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CD Reviews: Review of Power to the People and the Beats: Public Enemy's Greatest Hits by Public Enemy
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Click here to buy yourself a copy from Amazon.com Public Enemy: Power to the People and the Beats: Public Enemy's Greatest Hits (Def Jam/Universal 2005)

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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.

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. 

~David Medsker 





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