For all the inroads that hip hop has made in the last twenty years, turning
every middle class white kid into DJ Jazzy Trevor, the world is still not ready
for Public Enemy, and this is perhaps the highest compliment one could pay them.
As hip hop crazy as our culture has become, where little old grandmas think that
Snoop Dogg is such a nice young boy, no one has figured out what to do with that
Chuck D fella. I mean, he’s just so angry all the time.
||Public Enemy: Power to the People and the
Beats: Public Enemy's Greatest Hits (Def Jam/Universal 2005)
Buy your copy now from
Thank heaven for little miracles. That angry fella made some of the best rap
tracks, and arguably the best rap album, of all time. Their long overdue singles
compilation, Power to the People and the Beats: Public Enemy’s Greatest Hits,
is astounding to listen to today; the majority of the material is from what some
refer to as the golden age of sampling, where artists could and would steal
liberally from whatever they could get their hands on. Only a few, though,
elevated such robbery to an art form. Members of the Bomb Squad, take a bow.
The first two tracks are from their 1987 debut, Yo! Bum Rush the Show.
“You’re Gonna Get Yours” and “Public Enemy No. 1” (which the Beastie Boys
sampled on their last album) are remarkable works --certainly when compared to
other songs from the era, like JJ Fad’s “Supersonic” -- but in retrospect the
band was merely laying the groundwork, with Chuck D and loony sidekick Flavor
Flav (who’s far more talented than anyone realizes) still feeling each other
out. “Rebel Without a Pause,” with its teakettle whistle riff and James Brown
cribbing drum track (quite possibly the first perversion of “Funky Drummer” on
record, but don’t hold us to that), turned a lot of heads, but it was “Bring The
Noise,” from the seminal It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
(1988), with its declaration of “Bass! How low can you go,” that made Chuck and
Flav the instruments of choice on nearly every dance record that came out in the
three years that followed. There’s a reason Anthrax covered this song; it rocks
like nobody’s business.
But even “Noise” pales in comparison to the sonic windstorm that is “Welcome to
the Terrordome,” from 1990’s Fear of a Black Planet. Recorded shortly
after Chuck D had dismissed militant loudmouth Professor Griff from the band for
some anti-Semitic comments, Chuck lets everybody have it (“Crucifixion ain’t no
fiction / So called chosen, frozen / Apologies made to whoever pleases / Still
they got me like Jesus”), while the Bomb Squad builds a dazzlingly dense rhythm
track that must contain about fifty songs at its core. The counter to Chuck’s
dose of vinegar is Flavor Flav’s equally serious but more light hearted “911 is
a Joke,” which is notable for its use of the “Ha ha, very funny, muthafucka”
line from Eddie Murphy’s “Delirious” routine.
The last two tracks, “Give It Up” and “He Got Game,” are necessary evils. It
appears the label wanted to represent every album PE made for Def Jam, but they
weakened the compilation overall by doing so. “Give It Up,” in fact, is galling
to listen to after songs like “Fight the Power,” or even the sample-restricted
tracks from Apocalypse ’91: The Enemy Strikes Black like “Can’t Truss It”
and “Shut ‘em Down.” For the first time, Public Enemy was following the leader,
and it’s heartbreaking to listen to. Likewise, the 1987 version of Chuck D would
surely have choked had you told him he would bring crusty white dude Stephen
Stills in to sing on the Buffalo Springfield-riffing “He Got Game.” The other
drawback to the inclusion of these two songs is that it leaves no room for
superior tracks like “Night of the Living Baseheads” and “Burn Hollywood Burn.”.
The hip hop genre is almost giddy about its tendency to eat its own (again,
ahem, JJ Fad), but Power to the People and the Beats is a testament to
why Public Enemy remains so widely regarded today. With a new album slated to
drop this month, we can only hope that Chuck D is still angry about something.