My earliest experience in Hip Hop dates back to 1983 and hearing Malcolm McLaren’s Buffalo Gals for the first time, but it wasn’t until ’84 that my first excursions into this world were made. I was 12 when I saw Breakdance (Breakin) in Kilkenny, and within weeks I was going from caterpillar to back spinning on a sheet of lino. It was a time when punk had seen its best days, and now began to retreat into the underground from which it exploded some 8 years prior.
The music referred to as post-punk or indie, along with the commercial vomit pop of its time, was saturating the charts and my hometown. Hip Hop and House Music, two new musical revolutions, were in their formative stages. Hip Hop kept branching out from the boundaries of its earlier incarnation in the late 70’s, where it spread from the Bronx throughout New York and worldwide by the early 80’s, helped by movies like Style Wars, Wild Style, Beat Street and a number of commercial musical successes. It began to reinvent itself and every other art form it crept under through the emergence of a younger generation of emcees, Djs and producers.
The birth of labels such as Def Jam and Tommy Boy (among others) liberated the possible. These were exciting times with acts like RUN DMC, Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, BDP, Schooly D, and Ice T smashing through the lines of a banal music scene dazed by its own shoes, throwing the shackles off in the face of restrictive cults of wank and say nothing horseshitters populating the charts.
These groups had not over-complicated anything, in fact they simplified it all, but in a clever way. ‘No Sleep’, ‘Rock the Bells’, and ‘King of Rock’ were sucker punches in their own right, and to this day these anthems “Raise the Roof”. Still, something about the edge that hip hop had brought to its art was missing. Call it absolute or unhindered confrontation, a pure unleashing of truth, or uncompromising liberation, excitement at a level of saying what wasn’t being said. Something up to now that you had missed but only realised you did after it had emerged. You had it, experienced it, and it changed you. My small-town Irish childhood had not prepared me for what was to come, but it taught me a lesson that informed everything I did afterwards.
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Whoever says art can’t affect any real social change, tell that to the countless conservative backyard gombeens, raised and educated on social conventions, shit-shovelling philosophies and gutless sound bites who, through a song, painting, or a piece of literature, had everything irrevocably changed, a perspective where the goalposts weren’t so much moved as the whole pitch. Leading them down a path to face the world on their own terms. If anything, for many, Public Enemy are just that provocation. It began here.
Emerging from Long Island New York a group of deejays, producers and emcees known as Spectrum City had been building a reputation in their neighbourhood. Their emcee Chuck D produced a tape from a local radio station he worked at responding to another challenger who wanted to battle him, calling it Public Enemy number one. In 1986 after coming to the attention of Rick Rubin, the band were signed to Def Jam Records. The groups name would be taken from the demo which got them their deal, and Public Enemy was born. The band immediately began recording their debut album Yo! Bum Rush The Show. However, thanks to an over loaded timetable of releases with Columbia records of which Def Jam was subsidiary,Yo! was delayed with release held back until February of the following year. This according to Chuck D left PE in a situation, albeit one not yet fully realised.
These delays resulted in a time when Eric B and Rakims legendary debut single release ‘Eric B Is President’, and subsequently the Paid In Full album, were unleashed. Seen by many as the great game changer of its time, it undermined Yo! in its infancy and, according to Chuck, made their album sound outmoded. Paid In Full had pushed the bar further and in so doing dated the PE debut upon its release. This can understate the necessity and absolute originality of the piece itself. To me, PE’s first long player was still the most cutting edge album of its moment, even more than the astounding Paid in Full. It not only introduced a new voice but there was an urgency to the Rubin/Bomb Squad collaboration that would set the template for the intensity which would follow. Not only that, seeping through the pores of every song, every ego trip, and every utterance from the mouth that roared were the first sparks and provocations of what was to become the most controversial, outspoken and for many the most intelligent music group on the planet at that time.
Public enemy were Hip Hop’s answer to both the retreat of punk and a visible lack of new modes of politically charged popular art. In order to understand the band, you need to understand the time they emerged and the environment that produced them. A child of the 60’s, Chuck D grew up in a period where civil rights and political movements informed his youth. Seeing the possibility of change for his community, then seeing it dashed through the policies of a racist system and government, along with assassinations of Black Leaders, the band would continue the tradition as a legacy of this struggle.
Black radical politics had suffered significantly post King, X and the Black Panthers through alienation, discrimination, police brutality, political polarisation and ghettoised communities across the United States. Hip Hop had plenty of social commentary and politically infused songs up to this point, such as The Furious Fives ‘The Message’ and Ice T’s ‘Squeeze The Trigger’, among others. Also, emerging groups such as Boogie Down Productions and RUN DMC all extended themselves into this area. That said, none had quite shaken the musical or political landscape they inhabited to the extent of what was to come.
In Public Enemy’s debut, the tone was set for subsequent albums even if what was to follow might not have been predictable at that moment. The attitude is first felt here, from the car screeching cuts of ‘Your Gonna Get Yours’ to the incendiary ‘Timebomb’;
I’m a MC protector, U.S. defector
South African government wrecker
Panther power, you can feel it in my arm
Lookout y’all cause I’m a timebomb
Onto Flavors first excursion in jester mode with ‘Too Much Posse’, and their debut single ‘Public Enemy No.1’, through to the doubled up vocal interpretations of ‘Megablast’ (later repeated in ‘It Takes A Nations – Party For Your Right To Fight’). It would contain all the various attention to detail and subject reference that the band would revisit and explore in more depth with later releases. Possibly the most defining track lyrically to inform the future of the group and their trajectory is ‘Rightstarter ( Message To A Black Man)’;
You spend a buck in the 80’s, what you get is a preacher
Forgivin’ this torture of the system that brought ‘cha
I’m on a mission and you got that right
Addin’ fuel to the fire, punch to the fight
Many have forgotten what we came here for
Never knew or had a clue, so you’re on the floor
Just growin not knowin about your past
now you’re lookin’ pretty stupid while you’re shakin’ your ass
Mind over matter, mouth in motion
Can’t deny cause I’ll never be quiet
Let’s start this right’
An album of anthems and hooks, chants and choruses, that left you in no doubt that something different was happening. This, combined with the imagery on cover and stage, suggested something far more provocative and militant that was moving away from the now well established Hip Hop trends of the emcee cult above all else. Plus, it was exciting even in the context of an already gripping and still very young music. Public Enemy basically did their own thing and in so doing would inspire a generation to branch out and take hip hop right to the edge on their terms. The Def Jam sound, essentially the Rick Rubin scratched stab samples, and rock influence, with hard heavy beats was the most cutting edge in Hip Hop’s most defining era of originality. Everything coming off this label was now at the forefront of the culture, and Yo! Bum Rush The Show’s introduction would be at the forefront of that. When considering what the band produced subsequently, none of it would have been possible without what I still consider the greatest debut album I’ve ever heard. Even after the emergence of such ground breaking masterpieces like Paid In Full, it is important to remember what Public Enemy understood better than anyone, that “The Show” must go on.