Happy 30th Anniversary to Public Enemy’s debut album Yo! Bum Rush the Show, originally released February 10, 1987.
In the mid 1980s, the hip-hop album was still in its nascent stages. In 1985 and 1986, it was arguably possible to list all of the good ones on two hands. Hip-Hop was a singles-driven art form at that point, and most hip-hop albums released before 1987 were ostensibly collections of singles. There were the occasional gems like Run-DMC’s Raising Hell or the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill or Stetsasonic’s On Fire, but albums were pretty straightforward in composition and execution. As 1987 began, Public Enemy fundamentally changed the game with respect to what emcees could rap about and how a hip-hop album could sound.
Public Enemy had its genesis with the Spectrum City crew, a mobile DJ unit/sound system operating out of Long Island from the mid ’70s to the early ’80s. Originally comprised of brothers Hank and Keith Shocklee (formerly Boxley), and Norman “DJ Mellow Dee” Rogers, they eventually enlisted an emcee by the name of Carlton Ridenhour, then a graphic design student at Adelphi University. While earning his degree, Ridenhour was writing rhymes and operating as a successful house party emcee under the moniker Chuckie Dee. Through Ridenhour, they brought Richard Griffin and his friends, the Unity Force, to handle security and crowd control for the events. The crew linked up with Bill Stephney, an intern at WBAU, the local radio station, to create the “Super Spectrum City Mix Show,” hosted by Chuck and Hank.
The pair would often pre-record episodes of their show at the 510 South Franklin Street studio in Hempstead, Long Island. There they met local musician Eric “Vietnam” Sadler, who they found to be a kindred spirit. Eventually Spectrum City decided to go from being just radio hosts to recording music as well, and in 1984 they released the single “Lies” b/w “Check Out the Radio” on the independent Vanguard Records. Though the single didn’t blow up, it whet the group’s appetite for recording.
Spectrum City then linked with fellow WBAU radio host William Drayton a.k.a. Flavor Flav. MC Chuckie Dee became Chuck D. DJ Mellow Dee became Terminator X. Griffin became Professor Griff. The Unity Force transformed into the Security of the First World a.k.a. the S1Ws. The Shocklee Brothers, Sadler, and Stephney became the Bomb Squad production collective. Flavor Flav remained Flavor Flav. Spectrum City transformed into Public Enemy, named after “Public Enemy No. 1” the theme song to the Spectrum City radio show.
Among the hardcore fans of the show was Rick Rubin, Long Island native and co-founder of Def Jam Recordings, who was obsessed with the Spectrum City radio show. Through Andre “Doctor Dre” Brown, another WBAU DJ and friend of the Beastie Boys, Rubin sought out Chuck, eventually convincing him to get Public Enemy to sign with Def Jam, and the group then set about recording their first album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show.
Throughout the years, Public Enemy’s music has become renowned for its signature sound of controlled chaos. On the vocal side, it’s anchored by Chuck D’s booming bass of a voice and Flavor Flav’s hyper-kinetic ad-libs. Its musical foundation was the Bomb Squad’s “wall of sound” style production: blaring highs and thundering lows, with a solid foundation of soul and funk. Eventually the Bomb Squad would sample and chop dozens of records and bring them together to form a fearsome well-oiled machine of aggressive, hard-hitting hip-hop.
But in 1987, the edges were a bit rougher. The Bomb Squad were still perfecting their production techniques, and like many producers of the time, often relying on breakbeat records for sample sources. And though Chuck’s distinctive voice was a prominent fixture of those early records, he was still finding his voice as an emcee. Indeed, Yo! Bum Rush the Show is noticeably light on the social commentary that would make Public Enemy the icons that they are today.
Nevertheless, Yo! Bum Rush the Show remains a remarkable piece of work. Chuck and crew may not have dedicated themselves completely to recording the musical revolution, but they still crafted a great album. It would be remiss to suggest that Chuck sounds young and hungry, if for no reason that he really wasn’t all that young. Chuck was 26 at the time of the album’s release, which, relatively, would put him in the middle age range when it comes to rappers releasing their first album. But his well-seasoned stature lends to his microphone presence, as he sounds extremely comfortable across his first effort. Musically, the Bomb Squad created a dark, often-blistering production backdrop that remains jarring and funky. And it sounded vastly different than any other hip-hop that dropped thirty years ago.
The album begins with “You’re Gonna Get Yours,” Chuck’s dedication to his 98 Oldsmobile. Bolstered by a loop from Dennis Coffey’s “Getting it On,” spliced with Captain Sky’s “Super Sporm,” the track is a high energy ode to cruising the streets of Hempstead, Flav riding shotgun, laughing at all of those jealous of his “ride, stereo, and black wall” tires. It’s almost surreal hearing Chuck boasting about making his foes mad with his “tough to chase” 98, middle-finger extended out the window as he speeds by, letting highway patrol know that they can stick their tickets where the sun doesn’t shine.
The sheer volume of lyrics on Yo! Bum Rush the Show is striking, as in the sheer number of verses. These days, short attention spans and guest appearances rule the day, and you’re lucky to get two verses out of a single emcee on a song. But thirty years ago, Chuck D was throwing down four verses per track for this album, packing each verse with as much power as possible. Chuck displays his lyrical voracity on “Maui Weighs a Ton,” probably the album’s best track. Over thunderous drums, an expertly chopped break from Melvin Bliss’ “Synthetic Substitution,” Chuck conducts his blunt-force lyrical assault on his foes: “Accused of assault—a first degree crime / Because I beat competitors with my rhyme /Tongue whipped, pushed, shoved, and tripped / Choked from the hold of my Kung-Fu grip / And if you want my title, it would be suicidal / From my end, it would be homicidal.” Terminator X’s cut collage of Kurtis Blow, Aretha Franklin, Syl Johnson, and J.R. Funk and the Love Machine on the song’s chorus adds to the raucous energy.
Chuck dedicates many of the tracks on Yo! Bum Rush the Show to his lyrical dominance and superiority. There haven’t been many Public Enemy tracks like “Timebomb,” a wall-to-wall battle-rap exhibition. After Flav warns him that “We’ve got some non-believers out here,” Chuck explodes into a nearly three-minute long high octane verse, infused with the old school party-rocker cadence, over a sped-up loop of the Meters’ “Just Kissed My Baby” and a live drum track. Chuck rarely sounds as animated as he does after bragging about his status as an “MC protector, U.S. defector / South African government wrecker.”
One of Public Enemy’s first sustained forays into social consciousness comes with “Rightstarter (Message to a Black Man),” which rounds out the album’s first half. The uptempo, scratch-heavy track is the template for what the group would become for the following three decades. Chuck rhymes as a seasoned veteran to the struggle, encouraging the unenlightened to give up their hedonistic lifestyles, educate themselves, and fight for their rights and freedom. This was subject matter rarely touched by most rappers at the time. While some would report on the dire situation of the Black community in the United States, only a few then wrote rhymes in hopes of inspiring others to action.
Things do shift back to the realm of braggadocio with “Public Enemy No. 1.” As mentioned above, the track originally served as the theme song to Chuck’s weekly radio show. The track is built around the bizarre opening synth solo to the JBs’ “Blow Your Head,” which gives the song a surreal, mind-bending feel. Chuck also utilizes an intricate flow to establish himself as the poetic lyrical son, shooting suckers down “from the mouth that roared,” rhyming “I'm not a law obeyer, so you can tell your mayor / I'm a non-stop, rhythm rock, poetry sayer / I'm the rhyme player, the ozone layer / A battle what? Here's a bible so start your prayer.”
The album’s title track, also one of the album’s finest moments, is another hard-as-a-brick foray into Chuck’s confrontational persona circa 1987. The track is literally about Chuck and his crew rushing the front door at the club in order to take control of the stage. He admonishes bouncers to beware of him and his crew with the club cranking, because they’re “gonna rush ’em like the Bears in the 46” and “no comp—we’ll stomp all in our way / Gave me static, so I won’t pay.” Chuck is clear to note that he doesn’t pack a weapon, but that he’s quick to “get ill on a posse with my goddamn hands.” Flavor’s Flav’s trash-talking on the chorus adds a further layer to the song: he first warns that if anyone tries to throw hands with him that he’ll “stomp a mudhole in your ass, BITCH!” and warns that a 9MM handgun “won’t stop the bum rush, holmes!” The Bomb Squad provides the perfect melodically discordant musical backbone for the cut, chopping Banbarra’s “Shack Up,” and adding what literally sounds like all of the keys on a piano being struck at the same time.
“Raise the Roof” is the title track’s natural sequel, as once Chuck and his crew successfully take control of the spot, they now plan to tear the house down. Chuck resumes his role as Spectrum City’s Chuckie D over a sparse, skeletal drum track, guitar stabs, and scratches by Terminator X. He shows flashes of his role as the hip-hop revolutionary he would soon become, and also foreshadows the title of PE’s next album, with lines like, “And for real it's the deal and the actual fact / It takes a nation of millions to hold me back / Rejected and accepted as a communist / Claiming fame to my name as a terrorist / Making money in corners that you'll never see / Dodging judges and the lawyers and the third degree.”
Flavor Flav is also in fine form on Yo! Bum Rush the Show, his introduction to a larger audience. Years before the embarrassing reality shows and the devolution into self-parody, the guy was an entertaining presence on the album, and as a hype man, he was one of the best around. His ad-libs leading off tracks and during the breaks were always memorable and showed flashes of his character. Whether it’s his memorable intro and post-script to “Public Enemy No. 1” or his aforementioned trash talking on the title track, his presence adds something to every song that he appears on.
Flav also had some of his most straight-ahead raps on the album. His solo cut, “Too Much Posse,” is a drum-driven track where Flav raps about the Public Enemy crew. Meanwhile, “M.P.E.” is the first of two duets with Flav and Chuck, with the two trading battle raps over a solid drum track accompanied by a grinding, distorted low-volume squeal. While Chuck professes to coming through with the “tomahawk slam” and “getting thrills from the orders the suckers obeyed,” Flav brags about possessing “Kreskin’s brain velocity” and rolling in a Mercedes limousine “with a hardcore tint.”
Flav later appears on the much more serious “Megablast,” one of the album’s final songs. It’s a stripped-down, stark window into the realm of drug addiction. It also functions as a first draft for song concepts and execution that the group would later fine-tune on their 1988 follow-up effort It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Here Chuck and Flav rap the same two verses simultaneously over a spare drum track and scratches, exchanging a pair of vignettes demonstrating the multiple ways the crack epidemic ravages the Black community, destroying the lives of all it touches. With its “Please oh please oh please, just gimme one more hit” chorus, the group transforms The Escort’s “All We Need is Another Chance” into something mournful and crawling with haggard desperation. The group would later record “Night of the Living Baseheads,” one of the greatest anti-crack anthems ever, and “Party for Your Right to Fight” found the duo rhyming simultaneously (this time with Chuck and Flav on separate channels).
The album’s sole bump is the rock-influenced “Sophisticated Bitch.” Lyrically, it’s not one of Chuck’s finer moments, as he spends four misogynistic verses railing against a nameless woman who he accuses of putting on airs. The “scheming bitch out for the rapper’s money” theme prevalent in many a rap song in the ’80s and ’90s has aged extremely poorly, and this song is another example. The track is most notable for featuring a guitar solo by Vernon Reid in one of his pre-Living Color’s Vivid appearances.
Clocking in at just shy of 50 minutes in length, Yo! Bum Rush the Show was an incredibly ambitious album for the time, and its one that took risks in sound and delivery. Though the group had yet to fully form its synthesis of raw rhyming and political content, the album still feels sharp and confrontational to this day. It was an excellent first draft that successfully augured the even greater heights that the group would scale in the years to come.