Why Public Enemy got into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and N.W.A. didn't
Photo by Piero F. Giunti
As hip hop grows ever longer in the tooth, the overall picture of what it meant in its infancy -- and still means -- becomes more clear. Some of it, like the rock, punk, funk and country before it, managed to transcend genre and enter into the cultural zeitgeist of America. The voting for the 2013 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees was announced yesterday and on the ballot were two pioneering rap groups who managed to do those things, both of whom still carry weight today: N.W.A. and Public Enemy.
Given the voter makeup (the chosen panel is shrouded in secrecy, but it's not a stretch to say it's made up of mostly old guard musicians and record execs) only one -- Public Enemy -- will be inducted come next April, but when the dust has settled afterward and everyone finally stops the second-guessing, it should be clear the right choice was made.
Both groups have made worthy, lasting contributions to music and both, in their own way, reshaped the genre they were operating within and influenced musicians outside of it. (Among a slew of others, Kurt Cobain cited both PE and N.W.A. as influences during his short career.) Both were deemed innovative and fresh, both fairly scared the living shit out of middle-class America in 1988 (N.W.A. with Straight Outta Compton; Public Enemy with It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back) in radically different, yet much the same ways, but it's the happenings since the release of these albums -- N.W.A.'s proper debut; PE's sophomore effort -- that the paths diverge.
The first few seconds of Straight Outta Compton are still enough to make many hit the panic switch. The n-word gets dropped and Ice Cube proclaims himself to be a "crazy motherfucker." From there the album is awash in guns, drugs, street violence, misogyny and a constant stream of profanity. You can hear the echoes of everything that came after it in every beat, rhyme and sample. They had inadvertently (or maybe not so) birthed an entirely new subgenre: gangsta rap. It gets complicated for N.W.A. after this, however, in a plethora of ways.
The surviving members -- Eazy-E passed away in 1995 at age 31 due to complications from AIDS -- have all but admitted that much of it was bluster and exaggeration. None of them were choirboys and nearly all had past run-ins with law enforcement, but they weren't the gun-toting street thugs they portrayed themselves to be on record, either. That didn't stop the FBI from issuing them a warning letter in regard to "Fuck Tha Police," however, and they were banned from performing live at a multitude of venues around the country.
But it was just a role they played to sell records, in the end; like Bowie, like Alice Cooper, like, hell, everyone who came before them. These roles, though, were a bit more frightening -- and believable -- than a spider from Mars. They were businessmen with an idea that worked better than any of the ones they had previously -- not gang-bangers or drug dealers or anything of the sort. (For proof, just look at Dr. Dre's prior band, World Class Wreckin' Cru, in which the members are dressed like Halloween versions of pimps.) They were a rap crew with better skills than most, a crew that created ideas instead of following them, and afterward could write their own tickets to anywhere they wanted to go, which, unfortunately, eventually further took the sting out of their initial bite.
Following the group's breakup amid a firestorm of controversy, contract disputes, allegations of real (or at least threatened) violence and in-fighting about money, music rights and the usual laundry list of contentious items that are part and parcel of the dissolution of a successful band, three of them (Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E) went on to record solo work that far outshined N.W.A.'s two offerings. Though 1991's acidic, egotistical Niggaz4Life further pushed both buttons and the envelope, Ice Cube's AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, released in 1988 and Dr. Dre's The Chronic, released in 1992 have both become hip hop classics on their own, both usually placing higher on all-time lists than either of N.W.A.'s albums.
And since, it's been slow slide away from the gangster image for both Cube and Dre, the two most visible members of the band these days. Dr. Dre has become somewhat of a mogul, starting Aftermath Entertainment and in 1997 discovering one Marshall Bruce Mathers III, better known as Eminem, who then both proceeded to essentially begin printing money. He's also been a shill for Dr. Pepper and a handful of other decidedly non-gangster products.
These days, Ice Cube drinks Peace Coffee and has been a spokesman for Coors Light as well as starring in a long list of movies both good ( The Glass Shield , Three Kings ) and bad ( Ghosts of Mars , Are We There Yet? ) He's, in stark contrast to 25 years ago, more of a family man now and while that's admirable, to be sure (as are Dr. Dre's accomplishments), it takes much of the power away from what once was. It was a con and they've all since conceded to it. Straight Outta Compton was a massive, important entry into hip hop's fabric, but listen to it again. It sounds dated, almost quaint in a way. It's been distilled down to almost nothing as much by them as by those who came after and it's kind of a shame.
Public Enemy, on the other hand has not wavered as much from their original goal, though they don't come without their faults, either. They came through the gates spitting not bullets or (much) profanity but knowledge and the idea that seeking more of it was a good idea. They took a militant-like stance to N.W.A's gangster lean and were equally as frightening to parents everywhere in doing so.
The overall message, "You are being oppressed by your own government, rise up against it," is more terrifying than a basement full of automatic weapons and when they dropped the n-word (which was far less often) it was for emphasis and to catch the listener off-guard: "Why did he say that just there? That was important." Terminator X spun beats that were so dizzying you thought you might pass out and there was genuine, angry disenfranchisement present in place of N.W.A.'s volatile, profane rage. Chuck D has stated of Millions, "Our mission was to kill that 'Cold Gettin' Dumb' [by long-forgotten rapper, Just-Ice] stuff and really address some situations." And that comes through loud and clear.
Flavor Flav at First Avenue, December 2012
Photo by Tony Nelson
Hip hop was mostly fun until 1988, but Public Enemy, along with a handful of others, discovered that it could be used as a megaphone to yell at America that a lot of what was happening wasn't right and people weren't going to stand for it any longer. Hell, just the title It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is a call to arms in itself. They had Flavor Flav, who is now a ridiculous, overblown version of himself these days, but back then was the original hype man, who, which his higher-register lunacy often seemed angrier than leader Chuck D with his thunderous growl.
They dealt with heavier, deeper issues than just their own rage, though they didn't always have answers for it, either, beyond imploring everyone to have a little self-respect (see: "How long can you go?" from "Night of the Living Baseheads," a song about crack addiction and it's effects on those around the addict.) There was still some measure of fun to be had with "Bring the Noise," an argument for rap as a legitimate genre, which, oddly, sounds more like a rock song than anything else. 25 years later, Chuck D's wish has long since been granted.
PE weren't free from missteps, either, though. Professor Griff gave an interview to the Washington Post wherein he commented, "Jews are responsible for most of the wickedness in the world." He later expressed remorse for the statement but he made it at the height of their popularity in 1989, when "Fight the Power" from the Do the Right Thing soundtrack was the summer's inescapable anthem and the band found itself in the midst of a brutal controversy. Flav did nothing to increase another of the band's large scale messages, "Educate yourself," by becoming a reality TV star, dating Brigitte Nielsen and generally acting like a dunce on VH1. Luckily, none of it could take much away from their music, because Public Enemy meant what they said; they walked the walk.
In the end, however, regardless of how innovative both bands were in 1988, when hip hop was still a toddler and everyone strived for something new, Public Enemy just matters more in the overall scheme of things. There are political rappers, sure, but there hasn't been another band quite like them since. Though it's not their fault, there have been hundreds of N.W.A. imitators who all have not done what they did nearly as well. While both made massive, lasting impressions on the rap world at large, only Public Enemy did things to raise awareness of issues related to things other than their own careers and pocketbooks through their music and that's a huge difference when it comes time to vote and when it comes time to evaluate what, exactly, is important about these bands and why.
Listening to these albums side-by-side as I did while I wrote this, Straight Outta Compton comes off like a pretty good movie I haven't seen in a few years, while It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back still makes me fear for what might happen if I don't listen to what I'm being told. Both have their own merits, both are still forceful and somewhat frightening. Both bands were turning points for hip hop; but only one seems real 25 years later and ultimately that is why Public Enemy will be inducted in April and N.W.A. will be watching from home.
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