Some years ago, I put on Public Enemy’s Nation of Millions while making dinner in the apartment I shared with my (then) girlfriend. After it had been on for a while, she said, “You don’t listen to music like this a lot.”
I found that interesting. She’s not much of a rap fan and has minimal background at best in the genre; her observation made me step back and try to hear the album she was hearing. And it was obvious to me—I didn’t (and don’t) listen to music like that a lot, because people didn’t (and don’t) make music like that a lot. From the powerful, densely layered and meticulous yet rough-edged beats of the Bomb Squad (PE’s production team; also its heart and backbone) to the strident, insistent, demanding and confrontational rhymes of Chuck D (and, to a lesser extent, Flavor Flav), Public Enemy’s template was a singular one.
And, as is often true in singular cases like this, their impact was (and is) pervasive, but not always perceptible. Public Enemy influenced a lot of people. Some applied elements of the Bomb Squad’s technique of aural barrage to their own production approach (‘sup, Muggs?); others tried to incorporate Chuck’s authoritatively rendered stentorian delivery into their flow (looking at you, Bushwick). But few people ever really, effectively applied both sides of the coin.
If you read the title and have stuck with me this far, knowing El-P is in the mix here, I know what you’re thinking: Except for Company Flow. But bear with me: I don’t think that’s true.
To begin with, El-P, the production mastermind behind Co-Flow’s “more dusty than digital” (yet still profoundly rooted in the technological) production style, has mentioned more than once that his motivation with the group was based in replicating Run-DMC’s sound and style. [Note: I’ve been digging and I can’t find this specific quote, so take that with a grain of salt. But I’ve been a fan of his for a long time and I know I’ve read at least one interview where he says this.] But even without that caveat/backstory, the fact is, little of Company Flow’s catalog is overtly political. They only really picked up politics near the end of their run (when Bush kind of made it inevitable for anyone with a brain and a conscience); until then, they were battle cats, spilling metaphorically dense couplets over sonically sophisticated beats that owed far less to PE’s classic soul/funk sources than they did to El’s claustrophobic sci-fi roots. Where Public Enemy’s Terminator X almost playfully scratched a line from Queen’s glam-rock soundtrack to Flash Gordon, El-P grimly drew on Vangelis’ technoir soundtrack to Blade Runner.
Chuck D told it like it was—still does, I gather. Not that he draws the attention he used to, these days. Public Enemy were possibly the last of rap’s positive giants; the last figures who could sustain rap music’s intimidating outsider edge by meeting their listeners as thinking equals with the shared goal of shaping a positive route up and out America’s literal and metaphorical ghettos. The wave that came after them, washing them out, played more to the lowest common denominator, shifting rap’s edge from political statements and black power mobilization to the championing of drug sales and pimping.
No double standard here; I love Eightball and MJG and Devin and the Clipse and Cypress Hill. But surely there’s more to rap than this? There used to be. Once-incendiary tracks by PE and KRS-ONE, aimed at stoking the flame of righteous rage in black (and, perhaps incidentally, white) American youth and mounting an urban resistance movement now sound quaintly idealistic, optimistic, old-fashioned and out of step. It’s got to be an awkward feeling to go from being Jerry Lee Lewis to, say, Pat Boone, without ever changing position.
Okay; wait. So, where was I? Oh, right—Public Enemy: “First and Best in the Field They Created.”
Which brings me to a couple of weeks ago. I got an e-mail from the (stellar) PR firm Biz3 telling me that the latest Run the Jewels album, RTJ2 (which has to have a swipe aimed at RJD2 in it, even if it’s just an incidental chuckle from El-P) had been named Pitchfork’s #1 album of the year. On checking the RTJ site, I found that Pitchfork was only the latest to do so; print music mags like Spin, Rolling Stone and Complex had already given it that honor; music blogs like Stereogum and Popmatters had also topped their year-end lists with RTJ2, and numerous other print and digital organs had included it in their year-end best-ofs. The thing is, as much as I’ve enjoyed this new album and their first one, from last year, I think that the success and acclaim RTJ has enjoyed has less to do with how brilliantly awesome they are and more to do with the general safety/comfortability/complacency of rap music right now. The fear and uncertainty and discomfort and shock and wariness and approbation and excitement rap used to strike into the heart of America has been subsumed into the barrel of a gun; gangsta rap has ruled the roost to the point where gunplay isn’t shocking anymore; it’s simply part of the backdrop—just another rapper.
Public Enemy fought with their feelings. They brought the noise and threw bombs in ways that nobody else would—then or now. And though their imagery packed heat, it was clearly metaphorical; their Security of the First World did on-stage step routines with plastic guns. Their weapons aimed straight at the heart and the brain, but their ammo was strictly verbal. But the in-your-face political rhetoric they pioneered eventually trickled down to become “conscious rap,” which, in the end, had all the edge of a blonde dorm-room dreadlock. The guns went from referential to real, the dealer went from demon to hero, cocaine went from a cause of blight to a source of bling. The rap world flipped the script on Public Enemy, and their prophecies of rage failed to materialize, leaving them a voice on the sideline, dismissed the way we roll our eyes at the guy shaking his cane at the teenagers.
So: Is anyone carrying PE’s potent legacy forward? I don’t know, but I don’t see it. Kendrick Lamar’s album was good and everything, but there were no real bangers on it; the only really hard beat is on “Backseat Freestyle,” and those lyrics are fairly run of the mill. Yeezus has edgy beats (if you don’t get out much), but lyrically, he’s all sound and fury, signifying Kanye.
Nobody’s really throwing bombs, nobody’s bringing the combination of confrontation, truth and aggressive beats the way Public Enemy did. Does rap require this? Is rap the worse for PE’s absence? I’d say no and yes, in that order. Either way, the fact remains that when the playing field is so wide open, you can be the MVP if you swagger to the line and slam the ball down with authority. Which brings us to Run the Jewels. Do they pick up where PE left off? Well, kind of. They incorporate the political, using broad strokes—and, to be fair, Killer Mike truly stepped up when the lyrics got real. But they’re not bringing an articulated political agenda to their work; they’re the guys who show up at the protests and lead the crowds and get everyone all fired up, but maybe aren’t the ones to go to for a plan when the revolution succeeds. And fair enough.
What they are doing is shifting the rap game away from its comfort zone, back to an era when MCs needed to be hard as hell and ready to throw down lyrically, because that was what mattered. That was why rap music was rap music; not because of dealing or pimping or killing—although these elements could be in the mix—but because of the storytelling. Because of the voice. Because of the flow. Because of the beat. Because of the fear it could strike into the mainstream. A bullet can kill a person, but an idea can bring down an institution. Run the Jewels aren’t really bringing that level of noise. They still might, but if they don’t, that’s fine—it’s not their obligation. But they are revitalizing some core elements of rap’s original aesthetic: Confrontation. Reality. Awareness. Honesty. Emotion. And yes—rage.
“The independent representation of what MCs can and should be.” That’s how Company Flow laid down their m.o. back on Funcrusher Plus, their full-length debut that rocked the indie rap scene in the early/mid-90s. Rap that shoves its listeners physically and grabs them intellectually is scarce these days. I admit that I don’t have my ear as close to the ground/street as I have in the past, but I’ve heard most of what’s out there that RTJ would be compared to. It doesn’t take much to realize that they stand out from their broad peer group like a pair of sore thumbs; a sight for sore eyes—and a prescription for sore ears.