On Wednesday night it was announced that Public Enemy was the fourth hip hop group (Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC & Beastie Boys proceed them), to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.
Now granted as much as I admire blues legend Albert King and his influence on rock, blues & jazz (and how could you not love “Born Under A Bad Sign?”), the inclusion of Public Enemy into the “Rock Hall” is huge for me and the most instrumental of this class at the hall or any in recent memory.
I grew up a hip hop head, came up in the 80’s on the south side and though I enjoy house music (who didn’t like the mix at six on WBMX?), hip hop spoke to me. And being a political kid (I was reading the paper every morning from the third grade on), who liked bass heavy hip hop, Public Enemy is one of my favorite groups.
I remember seeing their first album “Yo Bum Rush The Show” in record stores and I was curious.
But it was 1988’s “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back”, that still is a top ten album for me. The album cover is as real as it gets (Chuck D & Flava Flav behind bars and mad as hell), enough of the silly hip hop that was prevalent of the time. Cats like Chuck D and Rakim (from Eric B & Rakim), & KRS 1 from Boogie Down Productions were my heroes. These homeboys were serious, never wavering, didn’t smile. It was their mission to make hip hop legit with a purpose and not become a fad like a lot of people of the day thought.
The first time I heard Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without A Pause”, I was roller skating at the old Calumet Park Rec Center on 124th Street. They used to have open skate Friday nights and my old elementary school (Seven Holy Founders), had parties there as well and they played this song as I clumsily skated along (I never had the skills like you saw people had in “Roll Bounce”), and I was hooked. I knew from the voice of the MC that was my man Chuck D.
I had my parents take me to the old JR Records in Evergreen Plaza to get the record album (and I still have it and play it), and it changed my life. Chuck D motivated me and Terminator X (the original Public Enemy DJ with the great beats later replaced by DJ Lord), moved me and in years since I’ve bought both the tape and CD (for convienence), and its now on my iPod (and Spotify), and not a month goes by without me listening to it.
The other legendary songs on that album were “Night of the Living Baseheads”, which was dead on about the crack epidemic (and like a lot of families, I had a relative that got hooked and the drama that ensued), and “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos”.
The video of “Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos” is one of the most compelling and dramatic music videos you will ever see. It really tells the story behind the iconic album cover to “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back” and is about the government, penitentiary, a prison break and Chuck D’s thoughts about the administration of that time and life for black men. It’s a great dramatic story wrapped around dope lyrics, a harsh delivery and visually stark like a great movie. I remember seeing it for the first time one Saturday evening watching MTV’s “Yo MTV Raps” with Fab Five Freddy. It was one of those videos you could not stop watching and would just sit back in your chair in awe, then run out and ask your friends “Did you see that new Public Enemy Video?” It was the golden age of hip hop and my friends and I lived, ate and drank it.
I think Public Enemy defined a generation, right after “It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back” they did the theme for Spike Lee’s 1989 movie “Do The Right Thing” and that great song was “Fight the Power”. It was refreshing to hear serious hip hop with a message and taking up a cause. And this wasn’t just about social issues, this was top quality music (Hank Shocklee and his crew aptly named “The Bomb Squad” were master producers), that made it easy to join the rebellion and stand with the SW1’s (Public Enemy’s foot soldiers and security), and feel a part of something bigger than you. As KRS 1called his music “Edutainment”, so was Public Enemy’s lyrical work.
Their next album was “Fear Of a Black Planet” in 1990 (which in 2005 was archived in the Library of Congress), and it proved these cats were no joke and my friends and I would have followed Public Enemy off a cliff (all the while with Flavor Flav yelling “Yea BoyEEEE!), I remember on Easter Sunday in 1990 talking with my best friend and we used to trade records (actually our mothers sang together in the church choir and we went to different schools, so our moms would bring the hip hop albums in their tote bags and switch during rehearsal), and since I had the last Public Enemy album he got “Fear of a Black Planet” and the cover is like Star Wars in the font and style. It blew my mind since you thought Public Enemy couldn’t get any better.
And they kept getting better, as I entered high school they came out with more songs, better production and addressing more issues. “Can’t Truss Em” & “911 is a Joke, are long time favorites as well as “By the Time I Get To Arizona”, which borrows from the old song (covered by everyone), “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”.
But this was no sad love song; it was about the State of Arizona not observing the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, national holiday and it struck a nerve because here in Illinois we had observed Dr. King day before it became a national holiday in 1986. It was a state day here that was honored on January 15th. But Chuck D as always made his point clear and the song was a hit.
Now granted in later years Flavor Flav has become a reality TV star with Flavor of Love and other shows that must make Chuck D roll his eyes, but to me he will always be a sideman to one of the best hip hop groups in history and the first to put politics and race on the forefront.
Public Enemy was just here last week at the House of Blues for a concert and I’m sure they put on a good show, they have always been a great live band which a requirement of a Hall of Fame group which now they are.