Fight the power? The Public Enemy we know and love started slightly different. Their debut album, Yo! Bum Rush The Show, opens with a tune about a car. And it’s followed by one dissing a woman. The third track is “Miuzi Weighs A Ton,” which takes the traditional hip-hop stance of using lyrics as weapons. Public Enemy didn’t start as revolutionaries; the incendiaries they threw were rhymes. They were B-boys first and grew into revolutionaries. You can hear that development taking grip as Yo! Bum Rush The Show continues.
Yo! Bum Rush The Show didn’t arrive out of thin air. Public Enemy had risen from Spectrum City, a group that released the single “Lies” in 1984 and featured the rapper who’d become known as Chuck D, along with future control-room maestros the Shocklee brothers. Flavor Flav, a rapper and hype man, joined too, bringing a massive stage presence and deeply underrated ability to spit rhymes. Another arrival was Terminator X, the DJ who communicated via his decks. Professor Griff and Eric “Vietnam” Sadler were associates from Spectrum City; in PE, Griff became “Minister Of Information” and handled interactions with the media, and Sadler was part of The Bomb Squad production team along with Chuck (as Carl Ryder) and the Shocklees.
While the group was basically Chuck, Flav, and Griff, all had a major part to play in shaping PE’s sound, attitude, and politics, as did Def Jam Records’ Bill Stephney, who was searching for a rap act that could deliver a desperately needed dose of reality to an increasingly pressured ghetto audience. The Bomb Squad got busy while PE was getting itself together, creating waves among the hip-hop hardcore with True Mathematics, a talented MC from the Public Enemy heartland of Hempstead, Long Island, and another “Strong Island” group, Kings Of Pressure, among others. So they knew the ropes.
You can still hear echoes of the full crew’s previous work in Yo! Bum Rush The Show. These days some of its tracks sound more old school than you might have expected, but in ’87 this album was heading for revolutionary, though still reflecting the hip-hop heard on the street. The samples and cuts pile up, the beats are chopped and diced and used to add light and shade – and furious heaviness – to a complex and deeply funky attitude. That’s apparent from the opening “You’re Gonna Get Yours,” in which PE’s Oldsmobile 98 is refuge, symbol, and metaphorical weapon.
The raw metallic guitar which drives “Sophisticated Bitch” sounds like a sample, though it’s Vernon Reid of Living Colour who’s playing it; there are shades of Run-DMC and Eddie Martinez and Joe Perry here, where rock and 80s rap collide. The song’s lyrics were attacked for misogyny, marking the album’s first controversial moment, as Chuck passes judgment on a black woman who rejected a brother in favor of a “devil” in a suit and tie. Her fate in the final stanza is literally hard-hitting.
Chuck said they were observing, not delivering, but the lyrics made for uncomfortable listening, even more so in today’s current social and political climate. It meant that, from the start, PE were under fire, and this sense of being beyond mainstream mores and preset thinking helped them live up to their name. It also put them on a level with potential rivals on the West Coast, like Ice-T and his celebrations of outlaw lifestyles, a gangsta groove which would soon explode with NWA’s rapid rise in 1988. PE and the gangstas shocked polite society equally. It was surely no coincidence that NWA star Ice Cube would soon turn to The Bomb Squad to supervise his first solo album.
A classic sample
The standard form of defense in late 80s hip-hop was attack: rising stars knew they’d get dissed and were ready to come out fighting, and that attitude appears in “You’re Gonna Get Yours” and “Timebomb,” which kicks off with Flav warning that PE faced skepticism, setting up Chuck to let rip with an unarguable statement about why they are the real deal. Flav gets the whole of “Too Much Posse” to explain how PE could not be beaten. “Public Enemy No.1,” the debut single from Yo! Bum Rush The Show, sees Chuck fight off detractors over little more than a beat and the distinctive buzzing synth lines from Fred Wesley’s “Blow Your Head” – the fashion for Moog lines heard in hip-hop’s G-Funk era can be partially traced back to here. It was a tour de force from Chuck and Flav – but Public Enemy were just starting to roll.
“Rightstarter (Message To A Black Man)” is Chuck’s declaration that the revolution has started, and whatever the reaction to his words, he won’t shut up. This wasn’t the first song to (approximately) quote the title of Nation Of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad’s 1965 religious, political, and biographical book Message To The Blackman In America, but The Temptations’/Spinners “Message From A Black Man,” first released in 1970, was by no means as hard-hitting as Chuck’s black nationalism. “MPE” drops the tempo, the lyrics floating over the most basic funk backing. The album’s title track is almost as minimal, but the approach is different, bringing the noise behind Chuck D’s story of busting in after being refused entry to a nightclub – and wider society.
“Raise The Roof” starts like a call to a musical event, explains a touch of PE lifestyle, then grows criminal-minded before Chuck declares himself a terrorist and drops the line that would feed PE’s undisputed classic: “it takes a nation of millions to hold me back.” By the end, Chuck is razing crack houses, an attitude explained by “Megablast,” a grim tale of falling into a pit of rock cocaine, brilliantly carried off on the mic by Chuck and Flav, who sounds truly desperate when his voice is thrown into reverse gear – showing the confusion this lifestyle brings. (His regrettable problems in this realm were yet to arrive.) The album closes by giving the DJ some with “Terminator X Speaks With His Hands,” a glorious exhibition of mixcraft as we knew it then: raw funk.
Released on February 10, 1987, Yo! Bum Rush The Show was a big success despite being considered too rough for airplay; black fans felt it was a necessary development in hip-hop, saying what had to be said; white fans felt how real it was. But it was just the start. Public Enemy would soon hit bigger highs, drawing in a mass audience barely able to believe what they had the guts to say.