In this latest excerpt from Classic Tracks, Richard Buskin takes a deeper dive into the Bomb Squad’s production techniques on Public Enemy’s: Black Steel in The House of Chaos.

Public Enemy, the hardcore-politico group fronted by Carlton Ridenhour (a.k.a. Chuck D) is still widely acclaimed as the definitive rap outfit of all time. While its remarkable 1987 debut album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, introduced a musical force that was still in the ascendancy, the following year’s sophomore effort, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, was a groundbreaking musical tour de force on which the Bomb Squad production team of Chuck D, Hank Shocklee, his brother Keith and Eric ‘Vietnam’ Sadler created a dense, chaotic, sample-heavy backdrop for Chuck’s supercharged vocals and Flavor Flav’s manic humour.

This was achieved by melding the rock-edged rap elements of Run-D.M.C. with hard funk, freeform jazz, soul and R&B – a unique sonic mix that is pefectly exemplifiied by ‘Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos’, Chuck D’s allegorical tale of a supposed prison break following his refusal to be drafted by the U.S. Army.

Hank Shocklee’s aurally distinctive production style has introduced raucous, multi-textured rap, rock and punk sounds to the hip-hop records of LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane, Bel Biv Devoe and EPMD. In 2009, he talked about his landmark work with Public Enemy, including the single that – despite modest sales – helped elevate the genre to unprecedented heights while propelling the entire pop music scene into previously uncharted territory.

“One of the things that’s amazing to me is the fact that, over 22 years since Public Enemy was formed, I can still do an interview and people will know about a group that really didn’t sell a lot of records,” Shocklee said. “It was underrated in its ability to communicate. Forget about all the bells and whistles, the beads and socially conscious rhymes – everybody can do that. But when you can communicate and move people around the world, there’s another element that’s happening.”

Shocklee grew up during the 1960s listening to jazz that was piped into every room of the family home by his audiophile father, African music that he was introduced to by his concert pianist mother, reggae played by his West Indian grandmother and soul records that he heard at his cousins’ place in Harlem. During the next decade, while DJing in Manhattan clubs, he broadened his musical education further at the heavy metal record store he worked in. Yet it rap that obsessed Shocklee – long before the term hip-hop had even been coined. 

With rap, you have more words to get across your ideas, and that was more appealing to me than singing, because with singing you can only hint at the ideas.

His burgeoning socio-political awareness was a driving force behind Public Enemy. “With rap, you have more words to get across your ideas,” he said, “and that was more appealing to me than singing, because with singing you can only hint at the ideas.”

“The early PE records were purely designed for communication, and Chuck D’s lyrics were influenced by me. They were about what I had instilled in him. Public Enemy was basically an experiment to see what we could get across.”

That experiment started in the mid-’80s when Shocklee hooked up with Carl Ridenhour, – a graphic design student at Long Island’s Adelphi University, where he DJd for the student radio station WBAU – and program director/DJ Bill Stephney. The three men, who shared an interest in rap and politics, began mixing proto-hip-hop dub-plates – recordings made specifically for their own use – that helped increase the popularity of Stephney’s night time show. This in turn led to Shocklee and Ridenhour getting their own spin-off, The Super Special Mix Show, in January ’83.

“We were the first ones to create the mix concept for rap records,” Shocklee asserted. “We were heard within such a small bandwidth – only in the southern part of Queens – but that meant people like [Def Jam label co-founders] Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons got a chance to hear the show… There was this one song that we created called ‘Public Enemy Number One’, which was kind of like a battle answer to one of the rappers who said we couldn’t get down; we couldn’t make no records and we couldn’t DJ. Well, the battle dub-plate was received very well – it was one of the highest-rated records on WBAU, even though we were spinning a lot of commercially made product.”

In 1986, after Rick Rubin heard ‘Public Enemy Number One’, Carl Ridenhour signed to Def Jam and, adopting the name Chuck D, performed under the Public Enemy banner with fellow Adelphi University student Flavor Flav. Born William Jonathan Drayton, Jr., Flav’s idiosyncratic brand of trash talk had already resulted in his contribution to the intro of the aforementioned record.

“I liked the way Flavor used to come to my studio and always just talk a lot of junk,” Shocklee explained. “Stuff like ‘Yo, man, they tryin’ t’fuck with us, man! Y’know this is crazy!’ I said, ‘Hey, why don’t we just record that for the beginning of the track, and that’s gonna be the concept for this group.’ Flavor would be in the group, and now all I had to do was give it some window dressing. The window dressing, to me, was bringing in Griff [Richard Griffin, a.k.a. Professor Griff ‘Minister of Information’], who at the time was doing the security at the parties we were throwing. He had a bunch of 20 cats who were studying karate and things of that nature, so he would help me keep the peace.”

The unlikely words/dance/martial arts section, christened Security of the First World by Chuck D, enhanced the line-up both musically and visually. Then, following the DJing additions of Norman Rogers (a.k.a. Terminator X) and Shocklee’s brother Keith (the Wizard K-Jee), Public Enemy was ready to roll.

I wanted to prove that rock ‘n’ roll didn’t have to be made with guitars; I wanted to prove that rock ‘n’ roll could be made with any instruments, just so long as they’re loud and abrasive. Thus came the musical concept.

“One thing I loved about being at Def Jam was the fact that Rick Rubin was a rock-head,” Hank Shocklee recalled. “I could understand his philosophy and his musical direction, but I wanted to prove that rock ‘n’ roll didn’t have to be made with guitars; I wanted to prove that rock ‘n’ roll could be made with any instruments, just so long as they’re loud and abrasive. Thus came the musical concept. I made sure there were no bass lines on any of the Public Enemy records – traditional R&B bass lines formulated with funk were a little too melodic, a little too groove-oriented. The sound needed for this group was something that suggested urgency, while Chuck’s baritone voice was almost reminiscent of a gospel pastor.”

“If I had put melodic chords behind him, Chuck would have sounded like an R&B crooner, and I didn’t want that. What I needed was something that would juxtapose with his voice so that he was the music, enabling me to just score things around him so that the overall effect was of fire and brimstone, as if the world was coming to an end.

“The beautiful thing about having Flav was that he might be considered my tenor. He was high-pitched, Chuck handled the low notes, and that marriage worked because of the sonics. What’s more, they both had distinct voices. You see, the first rule of rap for me is to have a vocal characteristic, a tone, that sets you apart from everybody else. Otherwise, rap just doesn’t work. There are too many rappers today who all sound similar, and you can’t tell the difference, whereas all of the groups in the golden era of hip-hop had distinct voices that were different from each other. I’m very much interested in voice. Voice is the key to me.”

When Yo! Bum Rush the Show was released in January 1987, it reached 125 on the Billboard 200 as well as the top spot on Billboard’s Hip-Hop/R&B chart. But there was a feeling among the band that they were still to find their sound; while Chuck D was spitting out his revolutionary rhymes, the Bomb Squad producers didn’t yet have enough clout at Def Jam to pare down the guitar-flavoured rock sound favoured by executive producer/mixer Rubin. This changed when they began work on a new track titled ‘Rebel Without a Pause’, the B-side of Public Enemy’s second single, ‘You’re Gonna Get Yours.

“That was the breakthrough record for PE, because it was released within six weeks, and lo and behold, it became an anthem,” said Shocklee. “Once it became a street anthem, it established the credibility of Public Enemy as a legitimate rap group, and I could also roll that over into the next album.”

That album was It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, from which the fifth and final single to be released was ‘Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos’. Built around a piano sample from Isaac Hayes’ ‘Hyperbolicsyllabicseequedalymystic’ on his Hot Buttered Soul album, the track also sampled The Escorts’ soul/funk rendition of ‘Little Green Apples’ and Stevie Wonder’s ‘Living for the City’. These were woven into a rhythm part powered by drum machine beats. 

Hank Shocklee felt that the trick was still missing a vital component. “It lacked tension,” he said. “It was nice, it felt good, but it felt a little too good, and everything that was put on top of it took it in a different direction. Well, I didn’t want it to go in a different direction, because to me the thing that Chuck had written for it was the most amazing piece of poetry that I have heard from anybody.”

The black steel of the title refers to a gun that the protagonist pinches from a corrections officer before his jail escape. Likening his imprisonment to slavery, Chuck D calls attention to the systemised racism and bigotry of the U.S. authorities and armed forces while Flavor Flav intermittently talks to him on the phone – achieved not through fancy EQ work but by the latter actually calling the studio from another room.

“The track felt menacing, but taking the piano loop and running it backwards gave it the tension it needed and almost made it electric,” Shocklee explained. “Now the only question was how to mix the record so that all those elements could be heard seperately while also being glued together as one.”

Initially, Hank Shocklee mixed ‘Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos’ inside Studio A at Greene Street Recording in the SoHo district of New York City. Then, after three separate mix attempts by a couple of engineers failed to adorn the track with the gritty sound he was searching for, Shocklee tried again, this time with Nick Sansano inside a small mix suite at Greene Street and – finally – he got the result he wanted. 

“It sounded like it had balls,” Shocklee remarked. “Still, that track was one of the hardest things to mix. Chuck had a cold, he wasn’t feeling well, and his sound was a lot deeper and raspier. He didn’t have the typical Chuck D power in his voice, but that actually worked for the concept of the record. That’s why, when Chuck said he wanted to do the vocals again once his voice cleared up, I was like, ‘No! It’s hot like that because it stands on its own from all the other stuff.’

“The hardest thing in the world when you’re working with a rapper is figuring out the different types of vocal manipulation you can do so that it doesn’t always sound like the same vocal. Listen to each song like it is its own record – the different manipulations you can do vocally help set them apart. One example was having Flav call in on the phone and miking the speakerphone so it sounded real. That gave it a cellphone feel in a non-cellphone era.”

While It Takes a Nation was certified gold following its April 1988 release, peaking at 42 on the Billboard 200 and at No. 1 on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart, the album’s first single, ‘Bring the Noise’, was included on the soundtrack of the Andrew McCarthey/Robert Downey, Jr. film Less Than Zero, and the second single, ‘Don’t Believe the Hype’, charted at 18 on both the Billboard R&B chart and UK singles chart. Nevertheless, the record’s third single, ‘Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos’, was the undoubted game-changer.

“With that track I wanted to do something that almost had a West Coast kind of funkish feel,” said Hank Shocklee. “‘Black Steel’ was the only song like that, and lo and behold it’s one of my favourite Public Enemy records. 

“To me it was the father of gangster rap, because after that the West Coast sound changed. That record was dark, and thanks to my classical background I’m a fan of the darkness. I like anything dark by Bach, anything dark by Rachmaninoff – I’m into that eerie, creepy feel that has a quiet calm to it and I like minor chords. That’s why ‘Black Steel’ is definitely one of my favourites. It’s like theme music for a badass.”

Technical part

By the time of Public Enemy’s second album, Hank Shocklee was growing increasingly familiar with the studio environment. “I was more in tune with Eric Sadler, my technical guide, who kept all of the machines in place while we tried to record this half-experimental record,” he said. Everything we were doing in the studio was experimental – nowadays there are presets for the things we were doing.”

…I was coming in with my kicks and snares off other records. That’s a whole other treatment and most engineers didn’t understand what the hell I was doing. Why would I not put a clean kick in there?

Whereas PE’s debut album had been produced at New York’s INF Recording and Chunk King House of Metal, It Takes a Nation made use of the more pristine Greene Street Recording, where Studio A housed an Amek console that Shocklee described as “an SSL wannabe, fully automated with the flying faders,” while engineers such as Rod Hui, Nick Sansano and Chris Shaw were “geniuses when it comes to sound and making stuff sound amazing. To me, those guys were just as important to creating the sound of Public Enemy as we were in terms of producing it and making all the beats. They knew how to get anything I needed done. When it comes to mixing and engineering, I’m a real stickler for that.

“From a musical perspective, there’s a certain sound that you have to get. For example, I mixed ‘Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos’ four times because I couldn’t get it right. 

“We were dealing with loops and dealing with samples, but this was back in the days when engineers didn’t understand anything about samples – most people at that time either brought in a drum machine and used the stock sounds so they could get a clean kick and a clean snare and a clean hi-hat. Meanwhile, I was coming in with my kicks and snares off other records. That’s a whole other treatment and most engineers didn’t understand what the hell I was doing. Why would I not put a clean kick in there?

It was about that extra funk which I’d want to feel; that extra dirtiness which would make the fans of Public Enemy feel like we’re from the gutter. This was the street; not clean, not processed.

“They didn’t understand that part of the sound was in the dirt that we would get from the samples, whether it be hiss from the record or a crackle on top of the kick that had them trying to zero in on that frequency and figure out a way to get rid of it. I’d be sitting there, saying, ‘No, you need to boost that…’ It was about that extra funk which I’d want to feel; that extra dirtiness which would make the fans of Public Enemy feel like we’re from the gutter. This was the street; not clean, not processed.

“I had a no-reverb clause. No reverb on vocals. Nothing. Reverb was a symbol of smoothness; I wanted everything edgy and raw. It was so rough, new techniques had to be developed in the studio, such as parallel compression. We didn’t do parallel compression like everybody does today; we had to invent it. So, for example, if we had a main loop on something, bringing up a second copy of the main loop on another track meant putting massive amounts of compression on it so that it would distort and placing it in the background of the main loop to give it some body. It was all little tricks like that.

“There’s a difference between EQ’ing and filtering. But at the time, if you told engineers you wanted to shave off the high end and just use the bass frequencies from a particular sample, the first thing everybody had to go to was an EQ. They felt EQ’ing was the same until I was in the studio, listening to a piano loop on ‘Black Steel’, and I wondered why it sounded so ridiculously lo-fi. It was coming out of the EMU SP-1200, and I thought somebody must have broken something on there or that something must have happened to the sample itself, where it somehow got corrupted. I was distraught until Eric went behind the drum machine, started wiggling the wire around and then realized it hadn’t been pushed in all the way. I was like, ‘No!’ That was quite a revelation. I said, ‘Hold up, pull it out halfway again,’ and sure enough when he pulled it out halfway it gave me that lo-fi filtering effect on the sample, whereas when he pushed it back in it was full-blown.

“Now we were going to record one track with the wire in all the way, one track with it in halfway, and I could go into different parts of it so that I could create a bass line breakdown. You see, the thing filtered it so nice that all you heard was the bass. You didn’t hear the piano, and I was like, ‘Whoa!’ It felt really, really amazing, and with this serving as the basis of that particular track the only thing we needed to do was add in the kicks, snare and hi-hats and get those things right.”

Sound and Vision

‘Now the chase in on tellin’ you to c’mon. 53 brothers on the run and we are gone.’ So says Chuck D at the sudden end to ‘Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,’ indicating that he and his fellow jailbirds have escaped and are headed ‘to the ghetto”’ Or are they? In the song’s video, this line coincides with him being hung by the neck as the prison warden smiles triumphantly. Therefore, while the previously-depicted breakout was probably real, the lyrical suggestion of its success is likely nothing more than a wishful figment of Chuck’s imagination.

Too Many Ds

After Rick Rubin heard ‘Public Enemy Number One’ and signed Carl Ridenhour to Def Jam, he intended for Ridenhour to perform and release records under his pseudonym of Chuck D (the ‘D’ standing for ‘Dangerous’). Hank Shocklee, however, persuaded the label boss to be a little more inventive. “At the time, there was already a Heavy D who had a record out and there was a Schoolly D with a record out,” Shocklee recalled. “So, I said, ‘Why would we want to put out a Chuck D?’ Thus the concept of Public Enemy was born, taking the name from our record.”

Author Richard Buskin
10th December, 2020

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