A violent form of music that inspires you to wake up and act

The rap group Public Enemy is as relevant today in Obama’s America as it was under Reagan’s.

Public Enemy in concert
The role of satire as an element of political commentary in the hip-hop band Public Enemy's music - as epitomised Flavor Flav's role as the band's clown - is well known [EPA]

Yo! Bum Rush the Show

It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

Fear of a Black Planet

Apocalypse ’91…

Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age

Titles that are to the history of rock ‘n’ roll what Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21, or Rachmaninoff’s 3rd are to classical music.

In this case, all the titles come from the same band, Public Enemy, and were made in the course of a few years, from 1987 through 1994, the so-called “Golden Age” of hip-hop, when artists could sample as often and as much as they wanted without worrying about paying exorbitant licensing fees. Unfortunately that, along with the growing popularity of the quickly commercialised West Coast gangsta rap (and sometimes deadly bicoastal feuds between artists) and the increasing interest of the genre among young suburban whites, led to the loss of the political and sonic force that first enabled the genre’s explosive rise into American popular consciousness.

Public Enemy (PE) has been on my mind a lot as I travel through Ghana doing a radio documentary with Afropop Worldwide about the intense circulation of musical ideas, instruments and styles that produced highlife and Afrofunk, two genres that have become synonymous with post-war Ghanaian music. And not just because of their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 18. As important, it is here where after a quarter century of listening to PE the secret – or at least another secret I did not previously know – to their unique musical power has finally come to light.

African roots

PE has long been considered one of hip-hop’s most indelibly funky groups, thanks in good measure to their generous use of drum grooves from the godfather of funk, James Brown. But as highlife/Afrofunk legend Ebo Taylor explained to me with great animation:

James Brown was completely African, more than any other artist. He combines the wailing, bluesy, half-spoken singing of the north of our country [especially the Dagomba and Gonja], with the rhythmic propulsion of the more complex drumming of the south [as epitomised by the Fanti and other Akan peoples].

So powerful was the force of James Brown’s funk, Taylor declared, that “when it arrived, highlife faded away”.

Ghanaian highlife and Afrofunk are among the most densely rooted styles of music on earth. They are the product not merely of cultural interchange among the various ethnic groups of Ghana, coupled with American funk and soul music, but of a deep set of historical transactions, including trans-Atlantic slavery, European colonialism, the constant movement and migration among various African peoples and between West Africa, the Caribbean and the UK, calypso and modern jazz, from the big band era through bebop and the post-bop aesthetic of Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

Together, these mixings produced the lush, rhythmically and melodically symphonic sound of Afrofunk, of which Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat is the most well-known but not necessarily the most sophisticated and developed example. Through James Brown’s deep West African aesthetic and its influence on Afrofunk (“Brown was worshipped like a deity here,” explains Ghanaian-British ethnomusicologist and producer John Collins) the road from Accra to Queens, birthplace of PE front-man Chuck D, opens. The individual sonic trajectories are unique, but the density of PE’s roots and rhythms approaches and in fact are enmeshed with those of the Ghana’s acclaimed highlife and funk traditions. 

I tell people all the time, if we didn't get a chance to get our passport in 1987 and leave this country, Public Enemy wouldn't have lasted 26 years as a cultural group that set the stage.

Chuck D, Public Enemy

Indeed, more than most American hip-hop groups, PE has from the start been inherently diasporic, tying its future to an aesthetic and an attitude that stretch far beyond US shores. As Chuck D explains:

I tell people all the time, if we didn’t get a chance to get our passport in 1987 and leave this country, Public Enemy wouldn’t have lasted 26 years as a cultural group that set the stage.

Not surprisingly, some of their most memorable shows have taken place in African countries such as Nigeria and South Africa.

We can hear the group’s African, and in fact Afrofunk roots, directly in a song like “Night Train” from Apocalypse ’91… The Enemy Strikes Back, which features the same Ghanaian kpanlogo rhythms that are at the heart of most every highlife song. This bell pattern spread through the post-Columbian Americas in the form of the son clave of Latin music and the New Orleans and “Bo Didley” beats that helped shape jazz and rock. But listening to PE in Ghana, the Ghanaian roots are unmediated and clear.

Props from a Ghanaian funk legend

More broadly, the broader willingness to absorb and appropriate any style or sound that might be added to the local mix, and the extraordinary hybridity that results, is another common denominator of PE and highlife and Afrofunk. Ebo Taylor put it this way as we sat in his living room in Saltpond, near the sea, listening to PE’s signature song, “Fight the Power“:

Well, this is a violent form of music that would inspire the listener to wake up and act. It’s music that demands an outright expectation that the listeners wake up. You can hear local highlife and konkoma beats and every Ghanaian will appreciate the rhythms and get up and dance vigorously, even if they don’t understand the lyrics.

“In fact, there are strong elements of African music in it,” he continued as the song came to a close.

What I also hear is the hi-hats acting like shakers, shk shk shk, and that’s very prevalent in African music. And the beat represents a very strong African rhythmic proportion. It’s also, of course, so political. It is fighting the power. But the music’s power is too big to suppress, even with colonialism or slavery. The group’s music reflects the uncomfortable situations that the Africans face, and their fighting the power is an inspiration. It inspires him to do what he has to do. I really like it.

PE rocks

If PE is rooted in African musical aesthetics and American funk, it also is one of the hardest rocking bands in history. Even before they toured with a full complement of musicians, their music sounded more life and less static than most rap done live over pre-recorded beats.

Perhaps the only other group of that era who similarly moved bodies and minds was Eric B and Rakim; comparing their signature song, “Paid in Full“, to songs like “Raise the Roof“, from PE’s first album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, reveals precisely the line where even the most original straight-up hip-hop crosses into rock ‘n’ roll proper – when rather than merely sampling older grooves or creating new ones on machines, the producers and turntablists literally play dozens of samples and scratching as if they were instruments.

During the period when Public Enemy made its biggest-selling recordings there was still confusion among rock and hip-hop artists about whether the still young art form was in fact part of the rock ‘n’ roll tradition, or was something else entirely. White rock fans, who had spent the latter part of the 70s praying for disco to die, were not necessarily enthused by another black, urban dance music taking its place. In hip-hop’s birth place, New York – and I am sure other places, but I can only speak about New York – bands even broke up over such arguments. Iconoclastic rappers wanting to bring live instruments more prominently into hip-hop and rockers wanting to bring turntables, rapping and the hard, beat-focused sound of early hip-hop into their sonic palettes both had a lot of convincing to do.

Once PE came on the scene, however, such debates were utterly ridiculous, especially after their 1991 collaboration with the thrash metal band Anthrax on a remake of their song “Bring the Noise“. In late 1980s and early 1990s, New York had no shortage of amazing rappers and producers, but PE was perhaps the first true musical band in hip-hop.

Of course, Aerosmith and Run-DMC paved the way with their mega-hit collaboration on “Walk this Way”, while Def Jam labelmates the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J also experimented with adding rock elements to their early songs. But none were as sophisticated as Public Enemy’s, who created sonic tapestries as innovative and powerful as Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd, their hard-as-nails grooves propelling songs that both enraged your mind and body, making you think and dance at the same time.

‘Each one teach one’

The rapid global circulation of popular music epitomised by hip-hop’s global rise is in fact not a new phenomenon. You could already hear country music in the middle of Africa well before World War II (to cite one ostensibly counter-intuitive example). What made hip-hop perhaps the first truly globalised music genre was that DJs, beat-makers and producers lived or died on their ability to bring new sounds into the music and incorporate them into dope beats. This led them to move beyond the existing musical palettes drawn from Euro-American musical traditions.

So it should not surprise us that the members of PE can wax eloquent about their favourite rock tracks, and are able to pick them apart at the level of instrumentation and arrangement the way only a musician who has spent countless hours dissecting grooves to find the perfect two beat for a new song can.

The same cannot be said about their fellow inductees into this year’s Hall of Fame class. Geddy Lee, bassist and singer for Rush, among the most celebrated and innovative progressive rock/metal groups in history, admitted that he “didn’t know the music of PE very well”. PE certainly knew Rush, however, as Chuck D reminded interviewers that PE’s Terminator X and other DJs regularly spun its hit “Tom Sawyer” at shows when it was released.

Even if other inductees were more familiar with PE than Rush, only Quincy Jones could lay claim to something approaching the same broad range of influences. Heart, Randy Newman, Donna Summer and Albert King are all worthy inductees, but their music was sonically far more limited than PE’s.

At the same time, PE has always been about education. Chuck D famously described hip-hop as the “Black American CNN”, and as important, saw hip-hop’s and especially PE’s role as educating and through it enraging people about the situation around them: “Each one teach one” sums up PE’s aesthetic – and that of hip-hop’s golden generation– as much as its famed wall of sound. 

The group's music reflects the uncomfortable situations that the Africans face, and their fighting the power is an inspiration.

Ebo Taylor

It is hard to overstate the impact of this commitment to use hip-hop as a vehicle to warn, teach and educate the public famously practiced by PE and comrades like KRS-One, Kool Moe Dee and Tupac Shakur. In countries as diverse as Morocco, Ghana, Egypt, Palestine and Iran, rappers cite Public Enemy’s commitment to political rap as a direct influence on the politicisation of their own scenes. In Ghana, where popular music has generally not been as political as its Nigerian counterpart, the rappers I have met see PE and Tupac’s activism as an ideal to strive for, something that is increased by the band’s political commitment and support for other artists.

The Moroccan fusion band Hoba Hoba Spirit, whose complex sound has always reminded me of Public Enemy’s, captured the dynamic between intense hybridity and social commentary with the title of their first album Blad Schizo (Schizo[phrenic] Country). Reda Allali, guitarist for the group, explained about PE last time we spoke:

As a rock fan, I was reluctant to [accept] hip-hop… until I listened to PE. They spread a feeling of danger and instability – like punk rock, IT IS NOT entertainment.

It is hard not to compare this social commitment to the undiluted commercialism of today’s most prominent rappers, like Jay-Z and Kanye West (indeed, just as I am writing this, words are circulating on the twitterverse that Chuck D scolded Jay-Z and Kanye West after an April 29 show in Lyon, France, for the lack of social and political maturity displayed in their collaboration, “Niggas in Paris“). For Ghanaians the contrast could not be more stark, as they are still smarting from Jay-Z’s refusal to meet with or even acknowledge them when he toured Ghana in 2006 (“He wouldn’t even leave the hotel room,” several complained).

Visual as well as sonic innovators

Public Enemy’s contribution to rock history goes beyond merely the music. It is also famously in their message, and their ability to deliver it in a pure form – precisely what scared so many white listeners (and, of course, enthralled others) that other groups could not master. You might think that the band’s “Party for Your Right to Fight” was a satire of fellow Def Jam artists the Beastie Boys’ song “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)“, but in fact the original was itself an attempted satire of the very attitude so many (white) fans assumed it embodied. But people could not take the Beastie Boys seriously; they were too close to the object of satire to create enough cultural separation to make the social commentary shine through the track. With PE, that was obviously not a problem.

The role of satire as an element of political commentary in PE’s music, as epitomised by Flavor Flav’s role as the band’s clown, is well known (he was in fact a musical prodigy, which accounts for his impeccable timing as the group’s resident hype man). But the Flavor Flav persona is only one element in the band’s use of satire. More than any other band, Public Enemy’s music refracted the schizophrenic nature of American culture and politics back upon itself through sonic pastiche and visual montage. The power can be seen in iconic videos, such as “Night of the Living Baseheads” and “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” and “By the Time I Get to Arizona“, which mixed music, social commentary and pseudo-documentary/newsreel style in a blaze of sonic and political information that was the perfect antidote to the late Reagan, Bush and Clinton years.

Sadly, PE is as relevant today in Obama’s America as it was under Reagan’s. Happily, the music still rocks. 

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on ‘rock and resistance and the struggle for soul’ in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.

Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming

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