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Article Apr 26 2020 Written by

Hip Hop Three-peat: Public Enemy

With our third Hip-Hop Three-peat entry, we are going to celebrate Hip Hop’s second Three-Peat Champions – PUBLIC ENEMY!

Yes, the rhythm, the rebel!

To describe Public Enemy as icons is nearly an understatement. As artists, activists, cultural transformers, and more – Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Terminator X, Professor Griff, and the Security of the First World are a multi-faceted and enduring phenomenon.

Today, I will attempt to focus on their artistry as seen through their consecutive classic albums. Consecutive classic albums are a rare feat. Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire are two of the most recognizable three-peat (and more) champions in music history. Then Run-DMC proved it could be done with Hip Hop. Which if Run-DMC are the Julius “Dr. J” Erving of Hip Hop Classics, then Public Enemy is definitely the Michael “Air” Jordan of the matter. Yes, it had been done before. And yes, there are similarities in their “game”. And yes, the progenitor took the art form up to a higher level.

As seen by the Dr. J – Air Jordan reference (yeah man I know Dr. J never won three consecutive championships), the NBA bears a heavy influence on this Three-Peat series. As a native Detroiter, it took a long time for me to even begrudgingly cheer for the Bulls (which I didn’t until their second three-peat). I continue to harbor feelings of anger regarding my beloved Bad Boy Pistons being robbed in the ’88 Finals when Kareem Abdul Jabbar got those free throws because of a foul that never happened. The Bad Boy Pistons went to three straight finals but only won two consecutive championships (’89 & ’90). Sort of reminds me of the first three De La Soul albums … 3 albums, 2 classics. But that’s an essay for another day. Let’s get back to PE!

FIRST CHAMPIONSHIP – IT TAKES A NATION OF MILLIONS TO HOLD US BACK (1988)

Where We Were:

I own Public Enemy’s debut album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show. Perhaps it was overshadowed by the immense popularity of LL Cool J’s Bigger and Deffer. Maybe the dawning of the Golden Age of Hip Hop had not revealed their potential. Maybe, just maybe, that first album was a delightful teaser of what was to come. I believe the latter. All the elements were there, it just hadn’t fully gelled into its full promise.

What made them outstanding:

  • Chuck D – his cut-through-a-crowd voice and his underrated lyricism;
  • They had a fully-developed identity when we met them. They were originals;
  • The Bomb Squad had created a multi-layered sound that was as distinctively recognizable as the group itself.

What we could have done without:

  • Not applicable. This album is museum-worthy, college-course-curriculum worthy, and very worthy of every old head telling a youngin’ “see this here? This is real Hip Hop.”

Championship Moment:

The whole thing or to quote John Witherspoon in Boomerang, “from the rooter to the tooter!” From the opening track when Griff tells us, “consider yourself warned!” until Chuck spits “but it’s proven and fact, and it takes a nation of millions to hold us back” on the last song on side two – the whole album is a championship run.

What resonated with me then and now was that it was so distinctive and unlike anything ever heard before.

How it impacted me:

Let me back up, I got their first album after hearing their second. A Nation of Millionswas so good I need more immediately. Most importantly, what I learned from PE or they compelled me to learn. I eventually read Assata because Chuck D said: “recorded and ordered, supporter of Chesimard.” Or not only did they bring John Coltrane to my awareness, the notion of a certain caliber of purposeful artistry being interconnected really struck me when Chuck said:

The book of the new school rap game

Writers treat me like Coltrane, insane

Yes to them, but to me I’m a different kind

We’re brothers of the same mind, unblind

Caught in the middle and not surrendering

I don’t rhyme for the sake of riddling

To me, he establishes his uniqueness while connecting it to a larger narrative. Prior to 1988, such a concept was beyond my grasp. But thanks to PE, I not only “got it”, I aim to live it.

best hip hop albums nineties 1990s

SECOND CHAMPIONSHIP – FEAR OF A BLACK PLANET (1990)

Where We Were:

I really believe the table was set when “Fight The Power” became the anthem for the summer of ’89 and a vital component of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Add that atop the serious momentum or reverberations from A Nation of Millions … and the time was ripe for something monumental.

What made them outstanding:

  • How do you top a classic? With another one!
  • Simultaneously maintained what made A Nation of Millions… great while evolving their sound and message;
  • A stellar example of addressing social issues, promoting cultural pride & awareness, and innovating sound – a masterful artistic accomplishment.

What we could have done without:

  • Again – not applicable.

Championship Moment:

I may be alone with this sentiment – if I had to introduce Public Enemy to someone who did not know them, I would play “Welcome To The Terrordome.” Yes, PE has a trunkful of hits. Was “Fight The Power” a hit because of its exposure through the movie? Ehhh, to a degree. But “Welcome to the Terrordome” definitively marked their evolved sound from A Nation of Millions… and whetted my appetite immensely.

How it impacted me:

I was fifteen when the album dropped and I began my preparations for school by playing the sequence of songs on side two (“Who Stole The Soul”- “Fear Of A Black Planet” – “Revolutionary Generation”). Not only was I ready to face the day, I felt wiser and more empowered. Sometimes, I wish I could have captured that magic in a bottle.

THIRD CHAMPIONSHIP – APOCALYPSE 91… THE ENEMY STRIKES BLACK (1991)

Where We Were:

I’m going to revisit the Bad Boy Pistons. I alluded to them being robbed of what should have been the ’88 championship. Yet, what I will honestly acknowledge is that by that second (should have been third) championship they were showing wear. The Pistons posted one of the worse regular season win-loss totals of any NBA champion and PE, while winning the third championship, was also showing … wear? fatigue? the last vestiges of the closing Golden Age?

What made them outstanding:

  • Important messaging in the lyrics – nowadays folks like to shame and say such lyrics are “preachy.” Despite his authoritative voice, I never found Chuck D to be “preachy.” Instead, I heard that his message was important;
  • “Nighttrain” is the best song on the album. I love the beat breakdown in between the verses – man that’s perfect! Plus, true to their modus operandi, PE teaches through their rhymes and on “Nighttrain” we really get the message that “all skin folks ain’t kinfolks …”

You musn’t just put your trust in every brother, yo

Some don’t give a damn, cause they the other man

Worse than a bomb, posin’ as Uncle Toms

Disgracin’ the race, and blowin’ up the whole crew

With some of them lookin’ just like you

  • Courage – they could have stayed in their comfort zone, but NOOOO they hit us with relevant perspectives on contemporary topics. This differs from ‘Important Messages’ as that covers what they said, this point acknowledges the fact that they would even say it all.

What we could have done without:

  • This feels sacrilegious, like saying your grandmother’s roasted turkey is dry. But in all fairness, the momentum slows on side two.

Championship Moment:

Being provocative with “By The Time I Get to Arizona” through both the song and video. “Can’t Truss It” was a valuable history lesson. “By the time …” was a (then) current issue. PE would not play it safe and they proved it with this song.

How it impacted me:

Apocalypse 91 dropped at the beginning of my senior year in high school and side one of the cassette was on regular rotation. Yet, just as the last year of high school signals the end of an era, so does Apocalypse 91. But if you focus on the ending, you miss the lessons that are in play and Apocalypse 91 is full of lessons.

EPILOGUE

Public Enemy still releases new music. My last PE purchase was How Do You Sell Soul To A Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul?! and it’s lyrical punch and value was vintage PE. I guess it’s like the one teacher in high school or college that really opened your eyes to learning. You thrived in their class and eventually moved on. Perhaps you have been so moved to visit your old school and see them still doing their thing (shoutout to HU’s Professor Robert Watson!). That’s PE for me – at a highly impressionable time, they infused my spirit with history, confidence, and a sound that matched my adolescent angst. I’m glad they are still doing their thing and I am eternally grateful for their historic three-peat that blessed my life immensely.

Raw metaphysically bold, never followed a code

Still dropped a load

Never question what I am, God knows, huh!

‘Cause it’s coming from the heart

Public Enemy 1987. Photo David Corio / Getty

Written by

Sabin Prentis is a husband, father, educator, native Detroiter, author, and creator of Literary Soul Food. More about Sabin and his books can be found at www.sabinprentis.com…

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One response to “Hip Hop Three-peat: Public Enemy”

  1. MLP25 says:

    Public Enemy was a like a religious movement for me. Their music brought so much awareness to my cultural identity that it made me read and study more. I am thankful for Chuck D’s power, Professor Griff’s controversy, Flavor Flav’s joker mentality, and Terminator X’s silent assassination on tracks. Hip hop has lost the ability to be edgy, empowering, but entertaining. Music now has one or two of these items, not all three. “I don’t know what this world is coming too”….Long live PE!!

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