Review Summary: With this album they prove for the fourth time in a row why Public Enemy is as influential as they are both in and out of the Hip Hop community.Public Enemy
… what can be said about them that shouldn’t already be known? They’re one of the most influential Hip Hop artists of the 80’s and early 90’s, due in large part to being one of the first Hip Hop groups to really focus on politics, and the plight of African Americans in general. Their lyrics were often controversial, and through it all the group remained unapologetic. If it wasn’t for them there probably wouldn’t be a lot of the politically charged music that exists today, from modern Hip Hop artists to metal bands such as System of a Down
and Rage Against the Machine
. Public Enemy’s first four albums are all widely regarded as classics, but there has been some discussion about which one is really the defining PE album, in my opinion the answer is easy; Apocalypse 91
is PE’s definitive album.
There are so many reasons that this album should be considered the ultimate PE album, but the main reason would have to be the lyrics and vocals of the talented Chuck D, and to a lesser extent Flavor Flav. Chuck D’s lyrics flow over the music in a way that is so effortless and fluid that they simply have to be heard to be believed. His voice is deep, strong and clear, and easily commands the attention of anyone that hears it. If that isn’t enough, the words themselves are poignant, intelligent, and still as relevant today as they were sixteen years ago when this was released. On PE’s previous albums they directed a lot of their attention outward on corrupt media, racism, and the ignorance of the average person about what’s going on in the country they live in, and there is still some of that here, but they also began to look more inwards. As the full title of this album suggests, on this release they began to look much more into their own community. A song such as “1 Million Bottlebags” is the perfect example of this new introspection in the way it addresses alcoholism and the way it is tearing their communities apart, placing the blame squarely on those that frequent the liquor stores in their neighborhoods, thus keeping them in business. Another song of that nature is the angry “Nighttrain” which addresses drug dealers dealing in their own neighborhoods which basically equates to murder of their own as far as PE is concerned.
If the music was that intense from start to finish without any breaks it would probably turn a lot of people off of it, and that is where Flavor Flav comes in. To put it simply, Flavor Flav is Chuck D’s “Pinky” to his “Brain” (the cartoon mice that want to take over the world). In other words, Flavor Flav is the comedic element, the sliver of levity to be found on any PE release. On most songs Flavor Flav just repeats what Chuck D is saying or simply provides background comments in a sarcastic and humorous way. He also gets a song or two to himself which serves as a break from the intensity of the Chuck D dominated tracks. Flavor’s songs still present social commentary but they’re done in a more humorous way. On the last album it was “911 is a joke” and on this one it’s “I Don’t Wanna Be Called Yo Niga”. When making a passing observation it might not seem like Flavor Flav makes that big of a difference within PE, but without him PE would have lost an integral part of their appeal.
Another reason that this album is such a classic is due to one of the most capable Hip Hop production teams in the Bomb Squad, and an equally capable DJ in Terminator X. Apocalypse 91
features some of the most dense and innovative music that I’ve ever heard in any genre. The beats are complex by Hip Hop standards, and the music includes a large number of samples, sounds and influences all layered over each other in such a way that even sixteen years later I can still pick up new sounds. The Bomb Squad would take things such as screams (By the Time I Get to Arizona), squealing horns (Can’t Truss It) and things of that nature and loop them in order to make them a main part of the music. This was all done in order to keep the listener from becoming too comfortable or letting the music fade into the background, because Chuck’s message isn’t meant to soothe or be played in the background; it’s supposed to be angry, confrontational, and it’s supposed to be paid attention to and the music ensures that it is.
A good example of all of those elements coming together would be in the opening song, “Lost at Birth” which starts with the sample “The Future holds nothing else but confrontation” and immediately breaks into a complex beat with a looping sound that literally sounds like an air raid siren, and Terminator X’s scratching. A lot of this song has Chuck D repeating a few slogans over and over until the end when he finally breaks into the first of many confrontational tirades. Musically, an even better example comes from the Flavor Flav track, “I Don’t Wanna Be Called Yo Niga” where the musical influences range from funk in the beat, to the soulful background vocals, to ragtime piano, and a bluesy guitar lick looped throughout the song.
Even though I’ve only pointed out a few songs, you could literally listen to any song on this album and find all the things I’ve been talking about, from the dissonant sounds and complex beats that ensure the listener stays just slightly agitated, to the direct and smooth flow of Chuck D, to the lighter side with Flavor Flav. In fact, in order to truly even come close to doing this album justice I would have to write about each song individually because not one song is filler. Each lyric is well thought out and delivered and each song has enough different things going on in it that an overall summary just doesn’t completely convey the variety. If you’re into Hip Hop then you should already own at least one Public Enemy CD, but if you don’t usually find yourself drawn to this form of music, listen to a song or two from this album and you may find your mind slowly changing.