Rebels without a pause

With their aggressive, revolutionary raps and confrontational image, Public Enemy struck fear into the heart of the Establishment and changed hip-hop for ever. As a new greatest-hits album is released, Chris Mugan charts their rise and fall
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The Independent Culture

Nowadays hip-hop's contribution to under- mining the fabric of our society can be summed up in the hoodie that has scared local high-street retailers and big-name shopping malls alike. Otherwise, the genre has been welcomed by the music industry as a paragon of consumerist, aspirational virtues. It is hard to remember a time when authority figures saw the genre as a genuine threat. The new compilation of Public Enemy's greatest hits, therefore, is a timely reminder of an era when rappers could strike fear into the heart of the establishment. Power to the People and the Beats is a key release for the group, whose only previous collection was Universal's bare-bones 20th Century Masters.

Curated by the group themselves, the new set of hits forcefully recalls the initial impact of their work and how it remains unparalleled today. "Bring the Noise" and "Don't Believe the Hype" are widely acknowledged as hip-hop classics, though it is just as true that nothing has sounded quite like them since. It is unclear, then, what impact the group had on the genre and how they have influenced successive generations of MCs, turntablists and producers.

Indeed, only in February this year, a two-day conference at New York University convened to ask these very questions. Delegates looked especially at Public Enemy's 1988 breakthrough release It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Seminars on "Revolutionary Voices" and "Hip Hop and Political Acitivism" set out the event's stall and gave the group an intellectual kudos previously reserved for the lyrics of The Smiths.

Wherever the truth lies, Public Enemy made an immediate impact on a flabby hip-hop scene that revolved around Run DMC's sports-label name-dropping and the lothario posturing of LL Cool J. The gang from Long Island dumped the gold chains for a stark uniform of black jeans and baseball jackets that made clear they had not come simply to rock the party.

It was no coincidence that the confrontational group dressed in combats and blousons as a cross between Black Panthers and nightclub security staff. For a start, Public Enemy recruited bouncers from a local venue as their Security of the First World dance team, whose military movements and fake weapons were an essential part of the live show.

Even without them, the lyrics of "Fight The Power' would still have made one hell of an impact: "It's a start, a work of art/ To revolutionise, make a change, nothin's strange/ People, people we are the same/ No we're not the same/ Cause we don't know the game/ What we need is awareness, we can't get careless/ You say what is this?/ My beloved let's get down to business/ Mental self-defensive fitness/ Yo! bum rush the show/ You gotta go for what you know/ Make everybody see, in order to fight the powers that be/ Lemme hear you say... Fight the Power." To this day, Carlton "Chuck D" Ridenhour remains one of the most powerful rhymers that hip-hop has seen and his lyrics remain a source of wonder. With controlled aggression, he explained the essence of Afrocentrism in a manner any school drop-out could understand, with a subtlety that engrossed listeners as he told his story of draft dodging and prison breakout on "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos".

From the early breakthrough hit "White Lines" onward, rappers had drawn attention to where they came from. Melle Mel could complain about "broken glass everywhere", while a young KRS One in the outfit Boogie Down Productions hinted at black consciousness, though his proto-gangsta lyrics still gave a celebratory feel to tales of drugs, promiscuity and gang wars.

So Chuck D was the first rapper to put hardship and inequality into some kind of context. In so doing, the rapper inspired successors to set a more thoughtful tone. Ice Cube picked up on similar themes for his album AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, also produced by Public Enemy producers The Bomb Squad, while Tupac Shakur mixed morality and thug life on "Strictly 4 My NIGGAZ". His "Papa'z Song" laid down the negative side of reckless procreation, while "Keep Ya Head Up" again calls for more respect for women.

By the time Public Enemy were recording Nation... KRS One had adopted his moniker "The Teacher" as he focused his views in the wake of the death of his DJ Scott La Rock, shot at a Bronx party. His 1988 album By All Means Necessary contained such strident tracks as "My Philosophy" and "Stop The Violence", though his minimalist production was eclipsed by Public Enemy's juggernaut.

For it was not only Chuck D's raps that caused a sensation, but the powerful backing tracks laid down by Hank Shocklee's Bomb Squad. Until Public Enemy arrived, hip-hop producers simply looped funky drum breaks, then added whatever samples made for a party tune. Run DMC had toughened up the style with their stark beats and rock guitar riffs, then Shocklee took the music into hitherto unimagined vistas.

He built up layer upon layer of fragmented sounds that bore little relation to anything musical. Only a careful listen revealed his trademark kettle whistle was a horn form James Brown's backing band. The pinnacle of the Bomb Squad's achievements was 1988 masterpiece Nation...

Of its production, Shocklee said, "Chuck's a powerful rapper. We wanted something that could sonically stand up to him."

With their cut-ups of Indian and Arabic music, today's innovators Timbaland and Missy Elliot owe a clear debt to the Bomb Squad's sonic experiments, while in the short term, Dr Dre, producer for the more hardcore Niggaz With Attitude, picked up on some of its ideas for NWA's 1990 EP "100 Miles and Runnin".

Also in its favour, Nation... was a complete album, rather than a compilation of singles and filler tracks released as an afterthought. There was consistent quality and a direction to the work that eased the acceptance of Public Enemy as serious artists beyond the rap fraternity, by R&B fans, pop kids and rock connoisseurs. This has had a huge impact on hip-hop, leading the way for cohesive releases by such artists as Wu-Tang Clan, the grown-up Beastie Boys and Outkast.

Public Enemy followed Nation... with Fear of a Black Planet, an album that was almost comparable to its predecessor in terms of force. The preceding single, "Welcome to the Terrordome", was their most dissonant piledriver of a track to date, a forthright encapsulation of black frustration. It was also a response to criticism that began to be directed at the band. Much of it was a knee-jerk response to Public Enemy's confrontational approach, though the group's notoriety had already started to muddy their message. As evinced on tracks such as "Fight The Power", Chuck D was a member of Louis Farrakhan's Nation Of Islam, a group accused of homophobia and anti-Semitic views, though Chuck D maintained he was more interested in Farrakhan's economic policy of self-sufficiency.

Then, in an infamous interview with the Washington Post, Public Enemy's Minister Of Information Richard Griffin, or Professor Griff, revealed he shared those exact same beliefs. Rather than eject him from the group right away, Public Enemy closed ranks. Their response in "Terrordome" attempted to suggest they were the victims, though after the release of Fear..., Griff finally left the organisation. To this day, Chuck D maintains he did the right thing in standing by his man.

"It was us against the world, we didn't set out to do it so we could roll in dough. If anything, I should have been more loyal to a co-founder of the group, but when you have someone with diametrically opposed views it is not easy to make that decision."

Despite Griff's departure, the gang's troubles were far from over. Chuck D's rapping partner and class clown William Drayton, know to fans as Flavor Flav, began his many run-ins with the law, beginning with assault against his girlfriend. Only after a succession of driving offences, non-payment of child support and even a charge of attempted murder did it come to light that Flav was a drug addict, even though Public Enemy promulgated a strong anti-drugs message.

"Flava's always been his own man and I'm glad he's reached a situation where he can look after himself," says Chuck D, who refuses to be drawn further on his clock-wearing colleague's appearances on the reality TV show The Farm. "People might think he's a bit crazy, but we wouldn't have had the same unpredictability without him."

By the mid-Nineties, violence escalated at gigs, though nothing would eclipse the deaths of two teenage girls who were crushed leaving a concert in Nashville, Tennessee years earlier in 1987. Even the recruitment of rapper Sister Souljah to replace Griff failed to keep the group on message. Inflammatory comments in the wake of the LA riots were criticised by Bill Clinton and overshadowed the fact that Public Enemy had warned of resentment against police attitudes on "911 Is A Joke".

From then on, Public Enemy's stature gradually waned. Later releases were patchy and failed to reach the commercial impact of Apocalypse 91... The Enemy Strikes Back, although He Got Game provided another big hit. Instead, hip-hop established itself as the major creative force in R&B with the Fugees and Mary J Blige. Even the hardcore fraternity have joined the pop establishment, led by Eminem and 50 Cent.

Speaking of which, while Public Enemy faded, it was their late Eighties counterparts NWA who established a template for the genre. With a succession of film roles, Ice Cube opened the way for a series of rapper-movie stars, though his musical career suffered as a result.

Today, Dr Dre has emerged as the most influential figure in hip-hop. First he devised the laidback G funk sound that propelled the careers of Warren G and Snoop Dogg, then his bouncing rhythms laid the foundation for Marshall Mathers and his protégés.

Even so, Public Enemy's influence is not over. Their label Def Jam shifted from the Sony stable to Polygram in 1995 and, again, through instinctive loyalty, the group chose to stay with the company that had first encouraged and nurtured their talent. Yet Public Enemy's move backfired, for while they acted within Sony as an autonomous unit, at their new home the group had to answer to a variety of men in suits.

Chuck D's bold response was to cut ties with the major labels and join fledgling indie Atomic Pop, a pioneering business that had already established an online presence. During the late Nineties, Public Enemy were among the first artists, and the most high-profile, to release music in MP3 format. They showed a band could distribute their output online yet remain a viable commercial entity.

Musically, though, only one set of artists has responded to the gauntlet thrown down by Public Enemy and they don't come from New York, let alone the USA. Instead, it is the UK grime community that has channelled their frustrations into uncompromising music. The manic rhythms of Lethal B and Dizzee Rascal's surreal juxtapositions of oriental instruments and funky drums is the most direct offspring of Shocklee's pioneering sounds. Whatever mistakes Public Enemy made, their influence is real and went beyond one particular nation to become a planet-wide phenomenon.


Chuck D

Public Enemy's fiery rapper continues to use his own label Slamjamz to nurture new talent, with current hopes resting on smooth crooner Kyle Jason. Public Enemy's first album since 2002 is due to drop next year.

Flavor Flav

Defeat to Keith Harris and Orville on The Farm is only Flav's most recent brush with reality TV. In 2004, he first enjoyed an on-screen relationship with Brigitte Nielsen in VH1's The Surreal Life. This was followed by their own series, Strange Love.

Hank Shocklee

Last credited as a Public Enemy producer on the 1998 comeback album He Got Game. Now mainly works with his brother Keith on their production firm and record label Shocklee Entertainment.

Professor Griff

Although back with his old group to lead the Security of the First World dance troupe, Griff continues to pursue rap metal with his 7th Octave outfit. He is also developing a rap version of Sesame Street, called Kidhoppaz.

Terminator X

Chief scratcher Norman Lee Rogers dropped out of Public Enemy after the 1994 album Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age for a solo career. The quiet member of the group now owns an ostrich farm.