Public Enemy arrived on the hip hop scene in 1982, just one year after Run-DMC. They were greatly influenced by Run-DMC’s urban style, but it was Public Enemy’s lyrics that made them truly stand out as a group. With members such as Flavor Flav, DJ Lord, Professor Friff, Khari Wynn, the S1W group and front man Chuck D, Public Enemy soon became known as one of the most political rap groups of all time. They openly criticized the media, and they addressed a number of issues that they felt affected African Americans. They addressed some of the same issues as Bob Marley, but they were often much more aggressive in their lyrics and delivery.
Some of Public Enemy’s most notable and politically charged singles were “Fight the Power,” “911 Is a Joke,” and “Rebel Without a Pause.” The last, which sampled music from diverse musicians such as James Brown and Jefferson Starship, was included on their second studio album, 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. This album was notable for a number of songs, including “Don’t Believe the Hype,” “Show ‘Em Whatcha Got,” “Night of the Living Baseheads” and “Bring the Noise.”
With their second album, they had set out to make an album known for its social commentary while also playing around with their musical style, with numbers such as “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” (which compared slavery to the modern American prison system, while using samples of music by Isaac Hayes). This album also became known for its use of high-pitched horn sounds over low, aggressive drum beats. They would utilize non-musical sounds, such as synthesizer noises with no real melodic tone, and they would mix it with music and samples inspired by Miles Davis and James Brown.
They continued experimenting in their next album, Fear of a Black Planet, continuing to innovate the use of music in rap while maintaining their aggressive social commentary. While they were influential as a group, they were also gaining speed on the merit of their individual members. Chuck D’s cadences when delivering his lyrics were fairly unique compared to other rap artists, but they were still solid and direct. He made a name for himself as the group’s MC, while Flavor Flav was known for being a little less straight and much more wild and random. In terms of personality, Public Enemy covered a fairly broad spectrum.
Public Enemy great influenced the way in which politics were handled in rap music. Part-time member Sister Souljah even influenced the world of politics itself, when she wound up on the opposite side of repudiation by Bill Clinton in 1992. The group didn’t just handle broad political issues, but even specific ones (as seen in their song “By the Time I Get to Arizona”). They were not shy, and they most certainly did not fear being seen as outspoken. While they did not invent the notion of political and social commentary through music, they certainly popularized it within their genre. Most rappers today who feel they have something that needs saying could owe a debt to the efforts of Public Enemy.
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