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Five of the Best: Public Enemy

Jimmy Coultas picks five of the best tracks from hip hops most influential rap group Public Enemy.

Jimmy Coultas

Last updated: 27th Jan 2017

Image: Public Enemy

Few groups have had the impact in any form of music, let alone hip hop, that Public Enemy have. The rap machine brought hip hop to peaks previously unthinkable with their furious concoction of politically charged lyrics and funky as hell sounds in the late eighties and early nineties, with Chuck D's polemics backed up by the greatest hype man in history Flavour Flav and the peerless production of the Bomb Squad.

'Louder than a Bomb' (1988)

The first Public Enemy LP Yo Bumrush the Show was by no means a bad album, but it was sophomore effort It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back which really established them as the most potent political force hip hop had ever seen. Central to that was the Bomb Squad's brilliant kitchen sink approach to production, something producer Hank Shocklee said was integral to amplifying the strength of both Chuck D's voice and his lyrics.

This track, with its double figure tally of samples, exemplifies that aesthetic. Utilising an old break from funk troupe Juice for the drums was nothing groundbreaking considering the way hip hop was made at the time, but having hard rock trailblazers Mountain screaming "louder" in amongst a celebration of the history of black music certainly was. 

Kool & The Gang's bass makes an appearances, whilst also present are old school hip hop legends Kurtis Blow and DJ Grand Wizard Theodore and The Fantastic Five alongside their peers at the time in Run DMC and the Beastie Boys, neatly proving the power of black music as Chuck angrily lashes out at society for treating "him like a stepchild".

'Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos' (1988)

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It can't be overstated just how much PE influenced not only their East Coast hip hop peers, but also rock music and the West Coast gangster rap sound as well. This track has been covered by Rage Against the Machine, Sepultra and Asian Dub Foundation, but it has also had a huge influence on the streets of LA, specifically Compton.

The foreboding use of Issac Hayes' 'Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic' pretty much set the template for the claustrophobic gangster rap sound of the nineties (DJ Muggs paid homage in his Dr Dre and B-Real bolstered record 'The Puppet Master'), and the anti government/establishment focus of the lyrics was something NWA powered to devastating effect. 

When Ice Cube left that group in acrimonious circumstances he found a temporary home with PE and The Bomb Squad, resulting in the majestic AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted and allowing the influence to come full circle.

'Fight the Power' (1989)

This is perhaps the definitive Public Enemy record. Commissioned by director Spike Lee to create a single track which would provide the backdrop to his 1989 film Do the Right Thing, the end result is quite simply one of the finest songs of all time, with every component of what made the group great ratcheted to extraordinary levels.

The production celebrated not only the influence of black music but harnessed it's revolutionary power. The Isley Brothers' 'Fight the Power' gave the track it's name and mantra, but also used are Bob Marley's 'I Shot the Sherrif', James Brown's 'Say it Loud, I'm black and I'm proud' and 'I Don't Know What This World Is Coming To' by The Soul Children, among others.

Chuck and Flav were also at their visceral best, dovetailing brilliantly to devastating effect across the track. Most memorably though was when they lampooned two of white America's most recognisable heroes in one of hip-hop's most shocking moments.

Chuck unleashes "Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me you see, straight up racist that sucker was simple and plain", leaving Flav to follow him with the immortal line "Mother fuck him and John Wayne". 26 years later that seismic statement has lost none of its shock appeal.

'He Got Game' (1998)

The group's influence undeniably waned as the nineties came into full effect, but it was the return to a soundtrack which saw them return to prominence in 1998, this languid record seeing them in more reflective mood as elder statesmen of the genre.

Replacing Chuck's lyrical evisceration with a gentler, almost sadder air of resignation was a master-stroke, highlighting the difficulty society has in dealing with its ills. The use of Buffalo's Springfield's 'For What It’s Worth' was equally well chosen, allowing the group to momentarily pause their full throttle approach.

'Harder Than You Think' (2007)

What has made PE's appeal all the more remarkable is their endurance. Currently on their 15th album, they're retained a die hard following still to this day, with this record evidence of their ability to still punch in the modern musical world.

It was famously used as the theme tune for the coverage of the 2012 Paralympics, an inspired bit of programming, and was one of the strong points on the group's celebratory album How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul?

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