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Quarantining The Past: Public Enemy's 'Apocalypse '91...The Empire Strikes Black'

On 'Apocalypse '91', instead of letting our reaction to their music change them, Public Enemy changed us not by staying the same, but staying true and getting stronger.

Public Enemy: Quarantining The Past: Public Enemy's 'Apocalypse '91...The Empire Strikes Black'

Public Enemy is in a curious spot. Ever since 1994's Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age, they've been a group trying to find their place in a culture they helped shape. Then, they were pushing back agaist the explosion of ganster rap. Since then, they've done their own thing to varying success. But as they prepare new albums this fall -- Most of My Heroes Still Don't Appear on No Stamp and The Evil Empire of Everything -- you have to wonder how they are going to trying to revive their career. They're one of those groups that has legend status, but while they may have another classic in them, we haven't heard it yet. And, more importantly, as the rap game changes, they stay stubbornly the same, so it will be interesting to see their impact.

Back in 1991, though, things were very different. They weren't fighting obscurity, but rather just the opposite. They were fresh off back-to-back classics It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet, two albums that became super-influential but also had an immediate impact. So with Apocalypse '91...The Enemy Strikes Black, they had the enviable task of following some of the best hip-hop ever made.

But there was other baggage, at least according to them. They had done that "Bring the Noise" version with Anthrax, they had that rock-and-roll aesthetic in their records, due in part to Rick Rubin's influence. They were the rap group that made rock music, or injected new life into rock music, or something like that. The point was that they, the black group, was getting linked up to the white-male world of rock music, and it must not have sat well with Public Enemy.

At least that's the impression their brilliant 1991 album gives. The Bomb Squad, responsible for all those intense beats on the first three albums, graduated to Executive Producer status, leaving young upstarts, Imperial Grand Ministers of Funk, to cover the beat production. If the differences are slight -- these beats are still intense, still combative, Terminator X's scratching is still an all-out attack -- they are still vitally important. In place of rock guitars, we get soul and funk samples all over the record. Opener "Lost at Birth" has samples from funk band New Birth and, more currently, A Tribe Called Quest's "Can I Kick It?". No less than six of these songs have James Brown samples -- some of them more than one. Sly and the Family Stone's "Sing  A Simple Song" gets sampled in both the lean fire of "Can't Truss It" and the funkier oddity of closer "Get the Fuck Outta Dodge." 

It's also an album that has a lot to say about black music. As a group always fighting back, and Chuck D is on fire as much as ever here (and, actually, Flavor Flav is focused and on point too, especially in "I Don't Wanna Be Called Yo Nigga"), Public Enemy both calls out black music traditions and celebrates them. On "How to Kill a Radio Consultant," Chuck complains that "When the Quiet Storm come on, I fall asleep." He's talking about Smokey Robinson's influential, jazz-soul record, Quiet Storm, a decidedly sweet but soft affair. Soothing more than confrontational. Meanwhile, in "Get the Fuck Outta Dodge," Chuck wonders "What tape should I rock, L.L.'s or Rawls?" Here we get songs that may not be defiant in word, but the sound is brash for Lou Rawls and L.L. Cool J, the kind of powerful sound you'd bump in your car stereo when, you know, you're trying to leave an element of control behind, as Chuck is at the album's end.

Apocalypse '91 is, lyrically and musically, far more direct than its predecessors. Chuck D's rhyme schemes are downright professional in their cadence, and Flavor Flav even tones down the boy-eee, nasal-bleat act. Musically, it isn't nearly the focused chaos of those other records, it's a much more streamlined sound overall, even as it retains the muscle of its predecessors. But there is a much subtler political move here, wherein Public Enemy pulls back from crossover success and realigns itself with black music and black musical tradition. Weaved into all those soul and funk samples -- and we've only covered a few -- are samples of older Public Enemy songs. "Lost at Birth" has elements of "Public Enemy No. 1," while "Rebirth" has "Security in the First World" cut into the background. Chuck D and company interweave themselves into the history they want to be a part of, the one they believe they earned, the one they feel they belong to. In doing so, they don't bother trying to top their previous two classic records. Instead, they turn their backs on them and, in doing so, make a sound that plays to their strengths without falling into the traps of rock-and-roll crossover emptyness. Public Enemy has always known who they were, and on Apocalypse '91, instead of letting our reaction to their music change them, they changed us not by staying the same, but staying true and getting stronger.

Most of My Heroes Still Don't Appear On No Stamp and Evil Empire of Everything are both slated for release on Nov. 6.

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