Public Enemy and Thoughts on Hip Hop Production

I recently got reminded of Public Enemy and went down a rabbit hole revisiting the records and reading what I could about how those records were produced. This article was a fantastic read with Hank Shocklee of The Bomb Squad:

One of the things that has stuck with me is how Hank Shocklee viewed PE productions as being a band. When they were producing it was an all hands on deck situation where everyone was riding faders, Flavor Flav was finger drumming, etc. This struck me as a cool approach and sort of the antithesis of how records are produced today (typically one guy automating everything on a grid).

Another thing he mentions is that each beat was produced as a reaction to the lyrics and vocal performance. This was kind of a revelation. I went back and re-listened to Apocalypse 91 (my first PE album and still my favorite) with this in mind and it was plain as day the way the samples and scratching really dance around and react to what the vocals are doing. I think it also probably helps to have Terminator X doing his thing as well.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this in contrast to how things have been done since. I love music from Wu Tang Clan, Madlib, J DIlla which were essentially one individual creating a beat but there have also been a whole bunch of copycats out there with varying degrees of success. I’m curious if it is just because the PE working methods are so much more difficult to imitate that there haven’t been many trying anything near as ambitious or if it is just that that style is out of favor right now. It could be argued that both classic boom bap and more modern trap fall into this category of relatively static beats that mostly utilize mutes and adding a well placed 808 to create a sense of movement but I can’t think of much that has resembled PE’s wall of noise style. It could also just be that they’re sound was too singular to be imitated. Anyway, just wanted to write this idea down and hear if anyone else had any thoughts on the subject. Or this thread can just die it’s quick death.

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Call and response. Probably the most basic and primal of musical elements, (birds have been doing it since way before humans) the most energizing, and captivating and probably the one thing that is missing from a lot of electronic music.

Energy needs to be captured or recorded. Drawing automation isnt energy. Anyway, yeah Public Enemy, good band.

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I was obsessed with PE growing up. Lyrics, music, videos, flav and chick d. They totally grabbed me

Later when I started making music I remember watching an interview with shocklee and he was talking about moving the hi hats off grid to create different feels to the music and rhythm. Sounds so obvious now but their beats at that time stood out so much and definitely changed the game

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nice post, if anything Madlib has done more call/response production for his own solo stuff/ loot pack stuff than anyone but if anything the biggest difference in the bomb squad production any most stuff out these days is sincerity, imagine hank shocklee pedaling ten minute beats, and yet he also has the artistic fortitude to print something if it comes together just like that… I love their ethic

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I wonder if one’s first PE album will always be one’s favourite. Mine was Nation of Millions, and it hit like a sledgehammer, to the point where I walked into the first freshman class I taught at my current institution, in 1990, amphitheatre with 200 students, dressed all in black (me, not them), carrying a boombox playing “Bring The Noise”.

I think the “wall of sound” fell prey to two factors: it takes a lot of studio time and a lot of talent, and the sampling lawsuits fired up about this time. Plus PE themselves were a hot mess internally and in PR terms. Not blaming them, there are so many artists in my collection who have one, maybe two great albums. Sustained and varied excellence is really hard to achieve, given all the obstacles and pressures.

I didn’t care for gangsta rap and drifted away until I watched Dave Chapelle’s “Block Party” and investigated the artists there. Among contemporary artists I have heard, I would say Big Boi might come closest to that classic sound at times. Not hip hop but D’Angelo delivers that kind of density, and while sparser, Kendrick Lamar’s “Damn” clearly has a comparable level of composition and craft.

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‘Fear of a Black Planet’ for me. Killer album front to back.

I really miss older hip hop. I stopped tuning in a long, long time ago. Shame as I’m sure there are some gems out there. I just can’t stand all of this auto-tuned triplet lyric’ed bullshit I hear blaring from cars these days. >.<

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I am trying not to do this, because (1) I don’t want to be that “stuck in the emotionally glorious years” guy, in any genre, and (2) I have some melanin but not nearly enough to opine forcefully without opening up a bunch of doors best left closed. I am currently living about a ten minute walk from where “Do The Right Thing” was filmed, and I keep a keen ear attuned to what is playing as I walk around.

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Yeah, I definitely have a lot of hip hop from all eras that I love. And I love a ton of stuff that is less dense sonically than PE but it is just really unusual that this strain of hip hop didn’t continue to evolve. @plragde, great point about the sampling lawsuits-that most certainly had something to do with it.

I thought I’d really like to make a band of people who all just kind of do whatever. People who make music with gear tend to do a bunch of stuff, as far as finger drumming, synths etc go. I explained the idea to my mate and he said it was a terrible idea. I’m sure it’s great if you can get some people who aren’t to high strung but I suppose he’s right that sooner or later people will disagree a lot. I’ve been making rap music for years but never released anything with vocals at all. I’d absolutely love to work with the right group of people like this. Hard to do though

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I don’t want to do a classic Elektronauts and turn every thread into Autechre but being massive hiphop heads, I feel like there’s at least some similarity in their approach to composition with this. From what I’ve read their pieces often come together similarly with call and response happening between Sean, Rob and their machines/patches. Keeping this spirit of hiphop going in their own strange way.
Not particularly articulate but it’s a Saturday afternoon and I think you get the idea. haha

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I’m not a big listener of hip hop or public enemy (though I do like some stuff), but that was a GREAT interview. Thanks for sharing.

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I got Yo! Bum Rush the Show when it came out. I must have been twelve and it skewered my little mind. I’d been exposed to a lot of avant-jazz (Ornette Coleman and the like) from my dad and listening to what Shockley et al. did with the material they had at hand was a revelation.

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Public Enemy is clearly one of the highlights of my “teen years soundtrack” and later on the album “muse sick-n-hour mess age” was a big thing for me.
But Definitely, that’s the Bomb Squad sound that was a shock.
The first solo album of Ice Cube or Son of Bazerk are as important as “It take a nation…” and “Fear of a black planet”, for me at least.

PE/Bomb Squad was something so unique, so hybrid, so “in your face”
I mean…to loop a Prince solo as a laser drill of doom for an entire track…

I miss the Hip-Hop that was fast, overloaded, smart and playful.

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I’ve never really listened to ‘Muse-sick’.
I’ll have to check it out. Same with Son of Bazerk. Thanks.

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If you are interested in how those 90s hiphop beats were made I can only recommend DJ Premier’s “So wassup”-series on Youtube:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=46ymK6sFM3w&list=PLWDrXC9_8Kmgwu2zeWdDU1n6fPqIh98Xr

Great storyteller in my opinion and he still has all the diskettes and pops them back into his old school samplers…worth a watch

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My fav album at the time was takes a nation of millions to hold us back. I didn’t get my first PE albums on cassette or vinyl but on vhs. I bought the fight the power live video from my local music store, think I was around 13 as had just started secondary school. Watched it non stop and wasn’t just the music but the performances that grabbed me. Tour of a black planet vhs was equally great. I remember them hanging a kkk member on stage and alongside the lyrical content attacking racism in America it was an eye opener from the America I thought I knew.

Couple of years ago I was playing at a gig with DJ lord from public enemy and chuck d was there. I was sitting beside them backstage and had so many things I wanted to tell him and ask him but I froze and couldn’t even make eye contact. First time ever I’ve met someone famous and was too overwhelmed to talk to them.

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Makes me smile to see a thread about PE. They still have energy and motivation now, it’s incredible.

I don’t think I’ve see this interview so thanks for the share. Almost everytime i see Chuck D open his mouth i try to stop and listen. Constant inspiration. He talked at length abut their approach in a Red Bull chat, less studio and more the balance of work and hiphop, why he started, his voice, the sounds they chose, even cars driving by to access how well their record was doing.

You mentioned about how different their approach was to on grid studio sessions, this was interesting. I certainly recall when starting to make music in the late 80’s and really more seriously in the 90’s that the way you went about it was very much an exploration of how you wanna work or how worked for you. It was a very special day should you meet someone doing something similar and you compared notes, and even then the general approach was more finding your voice over learning someone else’s. I say “voice” in the sense of the way something is you. Our ability to share and discuss such stuff with everyone over the world, seems to find consensus or collective thinking more than it used to.

It’s also super interesting the definition of themselves as a band, i mean that is such a different space than say “making beats”. It reminds me of other more band like acts that sit on the edges of a scene or part of it’s evolution/destruction depending what side of the fence you wanna stand. The Prodigy, and for me, PE are on a whole other level for sure, but they were a band i believe, Liam making the music sure but the responsibility in each members role pulled right out of the time, basically mc and dancers, a rave band. I wouldn’t say that bands were a think associated with rave particularly, and yet the band felt of the time, maybe a band neant taking it “seriously” or just what you did ir needed. All the bits of a scene represented in one group, rapper, hype man (with clock) dj/scratching etc

The Orb, pretty sure never a band, and with the exception of Alex, members are really project based almost. Perhaps a less defined scene or less about known elements being represented in people’s roles on stage and more in the visuals and sounds, particularly samples, “the British summer”, “planet earth”, “what were the skies like when you were young”.

It feels like the representation both in roles and in how it was created was definitely in direct dialogue with the time, which on one hand is obvious, and maybe the same can be said for on the grid Youtube taught “producers” now, they all have more similarities in how things are represented in the same scene than differences like PE being a band, and feeding off what simply works and sounds good.

I feel i hear lots about what is the right thing to do in a studio, and less examples of people just doing their thing in whatever ways works for them and sounds good.

It’s often debated what is PE without Flava, or Depeche Mode without Fletcher, or Alan Wilder if you want to open that one, or maybe Warp Records without Rob Mitchell.

Super interesting thread!! Thanks for posting it.

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I think last time I read about public enemy flavor flav had been kicked out but he does add a uniqueness to the group.

Probably one of the only rap groups I still go out of my way to listen to their new material.
They may be the first act I saw live along with beastie boys in late 80’s … the first def jam tour when everyone was ‘outraged’ and stealing vw badges.

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Oh man I love the old school PE. I have the S2400 Isla instruments and have been trying with the help of whosampled this to recreate them. Fight the power is one of my fav beats but when you hear all the samples you see the skill they had .
Also I was going to suggest my Beastie Boys as similar but different.
Will be reading and ytubing later, thanx .

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I think you hit on something interesting here about PE just following there instinct about what sounded good rather than what the current studio orthodoxy of the time being.

I am pretty grateful to live in a time where so much info is available about how to achieve things in the studio but at the same time I’ve found myself thinking I “need” to use a certain piece of gear or technique as if that was the only way to do something. I’m trying to catch myself and Public Enemy is an outstanding reminder to try and do things my own way.

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