"Public Enemy Changed My Life" by @SamaxAmen

."The minute they SEE me, FEAR me.
I'm the EPITOME! 
A PUBLIC ENEMY!" 
-Chuck D
Just to date myself a little bit, I was an impressionable young teenager when my big sister's boyfriend (now my brother-in-law), a DJ from Indiana, introduced me to Public Enemy, an introduction that quietly changed my life forever. I already liked rap acts like Run DMC, The Beasties and LL Cool J when Jazzy (now everyone calls him James) started giving me mixtapes that really opened hip hop up for me. 

Eventually, he said "I think you're ready for this..." handing me the first of many copies of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back that would be worn out, broken, crushed, lost or otherwise escape from my possession. Millions is Public Enemy's second album (coming between their debut Yo Bum Rush the Show and their highest seller Fear of a Black Planet) and is easily my favorite record of all time in any genre. The Grand Upright Music, Ltd v. Warner Bros. Records Inc anti-sampling lawsuit (in which Biz Markie was named as a co-defendant) rendered the brilliant multi-layered sampling techniques used by PE's production team the Bomb Squad functionally impossible to repeat. While the Bomb Squad went on to produce lots of dope music for PE, Ice Cube, Bel Biv Devoe and others, Millions represents the height of their creative genius as far as I'm concerned. 
 Strangely enough, what enamored me with PE at first was not the black superhero revolutionary embodied by Chuck D, but the greatest hype man in hip hop history, Flavor Flav. As I stared at the cover and listened to It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back the first few dozen times, my favorite song initially was Cold Lampin' with Flavor...

Flavor Flav had more in common with the heavily bejeweled, charismatic, metaphor-slinging rappers that were capturing my eye and ear on MTV at the time. People laugh about it now that he has been a fixture on the caricature-you-love-to-hate producing factory called reality teevee, but Flavor's giant clocks, sunglasses, crazy dancing, piercing voice and jet-black complexion made him a perfect entryway for the average b-boy to get into Public Enemy. Armed with this perfect ambassador, Chuck D and company introduced me to hip hop's unprecedented power to express the righteous indignation of underrepresented people everywhere.

"Clear all the madness.
I'm not a racist.

Preach to, teach to all.
Cause some, they never had this..."

You should notice I didn't say "of  black people everywhere"... While Public Enemy presented the purest and most unapologetic expression of black militancy that popular music had seen up to that point (and maybe since), their message of counter-cultural resistance and empowerment REALLY spoke to disenfranchised youth of all colors and creeds.

 To his credit, the forward-thinking Chuck D didn't resist the crossover crowd, but took it upon himself to engage, and even lead the angry masses. PE was introduced to the world by going on tour with The Beastie Boys (of all people), and I'm sure that many of the white boys and girls in attendance left the show as fans. At my high school, wearing a Public Enemy tee emblazoned with that iconic logo designed Chuck himself, was like announcing membership in an otherwise invisible rebel army that might overthrow the government at any moment. Public Enemy was as black as a trillion midnights (as my man Corance would say), but accessible to a diverse fan base. They were controversial as any other musical act of their time, but ideologically pure. Public Enemy made me believe that even if other people were doing wrong, I didn't have to. That in fact, I could resist the bad people and even convert them to my struggle. Chuck D was a role model for rebels everywhere, and in return for that inspiration, we made Public Enemy into rock stars.
  
Along with the KRS ONE-led Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy turned the whole rap industry conscious. In the same way that rappers would eventually feel pressure to act gangster, during PE's glory days, everyone was searching their souls for depth and putting it on wax. Public Enemy's most iconic song is the Fear of a Black Planet single Fight the Power, which was also the theme song of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing.

"Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that
sucker was
Simple and plain
..."
-Chuck D 

"Mother fuck him and John Wayne..."

-Flavor Flav 

Yes, they really DID say that on a chart-topping blockbuster. Fight the Power remains one of the most popular hip hop songs ever, and a high water mark for the genre, and the culture. It's my wife's favorite PE song, anyways... Public Enemy did one more album on Def Jam (Apocalypse '91... The Enemy Strikes Black) before going independent and vanishing off the mainstream media's radar, but for thousands (maybe millions) of rap nerds like me, the damage had been done. PE influenced fans and artists alike to demand not just dope musical delivery from their hip hop, but substance as well, in whatever form that takes. For me, Chuck D made me feel comfortable just turning off the radio when it's not giving me what I want.
No more music by the suckas...
peace,
-samax.  

4 comments:

Antony Drossos said...

I hear you, bredrin. I was at the lowest point in my teen years. Public Enemy and KRS ONE were beacons of hope (and of Knowledge-of-self) for me.

samax amen said...

Word. Hip hop in its pure form is empowering, uplifting, and inspiring. PE lit a fire in me that is still burning years later. Gotta love it!

Phillip Magana said...

As a teen, being intro'd to PE back in '88 was spark that lit the creative juice in me, and haven't looked back. I'll always be grateful to my boy Eric for bringing their music to my life.

samax amen said...

Word, Phillip! Thanks for commenting!

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