The complete story of Public Enemy’s trail-blazing 1988 LP It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and 1990’s Fear of a Black Planet will be told via two Def Jam/UMe reissues released this month. The multi-disc sets, out on November 25th, will provide insight into two of the most sonically adventurous and politically stirring records of all time, appending more than two dozen instrumentals, a cappellas, remixes and dub versions previously only available on 12-inch vinyl.
While volumes have been written about the sui generis production techniques and bold rhyme styles on what Rolling Stone has dubbed the 48th and 302nd greatest albums of all time, the new set provides illumination collected like never before. The “Rebel Without a Pause” instrumental lets you get close the dizzying sound of samples being played live in a room instead of looped by a machine; the 91-second a cappella of “Bring the Noise” features the “bass!” replayed ’round the world; and the “Powersaxx” version of “Fight the Power” shows producer Hank Shocklee staging an epic battle between Branford Marsalis and. . .Branford Marsalis.
We caught up with Public Enemy leader Chuck D to discuss the many B-sides living to win again.
Do these 12-inches remind you of anything that the songs on the albums don’t?
I remember being frustrated, sometimes, that we’d make these [alternate] versions, but when you send it out to a DJ amongst a stack of six other records at the same time, they would. . .play one version. And really, if the version had a curse on it…that version probably would never be heard; it wouldn’t be broadcasted. And so they were obscure, but they were there. People who bought the 12-inch, they were able to get it. A lot of these versions were unheard, but they were released, though. They were all on 12-inches. There’s nothing in the Universal vaults that was unreleased. . .Y’know, guys like LL, the Beasties, Slick Rick, they got a lot more in the vaults of Def Jam than Public Enemy. I made sure that we never left much to the vaults. I made sure we released everything.
A really illuminating piece is the 91-second “Bring the Noise” a cappella. This little piece of an a cappella on a 12-inch ended up having a huge impact. Was there a moment when you realized that you saying “Bass!” would probably be one of the most sampled seconds in the history of music?
Yeah, not too long afterwards, Simon Harris made, “Bass (How Low Can You Go).” It was a little weird, because we were sampling James Brown and then Simon Harris is sampling me. So, it was just like that’s part of the game.
The “Bring the Noise” 12-inch was interesting because you could see both sides of Def Jam: Russell Simmons’ taste, R&B group the Black Flames on the A-side, and Rick Rubin’s taste, Public Enemy on the B-side.
I liked the Black Flames a lot. I just thought they were recording the wrong material. But I find out that “Are You My Woman?” [the Chi-Lites song they covered] ends up becoming a Beyonce hit later on [“Crazy in Love”], from a different aspect, a sample. But “Bring the Noise” was a total case of Rick kicking Russell’s ass [laughs].
Was the “No Noise” mix of “Bring the Noise” a conscious attempt to make something funkier?
Hank was so happy with the shit without the noise that he thought it should be a version too. DJs should always have options. The thing that really took the cake at those times, another innovation that Tommy Silverman was doing at Tommy Boy. They came out of dance culture and he was having that dance culture rhetoric on their 12-inch releases, especially Bambaataa and James Brown, “Unity.” And there had to be, like, 80 versions of James Brown on there. So we wanted to make sure our 12-inches were just, like, maxed out. Don’t waste no space.
It’s great to hear the instrumentals to “Rebel Without a Pause” because you can really focus in on the live element: The group actually sitting around playing the samples instead of just letting a machine loop them.
That was Flavor [Flav]. Flavor played the “Funky Drummer” part and it wasn’t looped. It was played by Flavor.
Were you in the room when that happened?
Yeah, I was in the room. I was in the room when the [J.B.’s] “The Grunt” sample was being played on a keyboard and seeing Busta Rhymes and Dinco D — not only seeing them, but telling them to calm the fuck down because they happened to be in the other room, and I see them doing these fuckin’ crazy-ass dances when shit was going off. So once I see them bouncing around the fucking place, I was like, “This is that shit, right here.” I already knew because I brought the record in.
So were you the one who brought in “The Grunt” originally?
Yeah. . .I took it from a girl’s house I was hanging out at, from the crib, and brought it to the studio.
Did she ever get the record back?
She didn’t get the record back and I didn’t get any lovin’. But I was good; trust me. That record was the best thing I could have gotten from that crib.
“The Grunt” sample on “Baseheads” sort of defined what you guys do with sound, such a dangerous, broken sound.
You’ve got to be willing to take on certain things, too because your vocals can be derailed by some shit violent like that. I mean the first day I recorded “Rebel Without a Pause,” I failed, so I had to go back home, get a day together to recoup myself, and I came back and nailed it. And when you nail it, trust me — it’s like one of those things where you pray that the tape was running. . .Then once Hank made the mix and we got it mastered — we were like, “Yo, man — this thing has got a life of its own. If we died tomorrow in a fucking crash, this shit is still gonna live.”
When you did “Welcome to the Terrordome” did you know that this was going to be one of the one your the most sample-heavy tracks ever?
The rhythm track by Keith Shocklee was really the thing that totally moved everything else into, “This shit could become something else.” When I was able to play in my herky-jerky style, I was able to play the sample—I happen to have that Temptations record [“Cloud Nine” from the Motortown Revue Live] for a long time. They never sold these records from Motown until way later. I mean, they did, but it was really more like a live Motown record that tried to get the other groups off at these live concerts. I happened to really get into that record like I got into Wattstax. And that’s where that, “Would you join me please in welcome-in-ing.”
You have a new solo record out too…
Johnny Cash is the Man in Black, I’m The Black in Man.
As someone who’s been making records for 30-plus years at this point, what’s the most difficult think about making and releasing music in 2014?
Well, I don’t want to say “difficult,” but the most enlightening thing is that everybody’s on the same page. And the thing that actually galvanizes me as a creator is you know that that the masses are on the same page as far as their listening sensibilities. . .Once I knew how people are going to get their music, then you can start saying, “I’m gonna play this game of football a little bit different. We’re gonna play this game of football like the majors play. . .We’re gonna play arena football inside a major field.”
And here’s another thing — with digital. . .the instrumentals should be able to be heard and live, the dub versions should be able to be heard and live on your album. And your album can round out at 10 cuts but you don’t have to make 10 new songs. [Laughs.]. And you can tie them together and you still got to make an album that’s cohesive. We got the vision of putting things together like a radio show — any dead air on a radio show will make you change the station.
So my thing is that your arrangements have to thoroughly be thought out to take you into the next song, seamlessly. If a person wants to hear one song that they want, you gotta borrow them for the second one…So I just think today, people, they’re still making albums wrong.
People don’t want anything long from anybody. If they got 100 songs and there’s shuffle, they got streaming going on, if they want to hear the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, or Eighties on Sirius XM or whatever, you got to be really prepared about what you have and how you’re get it to them; because I think before listening, people today — they’re file readers. They’re not going to say, “Oh, what is that?” and hear it all the time. I don’t even think people have the attention span to even ask that question.