Hardcore Will Never Die

I would love to remember my first listen to Public Enemy’s Apocalypse ’91… The Empire Strikes Black. How ridiculous is it that a 10-year-old white kid would have chosen to spend his weekly allowance on that tape of all things, that my rap-enthusiast father would have been parentally advised and eagerly complicit? There’s just no way you could slip that tape in the deck and not feel like you were encountering something that demanded a far more complex response than “this is good music”. You had to feel assaulted and discombobulated. You had to feel white and subversive, the oppressor and oppressed, guilty and guilt-less, tourist and earnest. You had to feel totally pumped. I was 10 years old and listening to this…

Public Enemy – Lost at Birth

What?! After a five-second warning/threat/promise that “The future holds nothing else but confrontation”, Public Enemy are going to ease you into this album with a band roll-call set to the sounds of demolished relics and renegade emergency vehicles. It’s diabolically ill and there’s no way I could have understood it.

What brought me to the album was this video for the single “Can’t Truss It”, which I must have seen on The Box at some point because I keep picturing it obscured by scrolling jukebox numbers…

Public Enemy – Can’t Truss it

By then, I had seen videos for “Fight the Power” and “9-1-1 Is a Joke”, but this was different. I wanted more. Once I had it, I remember obsessing over “Can’t Truss It” and pouring over the lyrics in the liner notes. I remember wishing they had made a real song out of that first track, “Lost at Birth”. I remember wondering what Arizona had to do with anything. At some point, I moved on. I think my Dad borrowed/stole the tape from me. I didn’t revisit it again until college, when I worked for Buildings & Grounds, for whom I would rake leaves and remove trash among milling peers, seething in a righteous headphone bubble, clearing the way “for the S, the S1Ws”.

A couple of years ago, I happened upon the eBay auctions for the leftover Sandbox Automatic vinyl stock and picked up the “Nighttrain” single, not even remembering that it came from Apocalypse ’91. It didn’t matter–the album track isn’t even on the single. Instead, we get the “Get Up Get Involved Throwdown Mixx”…

Public Enemy – Nighttrain (Get Up Get Involved Throwdown Mixx)

Now that is a disgusting track. Though the album version has its virtues and sits naturally in the sequence, this one slays the album version and is just about one of the gnarliest, hardest, most hectic rap hits ever. It makes me want to wild out every time I hear it. I melt for that “oohwaayoooh” cut with the pitch slider in the chorus. I assume it’s Terminator X but it may well be the man talking all over the track’s background, unmistakably responsible for the alchemy: the one and only Pete Rock, who injects the harsh PE aesthetic with some nasty funk flavor that inspires a bit more dancing than the usual headbanging. As well as it works, CL Smooth guesting on a PE track doesn’t make a whole lot of sense beyond the obvious affiliation, so I find it distracting (same thing on Run-DMC’s take on this formula, “Down with the King”). Though I prefer the “Throwdown Mixx”, the “Pete Rock Strong Island Mt. Vernon Meltdown” on the B-side is pretty hot as well…

Public Enemy – Nighttrain (Pete Rock Strong Island Mt. Vernon Meltdown)

Pete Rock also provided the remix for another Apocalypse ’91 single, “Shut Em Down”…

Public Enemy – Shut ‘Em Down
Public Enemy – Shut ‘Em Down (Pete Rock Remix)

Both beats kill. But the first sounds far more distinctly PE; the PR remix works very well but sounds like a remix. Fortunately, when Pete Rock decides to drop his typically lackluster verse, Chuck’s superiority is abundantly clear and the quality of Chuck’s voice and delivery ultimately sell the product as a whole. But the style is more music than movement, which isn’t the Public Enemy aesthetic.

All Pete Rock contributions aside, Apocalypse ’91 is an amazing album. Public Enemy has to be the craziest pop group ever assembled. A vitriolic leader, an oddball jester, a silent giant on the decks, a dancing security corps, a Department of Information, an elusive but ubiquitous production squad. It’s elaborate theater and dead serious. And then you have the music. They put “Lost at Birth”, “Nighttrain”, and “Can’t Truss It” as three of the first four tracks on the album. It’s ruthless and relentless. The PE militia might as well be punching you in the face with the speakers. You can’t remove their politics here, but I mean to celebrate statement and grandeur. How can you not miss that kind of conviction in modern rap?

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