Public Enemy 1989

Trashed! Public Enemy

 

Pioneering hip-hop legends Public Enemy always could divide opinion. Back in 1990, at the height of their popularity, they celebrated this fact on their third album, Fear of a Black Planet. The track Incident At 66.6 FM, which samples a radio phone-in during which the presenter cheerfully laughs off one caller who invites the band to “go back to Africa” while another refers to their fans as “scum”.

Nearly three decades on from that, they’re the uber-influential elder statesmen of rap, continuing to inspire musicians working across genres. Their material is considered uplifting enough to be chosen as theme music for British Paralympic coverage, they’re well enough established to have been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and they’re popular enough to have sold millions of records worldwide.

Doesn’t mean everyone likes them though. Opinion is still divided, as these ruminative and considered one-star Amazon reviews show.

“dull, dreary, repetitive dribble”

That’s the title an anonymous UK reviewer give to his/her review of PE’s debut, Yo! Bum Rush the Show. This seems pretty decisive, but he/she immediately gets oxymoronic:

“Never have i had to endure such a droll album.”

So either they don’t like their albums amusing or entertaining, or they don’t know what droll means. Undaunted, they go on to fall back on their maturity to emphasise their credibility:

“at 29 yrs old i really am past this rubbish with a more mature ear able to appreciate a far greater spectrum of contempary [sic] sounds”

Ooh, so close to pulling it back there. Drat! RH has better luck using good old-fashioned sarcasm and irrelevant references:

“Why have I been wasting my time listening to Charlie Parker and Claude Debussy all these years? What ever made me think that Aretha Franklin and Gundula Janowitz could actually sing? I must have been high. THIS is the great work of true musical genius that all mankind has been waiting for.”

Gunula Janowitz, as we all know without resorting to Google, is one of the highest regarded opera singers of all time. RH is on safe ground suggesting that she (and Aretha) can sing, so that proves Public Enemy are shit.

VV is another grown-up who disapproves of PE. Admittedly, his 2003 review of It Takes a Nation of Millions… gets off to a dodgy start with the title, “You call this music? Maybe on Planet Suck-ville”, which could have been written by six-year old, but VV soon more than redeems himself. He takes maturity to new levels with this statement:

“Bashing the government is not cool, I don’t think George Bush is listening to this record right now. And if our president can’t listen to it, who should be allowed to? Certainly not you.”

No, you’re right, VV, bashing the government is not cool. Conformity, compliance and respect for authority are what’s cool. That real rock and roll. What was Chuck D thinking of? Leave that nice Mr Bush alone. And he’s not even listening anyway, so there!

At the other end of the maturity spectrum is J, reviewing Fear of a Black Planet in 2010. He’s just desperate to hear naughty words being uttered:

“Funny that there’s an advisory label on the cover but they beep out the cuss words on Fight the Power. Wish I knew this before I bought the CD.”

He feels so cheated he awards the album the lowest, one-star rating. J would appreciate HJ’s review and the way it cleverly hints at a swear word:

“Anybody who likes this type of music should see a psychiatrist… when they called it rap they left off the C”

See what he did there? Not everyone goes to the trouble of using such ingenious wordplay in their negative reviews. KR just says Public Enemy are “Not a patch on NWA. Lyrically or musically”, an anonymous Nation of Millions reviewer in 1999 says it’s “just plain bland” and MS went full street in 2005:

“This album is WACK and BORING! BORING! BORING! BORRRRRING!”

At least KR got his point across with his crazy urban slang. Not everyone manages that trick.  Here’s TA‘s review of Black Planet in its confusing entirety:

“Head Cruncher by TA, February 15, 2005

“I wish I could put into words the disdain I have for RAP. But I can’t so all you get is the title. Music????? Don’t make me laugh.”

“All you get is the title” – Does anybody have any idea what that means? And what about the last bit? “Music????? Don’t make me laugh.” Maybe TA finds it all a bit too droll as well? Maybe they should take a leaf out of that 29 year-old anonymous UK reviewer from earlier and try something else from the “spectrum of contempary sounds”

Finally, here are two conflicting but equally scornful reviews of PE’s peak output. First up, DW on Nation of Millions:

“Let’s not beat about the bush. This album is a pile of tripe. Some prat with a silly watch and some other guy are angry and shout a lot instead of inspiring people to change things for the better. Maybe I’m too white and middle class to get what they are trying to say but whatever my social and economic background I just couldn’t find any redeeming qualities in this album.”

While AKR says, of Black Planet:

“The irony being that P.E.’s core audience were white suburban kids (remember John Connor from Terminator 2?), not angry urban black youths.”

Now I don’t know who to believe here – DK or AKR. Sure, you have to admire DW’s withering description of Flavor Flav as “some prat with a silly watch”, but AKR has cold hard facts on his side; young John Connor from Terminator 2 was a white kid and he did wear a Public Enemy t-shirt. You just can’t argue with that. And that means Public Enemy are sell-outs! Don’t believe the hype!

 

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‘Judgment Night’ Soundtrack – Rap Rock’s last stand

Music From The Motion Picture ‘Judgment Night’ – Various Artists

In mid-1993, Melody Maker printed news about the soundtrack for an upcoming film, Judgment Night, which would feature collaborations between contemporary rap acts and ‘alternative’/metal bands, including contributions from Sonic Youth, Run DMC, Cypress Hill, Mudhoney and Dinosaur Jr.

The full track listing was unbelievable, featuring top artists from both scenes and some of the unlikeliest combinations since Bowie and Crosby crooned around a baby grand:

  1. Helmet & House of Pain – Just Another Victim
  2. Teenage Fanclub & De La Soul – Fallin’
  3. Living Colour & Run DMC – Me, Myself & My Microphone
  4. Biohazard & Onyx – Judgment Night
  5. Slayer & Ice-T – Disorder
  6. Faith No More & Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E. – Another Body Murdered
  7. Sonic Youth & Cypress Hill – I Love You Mary Jane
  8. Mudhoney & Sir Mix-A-Lot – Freak Momma
  9. Dinosaur Jr & Del the Funky Homosapien – Missing Link
  10. Therapy? & Fatal – Come And Die
  11. Pearl Jam & Cypress Hill – Real Thing

The teenage me couldn’t have been more excited without involving Winona Ryder in some way.

When it was released the Judgment Night soundtrack became one of my earliest CD purchases, along with Sub Pop 200 and Freedom Of Choice. This was at a time when CDs were generally 50% more expensive than records – pretty much the opposite of now – so buying a newly-released one was a rare luxury for me.

It’s worth explaining at this point that rap rock had more credibility in 1993 than it does now, in these post-Limp Bizkit times. The earliest hip-hop had happily co-existed with punk in late ’70s New York, in seedy clubs away from the disco establishment, before Beastie Boys, with roots in both scenes, hit the charts by fusing the genres. There were several notable collaborations between highly-regarded rap and rock acts either side of that, but Public Enemy and Anthrax’s 1991 reworking of Bring The Noise might be the genre’s definitive tune. The following year, Rage Against The Machine released their seminal, self-titled first album. It’s fair to say that the early-’90s was when rap rock reached its pinnacle.

This was a time when both ‘alternative’ music and hip-hop were crossing over to the mainstream, and rap was diversifying in many different directions. It was also the time of the first Gulf War and the Rodney King verdict, and as a result, music got angrier. Mixing the expressiveness of rap with the aggression of heavy guitar music was an obvious move. Rap rock hasn’t died since the early 90s, but the likes of Kid Rock have done a fuck of a lot of damage to its kudos.

So the Judgment Night soundtrack came out at a time when rock rap as a genre was at its peak, and most of the bands involved were too, leading to an eclectic collection of unique collaborations. And it was REALLY FUCKING GOOD!

At the heavy end of the spectrum you had Biohazard playing on Judgment Night with Onyx – who at that time, on the back of their excellent Slam single, looked likely to fill the void left by the self-destructing NWA. Helmet produced a heavier than normal version of their tight grunge to back House Of Pain on Just Another Victim, which is highly effective, despite some clunky rhymes – “Feeling like De Niro in Taxi Driver, with Jodie Foster and Harvey Keitel, feels like I’m walking through a living hell”. Therapy? provided an indie-metal background on Come And Die with (the now obscure) Fatal.  Living Colour’s funk complemented Run DMC perfectly on Me, Myself & My Microphone, and Faith No More/Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E. provided an unexpected highlight with the brutally aggressive Another Body Murdered – “Bang yo’ head to this!”.

More relaxed offerings came from Teenage Fanclub/De La Soul and Sonic Youth/Cypress Hill, both getting gloriously trippy on their collaborations, Fallin’ and I Love You Mary Jane (maybe, MAYBE a subtle marijuana reference there?). Freak Momma by Mudhoney and Sir Mix-a-Lot was also pretty laidback. It was entertaining too, though sadly not the delicious cocktail of Baby Got Back and Touch Me I’m Sick I’d been hoping for.

mark-arm-sir-mix-a-lot

Ice-T seemed to misinterpret the brief, despite having just begun fronting his own rap-metal band, Body Count. I’d been a fan of his hip-hop since the Power album, but on Disorder, his collaboration with Slayer, he chose to shout a bad approximation of metal singing rather than rap. For me, it was the weakest track on the album.

While every cut on the Judgment Night soundtrack is excellent in its own way, Mr Marrow and friends aside, there are two tracks on it that stand out above the rest for me. The first is Real Thing, the collaboration between Pearl Jam and Cypress Hill. Now, I’ve never been a fan of Pearl Jam, but the overdriven, descending guitar riff on this, coupled with the prominent, threatening bassline blends perfectly with Sen Dog and B-Real’s ultra aggressive rap for a claustrophobic classic. From the opening feedback, to the closing “na, na, na” hook, Real Thing sounds like two acts at the peak of their powers pushing each other to give the best performance possible.

The other stand out track is Missing Link from Dinosaur Jr and Del Tha Funky Homosapien. Del is best known for his insanely catchy 1991 hit Mistadoblina (“Mr Dobalina, Mr Bob Dobalina”), and for being Ice Cube’s cousin. Among the things Dinosaur Jr are best known for is J Mascis’s guitar heroics, which are all over this tune. If Real Thing showcased two musical heavyweights coaxing each other to new levels, Missing Link is the sound of a very good rapper desperately trying to keep his head above water under a constant deluge of J’s guitar genius, as one after another, unique and brilliant riffs are casually layered over the track. With a lot of effort, Del manages keep himself heard for the duration of the song, but there’s no doubting that it’s J’s contribution that makes it so memorable.

Despite having one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard, Judgment Night the film is a bit of a turkey. It’s an ‘action-thriller’ in which four buddies get lost in the wrong part of town and end up – guess what – fighting for their lives. I only recently got around to watching it and it’s clear to see why it flopped at the box office. The Washington Post‘s review nails it, describing Judgment Night as ‘regrettably familiar’.

The film’s hero is portrayed by Emilio Estevez, who had previously starred in Repo Man, a great film with another fantastic soundtrack, featuring Iggy (with the title track), Suicidal Tendencies and Black Flag. He was also in Freejack in 1992, which is only notable for a hopeless performance from Mick Jagger as the baddie. In Judgment Night, Denis Leary is almost as implausible as the all-powerful crime boss, but the film’s biggest flaw is the failure to give any prominence to the soundtrack. There may never have been such a disparity between the quality of a film and the quality of its soundtrack.

So there you go, that’s Music From The Motion Picture ‘Judgment Night’ by Various Artists, an ambitious project that brought together some of the biggest stars of the rap and alternative rock scenes at a time when they were taking over the mainstream. A rock rap collaboration on this scale never happened again – it was the genre’s last stand. Then again, if anger was the catalyst for the first wave of rock rap, maybe the turbulent times we’re living in will create a resurgence; members of Public Enemy, Rage Against The Machine and Cypress Hill performed as Prophets Of Rage at an Anti-Inaugural Ball , after all. If not, then the Judgment Night soundtrack will remain a great document of when the genre was at its best. It really deserved a better film.

 

‘Kick Out The Jams’ by MC5 covered by Rage Against The Machine – Magnificent Cover Version No.25

‘When Tomorrow Hits’ by Mudhoney, covered by Spacemen 3 – Magnificent Cover Version No.22

‘Just Like Heaven’ by The Cure covered by Dinosaur Jr – Magnificent Cover Version No. 10