I bought Public Enemy’s debut album (Yo! Bum Rush The Show) on its release in 1987 after a friend had leant me a tape to listen to on the way home from north London. All I can remember about the journey is putting the tape on full volume at Finsdbury Park tube station and then turning the cassette player off at Victoria Station feeling scared and somewhat shellshocked. I’m not joking, this album was scary.
One year later came, what the music industry often term as the difficult second album, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back; and to use another music industry cliché – this would turn out to be Public Enemy’s very own Sgt. Peppers!
In retrospect, Yo! Bum seems pretty tame, over produced and doesn’t stand the test of time; whereas It Takes A Million is pure ‘bass in your face’ hard as nails. Flavour Flav’s vocal interjections (so much better to listen to than watch) work off the main rapping vocals of Chuck D, leaving no space to catch breathe or consideration for the next onslaught.
Rebel Without A Pause preceded the album release and became the single that propelled Public Enemy into the UK limelight as leading a new wave of hardcore, hip hop rap, and in doing so introduced a whole new generation to the black power politics of the Black Panther movement and the extremist views of Louis Farrakhan.
“Panther power on the hour from the rebel to you”
The song starts with a roll call:
“Brothers and sisters! I don’t know what this world is coming to.”
Four beats/scratches 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 and EVERYTHING drops in together. Chuck D raps like a powerful black militant steamroller. His voice is as hard as a clenched fist as he sneers at my puny white face – I know your listening, I caught you pissing in your pants!
The onslaught is continuous, the rap like a post modern Subterranean Homesick Blues; and throughout the whole song is an almighty screeching sound reminiscent of an old steam kettle as it reaches boiling point. How can I explain how essential that noise is to this track?
Terminator X is the name of Public Enemy’s turntabalist, the man who stood on the plinth at the live shows scratching vinyl into beats and rhythms. This is his 5 minutes of glory. The call to arms Terminator X gets ready to shoot his shit as Chuck D replaces a conventional chorus by venomously spitting “Terminator X” and off he scratches a fantastic line of offence.
At the time scratching was a new and original form of expression, playing turntables as if they were a musical instrument was, and still is, an amazing thing to witness live.
“I caught you pissin’ in you’re pants” – awesome
Today, I’m much older, not sure about being wiser, but certainly don’t get scared by music so easily. But that’s probably because nothing comes close to the angst and power of Public Enemy at their best!