’s 20th anniversary LP How Do You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul? It was their highest-charting single ever in the country. They even returned to tour in 2012 and 2013 on the strength of two 2012 albums – Most of My Heroes Don’t Appear on No Stamp and Evil Empire of Everything, made with full instrumental bands and Terminator X’s late ‘90s replacement, DJ Lord. Tech savvy, Chuck D. was all in early on in embracing the possibilities of digitization and the Internet, and he’s been instrumental in establishing the first-ever Classic Tourfest Revue, featuring Public Enemy and a revolving lineup of rap artists from the golden age of hip-hop.

“I was really impressed with what they did, over the years, with classic rock, how they separated classic rock from the mainstream – I guess [I wanted to do the same for] the pioneering, golden era and spirit of rap and what was happening in the mainstream, contemporary, major record industry. We need to take care of it,” says Chuck D.

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