Politics! Black issues! Fighting the power! Outwitting The Man! Microphone terrorism! Exposing the media! The Public Enemy you know and love started slightly different, because 1987 was different. What, their debut album opened with a tune about a car? And followed it up with one dissing a woman? The third track tells you what’s going on: ʻMiuzi Weighs A Ton’ takes a traditional hip-hop stance of using lyrics as weapons, and those lyrics are heavy. Public Enemy didn’t start as revolutionaries; the incendiaries they threw were rhymes. They were B-boys first and grew into that second role. You can hear that development taking a grip as Yo! Bum Rush The Show continues. They were coming from the street, heading for polemics; hip-hop came first for them, and, in 1987, this was about as sophisticated, complex and advanced as it got.
That does not happen by accident: they’d had plenty of practice. Public Enemy had risen from Spectrum City, a group that released the single ʻLies’ 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.
Yo! Bum rush the show
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 to beats that is apparent from the opening ʻYou’re Gonna Get Yours’, in which PE’s Oldsmobile 98 is refuge, symbol and metaphorical weapon.
The raw metallic guitar which drives ʻSophisticated 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 judgement on a black woman who rejected a brother in favour 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, which was starting to ascend with Ice-T’s 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.
You’re gonna get yours
The standard form of defence 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 ʻYou’re Gonna Get Yours’ and ʻTimebomb’, 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 ʻToo Much Posse’ to explain how PE could not be beaten. ʻPublic Enemy No.1’, their debut single, fits the justification tunes as Chuck fights off detractors over little more than a beat and the distinctive buzzing synth lines from Fred Wesley’s ʻBlow Your Head’ – the fashion for Moog lines heard in hip-hop’s entire G-Funk era can be traced back to here. It was a tour de force from Chuck and Flav – but Public Enemy were just starting to roll.
ʻRightstarter (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 ʻMessage From A Black Man’, first released in 1970, was by no means as hard-hitting as Chuck’s black nationalism. ʻMPE’ 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.
ʻRaise 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 ʻMegablast’, 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 ʻTerminator X Speaks With His Hands’, a glorious exhibition of mixcraft as we knew it then: raw funk.
Released on 10 February 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: Politics! Black issues! Fighting the power! Outwitting The Man! Microphone terrorism! Exposing the media! They bum-rushed the show. It began here.
Yo! Bum Rush The Show can be bought here.