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The ’87 Sound: “Bring the Noise” by Public Enemy

One of the most interesting facets of Public Enemy’s 1988, “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back” for me personally, is the way it took shape. As we mentioned in discussing P.E’s “Rebel Without a Pause”, the musical innovations of Eric B & Rakim and Boogie Down Productions, featuring lead rapper KRS ONE, made the crew dissatisfied with the sound they achieved on their debut, “Yo! Bum Rush the Show”. Public Enemy got moving quickly, creating the “Rebel” single and giving their career new life. “Bring The Noise” would be their next single in ’87, which would make two key cuts released as singles before “Millions” was finished and released in 1988. A third single, “Don’t Believe The Hype” would also be released in 1988, several months before “Millions” was released. These singles laid out P.E’s brand new bag and set the stage for what many call the greatest Hip Hop album of all time. In the case of “Bring the Noise”, the song was composed for the Def Jam soundtrack to the movie “Less Than Zero”, which was a popular book and film in its time that told the story of rich kid cocaine dealers. “Bring the Noise” was a mission statement for P.E and has gone on to become an anthem in the repertoire of the band.

The song begins with a Malcolm X sample saying, “Too Black too Strong.” Which is followed by a very noisy horn sample of Marva Whitney’s James Brown produced “It’s My Thing” (an answer record to The Isley Brothers “It’s Your Thing.”) “It’s My Thing” provides several musical elements of the track. Right alongside that is a thunderous drum kick playing insistent 16th notes, as Flavor Flav delivers the type of hype man energy that secured his place in Hip Hop history, “Yo Chuck, these Honeydrippers is still frontin’ on us/show em that we can do this/cause we always knew this.” After which he lets out an epic “Yeah, Boyeeee!” as the snare drum hits on all fours and a bass fill leads up to the verse. Chuck D booms out the lines which have become so well known in the years since, “BASS! How low can you go?/Death Row?/What a Brother know?/once again/back is the incredible/rhyme animal/the Incredible!/D!/Public Enemy Number One/Five-O said “Freeze!?And I got numb.” Underneath that The Bomb Squad concoct an amazing track of sampled riffing JB’s horns from “It’s My Thing.” Greg Tate remarked at the time the horns sounded like “Decaying kazoos.” Underneath that Terminator cuts up Funkadelic’s “Get off Your Ass & Jam”, focusing on the trippy, alarm sounding guitar solo that ended up being very close to DJ scratching. So right there, the track combines the two pillars of funk, J.B, and P-Funk. A loud guitar sample from “Get off Your Ass” loops, with its guitar solo peak energy sounding more like an alarm than music. Chuck D goes on to describe a scenario where he is literally persecuted for his music, put in jail because of the Pro-Black stance the group espouses. Which would almost literally happen to rappers such as 2Pac, Ice T, Ice Cube, N.W.A and many others in the next few years after this song.

The chorus gets even noisier musically, with D proclaiming, “Turn it Up!/Bring the Noise!!!” Vocal samples, scratches, and horn blasts mix as Flavor says, “Yo Chuck! They sayin we too Black man!” The next verse was always super unique to me for the early triplet based cadence Chuck used. The rhyme is supported by a sample of Clyde Stubblefield playing on James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”, but The Bomb Squad don’t leave it naked, they lay a heavy stomping drum kick over the top of it, for Chuck to lay down his flow, “Never badder than bad/but the brother is madder than mad/at the fact/thats corrupt like a Senator/Soul on a roll/but you treat it/like soap on a rope/cause the beat and the lines are so dope.” After which the arrangement returns to the original verse. Chuck D also calls out Black radio at the end of the verse, “They call themselves Black but we’ll see if they play this.” Chuck spends the last verse praising his D.J and talking about music more generally, defending the artistic merits of Hip Hop compared to artists like Yoko Ono and Anthrax (which would lay the groundwork for P.E to redo this song with Anthrax in 1991). The song goes out with a sickly sounding “Transformer” D.J scratch routine.

“Bring the Noise” was a musical marvel that was the second step in paving the way for the classic P.E sound. It utilized a unique combination of samples and placed all that “noise” within a context of song structure, with an intro, verses, a bridge where the beat changes, and D.J solo space as you would give a musician. All of this was the perfect music to match with Chuck D’s stentorian baritone, and he laid down a great rap that broke new ground for Rap, in so much as it was bragaddocio, but it was strong, defiant and bold about political situations and the world at large, as Chuck took on both his critics and the critics and naysayers of Hip Hop and Rap music as a whole. He achieved 3 different unique flows by taking three verses he had from different songs and combining them here. With the creativity of Chuck, Flav, The Bomb Squad (Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee, Eric “Vietnam” Sadler) and Terminator X all in play, “Bring the Noise” was another important 1987 step to P.E’s 1988 triumph.

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Filed under "This Might Offend My Political Connects", A little Hip in your HOP, Appreciation, The '87 Sound

The ’87 Sound: “Rebel Without a Pause” by Public Enemy

“Rebel Without a Pause”, Public Enemy’s breakthrough single, is a perfect example of the changes music, Hip Hop and otherwise, would go through in 1987. P.E released their first album, “Yo! Bum Rush the Show” on February 10, 1987, after recording it in the summer of 1986. By the time it was released, it’s DMX drum machine dominated sound already sounded dated, next to the new, sleek James Brown samples of Eric B & Rakim’s “I Know You Got Soul.” Writer Christopher R Weingarten put it this way, “Tempos became quicker and peppy drum licks zipped around the sluggish elephant stomps of 1986’s DMX drum machines.” Bomb Squad lead producer Hank Shocklee said that by ’87 he heard the DMX in so many songs he was tired of it himself. These newer, sleeker beats, which in actuality were closer to Hip Hop’s breakbeat party origins in the days of DJ’s Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa, also enabled new, more complex rhyme styles, pioneered by Rakim, KRS ONE, Kool G Rap, and Big Daddy Kane. The inspiration for “Rebel Without a Pause” on a musical and technical rapping level came from Eric B and Rakim’s Funkadelic and Bobby Byrd sampling “I Know You Got Soul”, which itself would inspire Chuck to say in this song, “I got soul too!” Chuck and Hank Shocklee speak of going to a party and being dejected by the brilliance of “I Know You Got Soul”, which inspired them to go into the studio and concoct “Rebel Without a Pause.”

A James Brown sample would power “Rebel” the same way it did “Soul”. Interestingly enough, just like Eric B and Rakim’s record, they found their J.B sample, not in James Brown’s catalog, but in his extended catalog of artists he released and produced, this time from The Bootsy and Catfish Collins lead original incarnation of the J.B’s, from the song “The Grunt.” Ironically for those who feel sampling is theft, “The Grunt” itself is an almost wholesale interpolation of an Isley Brothers song called, “Keep on Doin.” But what the J.B’s had that the Isleys didn’t, was the wild, wailing, almost atonal sax playing of Robert McCullough, which The Bomb Squad would utilize as the sound that occupies the high end on “Rebel.” When Chuck D took the record home, his mother wondered if he had a tea kettle going off in his room. It’s interesting that that horn part came from a player Fred Wesley describes as “inferior to any horn player the James Brown band had before him”, but it had a raw vibe that was perfect for the alarming note Public Enemy was sounding in the late Reagen age.

The record itself begins with alarming sounds, first, the strong, southern voice of Jesse Jackson at WattStax, introducing the Soul Children’s record, “I Don’t’ know what this world is coming to”, which he began with a booming, now legendary “Brothers and Sisters!” Which P.E then follows with another alarming sound, the horn hits of James Brown’s “Get Up Offa That Thing”, which had been used before in Boogie Down Production’s “South Bronx.” “Get Up Offa..” is one of JB’s angriest records, made at a time when he felt his commercial relevance was slipping. Also interestingly enough, Jesse Jackson himself was launching his second run for President in ’87. Chuck begins his legendary rap verses with a thundering, “Yes!” He goes on to say in the verse, “They played the music/this time they play the lyrics” which is a reference to how Public Enemy’s first single, “Public Enemy No.1” was rejected by New York Hip Hop D.J Mr. Magic. “Bum rush the sound/I made a year ago” was a reference to the fact that the album P.E had just released some months earlier was actually made in 1986, a kind of apology as P.E dropped this brand new bag. He ends the verse speaking of “Panther power/on the hour/from the Rebel to you”, which is an even more explicit embrace of Public Enemy’s “Black Panthers of Rap” position they’d been slowly cultivating during their time in the music.”

In between the verses, Flavor Flav provides his Bundini Brown, Bobby Byrd, boxing cornerman hype, which was in itself a radical new sound in Hip Hop at the time. Chuck begins the next verse with the classic and often sampled, “Radio/Suckers never play me/on the mix/they just okay me”, which was a clear protest at the way Hip Hop was treated as a whole on urban radio and Public Enemy in particular by the New York Hip Hop elite. Chuck’s goes on to rap in the new style, using shorter sentence lengths and multiple rhymes to lay out the points through which Public Enemy’s whole career would rest on, such as stating he was “old enough to raise ya”, a reference to P.E’s late 20s ages at the time and the older mindset they brought to Hip Hop. He also proclaims them “Supporters of Chesimard”, a reference to Assata Shakur, who is still in the news today as Conservative forces call for her extradition from Cuba.

“Rebel Without a Pause” is a landmark record of 1987 for many reasons. Public Enemy and their producers The Bomb Squad were able to react with almost Internet era speed to the changing tides of Rap music at the time, away from the drum machine sound to the funkier, more supple samples of actual funky musicians playing on wax. Also, lyrically, Chuck and Flav introduced a strong, Pro Black, radical message, through the voice of the young people’s music, Hip Hop, that would provide a touchstone for the Afrocentric explosion of the late ’80s and early ’90s. As we will see as our series on 1987 continues, even older socially conscious musicians like Stevie Wonder and EWF would get back to their commentary as a rejoinder to the Reagen administration, but Public Enemy here does it for the younger set. This song and others like it would basically form the attitude of young Black people from the late ’80s to about the mid-’90s. This was born out of a New York City that was full of racial tension in the ’80s, often times aided and abetted by the man who is President as of this writing, Donald J. Trump. But Public Enemy also succeed here in changing the musical side of the times, taking the innovations of Marley Marl and affordable samplers and grounding the James Brown beat as the foundation of Hip Hop. In fact, when you put “Rebel” and “I Know You Got Soul” with Prince’s “Housequake” and many other records, the late ’80s may be one of the best times the James Brown sound has ever had in the business. This sound would not only be big in Hip Hop but it would also go on to influence the realms of European and American sample-based dance music as well. And this was the first truly landmark, revolutionary record in a career that has taken P.E all the way to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Panther power on the hour from the Rebels to you!!!!

* A little bonus material, Public Enemy’s performance of this song on Soul Train, and the diss from Mr. Magic that inspired some lines on this song and much of P.E’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back”

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Filed under Black Issues, Music Matters, Rappin' about Rappin', The '87 Sound