Public Enemy # 1

The character and music of PE were intended to challenge the status quo of the white ruling class.  For PE, Hip Hop was a soundtrack for a social rebellion: defiant raps were meant to spark action while a scathing musical backdrop rejected all conventional notions of “music.”

All aspects of PE- production techniques, songwriting methods, even nicknames- were calculated concepts to convey Public Enemy’s call for a social and musical revolution.  These elaborate conceits proved Hip Hop music embodied more than just boasts and festive rhymes.  PE established that rapping and making beats was a culture that would allow voices previously unheard to contribute to the betterment of society.  This idea is no different than what Bam and the Zulus instituted ten years prior.  Rather than in Bronx high schools, Public Enemy’s stage was worldwide and aided by widespread media coverage.

PE lent legitimacy to all Hip Hop DJs, MCs, rappers and producers who followed for not necessarily the same radical reasons.  Through PE and other groups of this era, Hip Hop was understood as a cultural force to be reckoned with as the culture began to redefine social norms, political viewpoints, and the commercial possibilities of Hip Hop.  From the late 1980s on, whether a rapper posed “gangsta,” “thug,” or “playa,” his or her brand of Hip Hop music became synonymous with inner city youth, specifically young black men. 

1.    Chuck D

Took the title of “The Hard Rhymer” or symbolically, “Blackman”

a.     Confrontational, roaring vocal style, similar to Run DMC
·      Chuck D’s booming voice shouted over Bomb Squad beats emphasized metaphorically how the voice of Black Americans have traditionally been silenced
b.     Hijacking modern media sloganeering techniques, Chuck D wrote songs promoting complex political and cultural viewpoints in sharp, accessible song titles or rhymed verses.  Burn Hollywood Burn,” “Night of the Living Baseheads,” or “Welcome to the Terrordome” read like newspaper headlines.
·      Chuck D coined the widely used 1980s/90s sound bite stating that “Hip Hop is Black CNN”; meaning, Hip Hop covered the ignored plight of urban blacks and minorities in Reagan’s America.
·      William Jelani Cobb's To the Break of Dawn: “Their singular genius lay in the fact that [Public Enemy] recognized rap music as a form of media at a time when the most astute practitioners of the genre were just getting hip to the idea of music as a business”

c.     Speaking as the average “Blackman,” the oppression and racism indicted in Chuck’s songs did not have to be necessarily experienced by himself.
·      William Jelani Cobb: “The lyrics themselves were politically charged double entendres- as if an MC had returned to the tradition of the Negro spirituals that slaves encoded their messages of subversion”
-  pg 61, To the Break of Dawn

·      Simon Frith theorized that popular music discourse serves as a representation of COMMUNITY.  Chuck D purposely attempts to be a spokesperson for young Black America.  In "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" Chuck D takes the perspective of an incarcerated objector to enlistment.  The video and his lyrics relay the brutal experience of prison and a proposed escape:

2.    Flavor Flav

a.     As “hype man” or "Joker" for PE, Flavor balanced seriousness of the group with comic, outrageous behavior. 
·      With dark sunglasses, extravagant outfits, and symbolic “clocks,” Flavor’s mystical joker personality was highly entertaining.
b.     As goofy as he behaved, in song, video, and concert, Flavor’s rhymes always complimented Chuck D’s vision  
·        Indirectly, Flav represented untapped potential within black youth, the ability to transition from the ‘hood to Hollywood, from lawlessness to knowledge of self.  He was Public Enemy’s “Id” to Chuck D’s “Ego”
·        Simon Frith's ideas are useful here as well.  As Flavor represents a means to help listeners manage their PUBLIC and PRIVATE lives.  

In "911 is Joke" Flavor condemns law enforcement humorously, walking that fine line of outrage and disbelief.  The private injustices and tragedies black Americans experience within the criminal justice system historically have not been punished publicly:

3.    DJ Terminator X and The Bomb Squad, the production team

a.     Music as uncompromising and extreme as the subject of Chuck D’s lyrics

b.     Consciously sought to deconstruct “white” definitions of music by creating sonic collages of rhythmic noise

Hip Hop was not deemed music by the trained ear, then the Bomb Squad found this criticism perversely inspirational. As Eric Sadler admitted, with PE’s music, the group wanted to “destroy shit, we want to fuck music up”

Detonation: Hank Shocklee of the Bomb Squad 

c.     DJ scratches often used musically in intros, breaks, or bridges
d.     Bomb Squad sampled black musicians and black leaders of the 1960 / 70s to connect Hip Hop with “Pro Black” ideological movements of the past.
  • By sampling the JBs or Malcolm X, PE brought the history of Black America into a new context
  • The lives and deaths of MLK and Malcolm X, the legacy of slavery, and America’s unspoken history of violent racial prejudice were just as relevant to the late 1980s as they were to the civil rights era. James Brown’s political activism and uncompromising funk represented a social progressivism pop music had seldom seen. Utilizing the samples of these men and women either behind microphones or drum kits, placed Hip Hop directly in succession to Black American’s rich history of resistance and triumphs in the face of social and economic adversity.
  • Frith: popular music shapes our popular MEMORY and organizes our sense of TIME and HISTORY
In "Can't Truss It" the voices of Richard Pryor, Malcolm X are brought into the same context as Chuck and Flavor's lyrics. With an equal sense of history, the visual images parallel a slavery plantation and the industrial factory, the strange fruit of lynching with Rodney King's public beating at the hands of the LAPD:

4.    The Security of the First World / The S1Ws
S1Ws: “The Black Panthers of Rap”
a.     Wearing Army fatigues, yielding Uzis, marching to the beat, the “S1Ws” reinforced PE’s militancy with physical presence.
b.     Professor Griff, “The Minister of Information,” leader the S1Ws, was the organizational influence behind “Unity Force.”
·      UNITY FORCE” was a Martial Arts and Black Islamic organization formed in Long Island during the early 1980s which had worked with the Spectrum City sound system.
·      With over 50 members at one point, the group’s purpose was to teach a disciplined physical and mental self awareness program for young black men. 
·      The Public Enemy’s initial goal was to use Hip Hop music as a vehicle for the “S1Ws” agenda.
c.     Griff and the S1Ws functioned as the “road crew,” managing stage and security for Spectrum City and early Public Enemy events.

d.     Griff’s penchant for careless, inflammatory anti-Semitic remarks revealed Public Enemy’s limited, disorganized political vision. (Public Enemy publicist Bill Adler explains further in linked video above)

5.    Public Enemy Logo

a.     The logo, designed by Chuck D, envisioning an S1W caught in the cross hairs of a rifle, captured the belief that black political leaders and activists have been targeted and killed by the US government throughout the 20th century.
b.     Further, PE and the logo represent a prevalent theme in Hip Hop that began in “The Message,” promoted by PE, and carried on in raps by Tupac, Kendrick Lamar and scores of others: young Black men of America are under attack by police, urban decay, poor educational institutions, and limited economic opportunity.

Poet, musician, singer songwriter Gil Scott-Heron
provided inspiration for PE in sound and image

  •       PE was featured in an FBI report to Congress examining "Rap Music and Its Effects on National Security" in September of 1990. The above video "Night of the Living Baseheads" highlights the band's brand, creativity and perhaps not so sensational idea that the Public Enemy was the target of hate groups and law officials
II. Def Jam Tells You Who I Am”: Marketing Revolution

1. The Revolution will be televised 

a.   While other Def Jam acts sold more (Beastie Boys, Run DMC, and LL Cool J), between 1988 and 1991 however, Public Enemy’s music, videos, lectures, and concerts attracted controversy not only in the music press but in the political arena as well.
  • During the fallout from Griff’s Washington Post interview even PE single releases “Fight the Power” and “Welcome to the Terrordome” were scrutinized by the media and religious watch dog groups alike.

  • 1991’s “By the Time I Get to Arizona” was a song in which Chuck D angrily demands Arizona honor the federally mandated observance of MLK’s birthday. To further drive home the outrage, members of PE joined an African American boycott of the Arizona tourism industry, choosing not to perform in the state. Within a year, Arizona voters relented and in 1993 the state finally celebrated its first MLK holiday.

    • All of the above guaranteed more media exposure for Def Jam and larger social acceptance of Hip Hop “music” in general as popular culture discourse that could not be ignored.

    2.     PE’s aspirations had to content to the paradox of mass market revolution

    a.     PE suggests there is rampant injustice in America; Def Jam markets a PE record as the SOLUTION.
    b.     Frith described Springsteen’s music containing a “whiff of nostalgia and air of fatalism.”  Is Public Enemy’s music the sound of the revolution or an uprising’s last stand?
    • With PE’s attempt to draw attention to MLK, Malcolm X, James Brown it became apparent there were no contemporary counterparts. The Nation of Islam had a reserved relationship with rappers and Jesse Jackson distanced himself from the Hip Hop “movement.
    • With a vacuum in black leadership that appealed to urban youth in the late 1980s, Chuck D and other rappers (KRS ONE, Ice T, Luther Campbell, Tupac, Notorious BIG) became de facto spokespersons and “role models.”
    • William Jelani Cobb in To the Break of Dawn: “That [Biggie and Tupac’s] deaths came to be seen in some quarters as ‘assignations’ on par with those of Malcolm and King illustrated not only how blurred the definitions of celebrity and leadership have become since the civil rights era, but also how few imaginative leaders have been cultivated since then. In their wake, charismatic artists were mistaken for political leadership.”

    3.     Record labels and entertainment companies attempted to market to this “unrest” in the 1990s similar to other counter cultural movements of the past
    a.  Scores of “Black nationalistic” rap groups (Poor Righteous Teachers, X Clan, Queen Latifa, Brand Nubian, Boogie Down Productions) were promoted during this period
    b.   Similar to marketing to teenage angst in the 1950s such as James Dean “Rebel without a Cause” or the Hippies of the 1960s, countercultural movements can be appropriated by Madison Ave and Hollywood to sell entertainment ventures and other ancillary products
    c.     When the currency of such artistry dissipates, a new marketing scheme is hatched.  Dr. Dre’s 1993 “gangsta rap” success The Chronic ensured a new wave of artists with a far more nihilistic world view would dominate Hip Hop discourse in the coming years.
               4.      Record companies have more in common with Adam Smith than Marcus Garvey. The                          “BOTTOM LINE” determines the success of a recording artist for a 
                        label, not cultural impact. Social and political aspirations are secondary, if not                                        an afterthought.


    The Golden Era

    “Golden Era” or “Golden Age” of Hip Hop Creativity

    From approximately 1985 to 1994 “The Golden Era” has been called as such by Hip Hop scholars, journalists, rappers, producers and entrepreneurs. From hardcore hip hop to bubblegum hip pop for over 20 years, the Golden Era has been put on a pedestal; sounds and images from this time period are a bar to be measured against or symbols employed to confirm authenticity.  In 1994, Chicago's Common (Sense) did not begin this trend but famously enshrined it in gender, equating "Hip-Hop in its Essence and Realness" with a girlfriend that he fell in love with only to have his heart broken.

    Here's but a few selections of the music and videos that reminisced over HER:

    RZA of Wu Tang, “Can It All Be So Simple Then?” (1993)

     Rooftop like we bringin' '88 back” – Iggy Azalea, “Fancy” (2014)

    Flashbacks are the future in marketing, music and even comedy.  Watch as symbols of the Golden Era are used to promote Brad Pitt's latest movie by breakdancing with Jimmy Fallon or the Black Eyed Peas attempt at a comeback in 2015 or an NWA or Roxanne Shante biopics:

    So why all the nostalgia? The reasons are several. First, as William Jelani Cobb writes in To the Break of Dawn, artists were working from a tabula rasa or a "BLANK SLATE".  With maybe only a few dozen or so notable recordings by the mid 1980s, Hip Hop recording artists had creative freedom to imagine rap music in new and varied ways.  Jelani Cobb illustrates how this process emphasised originality, resulting in a “push to expand beyond the horizons of what was and could be Hip Hop resulted in a manifold of new creations.” 

    And so, when a rap recording artist of this era succeeded amongst peers, critics and in sales, authenticity was confirmed.  “[Golden Era artists] had to first create their art form itself before getting down to the business of creating actual art.”  With no precedence, hip hop artists of this era not only made their first records but each release created whole new sub-genres with their efforts: pop rap, Black nationalist rap, gangsta rap, Afrocentric rap and so on. Unlike many contrived corporate rock n' roll and pop stars of the 1980s and 90s, rap music was considered "real".

    Second, there is the visceral thrill and the celebrated purity that the Golden Era was a youth movement.  Many of the artists were under 21 YEARS OLD, not even adults.  Many performers' approach to their careers were a special combination of being carefree with confidence, imaginative yet determined.  Jelani Cobb emphasizes this unique phenomenon: “Artists spend years trying to cultivate a unique approach to their chosen form; in these golden years, a critical mass of mic prodigies were creating themselves and their art form at the same time.” 

    Sociomuscologist Simon Frith has theorized music shapes our popular MEMORY and organizes our sense of TIME and HISTORY.  Rock n' Roll criticism and fandom has has a similar romantic nostalgia for the 1950s and 1960s.  Considering these creative dynamics at play during the production and consumption of rap during this time period, it is understandable that Hip Hop's Golden Era becomes a measuring stick for the artists that follow, a reference point for innovation and aspiration.
    How to Succeed in the Record Business Without Really Trying

    I got a letter from a record company the other day...
    In Blues People, Leroi Jones made clear creativity does not occur in a vacuum.  However, ironically, another factor to be considered in the Golden Era's productivity was the lack of stifling corporate control. Record labels were “laissez-faire” (“LEAVE ALONE”) in their approach to Hip Hop acts on their roster. On one hand, this meant little monies were spent finding, developing and promoting rap acts. But on the other hand, as record labels signed Hip Hop artists without much scrutiny, this allowed for Hip Hop practitioners to police themselves, especially in New York City.

    Most large record labels were ill equipped to cultivate Hip Hop talent.  The wise choice was to turn to those gatekeepers who were in the know: established Hip Hop DJs, journalists, promoters or nightclub owners.  Informally, these types acted as A&R (“Artist and Repertoire”) for the label, scouting talent and guiding the creative process.  Along with promotional push of grassroots "street teams," tried and tested Hip Hop performers landed record deals with an international reach from this synergy.

    In New York City in particular, talent was vetted on the live stage and “paying dues” in front of live audiences could make or break an artist. Criteria of the time dictated an MC had to be able to “rock the house” before they were prepared to step into a recording booth. Here's an example of a young Fresh Prince and his DJ Jazzy Jeff earning their way to acclaim first on stage in New York before MTV.

    Interestingly, the competitive nature of live Hip Hop music found in MC or DJ or sound system “battles” manifested in the form of a “DIS” records or “ANSWER” records.  UTFO's "Roxanne, Roxanne" created a wave of responses in 1984, certifying controversy to be a lucrative marketing technique to promote or break an artist.

    As lead by KRS ONE and MC Shan, one of the more significant rivalries of this era was between the Bronx's Boogie Down Productions and Queen's Juice Crew.  You love to hear the story again and again:

    Note KRS ONE's comments on his sudden arrival and new found responsibility: “I found myself representing the Bronx… I didn't realize what a record did for pride… the Bronx was alive again.” Keep this in mind when considering Public Enemy's career and how Hip Hop artists of the Golden Era became quasi-political figures.  Willingly or not, the lyrics and ideologies of many artists of this era became thought of as representations of Black urban youth.

    The record industry also benefited unwittingly by the bare-bones, do it yourself aesthetic of Hip Hop music production.  Prior to sampling becoming cost prohibitive in the late 1990s, rap records were produced inexpensively with innovative recording techniques.  Bambaataa's “PLANET ROCK” provided a blueprint: popular breakbeats and DJ routines could be reconstructed and reimagined into a new song form.  William Jelani Cobb explains further: “At best, [Hip Hop artists] take pre-existing scraps of sound and color and compose them into entirely new piece of art.  At its worst, the new production amounted to musical plagiarism.”

    Before sampling litigation marginalized the technique, a clear gesture was being made attempting to highlight records of old as useful in a new context.  Stetsasonic explain in “Talkin’ All That Jazz”:

    “Tell the truth, James Brown was old / 'Til Eric and Rakim came out with ‘I Got Soul’
    Rap brings back old R&B / And if we would not, people could've forgot”

    Jelani Cobb continues: “[Sampling] technology transformed used record bins into aural scrap yards, and that long-neglected album collection gathering dust in the attic into a vinyl encyclopedia of sounds.” While borrowing, covering and outright stealing of songs, vamps, chords and lyrics can be found in any American popular music form, never had an entire genre dedicated itself to carrying the torch of artists, music and movements that had long disappeared in the public imagination. Plagiarism aside, one can argue by championing a sampling approach to music making, Golden Era rap artists assisted in introducing blues, jazz, soul and rock n' roll to a new, younger audience

    "Just a mad cool out... It's about 5 o'clock in the morning"
    Famed D&D Studio was known for its "raw" sound
    For the record labels, this meant low investment, high yield. Rather than using LIVE musicians, technicians, song writers and established producers, Hip Hop records from the Golden Era were often conceived by DJ and MC’s spontaneous creativity. With the aid of a single engineer, a turntable, sampler and a drum machine, Hip Hop artists created records within weeks, reducing the costs of studio time and paid professionals. Jelani Cobb explains this unique occurrence: “The emerging sound of Hip Hop managed to be both elemental and technological simultaneously.”

    The term Golden Era certainly sounds like a subjective measurement but a variety of factors have at the very least revealed this era in Hip Hop music as being unique in how it was produced, overseen and consumed.  Evidenced in the lyrics of Wu Tang, Nas and Biggie, offspring of the Golden Era, every good thing comes to a close.  Even KRS ONE lamented in 1993: “But all along, I'm still lookin' around / And all I can see are these rap groups fallin' down.”

    By the mid 90s, the record industry became more savvy, milking the above formula for all it was worth, prompting veterans of the culture to wonder what happens when you're outta here.  More significantly, the next generation of MCs in the 1990s were the children of crack cocaine, survivors of the surrounding violence of the epidemic and resulting mass incarceration.  The sound and intent of rap music would be forever altered leaving the Golden Era to be a distant memory.