Reviewed on this page:
Yo! Bum Rush The Show - It
Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back -
Fear Of A Black Planet - Apocalypse '91: The Empire Strikes Black - Greatest Misses - Muse Sick-N-Our
Mess Age - Autobiography
Of Mistachuck - He Got Game - There's A Poison Goin On - Objects In The Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear -
For a moment, Public Enemy had people hoping (or fearing, depending
on their perspective) that hip-hop could spark a revolution in US
culture, rousing the anger of dispossessed black people by talking
politics over powerful, disquieting grooves. (In case you haven't
noticed, that didn't happen; gangsta rap proved to be more
commercial, and the free market lived to fight another day.) Public
Enemy wasn't the first political rap group (Grandmaster Flash's
"The Message" was released years before the group formed), but P.E.
didn't just describe conditions, they identified both their idols
(Nation Of Millions opens with a sample of Malcolm X) and
their enemies. P.E. mastermind Chuck D. is, among other things, a
shrewd self-promoter; everything about the group was calculated to
make an immediate impact, from the group's name and logo (a black
man in a cross-hair sight) to the volume of the records (they were
mastered a few decibels higher than normal, to stand out from
everything else on the radio), to the important stuff: the lyrics
and the music. The band's original producers, the Bomb Squad, had
an amazingly sharp ear for mixing up samples from lots of disparate
sources, often making irresistable hooks from harsh, even
irritating sounds. Since the late 80s, hip-hop backing tracks have
become either simplistic loops of one or two obtrusive samples, or
smooth FM radio-oriented R&B; no one has even come close to
equalling the hectic head trips Public Enemy pioneered.
The band appeared to have broken up in the mid-90s, but has since rekindled, with Chuck revolting against his record
company and releasing new music on his web site in addition to more
traditional outlets. Shortly thereafter, Flavor Flav began starring in a series of self-demeaning MTV reality shows. (DBW)
Chuck D. (Carl Ridenhour), vocals; Flavor Flav (Will
Drayton), vocals; Terminator X, DJ
Yo! Bum Rush The Show (1986)
The first album is strangely apolitical and run of the mill, with
the hit "You're Gonna Get Yours" and the dreadful
"Sophisticated Bitch" with Vernon Reid on
lead guitar. There is some sharp rhyming, but overall Chuck seems
not to have his act worked out yet. (DBW)
It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back (1988)
From the opening screaming guitar solo (sampled from Funkadelic's "Get Off Your Ass And
Jam"), you're in for an abrasive, enlightening ride. The Bomb
Squad's sonic collage is at its best here: even without the lyrics,
tracks like "Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos" (built on an Isaac Hayes sample), "Bring The Noise"
and "Rebel Without A Pause" would be essential. The lyrics, by the
way, are terrific: well-balanced between Chuck's ever-articulate
anger and Flav's way-out absurd humor. Includes another misogynist
rant ("She Watch Channel Zero"). (DBW)
Fear Of A Black Planet (1990)
Continuing in the same style, with cauldrons full of noise
("Brothers Gonna Work It Out," radio hits "Fight The Power" and
"Welcome To The Terrordome"). Also a hilarious, funky Flavor Flav
feature, "911 Is A Joke." After Nation Of Millions, a member
of the PE posse was fired for antisemitic remarks; Chuck's
reference to the situation on "Terrordome" sparked a whole new
round of controversy. Chuck attempts to rectify his past lyrical
treatment of women with "Revolutionary Generation," but sets off
the PC-ometer anyway with homophobic babbling on "Meet The G That
Killed Me." (DBW)
Apocalypse '91: The Empire Strikes Black (1991)
The Bomb Squad production team was kicked upstairs to executive
producers for this album, replaced as producers by the Imperial
Grand Ministers of Funk. The result is a more laid-back, funky
sound with an emphasis on live instruments. They also duet with
thrash band Anthrax on an uninspired heavy metal reworking of
"Bring The Noise." Lyrics continue to attack racism and the US
political structure ("By The Time I Get To Arizona," one of the
album's high points), and pay back the band's critics ("Letter To
The New York Post"). Not as consistent as earlier efforts, but some
great songs here, including "Can't Truss It"; "1 Million
Bottlebags" criticizes both the companies that profit from selling
malt liquor in the inner city and also those who drink it: "But who
drink it like water/On and on till the stores reorder it?" Stung by
continuing criticism by black feminists, Chuck recruited
"raptivist" Sister Souljah to do her thing on a couple of tracks,
and hyped her as the newest member of the band. (Souljah released
her own solo album and quickly returned to obscurity, becoming a
footnote to history in 1992 when Bill Clinton slammed her in his
quest for the all-important white asshole vote.) Flavor Flav's
homophobia returns to mar the otherwise enjoyable "New York Post."
Greatest Misses (1992)
They're not kidding. Half the record is remixes, only one of which
("Who Stole The Soul?") is significant, and the new material is
shockingly weak ("Air Hoodlum"). Lyrically it's all retreads
("Tie Goes To The Runner"); there is one good groove, "Gotta Do
What I Gotta Do." (DBW)
Muse Sick-N-Our Mess Age (1994)
Continuing in the vein of "One Million Bottle Bags" from
Apocalypse, the main lyrical focus here is not oppression
from the white power structure, but self-destruction within the
black community: "Give It Up" and "So Whatcha Gone Do Now"
criticize gansta rap and its celebration of "rap, guns, drugs and
money" and the 40-ounce. The music is a blend of live instruments
(mostly funky R&B-style drums, bass, guitar and organ), and the
high-energy collages of their early days. The tracks aren't as
danceable and the rhymes aren't as focused as Nation Of
Millions, and the album tends to stay in the same bag
throughout, but its best moments ("Hitler Day" - about Columbus
"discovering" America - and the startling a capella "They Used To
Call It Dope") are terrific. (DBW)
Autobiography Of Mistachuck (Chuck D.: 1996)
Chuck's first solo album is musically laid back, with a 70s soul
vibe that's alternately mellow and funky (Isaac Hayes even appears on one track).
Lyrically, though, it's as hard-edged as ever, taking on targets
siginificant ("Free Big Willy") celestial ("Niggativity... Dare I
Disturb The Universe?") and trivial ("Talk Show Created The Fool"
- I don't think so). Plus a few tracks where he recites his career
highlights ("Mistachuck," "Generation Wreckkked"). Just in case you
haven't had enough, he tacks on an uncredited final track,
accompanied only by organ, where he lists his grievances
against the media, record companies, other black recording artists,
and others. C'mon, Chuck, tell us what you really think. All
the polemicizing gets tiresome, but the grooves are solid ("The
Pride"), and he still has possibly the most captivating speaking
voice in the business. Plus he turns over the mike to a few guest
rappers, including Dow Jonez, who contributes the pop culture
reference of the year on "Endonesia." Not a standout album, but
another worthy chapter in Chuck's efforts to "reach the bourgeois
and rock the boulevards." (DBW)
He Got Game (1998)
Soundtrack to the Spike Lee joint of the same name; this reunites not
only the full group (including the previously banished Professor Griff
but not Sister Souljah) but also previous producers Gary G-Wiz
and the Bomb Squad. As a result, there's more variety than we've heard
on a PE record in a long, long time, and there are even guest stars to
mix it up some more: Wu-Tang's
Masta Killa adds a devastating cosmic rap to the opening "Resurrection";
KRS-One performs on "Unstoppable." Most bizarre is the Stephen Stills cameo on the title track, which
samples the Buffalo Springfield hit "For
What It's Worth" - what could have been a kitchy exercise (a la Wyclef
Jean) is given grit by a gospel chorus and Stills' gravelly vocal. Chuck
is in his usual good form, firing at a whole slew of targets (sneaker
manufacturers, police, basketball agents) and hitting more often than he
misses. Several tunes have those Wu strings, which have become a hip hop
cliché with frightening speed, but more often the tracks feature
the manic energy characteristic of classic PE - "Go Cat Go" features
screaming guitar distortion from Reeves
Gabrels. One of the producers, Kerwin Young, even gets away with
sampling "Won't Get Fooled Again" on "House Of The
Rising Son." With all the heaviness, it's pleasant to note than Flavor
Flav hasn't lost his sense of humor: his feature "Shake Your Booty" is
irresistable fun. Not mindblowing or groundbreaking, but a good solid
There's A Poison Goin On (1999)
The repetitive, simplistic beats and keyboard riffs here are 180 degrees from the expansive eclecticism of the last
release: you get the impression Chuck was so anxious to get his words out to the masses that he decided it didn't
matter how the music turned out. Not that producer Tom E. Hawk's grooves lack any flair - they're just nowhere near
PE's standard. And I'm afraid the words aren't either: on most cuts Chuck falls back on vague imprecations ("First
The Sheep Then The Shepherd?"), apocalyptic images ("Dark Side Of The Wall: 2000") and self-conscious delusions of
grandeur ("Do You Wanna Go Our Way?"). And the central metaphor of "Swindlers Lust" - about record company greed - is
confused at best. The lack of guest artists and bargain-basement production values achieve the underground
feeling that Chuck was undoubtedly going for, but too often it's just claustrophobic and dull.
There are good points: Flavor Flav delivers on his feature "What What," and "First The Sheep Then The Shepherd" is
Chuck D. at his most powerful. Just not enough.
Objects In The Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear (Confrontation Camp: 2000)
You know, any way you look at it, Chuck uses Holocaust imagery way too often.
Anyway, this is his rap-rock project, with Professor Griff and somebody named Kyle Jason, and it's really dull: they underestimate the complexity of metal the same way nu-metal groups usually underestimate the complexity of hip hop, setting up one simple riff for each tune and repeating it endlessly ("Carry My Load"). Some of the licks are borrowed ("Babies Makin' Babies Killin' Babies" references the Sly Stone tune; "Brake The Law" bites Living Colour's "Cult Of Personality"), the rest are just blah ("Che").
Backing is from Chaingang, and Jafar Mahmud's leads are passable but Wes Little's drumming is featureless - it's hard to believe Chuck could go from the Bomb Squad's fierce inventiveness to this. Meanwhile, most of the raps lack insight or intrigue, apart from the blistering capper "Super Egoman"... focus is on familiar themes like commercialism ("Jailbreak"), racism ("Jasper," about the torture and murder of James Byrd Jr.), and corruption ("Brake The Law").
Structured like a double helping of Greatest Misses, and about as valuable.
A mix of new material, live recordings ("Miuzi Weighs A Ton") and fan-contributed remixes of earlier hits.
The live cuts are just like the studio versions, only sloppy and out of breath ("Fight The Power"),
and the remixes range from ordinary ("By The Time I Get To Arizona") to exceptionally annoying ("B Side Wins Again (Scattershot Remix)").
So the only value is in the nine new songs, and unfortunately they're not so great either: Two are in the lame-brained heavy metal mode
of Confrontation Camp (Professor Griff's anti-war "What Good Is A Bomb"; the moronically repetitive "Son Of A Bush"), and "Now A'Daze" is
almost as dull. "Put It Up," "54321...Boom" and Flavor Flav's feature, "Can A Woman Make A Man Lose His Mind?," are decent but forgettable.
The title track, "Gotta Give The Peeps What They Need," and "Get Your Shit Together" all match energetic backing tracks to focused Chuck D.
rhymes, and they're the only reminder here of how good PE can be.
New Whirl Odor (2005)
Rebirth Of A Nation (2006)
Produced by Paris.
Flavor Flav (Flavor Flav: 2006)
Flav's long-delayed solo album came out just as his dating show Flavor Of Love was hitting the airwaves.
How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul? (2007)
Largely produced by original Bomb Squad member Gary G-Wiz.
Don't Rhyme For The Sake Of Riddlin' (Mistachuck: 2010)
I think a better title would have been Don't Rhyme For The Sake Of Ritalin but he didn't ask me.
So whatcha gone do now?