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Hard Core

Hard Core

During the late 1980s rap/hip hop lyrics started becoming more politicised, as groups such as Public Enemy began to introduce strong political messages into their music. Erlewine argues that Public Enemy:

rewrote the rules of hardcore rap by proving that it could be intelligent, revolutionary and socially aware [about] all kinds of social problems, particularly those plaguing the Black community, often condoning revolutionary tactics and social activism[1].

Public Enemy's origin can be traced back to Adelphi University, where founding member Chuck D (Carlton Ridenhour) was a DJ at the student radio station and became close friends with Hank Shocklee and Bill Stepheny. Stepheny had given Shocklee and Ridenhour the chance to compile a selection of rap/hip hop songs for the station's 1983 'Super Special Mix Show'. In 1984 Shocklee and Ridenhour began to record their own hip hop tracks primarily for broadcast on the show. After hearing their initial recordings (which included the song 'Public Enemy # 1') Rick Rubin from Def Jam records tried to coax the initially reluctant Ridenhour to sign to his label.

Ridenhour teamed together with Professor Griff (Richard Griff), DJ Terminator X (Norman Lee Rogers) and old friend William Drayton. Drayton later adopted the alter-ego Flavor Flav, becoming the group's visual focal point - wearing a pair of comic sunglasses and an oversized clock around his neck. Professor Griff became the choreographer for the group's backup dancers, 'The Security of the First World' [2].

After developing the concept for their politically motivated hip-hop group, Public Enemy signed to Def Jam, releasing their debut album Yo! Bum Rush the Show in 1987. The group was not only revolutionary in terms of their lyrics, they also pioneered a new cut-and-paste technique fusing unrecognizable samples and piercing sirens with traditional funky break beats [3]. The album was critically acclaimed but failed to make much chart impact. However, the group's second album It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,:

took the pop world by storm. Reaching #42 in the mainstream charts and #1 R&B in 1988, it was immediately hailed as hip-hop's masterpiece...eventually selling a million copies [4].

Controversy has always surrounded the band - largely because of their lyrics and some of the band's public comments. When Chuck D. claimed that rap was 'the CNN of black culture' (castigating the white-controlled media for its inability to relate to what was happening in the inner city) he caused a minor upset [5], but this was overshadowed in 1989 when Professor Griff stated that the Jewish race were responsible for 'the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe'. Controversy over this statement eventually led to Professor Griff's temporary sacking from the group.

Public Enemy's songs often discussed black empowerrment and the nature of white racism, thereby fueling the white mainstream audience's fear and suspicion of rap music. In 1990 it was revealed that the group were included in an FBI report to congress examining 'rap music and its effects on national security' [6]. This anxiety was exploited by the band when they released their third album entitled Fear of a Black Planet, in 1990.

Public Enemy's embrace of revolutionary politics and social activism was surpassed by a new sub-genre of rap music entitled 'gangsta rap' which caused even greater anxiety and controversy. Public Enemy subsequently targeted this sub-genre in their song 'Whatcha Gone Do Now?' - attacking not only the gangsta rappers themselves but also the music industry which promoted them. In an interview with Time Magazine Chuck D said that gangsta rappers were:

slaves to the rhythm of the master... promoting negative, violent images of African-American life ...Every story needs to be told...I just think the record companies would rather have that (negative) story told, [as] they're not accountable to our community[7] .

[1]Erlewine, 'NWA on UBL.COM - Music's Homepage', [Online] http://ubl.com/ubl_artist.asp?artistid=7017&p_id=P+++++++77 [1999, April 12]

[2]Erlewine, 'Public Enemy on UBL.COM - Music's Homepage', [Online] http://ubl.com/ubl_artist.asp?artistid=1157&p_id=P+++++++86 [1999, April 12]

[3]Larkin, 1995, p.3351

[4]Rolling Stone, 'Public Enemy Biography', [Online] http://www.rollingstone.tunes.com/sections/artists/text/bio.asp?afl=ubl&LookUpString=2360 [1999, April 12]

[5]Erlewine, 'Public Enemy on UBL.COM - Music's Homepage', [Online] http://ubl.com/ubl_artist.asp?artistid=1157&p_id=P+++++++86 [1999, April 12]

[6]Larkin, 1995, p.3351

[7]Farley, 1994, p.76