Amongst the first wave of hip-hop groups that gained worldwide notoriety and fame during the 1980’s, Public Enemy were perhaps the most recognised outfit out of those who used their music to raise awareness of racial inequality and other political issues that surrounded the 6-man collective both in their local neighbourhoods and further afield in the USA.
Fusing sampled beats said to be inspired by Run DMC and often-controversial lyrics, Public Enemy adopted the gangsta rap label that was coined with the rise of these aggressive but undoubtedly revolutionary artists. When comparing Public Enemy to other important groups of the same era, although they were rarely as explicit as NWA or as intentionally attention seeking as The Beastie Boys, the influence they had on the genre, not to mention politics, is just as bold.
Here we have chosen 5 Public Enemy tracks that stand out from the rest as those that warranted the most uproar, the most applause and also the most change.
Shut ‘Em Down
Taken from the group’s fourth studio album, Shut ‘Em Down refers to the money grabbing corporate giants who often neglected the black community in America by taking profits yet failing to recognize their contribution in the same way they would others. Businesses rarely opened in predominantly black areas yet these were often the most profitable, especially for brands such as Nike and other manufactures that sold sports clothing. Lyrics like “rippin’ up the poor in the stores, til they get a brother kickin’ down doors” points at the life of crime that had to be adopted by many in these poorer areas, directly blaming high prices set by those who own these establishments as the cause. With several short snappy lines like this, Shut ‘Em Down stabs at exploitation and the absence of equal pay.
Welcome To The Terrordome
Sampling The Temptations’ Psychedelic Shack, Welcome To The Terrordome reacts to the controversy that arose when Public Enemy compared black neglect to the holocaust. Allegations of anti-semitism were fired at the group by the Jewish community of America, to be overturned by this single that appeared on the 1990 album Fear Of A Black Planet. Although lines like “tell the rab to get off the rag” are not insulting, with this particular phrase merely abbreviating words for the purpose of lyrical flow, including references to Jewish people in rap music saw the group receive an anti-semitist label through no just cause. For Public Enemy, basing lyrically astute songs around sensitive issues like religion, as well as race, was one of the integral reasons they became so influential. They encouraged different people to resolve issues and come together.
Don’t Believe The Hype
Don’t Believe The Hype once again directs anguish at the tools controlled by the bourgeoisie, in this instance the media. Through lyrics like “they claiming I’m a criminal” and “false media, we don’t need it do we?”, Public Enemy are accusing the media of making false accusations, partly because, in the groups opinion, they fear Public Enemy. Negative press surrounded the band a lot during their early years, much like the earlier mentioned rap group NWA and also Boogie Down Productions. The rise of black rap groups, especially those condoning the gangster lifestyle and opposing authority saw an increase in public disturbances and even rioting, which the media blames on the lyrical content of this music that was becoming more popular. What was more commonly to blame however was infact excessive force used by police, used as a result of fear installed by the media and the generalisation that the majority of black individuals were infact gangsters. Although the media still creates moral panics today in countless areas of news, Public Enemy’s continued efforts to expose police brutality were rewarded with the security that racial inequality can no longer be manipulated by the media. Quite an achievement.
Rebel Without A Pause
As the first track created for the LP It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, Rebel Without A Pause was created with the intention of producing a record that captures the energy from their live shows, as although many rap groups were playing at around 98BPM, Public Enemy were performing at the faster speed of around 109BPM. With a title adapted from the name of the feature film Rebel Without A Cause and samples taken from James Brown’s Funky Drummer (the track that incepted jungle and drum & bass), The J.B’s and Chubb Rock, this is one of Public Enemy’s most upbeat and energetic tracks that left lyrics aside to push boundaries with sample experimentation and the hip-hop sound.
Fight The Power
Finally we have Fight The Power from Fear Of A Black Planet, which is undoubtedly the group’s most well known single and also the soundtrack to the film Do The Right Thing, which was aptly a chronicle of the racial tension and inequality around the US that forms the background to many of Public Enemy’s tracks. Freedom of speech, unity, and the dissolving of racist icons are all touched upon, as the single follows the several years of work and commitment in raising awareness. The message that is conveyed in Fight The Power, which is just as strong as ever, is spoken over a number of versions demonstrating the versatility of the important message. Echoing as a kind of celebration, if you will, of the accomplishments achieved throughout the previous decade, Fight The Power encapsulates all of Public Enemy’s messages and achievements against equality, no doubt encouraging and inspiring people to recognize them and live as one for generations to come.
Words by Josh Plews
Photos courtesy of Public Enemy