Monday, April 27, 2009

12 Greatest Albums: Public Enemy - 'Yo! Bum Rush The Show!'

In 1986 the blackest music I had in my collection was Prince, and as we all know he hails from Planet Purple, not Black America. I listened to angry music made by young white suburban males. And show tunes. What can I say, I was confused.

I spent an awful lot of time flipping through album covers at Ritchie's House of Bargains, the only local record store. I come from Rhode Island, supposedly a bastion of the liberal north east, but if you'd observed the stacks of Ritchie's House of Bargains you'd have thought there needed to be a sit-in.

If 5 black people and 5 white people were in the store at the same time they could browse and never cross paths. It is similar today in that music has fragmented to such a degree but the divisions then were startling.

One day I was in the store and it was empty. Now I remind you that I listened to nothing but punk rock at this point. I had disowned Prince briefly. Rap was a burgeoning force but I dismissed it as bubble-gum and silly and not creative enough. They aren't playing instruments? That ain't music. Drum machines? That ain't music. No singing? That ain't music.

For some reason, on this particular day, these prejudices were not sufficient enough to keep me from flipping through the rap section. I must have been curious enough to eschew my regular post, waiting for the latest Neutral Nation, 7 Seconds, Descendents, Circle Jerks, Meatmen, Dead Kennedys or Verbal Assault record to appear in the stacks.

So there I flip. My contact with rap had been limited to Run D.M.C., The Beastie Boys, The Sugarhill Gang, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. 'The Message' had caused a sensation when I was in sixth grade but I wasn't really plugged in to popular music at the time. (See above reference to show tunes...ahem.)

Then an album cover leaped out at me. A bare light bulb glares directly into the lens. 7 young black men dressed in vaguely military gear gather around a turntable. The vibe is that of a group preparing for battle.

And their name was Public Enemy. Now I came from the punk world with band names like Social Distortion, Corrosion of Conformity, Youth Brigade, etc. But Public Enemy? Before I even heard a note I knew that this was way more punk rock than anything I was listening to. Even if I didn't like the music I connected to the attitude.

I spent some of my hard earned money. I worked weekends at Belmont Fruit occasionally and over vacations. Anything I wanted I had to buy on my own. There was one copy of the album in the store.

I got it home and put it on. In punk rock, the bare-bones production allowed the emotional content to be completely direct, unencumbered by studio polish or even songwriting craft. Much the same can be said for 'Yo! Bum Rush The Show!'. I became quite a Public Enemy fan and when you compare this album to their later greats there is a vast difference. This are no bells no whistles all force and beat.

What I liked (and like) about it is that you can hear the determination behind the sound. We only have this drum machine? We can only record for a short period of time due to finances? Don't matter. What we have to say is all that matters. You could play a metronome behind Chuck D and it would be compelling.

The instant his voice bangs out in the opening songs, 'You're Gonna Get Yours' it is clear that this is no mere front-man, no mere performer. He is incapable of a song that isn't politically charged, historic in significance. Even something that seems like a sexist rant against a 'Sophisticated Bitch' is rife with the implication that a weak personality in a black woman has social ramifications unlike those for a white woman. Incredibly challenging and difficult material.

Basically I flipped my lid. And wouldn't you know it? A few of my punk rock compadres showed their true colors (pun intended) in their reaction to the mere possibility of putting these black punks up against the white punks they so revered.

Much like many of the choices I highlight here, there are many caveats. I don't even feel that this is the best pure Public Enemy album. That honor for me would go to 'Apocalypse '91: The Enemy Strikes Black'. But I will never forget the thrill I got when those manufactured beats came roaring out of my shitty little speakers.

Public Enemy. Just take a second to say the name stripped of your previous knowledge. PUBLIC ENEMY # 1.

I never looked at the world the same way after hearing that album for the first time. How many works of art can say they affected ANYBODY that way? Let alone the millions Public Enemy reached.

Indeed, it took a nation of millions.


Anonymous said...

What about Looney Tunes? I thought they were independently owned -- or at least they had lots of indie music. But whenever John Bell and I wanted to get a record fix, we'd go to Providence and visit In Your Ear records and Tom's Tracks (both on Thayer St., of course). Damn, but those two stores were gold mines for cheap, $1-$2 used records in almost any genre you'd want. (This was especially true once CDs began to emerge and everyone started selling their vinyl.) I still have records that I bought dirt cheap from those stores.

But yeah. Public Enemy.

Brendan O'Malley said...

totally forgot about looney tunes. in my head they were put together into one store. thank god this isn't real journalism or my credibility would be ruined.

loved 'in your ear'. i still have every wax record i ever bought and someday i will do the transfer to MP3.

how is john bell??? if you have contact info on him i'd love to get in touch.

Anonymous said...

John Bell has been up-and-down, but he's been doing really well for quite some time. Currently he's teaching sociology classes at Bunker Hill Comm. Coll. in Boston, has what seems to be a very serious girlfriend, and still plays guitar. I'll tell him you said, "Yo!" next time I talk to him (which isn't that often since I moved to Western Mass.).

--- Tom H.