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New York, circa 1988. Sweaty palms and scratchy sounds. Broke-ass teen drops last pennies to score It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Hustles home. The deteriorating, mournful sax riff that opens Nation of Millions might be the preamble to one of the great manifestoes in black literature. Clarion voice opens the proceedings by invoking ancestors like some hiphop libation. Momentary silence, then an explosion of baritone and brimstone. Chuck D, the immortal rage prophet, hurls “up you mighty race” polemics over a backdrop of musical anarchy. Subversion at 112 beats per minute. The image conjured is that of fists pumping like ventricles. Terminator X, the mute “assault technician” of the PE clan mannin’ the turntables and the S1Ws, hiphop militia, spinning and whirling in lockstep. Flav, the frenetic trickster, urges on his partner in rhyme while Chuck gives up the thunderous color commentary….Sixteen tracks of political heresy. Ugly music. The type of shit that terrorizes neurons ’til heads are either throwing up in the corner or catching the holy ghost.
The singular genius of Public Enemy is the fact that it saw rap as a media outlet at a time when the most astute practitioners of the genre (e.g., EPMD) were just getting hip to the idea of music as business. PE was way ahead of the curve, expanding the functions of its art form. The group enlisted its own “media assassin,” Harry Allen. PE conjured up an analogy about the music being a black CNN and set out to transform rap into a straight-up network beaming survival notes to all of us trapped in the blind spots of society. Talking drums banished from plantations were now digitally resurrected and transmitting worldwide. PE’s emergence marked the beginning of a whole new subgenre. But the hook wasn’t the politics so much as the raw noisiness of the aesthetic. Chuck’s vocal boom was the perfect counterpart to the random bits of discarded sound—audiotrash—that the Bomb Squad ironed into music. Never mind the fact that Chuck D has dropped some of the most off-the-hook, multilayered lyrics ever to vibrate a set of speakers. He copped a lesson from his Black Arts Movement precursors and learned how to elevate a rant into a tour de force. It was the perfect wedding of dissonance and dissidence.
At first glance, the ensemble looked like a supreme example of niche marketing: a pseudo-militia clad in army surplus fatigues, toting plastic Uzis, and led by two cliches of black existence—the humorless militant and the unreformed coon. But PE was more than just some overworn stencils shaded in by the Def Jam marketing department. The group’s success owed much to the fact that, cliche or not, Chuck became one of the most articulate voices of the era and Flav was the comic relief that made him tolerable.
The first time I heard Public Enemy was in late 1986, in the middle of a bleak Reagan winter. The group was conducting an “audio tour” through Yo, Bumrush the Show on an underground hiphop station. Chuck broke down the significance of “Miuzi weighs a ton,” and a cut that I had considered standard hiphop hyperbole exploded into a metaphoric assault on the state. The next year Nation raged out of the Strong Island to “reach the bourgeois/And rock the boulevard,” spouting undiluted black nationalism. And not the sappy middle-class-bitching variety either. We’re talking some genuine white-man’s-heaven-is-black-man’s-hell type of stuff. “Night of the Living Baseheads” was one of the few anti-drug rap songs that didn’t come off like a public service announcement. But the real magnum dopus was couched between a hijacked snippet of a Jesse Jackson speech and a James Brown track. The fanatical sirens and whistles, and Chuck’s vocal saturation bombing on “Rebel Without a Pause,” seared the single onto playlists and etched Nation into the pantheon of greatest hiphop albums ever made.
One decade and four releases later, PE has reached the hallowed grounds of the legendary. Still, legends (especially while they’re still alive) are seldom beyond reproach. PE has been hatcheted for sexism, anti-Semitism, and a bunch of other onerous “isms” over their decadelong trek. Plus, to quote Notorious B.I.G., “shit done changed.” That age-old tension between rap as amoral business venture and rap as responsible media channel has led to our current musical nadir. Or, in other words, the industry is decidedly Wu-Tang in its outlook: Cash Rules Everything About Media.
Life in the soul-deadening clutches of Babylon ain’t getting no easier (Slick Willie is lying). Now added to the laundry list of black woes is some of the bleakest, most backward, and profitable music African-Americans have produced; it simultaneously builds mega-institutions like Death Row Records and provides the soundtrack for self-inflicted genocide. Rogue is vogue, and amid this blitzkrieg of amorality, PE’s upfront, problack politics ring sadly anachronistic. Add into that equation the dissolution of the Bomb Squad and the highly publicized drug problems within rap’s original anti-drug raiders and you can see why PE has been autopsied and epitaphed by just about every overzealous hired pen in the business.
PE’s last release, Muse Sick n Hour Mess Age, was declared DOA by Nelson George, who spent a good part of the late ’80s pouring inky accolades for the group all over the pages of the Village Voice. What these coroner-critics universally ignored was the fact that the release provided one of the few openly critical voices addressing the devolution of rap. Nonetheless, Muse Sick did for Public Enemy’s respect quotient what Evander Holyfield did for Mike Tyson’s. Fast-forward a year and we have the image of a stern-faced collective trampling the American flag replaced by Chuck, the rhyme animal, out on a solo stalk titled Autobiography of Mistachuck.
The collective is, to all appearances, disassembled and scattered to the winds—a fact that can’t help raising a note of irony in Chuck D’s urgings for black unity (the disc does feature a brief skit in which Professor Griff appears, illustrating why he never sold, like, five records as a soloist). Shorn of comic sideman Flav, Chuck can’t help but come off as stern, even grim. Then again, things have changed—mainly for the worse. Autobiography is a descendant of Muse Sick, though much better-looking than its forebear. It’s the second installment in Chuck D’s ongoing war with music critics, industry banality, black backwardness, and the ever-present menace of racism. This is screed poetry, and Chuck D is probably the only rapper on the contemporary scene who can turn stridency into an asset. Printing all the slamming lines on this CD would constitute copyright infringement.
That in mind, Chuck damn near ruins a stellar effort with a few too many moments of gratuitous resume flashing. From the liner notes declaring that he was “a legend before he turned 30,” to the opening line dedicated to “all the critics who had me counted out/To the cynics who thought they had me figured out,” Mistachuck is all about self-redemption. (Then again, what autobiography ain’t?) Still, the awkwardly placed radio skits featuring callers gushing over Mistachuck reek of artistic insecurity.
But the fact is that PE was arguably the most important rap group ever assembled, and Chuck one of the genre’s most visionary artists. Even the topics he chooses to rhyme about bear witness to that fact. As if somebody is gonna rip lines like “Make no mistake Rikki Lake’s/Eatin’ mad steaks/Off your bad breaks/Funerals and wakes.” There aren’t too many rappers around right about now who are on point enough to mention the racial politics of talk shows, much less write an entire song about them. And who would rage better against the materialism and banal niggerotica that pervades rap today?
Minus the Bomb Squad’s sonic junk dealership, Chuck has been left to farm out piece work to several producers. The result is a sound that is less harsh and more funky (in the James Brownian sense). “No” and several cuts that follow it feature segments borrowed from Maceo Parker and more than a few identifiable Brown guitar licks. The tracks are airtight for most of the disc, but there are moments of underachievement, like “The Pride,” a numb effort constructed by a producer I suspect was taking lithium. Fortunately, those moments are few and far between. Far more common are hypnotic cuts like “Can You Kill the Nigger in You,” which features a pulsing two-note bass line and piano flourishes supplied by Isaac Hayes.
Overall, Mistachuck stands out as much for what’s not here as for what is. No gimmicks, no gats, no glocks, no Cristal, no hoochies, no blunts—nada. Just reality filtered through an experienced lens. If nothing else, the self-dubbed anti-nigger machine shows that rumors of his musical death have been greatly exaggerated.