Public Enemy Essentials
With a handful of exceptions, rap before Public Enemy was party music, a tool to entertain and distract more than comment or challenge. The politics that did exist were usually coded by style and attitude (Run-DMC’s “My Adidas,” LL Cool J’s “I Can’t Live Without My Radio”) instead of spelled out explicitly, tucked into the folds of an easier story. Formed by a group of misfit friends on suburban Long Island, Public Enemy didn’t just make politics central to rap, but connected it to a history of radical black expression, musical and otherwise, from the way the Bomb Squad’s noisy, sample-heavy production collages mimicked the urban dissonance of free jazz to the way the S1W—the group’s plastic-Uzi-carrying paramilitary-style stage troupe/bodyguards—took cues from the step shows of HBCUs, the Black Panthers, and the Nation of Islam. In other words, here was rap you could think with, dance to, protest to (see the video for “Fight the Power”), and laugh at—if Chuck D’s booming baritone was the bitter, inescapable medicine, Flava Flav was the spoonful of sugar. It was rap not just as “black CNN,” as Chuck D famously put it, but with a sound as culturally explosive as rock ’n’ roll had been 30 years earlier. Focusing on the group’s groundbreaking late-’80s and early-'90s run, here’s a playlist covering the best of Public Enemy.