Public Enemy – Inside The Terrordome – Tim Grierson

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Review by John Kerrens

As Tim Grierson points out in his introduction; the story of Public Enemy is actually two stories. The band exploded out of Long Island, New York in the 1980s, changing the face of Hip-Hop – making it more accessible to the mainstream, especially white suburban males. The albums: “Yo! Bum Rush the Show”, “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back”, “Fear of a Black Planet” and “Apocalypse 91” crossed over into popular acceptance while maintaining its traditional Hip-Hop audience.

In 2013, Public Enemy were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But their “golden age” was already over, having ended in the early 90s with the critical and commercial failure of their next album; “Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age” (somebody should have been shot over that title). From there the band seemed to drift out of public consciousness – though they were still held in reverence by many die-hard fans.

The second part of their career, post-91, has been volatile and troubled. Tensions among band members, problems with their record company and some unfortunate public comments by PE members had a debilitating effect on the band. This does not mean Public Enemy ceased to make great music. As Grierson says in his intro, “just because the world stopped paying attention to them doesn’t mean they stopped paying attention to the world.”

The band was formed in the ‘70s by PE mainstays Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Keith Shocklee, Professor Griff and others, as the production group ‘Spectrum City’ (soon changed to ‘Public Enemy’). The band started out playing parties in suburban Long Island but were quickly signed to the highly successful Def Jam label, recording their first album ‘Yo! Bum Rush the Show’. Combining Chuck D’s low Baritone with Flavor Flav’s sharper Tenor, monstrous beats, dark samples and ferocious scratching (by another key member Terminator X) , the band’s sound was aggressive and militant.

Chuck D had grown up in a politically aware household and wanted to introduce social comment into PE’s music, rather than indulge in the standard macho self-promotion of other rappers. Chuck comes across as an intelligent, thoughtful man who was not always comfortable with his “lead singer” role. Flavor Flav, on the other hand, did his best to manifest an idiot. His private life was a fiasco of drug dealing, addiction, money problems and motorbike accidents – along with an unfortunate stint on a TV reality show.

‘Nation of Millions’ followed and, supported by heavy touring, saw the band cross over into mainstream popularity. Soundtrack scores for the Spike Lee films ‘Do the Right Thing’ (“Fight the Power!”) and ‘He Got Game’ further increased their popular impact.

There would be problems, though. Public comments by the group’s Minister of Information, Professor Griff, seemed to indicate a deep-seated anti-semitism (not unusual among some African-Americans). Attempts to clarify the statements only further inflamed the issue. Band members had also expressed homophobe attitudes as well as engaging in sexist abuse toward a female journalist who had criticised the band. PE were never fully able to shake these accusations and appeared ambivalent about it all, while furiously denying the charges.

Tim Grierson’s book succeeds where others failed, in discussing the band’s later, less “successful” era, post-90s. Most other such efforts tended to overlook the group’s second wind. A fine DVD of the band’s live concert at The Metropolis in London – before an audience of 124 (!) serves as a pretty good companion piece for the book.

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