Who They Are: One of the longest-running and most highly-acclaimed/respected acts in modern American hip-hop/rap culture. Lyrical prophet Chuck D and hype-man Flavor Flav are the sole permanent members and most visible faces/names in the group, though there have been a variety of core/key collaborators in their posse across the years, including DJ/turntable masters Terminator X and DJ Lord, guitarist Khari Wynn, singers/philosophers/media assassins Harry Allen, Professor Griff and Sister Souljah, The Bomb Squad production team (Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee, Eric “Vietnam” Sadler and Gary G-Wiz), and the “Security of the First World” (S1W) dance/support/security team. Public Enemy have always been a strongly political group, merging hard, trenchant messages with some of the most incredible beats ever laid down on wax (or encoded into bits and bytes). Since emerging from their Long Island homes in 1985, they’ve taken their messages, their styles, and their sounds to a global audience, with varying degrees of commercial and critical success, but without ever compromising their commitment to their causes and their communities. Their most recent album, 2020’s What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down?, was an unexpected gem, one of the finest releases of their long and illustrious career, after a period of churn and turmoil when Flav was allegedly kicked out of the group and their future seemed uncertain, though they’ve since claimed that the announcement of Flav’s firing was an April Fools stunt designed to measure and demonstrate the ways in which the media market and mismanage their stories.
When I First Heard Them: Soon after their debut album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, dropped in 1987. They received a lot of attention in the music press of the era, and they made me rethink what it meant to be a member of a musical group when I first read about and listened to them, as most of the people who appeared in their press shots of the era didn’t actually sing or play any instruments, in the traditional uses of those verbs. They really cemented their standing as one of my favorite acts a couple of years later, when Marcia and I went to see Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (one of my all-time favorite films) in Washington DC on or very near to its release date. That great film opens with Rosie Perez dancing and boxing on the big screen with Public Enemy’s most lasting anthem, “Fight the Power,” just absolutely kicking!!! It remains the only time I can ever recall an audience clapping, standing and whooping for an opening credit segment. (You should watch it now). As provocative and inspirational as the song was in and out of its original context, it’s dismaying to think that it’s been 32 years (“1989, a number . . .”) since Spike released that great film, in which the climactic scenes hinge upon a black man being choked to death by a police officer. I guess I hoped, dreamed, maybe even believed in 1989 that things would have changed by 2021 in ways that such acts would be inconceivable, not commonplace. Nope. We’ve still got a ways to go on that front, alas. Public Enemy issued an updated version of “Fight The Power” in 2020, and included it on the aforementioned fantastic Grid album. The core riffs, beats and rhymes of the song are just so iconic all these years on, and I am most pleased that P.E. returned to that classic with a topical and timely update, involving some of the many talented folk they have inspired over the years. I didn’t think the original version of the song could be topped or improved. I was wrong. The new version is absolutely astounding, and you’ll get to see/hear it in my favorite PE songs list below.
Why I Love Them: Public Enemy hit all the marks for me. Their music has always been ground-breaking from a creative and critical standpoint, Chuck and Flav are charismatic and distinctive front-men who have helped to shape the ways that modern hip-hop music looks and sounds, and their lyrics are cleverly crafted and drop-dead timely on cultural, social and political fronts, year after year after year. Their influence is huge, but rather than just sitting back and reaping the acclaim that their historic stature and status accord them, they have continued to issue albums and singles at a fairly steady pace, pushing themselves to share their important sounds and messages, even in years (or decades) when it has seemed like the record-buying, political science, and/or critical arts communities weren’t necessarily interested in receiving them. Not much more to say than this, at bottom line: they make me think, and they make me groove, and I’ll always love anybody who can push both of those buttons as well as Chuck, Flav and compatriots do and have done for so many years, in so many ways.
#10. “Son of a Bush,” from Revolverlution (2002)
#9. “Bring The Noise,” from It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988)
#8. “He Got Game,” from He Got Game (Original Soundtrack Recording) (1998)
#7. “Harder Than You Think,” from How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul? (2007)
#6. “R.I.P. Blackat,” from What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down? (2020)
#5. “Shut ‘Em Down,” from Apocalypse ’91 . . . The Enemy Strikes Black (1991)
#4. “Burn Hollywood Burn,” from Fear of a Black Planet (1990)
#3. “WTF,” from Most Of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear On No Stamp (2012)
#2. “Fear of a Black Planet,” from Fear of a Black Planet (1990)
#1. “Fight The Power (2020 Remix),” from What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down? (2020)