The Primer: 10 Public Enemy Songs Everyone Should Know

By 11.13.12

The generation gap between rap fans seems to be growing wider by the day. While young fans may not know everything, older ones show reluctance in sharing what they know. Too often, the latter group shuns new artists and says “Things were better in ’88/’94/’98” and reference the glory days of groups and artists without explaining why the music was dope. In order to bridge the gap, jewels have to be dropped and knowledge shared.

The premise was this: If we were a sixteen-year-old and had a genuine interest in learning about older acts, staring at a discography of anywhere from eight or more albums would be daunting. So to facilitate the process, we present our new series called The Primer, in which we showcase 10 suggested songs to know from key pillars in Hip-Hop lore. Our first subject: the incomparable Public Enemy.

Why start with Public Enemy? Why not start with one of the rap’s greatest groups of all time who’s contributions still reverberate through the music and culture. The Long Island brothers – along with the Bomb Squad – caused shift from “Hip-hop, hippy to the hop” lyrics to songs that left the listeners with food for thought to chew on. So without further ado, here’s your Public Enemy Primer.

1. “Night Of The Living Baseheads” – One significant outlier to PE’s success was the crack epidemic sweeping through Black communities across the country. Chuck & co. gave an informed, impassioned take on the drug’s affect on dopeheads, dealers and the community at large. Instead of preaching, Chuck managed to make the users appear like zombies, the dealers become monsters. Not to mention that the bomb squad crammed the track full of samples, a feat that would cost more than any budget could cover today.

2. “Bring The Noise” – Besides being a big hit on its own, the turbulent song later spawned a mash up with Anthrax well before bands mixing it up was commonplace. Fueled by “Funky Drummer,” The Bomb Squad provides a wicked funhouse soundtrack that stands in stark contrast to Chuck’s drill sergeant precise delivery.

3. “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos” – Leading off with perhaps the most recognizable opening line in Hip-Hop history (“I got a letter from the government/The other day/I opened and read it/It said they were suckers”), “Black Steel’s” sinister tone perfectly encapsulates the simmering anger at the treatment of black people in America. Even in song, expressing a willingness to go to jail rather than participate in a war on behalf of an unjust nation is more courageous that most of what we have heard from Hip-Hop since It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back was released.

4. “Burn Hollywood Burn” – This was the Big Three before Lebron, D. Wade and that reptile looking fellow decided to terrorize the NBA from their home base in South Beach. In 1990, collaborations between different crews were rare. The idea of three heavyweights like Big Daddy Kane, Ice Cube and Chuck Dcoast, joining up on the same track was unheard of. The three alpha dogs worked well with one another, as their unique voices and styles flowed over the frenetic Bomb Squad production like a few more instruments or samples from Shocklee and Co.’s bag of tricks.

5. “Pollywanacraka” – Before rappers created odes to their favorite white girls (both the blonde haired, blue-eyed and crystalline varieties), Chuck reminded listeners that black was still beautiful. At the height of the Afrocentric movement in music and flicks like Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, they took Black men and women to task for associating success with dating outside their race.

6. “Shut’em Down” – Much like their attack on crack, PE took aim at malt liquor companies & neighborhood convenience stores who “catered” to the disenfranchised on this track. The bassy and aggressive track serves as the soundtrack to the eventual day of reckoning predicted for the poison dealers, thieves, and corporate vultures that drained the black community one life at a time.

7. “By The Time I Get To Arizona” – Part of what makes “By The Time…” notable is that it serves as a time capsule. In 1991, Arizona and New Hampshire still refused to recognize Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday as a holiday. Not one to take such a insult lightly, the whole crew set their sights on the deserts of Arizona to bring more heat than the legislature could handle.

8. “Rebel Without A Pause” – This is an absolute clinic in the art of emceeing. Each line comes at you like a flurry of punches, giving the listener little chance to recover before the next overhand right shatters all sensibilities. The genius horn sample places the image of a steaming tea kettle boiling over from the pure energy displayed by Chuck D at his pinnacle.

9. “Louder Than A Bomb” – At one point, Hip-Hop, particularly the brand served up by Chuck D, Flavor Flav and their large contingent of associates, was considered dangerous enough that Public Enemy actually became public enemies. Chuck defiantly exposes the fact that the powers that be began to keep tabs on him by tapping his phone. He continues to speak the truth as he sees it, unafraid of the consequences, even as he name checks those who lost their lives in the past for doing the same thing.

10. “Public Enemy Number One” – Significance? It’s only the track the late WBLS on-air personality Mr. Magic dissed on the air and proclaimed “I guarantee you no more music by these suckers.” It’s also one of the hardest songs ever recorded.

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