Graded on a Curve: Public Enemy, 25th Anniversary Vinyl Collection

Between 1986 and 1998, Public Enemy released six albums for Def Jam, and they’ve just been gathered across nine 180-gm LPs in the 25th Anniversary Vinyl Collection. Yes, that means their knockout debut Yo! Bum Rush the Show, the explosive second installment It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and its odds-defying follow-up Fear of a Black Planet, are all included, but perhaps the biggest insight this hefty collection holds is in how well Apocalypse 91…the Enemy Strikes Black, Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age, and the He Got Game soundtrack have endured over the years. This set surely won’t be cheap, but in documenting and celebrating one of the finest hip-hop acts of all time, its appearance is very necessary.

So much ink has been spilled over the music of Public Enemy that endeavoring to approach the subject at this remove can be more than a little daunting. Bluntly, it can seem like the possibility of adding anything new to the discourse is basically nil. In searching for fresh twists on the subject, there is a recurring problem; any attempts to shed new light upon the group’s achievements can reliably lead right back to a very familiar place.

It’s a story that relates to the severe but worthwhile lesson their music dealt to the many listeners with the curiosity to drift away from the imposed safety zones of the time. For in the ‘80s, musical tastes were quite often still segregated. And it can feel downright tired to restate how Run DMC and The Beastie Boys essentially set the table for this audience, bringing certain expectations over what exactly this fresh form of music was supposed to encompass, with PE turning up right on time to craftily pull the tablecloth out from underneath it all.

For this observer, having not even reached seventeen years of age when Public Enemy’s second album, 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, tore the roof of the sucker so sweetly, rap connected largely as party music. This isn’t to belittle those achievements, of course. Sometimes the party was a generational one ala the Beasties. Run DMC, LL Cool J, and especially The Fat Boys differed somewhat, providing examples considerably less threatening to concerned parents.

Erik B. & Rakim’s masterful Paid in Full, Schoolly D’s plum bonkers Saturday Night – The Album and Boogie Down Productions’ wickedly raw Criminal Minded were all released in 1987, as was Public Enemy’s debut Yo! Bum Rush the Show. But none of those albums dented the consciousness of this suburban listener until after It takes a Nation of Millions brought the ruckus with such disruptive ingenuity.

Having all of two years experience with punk rock under my belt, I fancied myself as some sort of expert on the union of anger and music. And it was partially dissatisfaction with the staleness that was wafting from the ‘80s hardcore scene that led to my personal discovery of Public Enemy. PE had a surplus of rage, and it was all balled up with a historical (and yes, controversial) focus that hotwired the passion of ‘60s-‘70s black radicalism to music that alternated between and combined the relentless and the funky.

So they could still rock the party, mixing the truth-telling of prime Last Poets and the insane tightness of ‘70s James Brown, with The Bomb Squads’ haywire, sample-heavy production style making clear that the whole mess was breaking solid ground (without their precedent, the Beasties’ Paul’s Boutique, for just one example, would’ve evolved much differently.) While the achievements of those aforementioned ’87 LPs shouldn’t be belittled, for many the hazy divide between old-school rap and the emergence of the hip-hop movement really begins with It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.

And dipping back into Yo! Bum Rush the Show provided no sense of disappointment. If surely less hectic in form and militant in content, opening with “You’re Gonna Get Yours,” an ode to a souped-up 98 Oldsmobile, the record helped greatly in making some real sense of just exactly how this new sound emerged.

Yo! Bum Rush the Show remains a truly slamming document in its disdain for finesse, instead combining undiluted rhythmic force with the uniqueness of Chuck D’s clear-voiced, dexterous yet tough as nails rapping. It’s loaded with exceptional cuts (the three finest being “You’re Gonna Get Yours,” “Miuzi Weighs a Ton,” and “Public Enemy No. 1”) and a near complete absence of anything approaching filler material, a legitimately great debut album in a young genre that was still learning how to make long form statements.

It Takes a Nation of Millions served as a gateway drug to all sorts of previously unheard rap action, and in the last years of the ‘80s the genre really flourished, taken into unfriendly radio markets through the music video (when the dam broke, MTV’s fickle barons had no choice but to embrace the genre, and BET quickly followed suit.) As a result, those that didn’t know Audio Two from 3rd Bass (to say nothing of the Funky Four Plus One More and Fab 5 Freddy) just two or three years previously were suddenly budding aficionados, and right at the moment PE’s third record hit the racks.

Following up It Takes a Nation of Millions was going to be hard enough purely in terms of their own discography, but making it even more difficult was the sizeable segment of the audience that now possessed actual context into the genre. That Fear of a Black Planet didn’t disappoint is maybe the group’s most impressive feat. Instead of trying to top the pure musical intensity of the second record, they downshifted a bit from that album’s torrid sensibility and explored their funky side, though when combined with that omnipresent lyrical attack, the result felt no less incendiary.

Fear of a Black Planet tracks like “Welcome to the Terrordome,” “Burn Hollywood Burn,” (featuring an emerging Ice Cube and a descending Big Daddy Kane) and of course “Fight the Power” are certainly comparable in execution to It Takes a Nation of Millions cuts such as “Bring the Noise,” “Louder Than a Bomb,” and “Night of the Living Baseheads,” but overall the impact of the third album was less of a war blitz and more of a collection of raw, well-conceived grooves that refined their position at the top of the hip-hop hierarchy.

For many, Public Enemy’s importance generally ends with Fear of a Black Planet. But one of the best qualities of the 25th Anniversary Vinyl Collection is how well their fourth, fifth, and sixth albums hold up. Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black might be lesser in total impact than their prior releases, but in retrospect not really by all that much.

The production by The Imperial Grand Ministers of Funk reveals them as solid students of The Bomb Squad’s breakneck and sonically rich attack (particularly on “Nighttrain” and “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” a song truly bursting with energy and ideas), Flavor Flav continues to be more than just Chuck D’s comic foil (I actually rate this album’s “A Letter to the New York Post” higher than Fear of a Black Planet’s “911 is a Joke”) and DJ Terminator X’s contribution remains impressive (opener “Lost at Birth” is a very strong example of his skills at the turntables.)

The only misstep is the final song, a revamped version of “Bring the Noise” featuring crossover metallers Anthrax. This track is a major part of the blueprint for the hip-hop/alt-rock summit meeting that is the Judgment Night soundtrack, a record that lots of people continue to love to death. Unfortunately, it has always struck this writer as very overrated, but that’s not really the issue.

On Yo! Bum Rush the Show’s slow-burn “Sophisticated Bitch” (featuring guest guitar from Living Color’s Vernon Reid) and It Takes a Nation of Millions’ mauling “She Watch Channel Zero” (utilizing a Slayer sample), PE hijacked the rock sensibility and came up with two brilliant cuts that stand beside the very best of their early stuff. Apocalypse 91’s “Bring the Noise” might work as a gesture of unity, but it continues to feel neutered next to the original.

But that’s a small quibble. The biggest problem with 1994’s Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age is that it suffers from excessive length (it comes five and a half minutes from maxing-out the limits of a single CD), but it’s thorniness, with the Bomb Squad back in the production seat and the MCs steadfastly refusing to go quietly into the hip-hop Hall of Fame, is ultimately one of the record’s more endearing qualities.

Coming in the thick of the Gangsta Rap explosion, the record suffered some accusations of being out of step, but in reality it merely displayed the group’s dedication to their principles in the face of changing tastes (though in truth the only other sensible choice was to simply quit.)

Muse-Sick’s “Bedlam 13:13” is maybe the most turbulent (a word Chuck D used to describe their sound, and very apropos) PE cut to appear since their second record, and Flavor Flav pulls another slick one with “What Kind of Power We Got?,” though most of the strongest stuff does come earlier in the record’s running time. And while the hip-hop/ metal fusion of “Hitler Day” fares a little better than the aforementioned rethink of “Bring the Noise,” the key word in that assessment is little.

What does linger after hearing Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age is that what once felt young, angry, and righteous was at risk of becoming old, angry, and bitter. So the crew’s soundtrack to the Denzel Washington-starring Spike Lee-directed basketball film He Got Game, easily the least impressive of the records included in the 25th Anniversary Vinyl Collection, also serves as something of a respite from an encroaching tone of the dyspeptic.

Yes, the title track, featuring an appropriation of “For What It’s Worth” from the Buffalo Springfield and a still weird guest appearance from a singing Stephen Stills, is drenched in a pop sensibility that was once unimaginable for the group. But in the end it’s just too earnest to feel embarrassing, and after reengaging with the record after a very long absence, I can’t deny the urge to call “For What It’s Worth” He Got Game’s standout cut.

This isn’t really a swipe at the rest of record, which is enjoyable if undeniably minor. It is a soundtrack, after all, and to what I recall as an above average Spike Lee Joint. But if the ‘90s remain hip-hop’s golden decade, the period also wasn’t exactly known for career longevity in the genre. That Public Enemy’s sixth LP was their weakest release up to that point might seem like an anticlimactic ending to this box set, but if you consider how many rap phenoms sputtered-out before they managed an even halfway-decent sophomore effort, the whole collection suddenly attains an air of true distinction.


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