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It doesn’t seem that long ago, but so much has changed since January 26, 1987. When the album was released, I was 16 and a junior in high school. I was not aware of Public Enemy until the end of the year. The means of rap music promotion was still limited in 1987, but let’s face it, one of the biggest albums in the land was the Beastie Boys debut album, Licensed To Ill and they were pushed heavily. It wasn’t just a Def Jam thing, but Def Jam was distributed by Columbia Records so Licensed To Ill became a major cash cow for everyone involved. I was very aware of Def Jam, for I was also a fan of L.L. Cool J and loved “I Can’t Live Without My Radio”, “Dear Yvette”, “Rock The Bells”, and the entire Radio album. Unlike now, rap music would be pushed in limited streams. The music had yet to be “proven” or validated by the mainstream, but those who wanted to hear it had to truly seek it. Since I lived in the Pacific Northwest, the only ways I could find something was hoping Rolling Stone or Spin reviewed it, or maybe see a display ad in either magazine. RS barely covered anything rap-related, but Spin had columnists who were in tune with what was going on, and if a review read well (i.e. explained that it was the hot record of the moment), I would try to find it. Back then, unless you lived in a city/town that had a radio station that played rap music, the best way would be to go to a record store and spend a long time browsing.
Artists could have “sleeper” albums and not get a buzz for months, if not a full year, and at least in my part of the world, Public Enemy was not on anyone’s list. I would see a few reviews for something called “Rebel Without A Pause”, but could not find the record at the time. The first time I heard them was on the Less Than Zero soundtrack, released by Def Jam. I had no interest in seeing the film, but the soundtrack featured music by Aerosmith, The Bangles, and Slayer, the latter doing a cover of Iron Maiden‘s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”. I was a radio DJ for a high school station whose sole format was hard rock/heavy metal, so I was able to play Aerosmith and Slayer. Before I did this though, I was at home and flipped Less Than Zero to Side 2. There were three taps of a hi-hat, and all of a sudden I heard a song that completely blew me away. I had already been a rap music fan for eight years, but this was nothing like it. What floored me at first was the boldness of Chuck D.‘s voice, the funny boasts of Flavor Flav, and the production just went everywhere. The Beastie Boys upped things by sampling Led Zeppelin but this fucked my brain up big time. For the rest of that day, I played “Bring The Noise” over and over, and probably did the same thing for the next few days.
At the end of the year, Spin looked at albums that they felt was some of the best of the year, and it highlighted two albums on Def Jam: Original Concept‘s Straight From The Basement Of Kooley High and Public Enemy’s debut album, YO! Bum Rush The Show. Back then, Def Jam had already branded themselves where the name and logo was a “trademark of quality, so regardless of what it was, people were willing to give it a chance. I bought both albums, and loved what Original Concept did with “Charlie Sez” and “Runnin’ Yo Mouth”, but I wanted to hear more from this Public Enemy group. I put the needle on.
The first track was immediately a favorite: “You’re Gonna Get Yours”. I went to read the liner notes, with the Def Jam logo, a male shooting target, and the lyric sheet. I discovered that the main rappers were Chuck D. and Flavor Flav, but I’ll be honest, when I looked at the cover, I had no idea who Chuck or Flav were, for there was no captions, no music videos, nothing. In 2012, we all know how both of them look, but I’d stare at the album for the longest time wondering “is the guy looking at the DJ Chuck D.? He looks like someone who would deliver that voice.” No, that was Terminator X. I wondered if the guy with the glasses was Chuck D. No, that was Flavor Flav, and I’d like to think that I was not alone in these assumptions. It’s funny to even talk about something like this, since these days we are immediately bombarded with identities and images. Then again, I remember thinking the same thing about the Wu-Tang Clan, knowing who Method Man was through the “Method Man” video but trying to figure out which voices fit in with what face. Public Enemy had yet to brand themselves to the public, but this would soon change.
I was not immediately drawn to “Sophisticated Bitch”, but I remember looking in the liner notes, knowing who Vernon Reid was as he was one of the upcoming guitarists trying to get himself known. He was known amongst guitar fanatics, but Living Colour had yet to break through. It was nice to hear his work in this song, but I’ll admit: after reading how much praise Reid was receiving, I thought “is this really it?”
But the song that immediately floored me was “Miuzi Weighs A Ton”. I loved the slow funk of it, the attitude Chuck D. was displaying, and for years I thought the “get down” vocal of Flavor Flav was a Joe Walsh sample. I also loved the groove of “Timebomb”, and “Too Much Posse” was a silly solo track from Flavor but it showed how he could change the pace of the music program at any given time. Loved “Rightstarter (Message To A Black Man)” and felt that the way it ended was the perfect way to end the first half of the album. Flip over to Side F.
“Public Enemy No. 1″ was pure awesomeness from the beginning, with the lazy scratch and Flavor talking about how some people swear Chuckie D. is nice, but Flav saying “the brother don’t swear he nice, he knows he’s nice, youknowwhatI’msayin’?”, that showed support and friendship and when he asked the listener if we wanted to know “what goes on?” Chuck then says, with a significant amount of echo, “what goes on? Well…” and then proceeds to tell us exactly why he is that nice. The album was produced by Bill Stephney, Hank Shocklee, and Carl Ryder, the latter being a pseudonym for Chuck D., with an executive producer credit for Rick Rubin. It was not a Bomb Squad credit just yet, but you could hear the type of beat construction they enjoyed doing. It felt like someone going into their record crate and just slapping it on for the hell of it, as if they were at home, at a party, or on a radio station, and this was very much like hearing a great radio show that you usually had to stay up after midnight hearing. Now, it could be played at any time of the day. Except this sound sounded a bit rougher than much of the rap music that came before this, and during this time, it seemed every record released was getting musically harder and more abrasive. It was the power of the “boom bap” sourced from funky drums, basslines, horns, and samples, a bit like someone making a true mix tape and not knowing what most of it was. It came off like hearing what Double Dee & Steinski did with “Lessons 1-3″, but taking that kind of production and sound manipulation to the next level. Most of the samples were fairly basic, just simply loops with occasional layering, but it sounded nothing like anything out at the time. It was a distinct sound, it was Public Enemy and you respected them for it.
I also got into “YO! Bum Rush The show”, “Raise The Roof”, and “Megablast”, the latter a song where both Chuck D. and Flavor Flav were talking about smoking crack and getting “super stupid shit”. It was just a drum machine and vocals, and once the song reached the paranoid chant of “oh please, oh please, oh please, just gimme just one more hit”, it felt like they were ready to reach the point of no return, but how? They would answer back by simply reversing Flavor Flav’s dialogue so a simple production technique would sound like he was a lunatic, and metaphorically, Flav sounding “lost” represented what crack cocaine could do to someone. Before it got too deep, the group decided to create a megamix of sorts of various highlights of the album, a reprise but not an actual “moral” to the story, for there wasn’t a story. This was just an album of music by a new group who celebrated the L.I. (Long Island) mystique, but it was an album that felt good to listen to. It was raw, it was dope, it was fresh, it was hot. What did it exactly mean to “bum rush” a show, and how would it feel to be in the middle of a “bum rush”? I wanted to know.
Looking back, YO! Bum Rush The Show represents a time when hip-hop already had the urgency to be heard, and devoted audiences who were willing to do anything and everything to tap into a frequency that did not exist as it does today. It was obvious in the mid to late 80′s that there was something incredible coming out of New York, and what made it feel good as a teenager was that it was very much my music. We loved the fact that the music honored the sounds of the past, but what they said felt like it was made for us, even if the lyrics had to do with rocking tapes, finding cool cars, and a sexy lady. In a way, the music was still as innocent as early rock’n'roll but it sounded great to hear something that was not only jamming, but obviously left of center. There was a bit of disorganization in the sound, and I loved those noisy elements too.
What I also loved about the album was the cover photos, taken by Glen E. Friedman, whose pictures of countless rap, punk, and hardcore groups would help to define the artistry and creativity that existed. Friedman’s cover shot has been honored and parodied a number of times, but I also liked the photo that was on the back cover, which had always been a mystery to me.
It’s just Chuck D., Flavor Flav, Terminator X., Professor Griff, and the S1W’s hanging out with their rides, chillin’ in… a McDonald’s parking lot? Considering how political Public Enemy would become with later efforts, the photo seems so innocent. Chuck D., in his mid-20′s, kicking back with a bag between his feet, looking like he was ready to see what the world could offer him if given a chance. Yet for me, the question remained: why McDonald’s? I went to Twitter and went directly to the source:
Chuck D.: It was a center point in Hempstead back in the day, in fact its no longer there… one of the few McD that moved.
Nothing extravagant, just a simple photo of Public Enemy relaxing it in what was the center of their world, circa late 1986. It almost feels like a backyard barbeque, just asking some friends over and being cool amongst one another. No perceptions, no deceit, no jealously, just for the love of music, wordplay, and what you felt represented you as a person, be it culture or taking pride in the place you call home. If Public Enemy were indeed going to bum rush a show, it may have been towards rap music as a whole, and yet hearing this makes the listener realize they were not giving any major hints as to how they would commit the attack of the senses/on the senseless. That would happen with album #2.
Eventually I would find the 12″ single for “You’re Gonna Get Yours”, which featured “Rebel Without A Pause” as its B-side. This was the “it” song as described in Spin, and I played it. When I heard Chuck D. say “yes!”, you had to stop doing whatever you were doing and devote complete attention to it. Then you heard what sounded like sirens or a balloon, and it just looped over and over like crazy. It was insane, but I loved it. Then again, a group who would freely say “beat is for Sonny Bono/beat is for Yoko Ono” and “wax is for Anthrax” was someone I had to know more about, this wasn’t just guys who wanted to be a local phenomenon, they wanted to be global and did so with those lyrics. This song was as chaotic as Yoko Ono, and I say that was an Ono fan. They were basically applying an Ono aesthetic of noise, in a music that was rooted in the melodic. Like “Rapper’s Delight”, “Rebel Without A Pause” and “Bring The Noise” became songs I had to memorize, even if at first I had no idea who some of the people who they were speaking about. They were not teaching me about people like Louis Farrakhan or JoAnne Chesimard (Assata Shakur) in my school, but as someone who loved discovering “odd” references in songs, I wanted to know why it applied to them. This was not just funky music, they were bringing in lessons at a time when I was developing my sense of politics and social interaction. It was as if they were saying “you may know this or this, but I think you should know about this too”, and in a time before the internet, that meant going into a library or maybe looking in your encyclopedia at home to see if you could get a better sense of who these people were.
With “Rebel Without A Pause” and “Bring The Noise”, these songs made me want to try my hand at producing too, even though my means were pretty much non-existent. I loved the sample spotting and realizing I could do that if I was able to find the tools of the trade. But these two songs made me wish the group would make an entire album that sounded like that from start to finish. I really liked YO! Bum Rush The Show but I felt if Public Enemy could do this, it might sound incredible.
The first hint of what was to come was when I bought what I thought was the 12″ single for “Prophets Of Rage” in March of 1988, at Eli’s Records in Kennewick, Washington. The only time I could break the hard rock/heavy metal format of the high school radio station I was at and play rap music was on April Fool’s. In other words, it would be a joke for listeners if they heard something that was not the format, but I played Public Enemy’s “Prophets Of Rage” on April 1, 1988 and had a few people call in and say “this is nice” and “turn that shit off”. Then a fellow student came in and said “you’re rocking the good shit.” I felt proud, and I was happy to do so, for Public Enemy was now “my group”. I didn’t find out until I had read an article later that “Prophets Of Rage” was the B-side, and “Don’t Believe The Hype” was the A. I didn’t take to “Don’t Believe The Hype” at first, which is why I played the other side, but that would soon change two weeks later
It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back came out, and I don’t remember if I bought it on the release day (April 14th), but I know I bought it that week. Like millions of other kids my age, I put that record on and I was floored. Did Public Enemy make it to London? I want to be on the Def Jam tour, I want to make some noise. Then the sirens came on. I was now witnessing, with my ears, the sound of revolution. With a scratch of “YO! Bum Rush The Show” and hearing Professor Griff telling the crowd to make some fucking noise to get busy, it lead to an excerpt from what I discovered to be a recording of Malcolm X, where he spoke about having a coffee that is too black, which means it’s too strong. Yet the only thing that was heard was the words “too black… too strong”. Then the music kicked in, and I felt like my world opened up big time. YEAH BOYYEEEE… BASS!!! It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back entered my life at the right moment, and will remain my favorite hip-hop album of all time for so many reasons.
Also keep in mind that my initial consumption of Public Enemy happened in a five month period: from Less Than Zero to YO! Bum Rush The Show to “Rebel Without A Pause” to “Prophets Of Rage” to It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. There was no means of a major or forced push, you wanted to seek and find, you had to go into it accepting the possible results.
It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back would not exist if it wasn’t for the initiation that was YO! Bum Rush The Show, so perhaps the calm gentlemen hanging out in the McDonald’s parking lot represented what they were doing before the storm that would become the “bum rush”. If Spectrum City‘s “Check Out The Radio” could be considered the seeds, then YO! Bum Rush The Show was a vinyl blueprint of the mission, with the group looking at the plans through the grooves. While it seems at times that the blueprint has been placed in the bunker by the powers that be, its assumed secrets are well known by those who were educated the first time, and it will be re-learned again sometime in the future.
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