It took me years to really get Public Enemy. When Chuck D and Flava Flav starting bringing the noise nationwide in 1987, their aggressive and abrasive sound was a shock to my jangly rock-loving ears. It was miles away from the R.E.M., Replacements, and Hoodoo Gurus records in my stack. I couldn't relate to it at all.
To me, Public Enemy's music seemed extreme, over-the-top, exaggerated. Their outrageousness distorted their cultural message. I didn't recognize any musicality and expressiveness right away.
Within the mainstream music world at the time, rap and hip-hop was still a pretty new national trend — a New York funk thing based on DJing and lyrical flow. Led by the old-school stylings of the Sugarhill Gang, the Fat Boys, and Run-DMC, the first hip-hop to land on MTV was as goofy as it was funky.
In the late '80s, MTV treated rap and hip-hop as a novelty — a hip new fad featuring urban style, breakdance moves, fresh production techniques, and a cast of cartoonish characters with microphones and vinyl records in hand.
I was a college freshman when tracks from the New York-based group's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back hit the airwaves on the heels of 1987's Yo! Bum Rush the Show. College radio embraced both albums. No commercial pop or rock stations would touch Public Enemy, or any harder-edged hip-hop, for that matter. It was still under the radar.
I heard Chuck and Flava swapping lines on the pumped-up "She Watch Channel Zero" while a guitar sample from Slayer's "Angel of Death" churned in the background. I noticed the vintage funk rhythms, the initially siren-like blasts of saxophone and brass, and the stuttering vocal deliveries on "Bring the Noise" and "Don't Believe the Hype." I recognized Kool and the Gang's smooth groove on "Louder Than a Bomb."
Watching actress Rosie Perez dance and shadowbox to "Fight the Power" in the opening credits to the 1989 Spike Lee joint Do the Right Thing smacked me pretty hard, though. Perez looked entranced as she bobbed and twisted to the music. Chuck D's line, "You gotta go for what you know/Make everybody see in order to fight the powers that be," landed a blow to my skull. It was one of those rattling moments of enlightenment. Public Enemy wasn't simply a rowdy troupe of noise-makin' maniacs with an artillery of audio samples and beats; they were actually intense musical artists with a message of strength, independence, and justice — pioneers in the field, unafraid of controversy, conformity, and backlash.
As the main voice, Chuck's message had bite and wit. He spoke up for the unrepresented, and he slammed the hypocritical and the corrupted. His deep-toned vocal delivery was almost as radical as the words themselves. If Flav played the jester of the group, Chuck D served as the intellectual and justifiably pissed-off preacher-in-chief.
After Public Enemy went on hiatus around 1993, Flav dealt with drug and financial problems while Chuck worked on solo projects. Flav's innate silly streak was at the heart of a string of VH1 reality shows. Chuck branched out into the lecture circuit, becoming an in-demand commentator at various academic and media events. The group survived the career ups and downs with their spirit intact.
Chuck D, Flava Flav, and most of the original PE lineup are set for a concert at the Music Farm on Wed. Sept. 15. Twenty years after It Takes a Nation of Millions, I'm ready to relate to PE's message and funky noise with better ears. I might even practice my Rosie Perez-style dance moves for when they play their most audacious classics.