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PUBLIC ENEMY NOT A G-THANG
By Jake Nichols on December 5, 2012
Jackson, Wyo. – Public Enemy came to drop bombs.
The seminal hip-hop group’s 1987 debut Yo! Bum Rush the Show was like a keg of dynamite – a volatile blend of inner-city aggression, pulsating drums, and a thrumming wall of sampled loops. Exactly a year later, PE lit the fuse. Like Bum Rush, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was like nothing the world had ever heard.
Sure, Def Jam label mates the Beastie Boys and platinum record, Grammy nominees Run DMC had already paved the way, rapping over break beats, but no one had yet come along with Chuck D’s radical restiveness and rhyme. The Beastie Boys were clowns that wouldn’t be taken seriously until later in their career and Run DMC fell into the self-bluster mold that continues to trap so many rappers.
Public Enemy was the voice of a sociopolitical movement. While number one hits like Club Nouveau’s “Lean on Me” (March, 1987) and Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” (March, 1988) appeased America’s safe mainstream tastes, a storm was brewing. PE seeded a change then that still regards its progress in fits and starts, and succeeded, in the early years, in labeling the group terrorists and an enemy of the government. Public Enemy number one.
Black angst, a rolling stone
Carlton Douglas Ridenhour grew up in Roosevelt, N.Y. – the same neighborhood that gave the world Sandra Dee, Eddie Murphy and Howard Stern. The most influential years of Ridenhour’s life, his first decade on this planet, were tumultuous times. Vietnam, the Black Panthers, Summer of Love, and assassinations dominated the headlines. In addition to John and Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., were also gunned down. The man who would be known as Chuck D learned early the world needed a message.
Chuck D has raged all his life against the machine. His immediate target was the new wave of music coming out of his radio. Just as early hip hop earned fans by pushing back against disco in the ’70s, PE attacked the music industry on their way to dismantling the system.
“A lot of the music of the ’80s I detested. That includes a lot of the black music and the rock. It just became corporate and artificial. It became sex-driven,” Chuck D said by phone on his way from DC to NYC after the inaugural show of the Hip Hop Gods Tour 2012 at the 9:30 Club. “I still had a hard time getting away from the way music was in the ’60s and ’70s. When it came down to making rap music we incorporated a lot of those aesthetics and ingredients.”
PE’s early sound was devoid of melody on purpose. These tracks weren’t radio-friendly sing-alongs. Chuck D’s perturbing lyrics boomed from his ample baritone above sandpaper grooves borrowed from so many influential b-boy tracks the resulting provocation gave hope to the oppressed and terrified the oppressors.
“Racism is still an issue in America. Sometimes black and white is a TV set, and they get mad when it’s ‘browned out,’” said the lyricist who has travelled to 85 countries in his 25 years of touring. “The world has so much to offer, places where it’s irrelevant how you look or the color of your skin. America still has some ways to go to catch up with that. But in America, a lot of institution and policy is still embedded in that. Even with a black president those institutions and policies are slow to change.”
Chuck D probably didn’t know his music would kindle a generation to disbelieve the hype and then fight the power. In the late-eighties, D was closing in on 30. By today’s rap standards, he was a producer’s age. He should have been instructing 19-year-old stars on how not to blow their paper on bling and blondes. But Chuck D was just seasoned enough to know music had to have more to say than today’s ball-grabbing braggadocio.
“Today’s rappers gotta say something,” Chuck D said. He listens to everything. He likes Canadian stars k-os and K’naan for their intelligent design. Brother Ali also has his respect as an artist with something worthwhile to say. And Chuck D recognizes skill. “What Busta Rhymes did on Chris Brown’s record was stunning. Not easy,” D told a journalist last year about Busta’s ferocious triple-time guest rant on “Look at Me Now.”
Genre genesis: The ‘G’ spot
Early hip-hop leeched out of its Bronx bassinet in the late ’70s. Most point to DJ Kool Herc’s “break” parties at Sedgwick and Cedar during the height of gang violence in NYC as the birth of hip hop. At his parties, Herc’s boilerplate style gave feature to the “breaks” or looped drum-heavy segments of music by James Brown and others, where talked or rapped vocalisms were encouraged.
Herc’s unique sound was picked up by artists like Grandmaster Flash, who added “scratching” and “cutting” to the break while MCs did their thing. Enter Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” and Doug E. Fresh/Slick Rick on “The Show” and “La-Di-Da-Di” and a sound was launched that Wal-Mart had no genre tab for and wasn’t exactly in a hurry to find one.
Public Enemy upped the ante with headier lyrics and a clamorous wall of sampling noise that was the specialty of producer/arranger Hank Shocklee. Chuck formed PE out of Spectrum City, a fledgling mobile DJ operation on Long Island. Hype man Flavor Flav was an old chum from around the way. Both D and Flav were from the same ’hood but didn’t meet until they attended Adelphi University. Both had brilliant minds.
The Hard Rhymer grew up with educated parents and a father, Lorenzo Ridenhour, who was active in his life. Flav, born William Drayton, was a self-taught musical prodigy, mastering 15 instruments before his teen years when he began a string of run-ins with the law.
While delivering furniture for his father, Chuck D and Flav kicked out a two-song demo that would eventually influence the Beastie Boys’ and Run DMC’s sound and would convince newcomer producer Rick Rubin that he had to have them on his new label Def Jam.
The debut record delighted critics but scared off radio programmers. The follow-up Nation of Millions benefited from Spike Lee’s use of “Fight the Power” on his Do the Right Thing soundtrack. By 1991’s Fear of a Black Planet, PE had cemented themselves as one of hip hop’s most prolific influences.
“Times have changed, especially over the last few years,” Chuck D said. “Before, you needed more hands on the board and more minds on the music. But now you have people that are a virtual board anyway so they can transfer information over digital files that gets across and you really couldn’t do that before.”
Public Enemy still employs turntablist Terminator X or DJ Lord and Minister of Information Professor Griff despite occasional in-band flare-ups. Still, everywhere they are scheduled to play, fans want to know if Flav will make the show.
“Why wouldn’t he be there? I don’t know where that came from,” Chuck D said when asked about his jovial sidekick. “That’s what Public Enemy is. I don’t think I’m gonna do Public Enemy without Flav. I had to do it before like that once when I had no other choice because he was inside the justice system and wasn’t able to leave. That was about 10 years ago. But out of 5,000 shows maybe he’s missed 20. I wouldn’t be out there without him, and I wouldn’t bill it as Public Enemy without him.”
Rap and roll
Hip hop artists soon had to endure major speed bumps along the way to initial accomplishments. Violence marred the industry in its raw youth and copyright issues threw a wrench into PE’s “sound” and threatened to derail the entire genre.
Shootings erupted into full scale war in the late ’90s with the killings of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur. When Minister Louis Farrakhan organized a rap summit in 1997 to restore order it was Chuck D, sitting right next to Queen Latifah, who helped calm the waters.
“I think a lot of [the violence] is the media’s fault,” Chuck D said. “And I think that’s been a travesty. I think when media continue to just talk about the bad aspects … you are bound to have side effects. It’s too bad that that affects the art form.”
In the lawless days of the golden age of rap, artists also sampled from recordings freely with impunity. Before long, the financial success of hip hop brought the major labels, the attorneys and the lawsuits. One listen to PE’s first two albums as compared to 1991’s Fear of a Black Planet and the shift is immediately apparent. Sampling was getting too costly to do it the way PE liked to.
“Public Enemy’s music was affected more than anybody’s because we were taking thousands of sounds,” Chuck D told Stay Free! magazine in 2002. PE lifted hooks from no less than 24 different recordings for “Night of the Living Baseheads” – from David Bowie’s “Fame” to Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady” to Rufus Thomas’ “Do the Funky Penguin,” which was also featured heavily in “Don’t Believe the Hype.”
“The[se] sounds were all collaged together to make a sonic wall,” Chuck D continued. “Public Enemy was affected because it is too expensive to defend against a claim. So we had to change our whole style.”
The change meant artists like PE couldn’t afford to sample from multiple recordings. Dr. Dre spearheaded the revolution by latching onto one hook – Leon Haywood’s “I Want’a Do Something Freaky to You” on “The Chronic” – and riding it throughout a song. Things got tight for a while, until Chuck D did something about it.
“Now it??s more open than it used to be,” Chuck D said. “People have the leeway to make their mixed tapes and sell it. It really was a closed system years ago. There was only a few companies that had the means to get things out there. They had the connections and were tied-in with incredible teams of lawyers and accountants.”
Chuck D is now a huge proponent of an open music industry and encourages artists to get inspired by those who came before. “History shouldn’t be a mystery especially when it’s documented so well. There’s a treasure trove of ideas and musical influences in recorded music,” Chuck D said.
Chuck D is proud of his own music distribution database SpitDigital.com. Began in 2004 and perfected by 2007, the online software allows fellow music artists to get on the tip of the acts that paid their dues long before. Chuck D explained, “Now if anybody wants to go look up Doug E. Fresh [a major influence of Chuck’s] they can go right to his music, his information, and his social network. This is making the world of music different than maybe 10 years ago. Better.”
Chuck D still regrets suing Notorious B.I.G. over his use of Chuck’s countdown in “Shut ’Em Down” for “Ten Crack Commandments.” He settled out of court. Since then, Chuck D has been fine with others using PE stuff, including Evolution Control Committee’s 1993 mix of PE over a Herb Alpert track, which many regard as the birth of mashups.
Straight into Jackson Hole
These days, the preacher/teacher cusses less: “There is still cursing but I am selective on what songs I want to do it on and what songs I won’t.” And keeps reinventing PE’s sound: “Public Enemy never done the same thing twice. We are always experimenting with sounds.”
Memorizing lyrics is probably the biggest challenge left for the legendary hotstepper. We asked him how he remembers all the words to a song like “Welcome to the Terrordome,” which has 666 by our count.
“I try to make sure I remember the first few lyrics,” Chuck D admitted. “That’s a very difficult thing, by the way. Memorizing the lyrics is probably the hardest thing for me. Writing them, I have no problem. Performing, I have no problem. But memorizing for the performance has always been an issue.”
If Chuck D forgets any words to songs he wrote – some more than two decades ago – it will be understandable. He won’t, however, commit the classic rock star faux pas of forgetting which city he’s in.
“I’ve been through Wyoming a few times – to Cheyenne and Laramie – but not on the Jackson tip,” Chuck D said. “So this is a really going to be an experience for many people. I’m glad we’re coming through Jackson. I know a lot of people go there. This one’s looking to be special.”
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