Public Enemy – Rebel Without A Pause

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!

The revolution will not be televised!

Gil Scott-Heron was born on April Fools Day 1949 the son of a Jamaican professional soccer player – the first black player to play for Celtic. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is possibly the most powerful threat of black power against the white American people ever to be released. This is an un-American broadcast.

In the late 1960’s & early 1970’s Gil Scott-Heron became known as much for his African American militant activism as he did a spoken word performer. With hindsight, his most controversial and successful anti white American power onslaught came in the 1974 song – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. On the one hand it’s hard to believe this wasn’t a massive hit for Heron, the voice of a new hardcore black generation. A generation who had seen the Civil Right Movement come and go with the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. On the other hand, this is such a scathing attack on white America, and above all, a warning, no that’s not strong enough, a threat to all those whiteys out there –

You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip,
Skip out for beer during commercials,
Because, the revolution will not be televised.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised was released one year before Heron’s first hit single, Johannesburg. But it stands the test of time and still sounds as fresh and funky today as it must have sounded then.

A funky bass line pulls the song along with a beautiful reedy flute leading with a floating freeform style. Heron’s vocal was more tuned than his earlier spoken word releases, but still spoken as opposed to singing. Where Heron’s vocal style must be seen as one of the protagonists and forefathers of rap music; the heavy plodding, seedy funk groove is lightened only by the jazzy flute, floating round the room, above the origins of a deeper jazz funk.

The music is as powerful, aggressive and confrontational as Heron’s vocal delivery; and by the time Revolution was released there was a profound shift in the struggle for equality as the fight for civil rights gave way to the demand for Black Power with organisations such as the Black Panthers. The Civil Rights Movement had lost its focus, being ripped apart by differing interest groups and by and large ignored by an American Government and the American people themselves.

Heron went on to record many albums and tours to this day. The Bottle, Johannesburg, and Whitey On The Moon are all great tracks, but for me, Revolution just takes Heron’s qualities to another level.
The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
will not be televised, will not be televised.
The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
The revolution will be live!