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Since 1982, when Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released their precursor to hardcore hiphop, The Message, an amorphous anger has been brewing in the hearts of MCs. Before 1988, that rage was partially defined by songs like “The Message” as well as Run-D.M.C.’s “Hard Times” and “It’s Like That.” But usually the angst was limited to fratricidal braggadocio that found one MC attesting to how swiftly he could remove another MC’s left lung.
In 1987, when Public Enemy released their debut album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, they did little to distinguish themselves from the pack of mad rappers. There was some social commentary to be gleaned from cuts like “Rightstarter (Message to a Black Man)” and “Megablast.” But for the most part, lead MC Chuck D kept it simple with lines like “I’m cold gettin’ busy while I’m shakin’ you down/I’m on the air, you’re on the ground.” Bum Rush was a decent album, but it gave only hints of things to come.
With PE’s next three releases, and particularly with It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the group took the hiphop generation’s hostility and defined it by stapling the face of Uncle Sam to it. For the first time in hiphop, a group had made its central mission to take the belligerence that fueled hardcore and drop it on the doorstep of white America. Indeed, in the late ’80s, if whites wanted to know about black rage, they could skip the NAACP’s shuffling routine and simply pop Nation into the tape deck.
Nation was sonic chaos. The Bomb Squad, PE’s production team, crafted caricatures of standard hiphop tracks by invoking cacophonous whistles, dissected sound bites, and the mad ramblings of hype-man Flavor Flav. Musically, Nation was a view of America through black eyesa place of discord and utter contradiction where professed pillars of law and order were routinely dismissed.
Through the Bomb Squad’s frenzied production, Chuck D’s baritone hurled verbal javelins. Dubbing himself an “un-Tom,” Chuck transformed the standard definition of a battle rap. He eschewed dueling with fellow MCs, preferring to take on America in the name of black people. Everything that black folks despised, Chuck D went after: The media were “damn devils”; the prison system was “slavery organized”; the purpose of the police was to “wreck and flex”; J. Edgar Hoover was a “stinkin’ sucka” who set up Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and the Black Panther Party. Chuck took all the things that black people felt, but rarely said, and told the world. He spit on Elvis and John Wayne, slandered the Fourth of July, and pimp-slapped Driving Miss Daisy. Public Enemy took Ma, apple pie, Andy Griffith, and hot dogs, wrapped them all into one bundle, and then pissed on it.
Constructive violence was at the core of Chuck’s message. In “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” he imagined himself a convict plotting a riot and a jailbreak. Even the most nonviolent of subjects could be made hostile. When Arizona refused to give a holiday to King, Chuck constructed a fantasy world, in the cut “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” in which he was headed to the Southwest to do major damage: “I’m on the one mission to get a politician/To honor or he’s a goner.”
Public Enemy spearheaded a movement among rappers in the late ’80s and early ’90s toward a social and political conscience. Rakim, Queen Latifah, X Clan, Boogie Down Productions, and the Jungle Brothers, among others, all made militant political consciousness a distinct part of their aesthetic. During that time, it seemed no album was complete without the “knowledge cut.” Thus not only were the late ’80s an age of dynamic MC-ing, they were an age of collective concern, epitomized by Public Enemy.
But as the ’90s wore on, the climate in rap shifted. Big Daddy Kane made a run for the ladies, and when that failed, he released a flurry of laughable comebacks. X Clan disbanded, the Jungle Brothers and Rakim took a hiatus, and gangsta rap took over. PE’s production inexplicably dipped south after Fear of a Black Planet, hitting bottom with the wretched Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age. In six years, PE went from crafting arguably the greatest rap album ever to has-been status.
Now, like an old pug who doesn’t know when to say when, PE wants to step into the ring again. But rapdom in 1998 is nothing sweet. The trendy college students who once sported Malcolm X shirts, turned to tofu, and swore by “Can’t Truss It” now sip Amaretto sours and lounge in double-breasted suits at First Fridays while grooving to the odious sounds of the Trackmasters. Meanwhile, new hiphop heads who walk the streets in drawn hoodies with Walkmans blaring Liquid Swords couldn’t identify Chuck D in a police lineup.
A comeback under these circumstances isn’t impossible: Rakim did it, and EPMD’s recent Back in Business was at least functional. But PE’s very identity hinged on a revolution of consciousness among young black America. That revolution, however minor, is done. Can PE find a place in Jiggydom?
A quick look at the credits to He Got Game, PE’s misfiring comeback attempt, reveals an immediate sign of trouble. Three guest MCs rhyme on the album: KRS-One, Smoothe Da Hustler, and Wu-Tang’s Masta Killa. The choice of guest artists is questionable to begin withbut more on that in a second. The very idea that PE imported guest lyricists for the album raises questions. On their earlier releases, the only notable cameos were those of Ice Cube and Big Daddy Kane on Burn Hollywood Burn. Chuck D, and at times the comic relief of Flav, was always sufficient to push PE through.
But, as if needing crutches weren’t bad enough, Chuck D has chosen a puzzling bunch of backers. Of Wu-Tang’s talented cabal of lyricists, Masta Killa is perhaps the least formidable. Smoothe Da Hustler is a skilled and underrated MC, but this is the same cat who refers to himself as “the rock chopper” and the “human drug generator.” One of the things you always had to admire about PE, especially later in their career, was that they took stands against the negativity that had taken hiphop hostage. But teaming up with Smoothe Da Hustler erodes that respect. As for KRS, he simply serves to highlight how little Chuck D has grown and adapted in the past 10 years.
Cameos aside, Game is PE’s most disappointing effort to date. Despite a reunion with the Bomb Squad and the volatile Professor Griff, the album lacks juice. Gone are the energy and unpredictable zeal of “Welcome to the Terrordome” and “Rebel Without a Pause”; in their place we get the utter monotony of “Game Face” and “Politics of the Sneaker Pimps.” Once, the Bomb Squad’s tracks raced through your head like a diesel-fueled speed-skater; now they just meander on like nomads in a wasteland. It was their untamable and unpredictable high-octane sound that made the Bomb Squad special. The title cut, and first single, “He Got Game,” is a decent sample, and if put together by another producer for a different MC, it might be acceptable. But in the hands of the Bomb Squad, the track is corn mush.
Chuck D isn’t much help, either. On PE’s earlier work, it was Chuck who drove the rhythm, like a team of huskies across the Arctic. But Chuck rhymes with no rage and no urgency. Once he was a willing combatant; now the rhyme animal sounds as if he’s lost his will to fight. Combativeness stands at the heart of MC-ing. Even lighter artists like Q Tip and De La Soul are always ready to snap some irreverent MC’s windpipe. Chuck once went for America’s trachea, and he still tries, but not to much effect.
The album has a few highlights. On “Resurrection,” the opening cut, you’re almost fooled into believing that nothing’s changed since ’88. The blaring, warlike horns and pounding drums mixed with Flavor’s wild rantings give at least a shade of the old feeling. Chuck also pulls from somewhere inside to resurrect his rugged combative self: “Ain’t nothin’ wrong, wait/Fuck another love song/It’s the R&B strangler, bangin’ noise in the Wrangler.” Equally, “What You Need Is Jesus” is propelled by the howling chorus and the dissonant scratches of Terminator X. But those two cuts only show us what PE is still capable ofand consequently make the rest of the album sound lazy.
But the tragedy of Game is not so much that it’s a subpar effort, but that it’s a subpar effort in a time when well-crafted works are at a premium. Nothing would do rapdom better than a solid album from the group that best realized hiphop’s sociopolitical potential. Chuck is the same MC who temporarily helped make it unpopular to wear gold. If it were up to today’s laughable clique of black leadership, the militant wing of black activismMalcolm, the Panthers, and Garveywould be relegated to the basement. But today’s generation identifies with and is knowledgeable about that faction, at least in part because of PE. Today’s MCs compare themselves to Gotti or Don Corleone. But Chuck compared himself to insurgents like Nat Turner and Gabriel Prosser. Rapdom can never get too much of that.
We’re living in age where apolitical rappers like Will Smith and Puffy are passed off by the black bourgeois establishment as positive. These cats don’t bring the wrong perspective to the problem, as N.W.A. and even Biggie did. They simply bring no perspective, save a glitzy, overhyped, and undernourished worldview that tells rapdom it’ll be OK as long as we keep dancing and the DJ keeps the record going. In the face of such political, and, perhaps more importantly, artistic impotence, rapdom can’t afford lackluster efforts from those who profess to know better. And in the face of what PE has done in the past, the group shouldn’t be allowed to release an album like Game. They may not get the chance again.CP