Hip Hop Fridays: 16 Years After 'Nation', What Is Public Enemy's Legacy? By Hua Hsu
It is a strange time to be Public Enemy. This weekend, at New York University's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, a conference commemorating the group's epochal 1988 album ''It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" gets underway, and original studio engineers and art directors, critics, activists, and Public Enemy rapper Chuck D will piece together a history of the recording and reception of what is considered to be the most forceful, if not best hip-hop album ever recorded. Meanwhile last night, VH1 aired a recent episode of ''Strange Love," a reality show that follows Chuck's Public Enemy sidekick Flavor Flav in his tireless attempts to woo the grotesque bombshell Brigitte Nielsen. It featured the always-fawning Flav showing his affections by making fried chicken for Nielsen's kids.
It is hard to tell which image resonates more with contemporary listeners: the young, Reagan-era spawns dangerous with their history lessons and militant theatrics, or the veteran, Reagan-era relics hammering away at a culture that has yet to figure out how to age gracefully. Their place in hip-hop folklore is set: ''It Takes A Nation" is one of the few hip-hop albums that might warrant the hoity-toity hoopla of an academic conference; ''Fight the Power," their 1989 contribution to Spike Lee's ''Do the Right Thing," was as incendiary as the film itself; and the album ''Fear of a Black Planet," released in 1990, was a Top 10 hit despite its steady assault of jarring, relentlessly heavy beats and dark rhymes about police brutality, interracial relationships, and the lethargic response time of 911.
That Public Enemy released some of the most important and controversial records of the past quarter-century is undeniable: But does the band still matter today?
It is easy to view this question with today's cynicism. The hip-hop generation's investment in political matters has never seemed as strong or as unified as it did in the late-1980s, during the group's heyday. Even last year's heartening push for voter registration felt millions of years removed from the mainlined aggressions of ''Prophets of Rage" or ''Bring the Noise." Public Enemy wasn't just a political rap group; it represented the political potential of a demographic that was as yet unconscious. Its albums were threats set to rhyme -- if one could harness the free energies and disaffections of this first generation that had grown up with hip-hop, then regime change could indeed start at home.
When ''It Takes a Nation" was released, Public Enemy, which then consisted of rappers Chuck D and Flavor Flav, DJ Terminator X, Minister of Information Professor Griff, and producers the Bomb Squad, was attuned to much larger cultural forces.
This was the time of Reagan, Thatcher, Mandela. The Cold War was still cleaving the world into good and bad, while the War on Drugs, Tawana Brawley, and the trial of Larry Davis suggested that there was just as much happening down the street. Alongside N.W.A. and Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy helped hip-hop see beyond its own provincialisms. ''I don't rhyme for the sake of riddlin'," Chuck boomed on ''Don't Believe the Hype." Rather, Chuck rhymed for the sake of a better world. How one got there was a whole different issue.
The album starts with a brief clip of a British DJ introducing the band on a 1987 European tour in support of its debut, ''Yo! Bum Rush the Show." (A DVD documenting this tour is scheduled for an April release.) One hears Griff and the group's dancers, the S1Ws, take the stage, and the crowd howls -- the thirst for revolution is global.
The songs that follow are undeniable classics. ''Bring the Noise" is a thrilling, skittering call to arms that offers an anti-history of rock as well as a call to follow Louis Farrakhan as reasons to nod your head. The hard, horn-laden swing of ''Night of the Living Baseheads" belies the fact that it is a song condemning crack addicts and one of the most powerful, succinct ones about that subject ever made. The funereal ''Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" finds Chuck dodging the draft and laughing off the government's attempt to conscript him in the ''army or whatever." Chuck's stern, unadorned flow was perfectly complemented by Flav's twitchy non sequiturs. They both sounded brilliant over the Bomb Squad's beats, layered high with messy, antsy noise, and funk borrowed from James Brown. This was a record where the beats sounded as troubled as the rhymes.
As an album, ''It Takes a Nation" is still a hip-hop anomaly; all of its pieces sound as if they were meant to function as part of a more purposeful whole. (Even the staunchest B-boys or girls will acknowledge that the concept album -- the complete, arching, hourlong statement -- has never been hip-hop's forte.) It is the definitive album from one of hip-hop's few definitive groups.
But as a collection of political statements and ideas, it's hard to read Public Enemy's legacy. Like all critics, Public Enemy's power was in its ability to convince you that its causes were urgent. Chuck's no-nonsense baritone foretold apocalypse around the corner. But the apocalypse never came. Instead, controversies surrounding Griff's alleged anti-Semitism and Flav's nagging drug problem clouded the group's mission. All the years of organizing amounted to very little, and the group's fist-pumping anthems seemed to hang, stale, in the air as hip-hop fans tabled the whole revolution issue.
Perhaps the fault wasn't with the group itself. ''I'm not a politician, I'm a dispatcher of information," Chuck explained in a 1988 interview. Like brother-in-arms Spike Lee, Public Enemy was always far better at rousing the masses than telling them precisely what to do. They weren't making threats about specific things; they were making threats to remind the youth that being threatening and idealistic was their God-given right. Still, with the absence of any group brave or mighty enough to follow its path, Public Enemy has come to represent the pinnacle of hip-hop politics, to old-school enthusiasts and liberal college professors alike.
Sixteen years after the album shook the pop landscape, it is probably best not to take it too literally or nostalgically. Instead, linger on the unfinished thought of the title: ''It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back," but from what? This is the part of the story that is still waiting to be written.
© Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.
This article appears in The Boston Globe
Decide for yourself. On February 25th and 26th, the Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music at NYU will host Chuck D., members of Public Enemy, The Bomb Squad, journalists and executives to discuss "It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back" and PE's legacy.
Friday, February 25, 2005