Public Enemy have released a ‘Best of’ compilation of their music after near on twenty years of beats and rhymes, to consolidate a rich and pertinent legacy to the development of hip hop that helped to kick-start the whole Gangsta Rap sound and, indirectly, the co-option of hip hop by the music industry. In 1987, when Public Enemy’s impact was first heard with a resounding boom-bip, Rap music was a minority interest, either derided or patronised. Their sonic and verbal militancy caused a major shit-storm in the media, engendering the kind of outrage and moral panic that tends to surface on slow news days, and enabled hip hop music to carry the mantle of bête noire that it used so successfully to market itself beyond the urban streets to the callow youth of suburbia.
The concerns of hip hop music have now shifted from politicisation to accumulation; from rebel to label. Chuck D memorably coined rap music as the “Black C-N-N” whereas now it has become the “ghetto QVC” – from radical to superficial in twenty short years, leaving the once mighty PE irrelevant in its wake.
Hip hop music began in New York in the mid-to-late seventies when disco was still at its height and party music was the order of the day. (MC’s rapped over R&B music backdrops to create a feel-good vibe amongst the revellers, the music had many parallels with reggae toasting and indeed, may have been inspired by it). It was an underground, D.I.Y. music that was a world away from the mainstream.
Rappers Delight by the Sugarhill Gang changed everything. Released in 1979, probably as a novelty single, it became a surprise hit and is still a favourite of a lot of people (mostly blokes) who are obsessed with being able to recite it word-for-word throughout its fifteen minute running length. It was fun, funny but, most of all, it was funky and served notice to the hip hop music community that this kind of record could sell. The many early conquistadors of rap and hip hop music came, saw and conquered the shit out of the nascent form, introducing a number of innovations; Grandmaster Flash, Mantronix, Kurtis Blow, Afrika Baambaata, Kool Herc, Sugarhill Records, Whodini, Keith LeBlanc, Stetsasonic, Marley Marl, Eric B & Rakim, LL Cool J, Ice T and Run DMC all pushed hip hop forward in terms of lyrical form, cutting, scratching and sampling at a time when soul music was becoming increasingly mediocre.
The Message by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five was another landmark, pushing the lyrical content further than any rap record had done so far. Released in 1982, and sounding like an electro update of Stevie Wonder’s Living for the City, it was a stone cold classic relaying, in forensic detail, the lives of society’s bottom-feeders, tingeing its stories with anger and despair. The delivery of the lyrics was by-and-large less bombastic than other rap records (excepting Melle Mel who could sound dramatic reading out a shopping list) with the rappers preferring to be downbeat, cementing its documentary realism with dense passages of pithy prose (“my son said, daddy I don’t wanna go to school ‘cos the teacher’s a jerk, he must think I’m a fool, and all the kids smoke reefer, I think it’d be cheaper if I just got a job, learned to be a street sweeper”) and still keeping the rhyming right on point. The Message lived up to its title, providing dancefloor beats for the head as well as the feet. hip hop had now begun to carry the torch of the socially conscious agenda of 70′s soul that had been blanded out by disco and bedroom R&B.
So, rap music was considered a novelty that occasionally spiced up the charts but was still expected to die out after having been assimilated. Constantly criticised for its apparent lack of musicality, hip hop continued to break through with minor hits until Run DMC officially staked rap’s ground in the mainstream with the extremely radio-friendly Walk this Way. It’s a record that I can barely stand to hear nowadays, because of its middle-of-the-road commercialism and the fact that it was played to death, but it created the first rap superstars (if you didn’t know who Run DMC were, you needed to check in to the nearest coma ward) and ensured that hip hop would continue to have a voice. That voice would continue to speak to the party hardy, but was also the voice of the street incorporating braggadocio, bedroom entreaties and stories from urban realities.
In 1987 rap found a revolutionary voice that laid the foundations for the golden age of hip hop. Rebel Without a Pause was a milestone, signalling its intent with its opening sample declaring “brothers and sisters, I don’t know what this world is coming to” before slamming into a squealing saxophone break over thunderous ‘funky drummer’ beats. This was the sound of hip hop entering its maturity, refusing to give a shit about mainstream sensibilities, the Public Enemy sound, as produced by the Bomb Squad, had an edge so sharp that it created an instant love-or-hate-it divide; blowing open Pandora’s Box for a whole generation of Black artists. The furious, dissonant mixture of beats and samples was dubbed “music’s worst nightmare” by Hank Shocklee of the Bomb Squad and as such, it played right into the hands of those who would decry Rap for its lack of musicality. Except their opinions didn’t matter anymore; the Bomb Squad’s confrontational sound created a rallying point for the future of Black music.
As shocking as the music was, it was matched by the emceeing of Chuck D; polemical, urgent and declamatory he took no prisoners as he cut a swathe through all the forces that would rail against him. He delivers the Public Enemy manifesto with his authoritative baritone, building thought upon thought and rhymes within rhymes, never looking back, never standing down.
Politically aligning himself with Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, the radicalism was there for anyone who would care to listen. It was an untamed new voice full of righteous anger and intelligence that delivered its message in tones reminiscent of Black political leaders from Malcolm X to Stokely Carmichael to Farrakhan himself. Through Chuck D, hip hop had found a political voice that was not only lucid but embraced the radical politics of the, decidedly non-mainstream, Black Power movement.
The album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back followed up the promise of Rebel Without a Pause covering the politics of the Black experience thoughtfully and uncompromisingly with practically every tune a classic. This was their second album – their first, Yo! Bum Rush The Show, released only a year earlier seems almost primitive in comparison, with its beats less furious and bragging emceeing reminiscent of LL Cool J – and is now considered the greatest hip hop album ever. Flavor Flav played the fool to Chuck D’s straight man, delivering off-the-wall material that felt in perfect counterpoint to the harsher realities of Chuck D but was still weird nonetheless, often spouting complete, almost surrealist, nonsense with his own inimitable enunciation – although Flavor Flav is probably as responsible for inspiring as many emcees as Chuck D – oddball rappers abounded in the years after Nation of Millions all the way to Eminem today. – They released the almost perfect Fight the Power in 1989 as part of the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing – containing what is probably their most famous lyric soundbite – “Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me” – before releasing the much anticipated Fear of a Black Planet. Flav came into his own on this album, delivering top-class tunes such as 911 is a Joke and Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man, while Chuck D pushed the manifesto message even further with tunes like Burn Hollywood Burn and Welcome to the Terrordome. The Bomb Squad, again, provided beats and samples that were pant-shittingly good.
Following up the work started by Public Enemy, a group emerged in 1988 called Niggaz Wit Attitude (or N.W.A. to give them their less provocative acronym) who displayed their anti-authoritarian rage with the release of their single Fuck Tha Police. This was as incendiary a statement of intent as has ever been delivered in music and N.W.A.’s notoriety was assured. Although they were less politically astute, their tales of urban resentment were still cloaked in Black Power rhetoric, warning of the consequences of creating a large Black underclass whilst revelling in the lurid violence and misogyny of their position. Gangsta rap was born and set out to hijack the mainstream through its explicit and shocking imagery both on wax and on the streets.
Hip hop’s greatest creative period followed, with several hip hop legends-in-the-making beginning their careers. The diversity of acts that came in the wake of Public Enemy was immense with a new act born practically every week. The roll-call of artists coming up out of this period (from 1987 to 1997) included Big Daddy Kane, Young MC, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, The Jungle Brothers, KRS-1, Gang Starr, Naughty By Nature, Cypress Hill, House of Pain, EPMD, Pete Rock, The Pharcyde, Black Moon, Mobb Deep, Jeru The Damaja, The Roots, Xzibit, Outkast and The Wu-Tang Clan. Many of these records were commercially successful and hip hop fashions were changing constantly. The various political agendas of these groups tended to revolve around the notion of Black Power and the disaffected underclass, whereas the more explicitly political groups took the liberal high-ground. The voice of rap was being dissipated amongst a multitude of talented individuals, each with their own take on society and their place therein.
However, the one dominant voice during this time was that of Gangsta Rap with its East Coast-West Coast beefs and explicit lyrics providing the better stories, and which sound-tracked the racial unrest in America that ignited 1992′s LA riots. Its leading exponents were Ice T, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre -the latter two embarking on solo careers, having once been part of N.W.A. – but while the Ices were embroiled in the business of authority baiting, Dr. Dre took his old George Clinton records to put together The Chronic, a hip hop masterpiece, on which the main guest rapper was Snoop Doggy Dogg. The Chronic sold extremely well and created a real anticipation for Snoop Doggy Dogg’s solo project which, when Doggystyle was released in 1993, went stratospheric. The future was here and it was wearing a bubble-perm. In the post Doggystyle years, hip hop gained wider acceptance and progressively wore the mantle of mainstream mediocrity (niggas, bitches, violence, sex and bling).
Public Enemy’s output continued (Apocalypse 91: the Enemy Strikes Black, Greatest Misses, Muse Sick N Hour Mess Age, Chuck D’s masterly solo album The Autobiography of Mistachuck, He Got Game, There’s A Poison Going On, and Revolverlution) but the Bomb Squad were no longer taking complete control over production duties and, while the deeper and bassier production was anticipating the West Coast sound, the edge was being lost as hip hop moved on at breakneck pace. Chuck and Flav were still magnificent but were becoming increasingly irrelevant as the acts that came after them commanded more of the attention. Having put rap at the forefront of innovation, Public Enemy found they were falling behind in terms of a public that was constantly searching for the next new thing; they also lacked the killer tune that might have put them back into the limelight. At the time when hip hop was joining the mainstream, Public Enemy quit their record company and began releasing records independently, thereby leaving them without the money and marketing that might have led to a successful reinvention – their brand of agitation and polemic was no longer useful to an industry that was becoming as apolitical and bland as soul had become in the eighties.