In the late 1980s and early 1990s no group or artist influenced hip hop more than public enemy did. Their flair for pop theater and racial drama broadened the aesthetic possibilities of rap music. As chief architect of the sound and fury that defined a turning point in hip hop, Chuck D enlarged the language of pop by creating a space for music that was stimulating, boldly, original, and unflinchingly political.
In this paper, I am going to include explanations of what is Public Enemy’s music about, what messages did they conveying through their music and what influenced them to decide the theme of their music to be political, social and cultural consciousness and a description of their public persona and the ways of making music. Public Enemy started out as a benchmark in rap music in the mid-1980s. They were characterized as militant black nationalists by the media. “That comes directly from how and when we grew up. We came up in the 1960s.Order now
Political and cultural groups like the Black Panthers, and the Nation of Islam were reference points. Our parents brought the work of these groups to our attention, and it was educational and inspiring. My parents were radicals politically, but more than anything they were young parents who actually understood that there was a need and a time for change. They had a respect for the civil rights movement but also understood the need to further it. As black people we were out to further our equality. I dont pay attention to the controversial connotations put on by media and the undermining labels they place on us.
We pay attention to what our community situation is and what we need,” says Chuck D. Chuck D’s political intent is reflected by the inclusion of controversial Muslim minister Louis Farrakhan, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers in a personal honor roll that also includes the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson. (Chang, pg263) “We’re out for one thing only,” explains Chuck D, “and that’s to bring back the resurgence of black power. But we’re not racist. We’re nationalists, people who have pride and who want to build a sense of unity amongst our people. ”
After deciding to major in graphic design at Adelphi University, a Long Island liberal arts school, chuck d entered Adelphi University in the fall of 1979 and formed the idea for Public Enemy. Soon after enrolling in college, Chuck D found himself gravitating toward a musical culture that was molding its identity and cultivating a distinct voice. Unfocused as a student he demonstrated great precision while working with his friend and future collaborator Hank Shocklee to hone their music making talents, build important professional networks, and establish their place in hip hop.
The infusion of black nationalist politics in Public Enemy’s music and style was in tune with the times, the eighties; the Berlin Wall was up, Nelson Mandela was in prison, Margaret Thatcher was running the United Kingdom, Reagan was out of control in the White House and Bush Senior was Vice President soon to be President all these that ushered in a period of intense racial and political discord. Many Black people found themselves in the eye of controversial storms about affirmative action, diversity, and the degree to which race mattered
In 1982 Chuck D moved a step closer to launching Public Enemy when he got his own radio show on Adelphi ‘s WBAU. A DJ crew he had joined a few years earlier inspired the show’s name, The Super Spectrum Mix Hour. In response to the show’s popularity, the station manager expanded it to an hour and a half. In those days, WBAU’s audience consisted of black listeners from queens and long island, in addition to young whites who enjoyed the garage music and indie rock that was featured on the station. When the show first began, there was not enough recorded rap music to feature on the regularly scheduled program.
In order to fill the time slot, Chuck d and the small crew he worked with began making original tapes of local talent to air during their broadcast. (Watkins, pg115) Chuck D started experimenting with his own vocals, honing the MC skills that would have left an indelible mark on hip hop. Though he was drawn to hip hop, Chuck D was not eager to sign a recording deal. His activities as radio personality, party promoter, mix tap producer, and MC had introduced him to a number of individuals who had been exploited by rap music’s first wave of recording labels.
From the very beginning of his rap career, Chuck D was different from most MCs. When he made his first commercial recording in 1987, he was 26, ancient in hip hop years. But he believed his age gave him added perspective, a more mature worldview about the realities of race, which shaped his approach to and purpose for rhyming. “Rappers,” he wrote in 1997, “only rap about what they know, noting, “I didn’t want to rap about ‘I’m this or I’m that’ all the time. Instead of boasting about himself or battling other rappers, he wanted “to rap about battling institutions, and bringing the conditions of Black people worldwide to a respectable level. ” (Watkins, pg116) Chuck D and Public Enemy seized pop culture as a stage to act out a daring and symbolic revolution. Their politically charged symbolism was its main source of currency in the world of pop culture. Once Chuck D and Hank Shocklee agreed on a name for the group every aspect of public enemy’s image was carefully choreographed for maximum effect.
Chuck D’s public persona was bold, serious-minded, and keenly intellectual. It was a calculated play on the legacies and images of strong black leaders. His pensive stare and fearless voice personified Malcolm’s “by any means necessary” expression of unassailable black masculinity and power. His forceful and disjointed message about economic freedom evoked Marcus Garvey and Louis Farrakhan, and his valiant plea for black freedom mimicked the spiritual legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Contrasting with the steely image of Chuck D was jester-like character of Flavor Flav. Flav was Public Enemy’s hype man.
With his comic sunglasses and an oversized clock attached to a chain around his neck, he became the group’s visual focal point and a comic relief to Chuck D’s tenacious hard-rhyming style. If Chuck D was shrewd and serious, Flav was ludicrous and lightweight. Chuck D was visually backed by P. E. s choreographed dance team, The Security of the First World or S1W. This collection of black males dressed in militant-black code with Gestapo boots who moved in rhythm to routines resembling martial arts, military drills and Step Show dances lifted from college fraternities were doubled as the rap groups security team. source 3 )
Chuck D used his graphic design skills to create the famous public enemy logo of a defiant silhouetted figure caught in the scope of a firearm. The logo was like the group, rich with symbolism. It suggested that strong-minded blacks were “Public Enemy number one” and thus, one of society’s most visible targets. Public enemy’s production team, named the Bomb Squad, adopted a genuinely fresh and radical approach to making popular music.
They created dense soundscapes that relied on avant-garde cut-and-paste techniques, relentless beats, deep funk and incorporating sounds from everyday life -conversational dialogue, police sirens, TV news, street noise, ambulances and political speeches, These manners were essential to public enemy’s efforts to capture the tone and texture of young America’s urban milieus. (source 1) Critic Steven Thomas Earlewine declared that Public Enemy brought in elements of free jazz, hard funk, even musique concrte, through their production team, the Bomb Squad, creating a dense, ferocious sound unlike anything that came before. source 2 ) Hank Shocklee was one of the principal figures in the bomb squad’s sonic experiments. He characterized his approach to making music this way:
“The sound has a look to me, and public enemy was all about having a sound that had its own distinct vision. ” According to Schocklee, “We didn’t want to use anything we considered traditional R&B stuff like bass lines formulated with funk were a little too melodic and groove-oriented and chord structures and things of that nature. Their style was anything but traditional and exuded a mood that was frenzied, furious, and funky. The sound needed for this group was something that suggested urgency, while Chuck’s baritone voice was almost reminiscent of a gospel pastor. If I had put melodic chords behind him, Chuck would have sounded like an R&B crooner, and I didn’t want that. What I needed was something that would juxtapose with his voice so that he was the music, enabling me to just score things around him so that the overall effect was of fire and brimstone, as if the world was coming to an end.
The beautiful thing about having Flav was that he might be considered a tenor. He was high? pitched, Chuck handled the low notes, and that marriage worked because of the sonics. What’s more, they both had distinct voices. The Bomb Squad created their music by using thousands of sound fragments to build what Chuck D called a sonic wall. “If you separated the sounds, they wouldn’t have been anything – they were unrecognizable,” Chuck D says. They called their music “organized noise. ”
Source 1 https://play.google.com/store/music/artist/Public_Enemy?id=Az3r53f4tfze76bygghaxtsm4wy&hl=en
Source 2 http://www.last.fm/music/Public+Enemy/+wiki
Source 3 http://hiphop.sh/pe
Source 4 https://rockhall.com/inductees/public-enemy/bio/
Chang, Jeff. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation. New York, NY:
St. Martin’s Press, 2005.
Watkins, Craig S. Hip Hop Matters. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2005.