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.
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.