Public Enemy: Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp/The Evil Empire of Everything (Slam Jamz)
CD / LP / DL
July 13th 2012/October 1st 2012
Long-standing Hip-Hop legends Public Enemy released two new records in the same number of months last year. Belatedly Louder Than War’s Andy Carrington investigates whether aging frontmen Chuck D and Flavor Flav have still got the knack to deliver that hard-hitting, socio-political music like they used to do and more importantly perhaps gives us his slant on the albums.
Being a long-time Public Enemy fan (like I am), it’s easy to get carried away when the band, seemingly out of nowhere, release new music in a overblown genre of contemporary, repetitive crapness. In an attempt to distance myself from the fanboy raving, I began listening to Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp with what you might call a “level head” in an attempt to conclude some form of self-composed, sensible critique, but I still found myself overcome with quite an unusual amount of giddiness and excitement.
That says to me two things: 1) I must be human and 2) Heroes is a bloody good album, even by PE’s very high standards. Although I grew up listening to Public Enemy strictly as a fan and later developed a passion for writing music reviews around four years ago or so, it’s a testimony to the group’s talent that it was able to blur the boundaries between fan and critic when I first began listening to the album and writing this review.
Beginning with the production, Heroes’ sound is polished, yet raw throughout, utilising the talents of its band members, so much so that this sounds very much like a live album. I’ve always told my friends to go see a PE gig if they really want to appreciate what the band is capable of, but Heroes comes as closer to the live experience than any of their recorded medium.
The first track (Run Til It’s Dark) particularly showcases the exceptional abilities of DJ Lord and guitarist Khari Wynn, who’re given chance to do their thing after Chuck D spits facts about the American lifestyle in the opening verse. Whether we hear the razor-sharp cutting skills on the decks or the electric guitar being played to death, we get the impression PE has been just as eager to put out new material since its last album (five years ago) as we have been waiting to hear it.
Musically, I’d have to say the band competes with the best, and I’m not just talking Hip-Hop artists here. Fusing funk, jazz, rock and soul elements with a wonderful amount of talent, passion and care, every track here sounds fresh and unique, under the watchful eye of long-standing executive Bombsquad producer Gary G-Wiz (Gary Rinaldo).
The lead single, ‘I Shall Not Be Moved’, is the perfect example of this, and a real gem which adds to Public Enemy’s already impressive catalogue of hits. It’s an incredibly funky number that sees Chuck sounding just as confident and commanding as he did back in his It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back days, the track serves as a backlash to anyone who has said Public Enemy is “old and past it”, and is a great advert for the whole album.
No, this isn’t just another Public Enemy album for the sake of being another Public Enemy album, but a statement that real Hip-hop is alive and kicking. Forget overblown egos rapping about fame and how much money they have in their pocket; twenty-five years since he first fronted the group, Chuck D is still doing it “to support the art” and spitting his controlled rage, but on topics that are most relevant to us in today’s climate.
Take ‘Get It In’ (featuring production and guest verse from Bumpy Knuckles, AKA “Freddie Foxxx”), a track that criticises the nature of capitalist exploitation and how the lower classes are struggling to make ends meet as the rich continue to profit from them. “Everyone should be able to afford / Home, food and a job to work / We the people get robbed / By these corporate jerks /” spits Chuck; and similarly on ‘Catch The Thone’, “I be seein’ human beings as stew/ Yet never have so many been screwed by so few” which sees him launching an assault on the 1% elite, assisted by a killer verse from rapper Cormega.
The number of guest appearances on this album is unusual for PE, but every one of them comes hard and contributes to the overall quality of the album. DJ Z-Trip showcases his scratching skills on ‘Most of my Heroes’, whilst underground favourite Brother Ali spits an unusual, but incredibly mesmerizing half-sung / half-rapped onslaught against conformity, as well as paying tribute to the people that made him: “I was raised by the enemy/ And ever since then/ That’s been my identity/” (‘Get Up Stand Up’).
If there is a weak point on Heroes, it would have to be the title track, which trys around the half-way mark to switch things up with a harder beat and treat us to sixteen bars from Minister of Information Professor Griff. Disappointingly, the beat remains uninspiring throughout and Griff gets as little as four bars to do his thing (I still don’t understand why he doesn’t get more mic time on PE albums).
Moving on to the “fraternal twin”, The Evil Empire of Everything, PE have put out a second record of new material in the same amount of months. Though technically a stand-alone release, Empire is meant to “talk to” Heroes (and vice versa) and make it clear that Public Enemy is just as culturally-relevant, socially-conscious and politically-challenging as it was twenty-five years ago.
Tracks like ‘Don’t Give Up the Fight’ (feat. Ziggy Marley) certainly demonstrate that the group is still capable of producing some really good fucking music, which not only puts much of today’s struggle into context, but sounds fresh enough that it is capable of recruiting new listeners and sparking a musical evolution.
‘Riotstarted’ (feat. Tom Morello and Henry Rollins) blends rock and rap in similar manner to Rage Against the Machine, who did so innovatively during its heyday in the nineties; while ‘Icebreaker’ attacks the United States Immigration Customs Enforcement with a whole host of talented emcees (including the much-slept on Impossebulls duo from Chuck’s own label, Slam Jamz).
Also on the ‘Icebreaker’ track is Professor Griff, who I expressed slight disappointment towards on Heroes. As a fan of his, I’m pleased to say he gets a few more bars to spit on this record than he did on last, with the pick of the bunch raising issue of “the same old race shit” and Trayvon Martin, a young man who was wrongfully shot and killed by a racist security guard, February, this year (‘Beyond Trayvon’).
Chuck assures us these are not left over songs from Heroes, and that would definitely appear to be the case, judging by the exceptional quality of the whole album. The production — particularly on tracks crafted by legendary Bombsquad producer Gary G-Wiz — is diverse and consistently hard-hitting, setting a real solid foundation for the frontman to “say it like it really is” (also the title of the excellent final track of the album).
As well as there not being a bad beat on here, Empire is also on point lyrically that it will make everyone sit up and take notice. “The foreign lands / The descendent seeds / Radiation is the world’s disease / Bringing they shits down to the knees / Mother nature / She ain’t pleased /” spits Chuck (‘Don’t Give Up the Fight’), conveying a knowledgeable stance on world topics, which is present on the album throughout.
PE’s success and respectful following has primarily come through the group’s ability to make timeless protest songs and creatively fuse together a number of different styles, blurring the lines between musical genres, as well as paying tribute to the legendary artists that came before. Empire is no exception, and I have to say is on a par with Heroes and right up there with the group’s best work.
Even Flavor Flav (who I’ve confessed my indifference towards a few times in the past) shines on this album. ’31 Flavors’ is an old-school sounding anthem that sees Flav doing what he does best: Hyping up the listener; and ‘Broke Diva’ seems like a response to the amount of negative criticism he received for Flavor of Love, with the underlying message here being that money can’t buy sophistication, class or happiness.
Empire makes a real strong statement that PE is just as much a formidable force to be reckoned with as it was twenty-five years ago. Seriously, there’s not a bad track on here, and with the outlook of ‘Fame’ it would seem the band is still a million miles from watering down their message and selling out for pop-friendly radio stations (“Fame / I hate it / I HATE IT” raps Chuck).
Respect for some of the once-influential Hip-Hop artists from PE’s era may have deteriorated over time (take Ice Cube as an example), but this group proves that falling off / becoming soft is not always inevitable after such a long career of making music and standing up to the corrupt, political elite. Overall, fan or not, both of these records are fantastic; and despite Public Enemy’s two frontmen approaching their mid-50s, the music seems just as ageless and utterly relevant as it’s ever been.