Happy 25th Anniversary to Public Enemy’s Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black, originally released October 1, 1991.
Ten years ago I went to a Halloween party and saw a twentysomething dressed as Flavor Flav. He was wearing a blue jumpsuit, a Viking helmet, and a large clock around his neck. Being the Public Enemy superfan that I am, I asked him to do the Original Recipe Flavor Flav dance. He looked at me like I was speaking Swedish.
I repeated, “You know, The Original Flavor Flav dance, like in the video for ‘911 Is a Joke?’” He continued staring at me blankly.
“You know, the Public Enemy video?”
“Never heard of them,” he responded. “I’m just dressed up like this because I like The Surreal Life.”
I spent the rest of that party feeling very old. Because even though I was 31 at the time, I had discovered that you could be an adult in the mid ’00s and have no idea who Public Enemy are. And that’s a fucking shame.
Public Enemy are revolutionaries. For all intents and purposes, they invented and elevated the concept of a rap group using their music to “say something” of sociopolitical, cultural and intellectual substance. Across their prolific discography, they’ve covered issues as diverse and as vital as Black empowerment, police and governmental corruption, the crack epidemic, and society’s fear of miscegenation.
Public Enemy symbolizes the idea of standing up to your oppressors while uplifting a whole race of people. Since the group’s inception back in the early ‘80s, lead emcee Carlton “Chuck D” Ridenhour, with his booming voice and imposing lyrical presence, has proven the perfect frontman. William “Flavor Flav” Drayton has served as the perfect everyman and at times comedic foil. As the stoic and speechless DJ, Norman “Terminator X” Rogers added to their legend. Their 1988 sophomore album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is considered by many to be the greatest hip-hop album of all time. In actuality, it’s the greatest album of all time, genre distinctions be damned. Period.
It Takes a Nation… is the capstone to their legacy, but it’s far from its only piece. Their 1987 debut album Yo! Bum Rush the Show is a classic in its own right, rough edges and all. Their third album Fear of a Black Planet (1990) is another towering achievement. Those three albums alone would be enough to earn PE a spot in the pantheon of the greatest groups of all time, but their fourth album Apocalypse ’91…The Enemy Strikes Black is an often overlooked testament to their brilliance.
Released 25 years ago on the first day of October in 1991, Apocalypse ’91 reflected Public Enemy emerging from turmoil. In the two years prior, the group had broken up and re-formed a few times. Professor Griff had been expelled, then re-admitted, then re-expelled from the group. Flavor Flav was facing legal issues and negative publicity. During the spring of ’91, Terminator X, the ever-stoic turntablist, released his first “solo” album Terminator X & The Valley of the Jeep Beets, a compilation featuring mostly unheard of rappers and groups, fueling talk that he was leaving the group.
From a musical perspective, things were changing as well. The infamous Bomb Squad production team had worked behind the boards on all three of Public Enemy’s previous albums to much success. Their “wall of sound” approach to hip-hop production was legendary, creating an often chaotic mix of samples and music that accentuated the urgency and power of Public Enemy’s music. However, around the time that Fear of a Black Planet was released, Hank Shocklee and Bill Stephney launched their own record label, S.O.U.L. Records, through MCA. The label released extremely interesting, though not commercially fruitful albums. Bill Stephney then left S.O.U.L. Records and the Bomb Squad all together to start Stepsun Records through Tommy Boy, but also found little commercial success.
As a result, many of the remaining Bomb Squad members took a step back on Apocalypse ’91, acting only as the executive producers, while the virtually unknown Imperial Grand Ministers of Funk produced, created, arranged, directed, and sequenced the album. The production team was comprised of Bomb Squad Member Keith Shocklee, Gary G-Whiz (who later went on to join the Bomb Squad), Cerwin Depper, and Stuart Robertz.
Even with all the uncertainty, Public Enemy came correct with Apocalypse ’91. While it would have been very hard to top the flawless execution of their first three albums, Public Enemy’s lyrics and messages remain sharp and their beats definitely bring the noise.
With album opener “Lost at Birth,” the group instantly recapture that classic Bomb Squad feel. After a warped voice proclaims “THE FUTURE HOLDS NOTHING ELSE BUT CONFRONTATION!”, the track begins with a blaring, siren-like wail. The chaos is accompanied by Terminator X contributing flurries of scratches of vocals from Chubb Rock, A Tribe Called Quest, and The New Birth. Chuck D, accompanied as always by Flav, launches into a blistering verse, excoriating those who are “sleeping while standing up” and promising to find the “peace of mind that’s taken.”
The track then switches seamlessly into “Rebirth,” which features Chuck D dropping a quick rhyme over a sped-up sample of the “Security of the World” interlude from It Takes a Nation (which was also famously sampled by Madonna for her 1990 single “Justify My Love”). After a quick and funny Russell Simmons impression by Flav, Chuck warns, “Now the KKK wears three-piece suits,” which is remarkably more applicable then ever today in 2016.
Apocalypse ’91 features its share of straight-up political tracks, including “Move!,” a high octane call-to-action, in which Chuck encourages rappers and members of the African American community to stop fighting amongst themselves and target their common enemy: the establishment. The album’s first single “Can’t Truss It” is an undeniable monster cut. It has the feel and the energy of a track like “Brothers Gonna Work It Out,” but without the optimism. The Ministers of Funk come close to recreating the Bomb Squad sound, with the layers of horns, whistles, shifting drums, piano solos, scratches, and vocal samples filtering in and out. Meanwhile Chuck, bolstered by Flav’s spirited adlibs, tackles the way the American system oppresses African Americans and works to instill self-hatred throughout their community.
In many respects, Apocalypse ’91 comes across as much more immediate than its classic precursors. Much of Apocalypse ’91’s subject matter is “of the time,” inspired by the current events of the early ‘90s, and how they apply to larger societal issues. Which is why, even when the sources of inspiration behind the tracks may be historical footnotes, the messages behind them remain relevant 25 years later.
Take “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” the album’s controversial third single. It was originally inspired by Arizona’s refusal to honor Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday. The effort was first punctuated by the state’s then-governor Evan Meacham cancelling the holiday, who incredulously insisted that “I guess King did a lot for the colored people, but I don’t think he deserves a national holiday.” In 1990, the people of Arizona voted down a proposal to create a statewide holiday to honor the activist.
With “By the Time…” Chuck D eviscerates Meacham and the people of Arizona over a raucous, blistering guitar loop, stating, “What’s a smiling face, when the whole state’s racist?” and “I urinated on the state while I was kicking this song.” He also praises Dr. King’s impeccable civil rights legacy and strength of character. The video for the track took things a step further, juxtaposing the difficulties Dr. King faced through non-violent protest with Chuck’s fictional assassination of Meacham via car bomb.
Of course, Public Enemy proved to be on the right side of history. As a result of their actions, Arizona faced boycotts from major businesses and lost out on hosting the Super Bowl in ’93. Later that year the voters elected to reinstate the holiday. Still, the track captures the contempt towards those who continue to devalue Dr. King’s legacy or merely pay lip service to his many accomplishments without understanding what it took to achieve them.
The track “How to Kill a Radio Consultant” reflects the group’s frustration with the notion that despite the establishment of hip-hop as commercially viable and successful music, many skilled rappers and groups were shut out of daytime radio play in markets throughout the country. This sentiment certainly applies today, as urban radio has reached peak homogenization to the point of bringing about its own irrelevancy.
“One Million Bottle Bags” is the group’s statement against the proliferation of cheap malt liquor in inner-city neighborhoods, and liquor companies spending millions of dollars on the African American population as a whole. Chuck D took his crusade against companies targeting African Americans with its advertising very seriously. Shortly before Apocalypse ’91 dropped, he filed a lawsuit against the makers of St. Ides malt liquor for using an unauthorized sample of his voice in an advertisement. On “Bottle Bags,” Chuck thunders over a sped-up loop of Zapp’s “More Bounce to the Ounce,” declaring “Malt liquor bull / What it is is bullshit Colt 45 / Another gun to the brain / Who's sellin' us pain in the hood? Another up to no good.” He then calls out members of the community who drink their days away, indifferent to malt liquor’s debilitating effects on their health. The days of St. Ides may be long gone, but liquor companies still persist in spending inordinate amounts of money targeting vulnerable African American youth.
These days it’s common place for rappers to have their own fashion lines, energy drinks, blunt wraps, or motor oil. But in 1991, the idea of using rappers to sell products was a novel one. With “Shut ’Em Down,” Public Enemy took aim at corporations that exploit hip-hop to promote their marketing schemes, but give back very little to the community in return. These days the track is mostly known for its Pete Rock remix, or because it’s used as theme music for relief pitchers at baseball games. This is a shame, because the original version is another of Public Enemy’s best tracks from the ’90s. With its crackling drums and sharp guitar stabs, the track emits almost raw power, as Chuck raps, “Who counts the money in the neighborhood / But we spending money to no end, lookin' for a friend / In a war to the core, rippin' up the poor in da stores / ’Til they get a brother kickin' down doors.” It expertly channels the vibe of It Takes a Nation…
Another track that summons the spirit of late ’80s era Public Enemy is “Get the Fuck Outta Dodge.” Originally the B-side to the “Can’t Do Nothing For Ya Man” single, the track is a jeep anthem in the vein of a slower tempo-ed “You’re Gonna Get Yours.” Over a rumbling groove, Chuck tells of rolling down the streets of Long Island, blasting Kool G Rap, dodging and dealing with NY’s finest, blaming him for “the hardcore raw” and sweating him to keep the volume of his music down. It also features an appearance by Bomb Squad-affiliate True Mathematics, largely MIA since his “For the Money” single in 1987. Here he reprises the character of Sgt. Hawkes, the crooked cop who appeared on Terminator X’s Valley of the Jeep Beats album, which dropped a few months before Apocalypse ’91.
Apocalypse ’91 features a lot of Flavor Flav, as most clearly manifested across three solo tracks. After the success of the “911 Is a Joke” single, it’s understandable that Flav got more shine. However, a pair of the solo tracks serve as the album’s low-points. “Letter to the New York Post” is the worst offender. Let me be clear: the New York Post ain’t shit. It isn’t shit now and it wasn’t shit in 1991. However, Flav uses the song to complain about the paper’s coverage of his domestic violence issues, which he speaks about in a glib and cavalier manner. Dull rather than offensive, “More News at 11” is a meandering tale of run-of-the-mill street episodes. Only “I Don’t Want to Be Called Yo N#$%a” is effective, and still relevant. The track details Flav’s objections to the increasing ubiquity of the N-word in music and popular culture, which has only become more pervasive in the subsequent 25 years.
The album draws to a close with the Anthrax-assisted thrash metal remake of “Bring the Noise.” Anthrax are friends and big fans of Public Enemy, and famously got a shout out on the original version of the song. The track may have seemed like an odd curio at the time, but given the rise of Rap-Rock in the late ’90s and early ’00s, the cross-genre collaboration was ahead of its time. It also began Chuck D’s long history of partnering with rock artists. Chuck also was a member of two rap-rock groups, first the short-lived Confrontation Camp in 2000, and more recently Prophets of Rage, the supergroup consisting of three-fourths of Rage Against the Machine and Cypress Hill’s B-Real.
Unfortunately, Public Enemy didn’t have as many milestone moments after Apocalypse ’91. Political rap became even less en vogue as the ’90s progressed, and the group’s music began to gravitate toward subpar production and less thematic focus. Further evidence that even the best groups find it hard to sustain their creative energy indefinitely. However, I take solace in knowing that Public Enemy has earned its place in the pantheon of musical greats and as members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, while The Surreal Life remains a mere footnote.