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. The 2004 documentary And You Don't Stop recounts Public Enemy's significance at this pivotal time in the development of the Hip Hop culture industries:

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.

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