Public Enemy was and is a force of nature, forever emblazoned in the minds of hip hop fans of all generations. Even younger rap enthusiasts can rattle off the iconic sound bites PE created: "Public Enemy #1." "Prophets of Rage." "Bring the Noise." "Don't Believe the Hype." They just as easily fit the definition of a rock and roll band, as they embody everything rock is: controversial, political, radical, unapologetic, rebellious, and edgy. They unintentionally branded themselves better than Don Draper ever could, with their logo of a black man in the crosshairs of a rifle and band name in bold stenciled font, Flavor Flav's big clock necklaces, and Chuck D's black Raiders cap.
Above all, they broke through hip hop and black culture like a polar icebreaker, exhorting black America to wake up and take a stand against the drugs, violence, and political injustices plaguing the community. PE was three albums in to the game when they released Apocalypse 91...The Empire Strikes Black. It was pivotal for them in several ways. This would be the first PE album produced by the Imperial Grand Ministers of Funk, a subset of The Bomb Squad who'd produced Yo! Bum Rush the Show, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and Fear of a Black Planet. It would also be their last major commercial success, being awarded platinum status in November of 1991. The band's relationship with their label, Def Jam, would later start to fray, and Chuck D became one of the first major artists to advocate online music distribution and giving publishing rights to artists. Flavor Flav, arguably the greatest hype man of all time, isn't featured as strategically as he was in their first three offerings.
One thing PE mastered from the start is the value of a strong, memorable hook, and "Can't Truss It" is a classic example. Chuck D clearly knew people don't always listen to song lyrics, so he took great care to make his titles and hooks sum up the point of the song. Then by using Flavor Flav to spit the hook, as only Flav can, he makes it palatable but at the same time effective. "Can't Truss It "is a black history/afro-centric narrative version of the '60's counterculture mantra "Question Authority." Chuck D tells the story of the African slave trade from a first person point of view, which captivates their intended audience much more than a "here's a little story" approach. This may be the first time many young people heard Africans spent "90 damn days on a slave ship" made to lay spoon fashion so close "every time I roll over /I roll over on somebody else." The Imperial Grand Ministers of Funk don't stray too far from the signature sound The Bomb Squad crafted for the band. The looping horn stabs, DJ Terminator X's dusty scratches, and four on the floor kick drums are still there. What they removed from the equation is the somnambulant "air raid" samples that almost serve as warning sirens for PE's messages.
"By the Time I Get to Arizona," is a distorted fuzzy and slowed-down protest song of sorts. Public Enemy takes on the state of Arizona, and in particular its then-Governor Evan Mecham, for refusing to observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Again, Chuck D pushes the creative edge to get his point across by depicting the killing of Governor Mecham in the song's music video.
The stand out track to me is "Shut 'Em Down", a funk rocker you can really nod your head to. When Chuck D's thunder-rolling bass asks, "Who count money in the neighborhood?" he's warning us of the consequences of not spending the black dollar in the black community. He even calls out Nike, questioning why they can't invest in the neighborhoods who overwhelmingly buy their products. When you look at it from an economics perspective, you see the call to "shut em down" is more about voting with your dollars, not physical confrontation.
Today, Chuck D runs Public Enemy's online portal, and his own radio show. Flavor Flav...do we really need to update you? I will share that, at press time, I saw he'll be starring on ABC's Celebrity Wife Swap in 2012. Terminator X retired to North Carolina and runs his own ostrich farm.
Apocalypse 91...The Enemy Strikes Black while no doubt an influential, solid album by Public Enemy, doesn't really break any new ground for them. It is "more of the same" in a good way, but at the same time, knowing what the future held for them, it is bittersweet. Still, their message is relevant, historic, and should be considered mandatory listening for any hip-hop music connoisseur.