The summer of 1988 was a motherfucker, wasn’t it?
A Salt With A Deadly Pepa, Follow The Leader, In Effect Mode, By All Means Necessary, Heart Break, Long Live The Kane, Guy, Don’t Be Cruel, Strictly Business. Black music underwent a massive sea change during that period, and it seemed like not a week went by without a classic dropping.
I wasn’t quite discovering music on my own yet. After all, as I’d mentioned in a previous post, I spent most of 1988 on punishment and not able to watch TV or access my own music. However, that summer brought forth a deluge of visiting family members (and an aunt and uncle who were in their late twenties with no kids-yet), all of whom were the right age to impose their tastes upon an impressionable 12 year old who was already full-on in love with music.
My cousin Nelson, visiting from The Netherlands, was the person who got me into Public Enemy. He’s four or five years older than me, meaning that when I was just approaching teenage-hood, he was 16 or 17. He’s the person who brought home the It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back LP, and that album blew my mind on first listen. It also scared me. Anger was not an emotion that I was used to hearing in music, and Chuck D barked his lyrics out with the righteous indignation of a preacher.
It’s hard to describe how powerful Chuck D’s voice was at Public Enemy’s peak. If hip-hop was the CNN of (young) black America, Chuck was its most intense anchorperson. Rakim was cool and collected, Big Daddy Kane was brash and confident, N.W.A. was still a year away from showing up on my radar, but Chuck D was authoritative. He was a few years older than most of his peers, and his voice (to say nothing of what he was actually saying) communicated a maturity previously unknown to rap music. “Don’t Believe The Hype” was the first P.E. song I really took notice of, and my attention was obtained with the sheer power of Carlton Ridenhour’s voice.
When discussing P.E., you have to give props to the Bomb Squad’s production. “Hype” is actually one of Nation’s more subdued tracks, riding on top of a simple James Brown loop with a couple of soundbites weaved in and out of the mix. Rightfully, the focus here is on Chuck and the bombs he’s lobbing at the press. As much as some elements of the music press kissed Public Enemy’s ass (even after they stopped making great records), there was also a lot of blowback (especially from older white press and conservative black press) regarding Chuck’s unapologetically pro-black stance (which many read as anti-white) and his support of Louis Farrakhan (which is probably worth ignoring in favor of the overall impact of this music). There was a Rolling Stone feature on the group in late summer ‘88 (I want to say it was the issue with INXS on the cover) that is straight up racist. So you could say “Hype”’s gripes were quite justified. A year before the whole Professor Griff mess (we’ll get to that in the “F”s), Chuck was already getting his defense set.