It's really hard to overestimate the impact that Public Enemy had on my cultural development after I discovered them in high school. Though I grew up in a pretty diverse educational environment, PE was my first real foray into what one might call the American Black Experience. Until I started listening to PE I had never heard of Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, or Eldridge Cleaver, never considered Malcolm X anything other than a rabble-raising black man, and found out that not everyone seemed to hold John Wayne or Elvis in such esteem as white folk.
I sheepishly admit to you now how much I got into these guys: I purchased a leather African medallion that was all the rage in the late 80's (and wore it to school, even /slaps forehead/), the group I hung out with called ourselves (jokingly) the "9-8 Posse" after a line in "Rebel Without a Pause", I pattered my tuba section in the marching band /dork/ after the S1Ws, PE's stepping, uzi-toting, martial-arts-practicing security group, and I also bought a message in our school's Valentine's paper and simply put the PE logo on it
Yeah, I did
And I know I wasn't the only one Chuck D and the gang affected. White boys my age who were into rap back then were gaga over these guys. It is somewhat ironic when you think about it, as PE always took a pretty militant pro-black (but not anti-white) stance in their music, but I think many of us were drawn to the authenticity of the groups message, the rebellion in the delivery, and the dense production of the Bomb Squad, PE's sonic engineers (and don't forget that those first few albums were overseen by Rick Rubin, who already had endeared himself to suburban white boys through the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J). In many ways, PE was a rap group that took a Rock attitude and approach to its music (hell, they sampled Slayer in one song, for God's sake), and I think many of us could sense that.
PE certainly evolved as a musical force over time. Their first album, "Yo! Bum Rush the Show" was well-received (highlighted, in my opinion, by "Public Enemy Number 1"), but it didn't give any indication that their next joint (see what I did there?), "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" would be damn near revolutionary. Seriously, you can't consider yourself a true music fan if you don't own a copy of that album. It's one of the best in music history, genre be damned. "Fear of Black Planet", the follow up, almost reached the same heights, but was still great in its own right, containing what became the group's signature song, "Fight the Power"
Yep - 1989: my senior year, the best year in rap's history, and PE and Spike Lee scaring white people to death with "Do the Right Thing"
Anyway, let's look at the music. I measure rappers by three criteria: voice, flow, and lyrics. Chuck rates high on voice (that powerful, Don Pardo-esque baritone is distinctive and commanding) and lyrics, but not so much on flow. And it's hard to believe now that he's a reality show buffoon, but Flava Flav brought something to the table as well. However, as I mentioned previously, the Bomb Squard produced the tracks that really let PE shine.
If you check out the first minute or so of "Revolutionary Generation", you can pick up not only the huge beat and scratching of Terminator X, but also a clip of a MLK speech, an Aretha Franklin sample, and a bit of "Pass the Dutchie" from Musical Youth. Dense, complex, and challenging music. As you listen to the entire track, see how many different bits, pieves and samples you can pick out. This is one reason rap isn't what it used to be - where's the musical artistry?
Lyrically, this song is about showing solidarity with black women. Rap music is often criticized for its misogynistic tendencies, so kudos for Chuck for standing up for black women (though in retrospect, those Tawana Brawley references sting). He even acknowledges his past indiscretions in his own music ("So I said Sophisticated B , don't be one" - though that could be described as a cop-out, couldn't it?). Still, males in rap weren't approaching this subject in 1991. There's more lyrics here, so check it out for the full text.
Sadly, it seems that PE is now relegated to the old-school rap dustbin. They've attempted a couple of comebacks, but have never really fully reentered our musical consciousness (though they came close for a minute with "He Got Game" from old friend Spike Lee's film). I hope they will be remembered for their music as well as their message when it's all over with them, though.