Artist: Public Enemy
Title: Rebel Without A Pause
Description: single; album track from It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back
Label: Def Jam
Release date: 1987; 1988
First heard: 1988
From a rebel, it’s final on black vinyl
Soul, rock’n’roll comin’ like a rhino
Tables turn, suckers burn to learn
They can’t disable the power of my label
Though the writers and editors of the NME have historically been white and male, the paper I read in its early-to-mid 80s pomp and which helped define my politics and my aesthetic – and which I subsequently helped produce during the late-80s/early-90s economic reality check when social action morphed into “sitting around in smoking jackets making jokes about pop music” – saw no colour. A deep appreciation of funk and soul cut through the rock reliance, and when its face was at its most pale circa Danny Kelly doctoring the Top 40 to give cover stars The Weather Prophets a hit they never had, Go-Go and hip-hop provided more than a counterweight.
Without the NME, as a reader, I might never have walked into Our Price and purchased Licensed To Ill or Yo! Bum Rush The Show without having heard a note of either. (The latter was the paper’s Album Of 1987.) While the Beastie Boys had provided a bridge from white rock culture to music of black origin and back again, with Public Enemy, you were across the border, and It Takes A Nation Of Millions, if not perhaps an equal to the debut in shock value, contained their finest hour, or finest four minutes 18 seconds at any rate. PE’s pioneering “Strong Island sound” – and its Shocklee value – has been endlessly dissected and disseminated in the decades since, and its sampled glissando and extra BPMs have been identified as the group’s secret weapons. But on first hearing, when I had little to compare this sound to beyond the Sugarhill Gang, its sonic appeal was like alchemy or Pearl Harbour. Life would never be the same again. Millions consolidated Bum Rush’s promise.
The opening sample of Rebel Without A Pause – that of the Reverend Jesse Jackson giving the invocation at 1972’s “Afro-American Woodstock”, Wattstax (“Brothers and sisters, I don’t know what this world is coming to”) – couldn’t be clearer. This is black power, pure and simple, its urgency communicated by the unusual 109bpm velocity (I looked that up) and the JBs’ hornsqueal, which were signatures of a hip hop crew with their own agenda. Violence simmers beneath Chuck D’s own yapping invocations (“Panther power on the hour … Scatter a line of suckers … I’m like a laser, I won’t just graze ya”), but he’s careful to declare, “No gun, and still never on the run.” This is pre-gangsta rap, driven by righteous anger and pointed ire, the sound of frustration being taken out on a punchbag not a police officer.
I never thought “disco sucked” in my youth, but music of white origin had helped me get through my exams, so I wasn’t expecting hip hop to hit me so hard. I never forsook my Smiths or my Wedding Present, but I took my hat off to bands like Age of Chance and Pop Will Eat Itself for acknowledging the rap influence and giving it a crack. Public Enemy cleared a very big space for themselves at my top table in 1987, the year before I walked into the NME office, which is when the levee broke, and I stocked up on Eric B & Rakim, EPMD, Run-DMC, Salt N Pepa and the rest with my own money.
Though I discovered hip hop before I became a beneficiary of record company largesse, I’d arrived at NME and landed guest tickets to witness Public Enemy headline Brixton Academy and experienced my first night in an ethnic minority, albeit not once did I actually feel intimidated, as much as my inner liberal probably felt I should do, out of missionary guilt. (Actually: once. When Pop Will Eat Itself were coined offstage, but it passed.)
There were funkier tunes on Yo! Bum Rush The Show – Sophisticated Bitch (whose early use of the B-word challenged my best-laid principles), Miuzi Weighs a Ton – and on It Takes A Nation Of Millions – Black Steel, Don’t Believe The Hype. And both LPs bore more descriptive, specific lyrics, too. But there remains something so primal about Rebel Without A Pause, even if its content doesn’t bear up to much cross-examination (“Voice my opinion with volume” announces Chuck, but his opinions lie elsewhere). And you’d have to wait until Do The Right Thing in 1989 for Chuck to come right out and say Elvis was a racist, “simple and plain”.
But hey, it’s not always about the essay. Sometimes it just the sound and the fury, a previously inarticulated, bottled-up anger from all the way down the years. And what a sound. Such a beautiful noise, coming up from the streets. I bought a baseball cap. I bought a whistle at Brixton Academy.