Artist: Public Enemy
Title: Power to the People & the Beats: Public Enemy’s Greatest Hits
Label: Def Jam/Universal
Release Date: 8/2/05
Behind Enemy Lines: Public Enemy’s Best of LP shines.
By Christopher 'HypeStyle' Currie
Power to the People & the Beats: Public Enemy’s Greatest Hits arrives in stores over a decade after the band’s zenith, but perhaps there was no better time than this for it to come out. What can be said that hasn’t already been said about arguably hip-hop’s most influential band? Well, first of all, this isn’t the first best-of PE set to hit American shores. The first was part of Universal Music Group’s ongoing 20th Century Masters series, in 2001. Designed as a budget-minded sampler of various artists’ work, it was a nice attempt, but far from comprehensive. Entire albums were overlooked, and several key singles were bypassed in favor of lesser album cuts. Power to the People attempts to correct that oversight, and they succeed in a major way. Unlike the previous hits set, Power was personally overseen by Public Enemy frontman Chuck D, as well as Hank Shocklee, the producer who co-founded the band. The cuts are culled from the band’s entire tenure at Def Jam Records, from 1987 – 1998. The 18-track set has all the key singles are here, like "Public Enemy #1", "Fight the Power", "By the Time I Get to Arizona", "911 is a Joke", and the band’s late 90’s comeback single, "He Got Game", with Stephen Stills.
For those who need an FYI dose, Public Enemy started off as a loose congregate of college radio DJs and party promoters in the urban Long Island community of Roosevelt (which, perhaps incredulously, also helped shape the formative years of shock-jock Howard Stern—go figure). Adelphi University’s WBAU featured a hip-hop mix show hosted by Carl "Chuckie D" Ridenhour and a few cohorts, including William Drayton, aka MC-DJ Flavor Flav. Spectrum City was a traveling DJ service run by Hank Shocklee, and in between getting his degree in graphic design, Chuck worked the parties along with Hank. Not so much actively rapping as he was simply giving an MC flavor to the proceedings, Chuck and company eventually started recording promos for WBAU, which caught the attention of producer and Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin.
At the time of their signing, rap had gained a foothold in urban pop, and a toehold in the Top 40 mainstream, thanks in part to releases from Kurtis Blow, Whodini, the Fat Boys, LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, and of course, Run-DMC. The fact that most of these acts had a relationship with pioneering hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons certainly helped. But with the possible exception the Beasties, none of the aforementioned acts saw or promoted themselves as agitators; certainly not as revolutionaries. Public Enemy dared to give themselves the title of "the Black Panthers of Rap", issuing forth a blatantly confrontational image that compounded with hip-hop’s vaguely "threatening" ethos to all those who considered themselves the Establishment—both inside and outside urban Black communities. Rubin already saw rap as black pop’s analog to punk rock, so it wasn’t that much of a stretch when Public Enemy set out to be hip-hop’s answer to the Clash.
The late 60’s and early 70’s gave birth to a wealth of direct social commentary from artists as diverse as the classy soul of Marvin Gaye, the beat-heavy funk of James Brown, and the psychedelic-fueled rock-funk fusion of Parliament/Funkadelic. But by the close of the Carter administration, Afrocentric, angry, and/or political themes in black pop had long-since become dormant in the aftermath of the disco movement. By the time of Public Enemy’s debut, Michael Jackson and Prince were arguably the biggest pop/rock stars in the world. Not just one, but two black men, ya heard? Still, many fans had to privately chuckle at the spectacle of these two slight, vaguely effeminate brothers sporting spiky leather, adopting tough stances and spouting tougher talk in their videos. Public Enemy reflected a toughness that you could actually buy into. With Chuck and Flav dressed largely in black, with backup dancers the S1W’s decked out in paramilitary uniforms, Public Enemy may have scared as many people as they attracted, early on. Most recording acts, including within the rap world, tended to downplay directly opining on the urban condition, let alone contemporary world issues. The most you could hope for would be generic We-Are-The-World sentiments that didn’t really push anyone’s buttons. Not that most mainstream journalists of the time felt that rappers had anything substantive to say—or would even be around long enough to say it.
Public Enemy defied the assumption that black men had to be disinterested and de-fanged to be viable recording artists. .Public Enemy’s logo declared that young black men (and by that extension, black youth in general) were walking targets, and the band boldly stated one of its early goals was to raise "5,000 black leaders" for the future. They flaunted a quasi-gangster image, but with a message that went above and beyond the get-money-get-laid aesthetic that rap would eventually get swamped by in years to come. They didn’t apologize for having a harsh words about racism, black apathy or accomodationism. For as far as Public Enemy was concerned, the conditions affecting the inner-city and blacks in general were even harsher.
Sonically, the band had virtually a punk approach to creating its music—for as much as it was steeped in soul, funk and other modern strains of black pop, the Bomb Squad—including Bill Stephney, Hank Shocklee, (and his brother Keith), Eric Sadler, and ‘Carl Ryder’ (a pseudonym for Chuck)— created soundscapes that defied traditional notions of rhythm and melody, even for most rap of the time. Most rappers had a palpable desire to get on the radio. Public Enemy, seemingly, didn’t give a damn. Their records raced at ultra-high tempos, with purposely-used feedback and fuzzy breaks that made it sound like someone had bumped your stereo and kept doing it. They pioneered the use of archived speeches in their recordings, citing figures both familiar and mainstream (Jesse Jackson) as well as those who were clearly outside of that particular box (Khallid Muhammad).
Their debut, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, was the most sonically spare and unadorned LP the group recorded, but then the ante was upped with each subsequent release that featured multi-layered samples galore, that sent a generation of milk crate-diggers searching for the original sources. Before sample clearances became a major source of revenue for established acts, the Bomb Squad took full advantage of the audio collage-making that the newer drum machines made possible. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back is now considered one of the great pop masterpieces of all time, alongside Fear of a Black Planet, the latter of which was just recently archived in the Smithsonian. For these landmark recordings, and even their follow-ups, the band continued to be the head anchors for what many considered as the urban CNN.
The band’s approach to live performance is virtually unprecedented. Their earliest touring jaunts had them as a supporting act for Run-DMC, Whodini, the Beastie Boys, and Doug E. Fresh. Taking cues from their contemporaries, the group has always made sure that videos weren’t the only way that fans could see them perform. The advent of video stardom became a semi-pacifying tool for rap acts, who were already going up against the corruption of fly-by-night promoters and the apprehension and/or hostility of venue owners who looked at rap shows as headache money. But Public Enemy weathered these storms, taking the initiative to tour internationally as often as possible. While the language differences and wildly varying accomodations proved too much for many a rap act to stay long (which illustrated how staunchly American even the most disaffected cats from the ‘hood were, once they stepped off that plane), Public Enemy soldiered on, sometimes sleeping in their own tour bus instead of a hotel. As years went on, the band proved itself to be flexible enough to go on tour with metal and alternative bands, expanding their audience and proving that live hip-hop could be just as engaging as a rock show.
As the 90’s expanded the commercial viability for hip-hop music, geographic diversity in rap expanded tremendously, while thematic diversity, ironically, began to narrow. Rappers from the West Coast, the Deep South, and the Midwest began to inundate the scene, and admirably pushed their own brand of hip-hop for all to enjoy. Social commentary in rap was de-emphasized, and the party ethos of rap’s earliest records came back in focus. Which, by itself, seems innocuous enough. But on the flip side, rap records focusing on the inner-city underworld "gangsta" lifestyle started to become even more mainstream, to the point where "thug life" became the default voice among rap’s most accessible faces.
Rap’s pioneers from the "golden era" late-80’s started to drift further away from having a radio presence, and in some cases from recording entirely. But Public Enemy has endured, still making records, and still touring, whether radio, BET, VH-1 or MTV are asleep at the wheel or not. You can call it cult status, but how many other rap acts can still command an audience of thousands, whether or not they have a hot single in rotation? And with elder-statesmen status comes a certain degree of nostalgia; Flavor Flav’s reality show stints have helped to make him a household name, perhaps even more so than when the band were at its zenith. Plus, the 80’s are hot again anyway, and if Aerosmith weren’t too old to make a comeback and have impact, why not Public Enemy? The rampant disengagement of urban audiences is one of the reasons that rappers struggle with longevity. Most heads who were taken aback by Flav’s canoodling with Brigitte Neilsen probably hadn’t listened to the band since Apocalypse ’91, and probably had no idea about Chuck’s radio show at progressive talk network Air America.
Many of those who criticize current hip-hop tend to ask, "whatever happened to…?"; but when a veteran act releases a project, you can almost hear the moans of "Oh, them again?" Well now, people have no excuse if they want a convenient compilation of some of the best hip-hop ever. They shocked America & the world before it was considered trendy to do so. For heads who want to relive the band’s best moments, or for others who are curious about the old-school when it was, well, new-school, Public Enemy is already a timeless act. Power to the People & the Beats makes sure you don’t forget it.