During the Reagan-Bush era of the late 1980s, I, like many sort of rebellious high school knuckleheads, stumbled upon the music of Public Enemy. The thunderous oratory of Chuck D and the flamboyant (and often hilarious) commentary by Flavor Flav, combined with those frantic Bomb Squad beats, opened my eyes to the perspectives and experiences of a world grappling with racial inequality and systemic injustices.
I still recall purchasing the cassette of Yo, Bum Rush the Show based on a review from one of the hip-hop magazines I devoured each month like Word Up, Vibe or The Source. Man, I had no idea what I was in for. Tracks like ‘Public Enemy #1’ and ‘M.P.E. (Message to the Political/Educational System)’ forced me to contemplate societal structures – and my own place within them. The album essentially gave me a framework and a lens to explore and understand these complex issues.
Subsequent albums like It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, their second studio album released on June 28, 1988, and Apocalypse ’91 – The Enemy Strikes Black, the fourth studio album released on October 1, 1991, had even more impact for me.
Unapologetically fierce and courageous, these songs became a vehicle for bringing focus to issues like racism, Jim Crow, and reparations into mainstream consciousness. They also pushed lyrical and musical boundaries, even breaking genre lines by collaborating with the thrash-metal band Anthrax. The music demanded that we — as listeners — question both the status quo and the history we had been taught. For me – these albums transcended entertainment. They served as an educational tool, a platform for vicarious experience, and a catalyst for dialogue.
Over the past three decades, I have remained an ardent fan, attending their live shows whenever my schedule allows. Public Enemy was, and is, more than just a rap group; they were the guides of my personal musical journey. They ignited my political consciousness and left a lasting impact that resonates in my life today – just as their beats once reverberated through my headphones in my highschool bedroom.
And we’d be remiss without offering a good visual LISTEN to ‘Fight the Power’, released as a single in the summer of 1989…
Speaking of ‘Fight the Power’, we found this PBS video clip highlighting the song’s importance as an anthem for those standing for the rollback of oppression and the story of how the collaboration came about between Public Enemy and Spike Lee as he was just finishing his groundbreaking film Do the Right Thing.
Here’s a review of one of the epic Public Enemy shows I experienced live and in-person:
Public Enemy at The Grand Ballroom at the Regency Center, San Francisco, CA, August 19, 2011
Public Enemy is my all-time favorite rap group. When I was in college at the University of Cincinnati, frontman Chuck D’s lyrics influenced my left-leaning political and social views much more so than any professor or textbook.
Naturally, I’ve seen them perform a number of times. Even though I was a diehard fan, I would occasionally find the live shows lacking. Once, on the Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age Tour, they performed without Flavor Flav. He had been arrested the week before, and rather than rescheduling the show, someone else filled in for him.
What the f***? Flavor Flav was the greatest Hype Man in rap history. He can’t be replaced!
Anyways, when I saw PE was playing at The Regency here in San Francisco, my expectations were low – but I still recruited some friends to help me Fight the Power.
Turns out Chuck, Flav, Griff, and the S1Ws had picked up a few tricks since the last time I saw them.
For one thing, DJ Lord (who had replaced the original DJ, Terminator X back in 1999) treated the crowd to a BOOMING 20-minute pre-show rock and rap set. It ramped up the energy in the room considerably. We were ready to ‘Bring the Noise’!
Public Enemy came out afterwards – with a LIVE BACKUP BAND. This was new – and a huge improvement over previous shows where they just rapped over pre-recorded music.
When Chuck finally grabbed the mic, it was on! His vocals and DJ Lord’s beats were blistering. And Flav, with his exaggerated dance moves and various interjections of his trademark, “Yeaaaah boooyyyyeeeee”, was perfect as the comic foil. Say what you will about his reality show career, the guy is a great performer. I think he even tried to make eye contact with every member of the crowd at some point during the show.
They did all of their classic songs: ‘Bring the Noise’, ‘Fight the Power’, ‘Welcome to the Terrordome’, ‘Don’t Believe the Hype’, ‘By the Time I Get to Arizona’, ‘Shut ‘Em Down’, ‘Can’t Truss It’… and worked the stage – and the crowd – with an ease that comes from a quarter century of experience
Man, for me, Public Enemy was – once again – the most important rap group on the planet.