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To say that hip-hop legends Public Enemy were game changers is underselling one of the genre’s most important and defining acts. That’s because the Long Island-based act wasn’t merely changing the rules of hip-hop, they were writing the rules. Whether it was establishing a political and social consciousness as a common thread throughout their tracks, merging traditional rap styles with hard rock bands—and in turn offering rap-metal to the masses—or infusing musical details from sources that were otherwise untapped, Public Enemy, fronted by the highly visible Chuck D and Flavor Flav, has consistently forged new avenues in otherwise untapped territory.
While in school, Chuck D had worked as a DJ on the college’s radio station, cutting his teeth on a variety of records, eventually making his musical transition to hip-hop and rap, after growing up on the sounds of pop radio, R&B and soul. “Music was just music,” he says, “it was always in his household. James Brown, Al Green, Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin were like aunts and uncles, because what they were singing was what was already being reiterated in the household.”
However, the hip-hop attraction stemmed from what was happening behind the decks. In fact, it was The Jacksons’ “Music’s Takin’ Over,” that got Chuck D thinking about the magic of turntables.
“I went to this event and I kept hearing this record going on and on before Michael Jackson came in, with the beginning of the song,” he recalls. “I was like, how did they extend it? I was so naïve, I thought that the [physical size of the] record had to be huge. And what the DJ was doing was actually going back and forth for about 15 or 20 minutes. And that curiosity is what sparked this particular cat.”
It was also a highly technical intrigue that caught Chuck’s ears, eyes and soul—and what drew him into hip-hop’s methodology. “Rap was actually the vocal that went on top of the DJ’s extended break,” he recalls. “The MC would fill that break up. It reminds me of what sportscasters do on the play-by-play or what an auctioneer would do when they try to sell you something at a fast rate.”
Well immersed in what was, at the time, the teething stages of the hip-hop scene, Chuck D had found not only musical inspiration, but lyrical ideas as well, fast developing the subject matter for which Public Enemy would be known, which was based on where he—and the world—was at the time. “It was all the planets lining up at the right place at the right time,” he recalls. “I was at the right stage and at the right age…I was a college student, I wasn’t a kid. I came from the ‘60s, I was born in 1960, so the first 10 years of my life were turbulent. But they were also on the cutting edge of going from civil rights to the politics to the demand for your right to be civil.”
The early ‘80s was a world in musical transition for Chuck D, as the post-disco climate called for new and exciting developments. “All I know is that if you’re going to rap, you’re going to say something,” he says. “And the music has got to be right, and that’s because of the DJ.”
Enter DJ Johnny Juice, whom Chuck D met when Johnny was still a teenager. “He actually knew the nuances of what was taking place in the 1960s,” he says. “He was there from day one as a neophyte and involved himself with some of the greatest records of the genre.”
Initially known as Spectrum City, Chuck D was part of a DJ crew performing at parties and, in turn, hopeful of establishing a radio presence. “Chuck made his own records,” Juice recalls. One of the tracks created was ‘Public Enemy Number One,’ which was cut to the music of James Brown and the JBs. “It was the overdubbed version with the Moog on it,” Juice adds.
The technology of that pivotal track was actually based on employing two tape decks; one of the most important aspects of the tape deck was the pause button, which made for more accurate starting and stopping for those seeking to create beats from other material.
“That was some ‘hood stuff,” Juice recalls. “It was basically like a sampler. You get a break and let it go for so many bars and eventually you have a loop. You take it out and put it in the player part of the cassette and you add stuff to it as you go along.”
The taped-together track had impressed record execs enough to offer them an album deal. Recorded in 1986, Yo! Bum Rush the Show was Public Enemy’s debut album, cut to professional standards, utilizing a 2” 24-track Studer reel-to-reel tape recorder and a Neve console.
However, looking back, the technology for DJs and hip-hop artists of the ‘80s paled in comparison to today’s offerings. According to Juice, the initial drum machine of choice was the Korg DDD-1. “It had a small sampling bank in the back so you couldn’t sample much, but I’d sample an 808 kick or a funky snare drum,” he recalls. Ensoniq Mirage samplers, along with Akai’s S900 and S950, became more commonplace in the hands of hip-hop talent as well. Other heavily-used units included the Linn LM-1 drum machine and the Oberheim DMX.
Chuck D recalls that the production team Public Enemy worked with was a combination of musicianship, DJing and record knowledge—which occasionally clashed due to such varied backgrounds. “There was a lot of frenetic tension,” Juice adds. “‘That chord does not transition to this chord well.’ Who cares if it doesn’t transition? Make it work! ‘That noise totally destroys everything.’ That was part of breaking new ground and trying something different.”
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the band’s 1988 breakthrough, found the group speeding up their tempos. “We could keep our speeds up because we could see the results when we did these songs live,” says Chuck, adding that the album was recorded through a Neve console and mixed on an SSL, which later became a standard hip-hop studio setup.
Juice recalls that E-Mu’s SP1200 drum machine was an integral part of the album’s sound. “Aside from speeding up the tempos, one of the biggest attributes that Public Enemy had was reintroducing arrangement techniques that involved breaks,” he says. “We sampled breaks from records, but rap records didn’t have any breaks.” The group also composed instrumental pieces and the track “Mind Terrorist” found Chuck sampling a beat from his wristwatch. But they didn’t have the luxuries afforded to those with current home recording technology—nor did they have the sizable studio budgets that would be allotted to hip-hop artists that came after them.
“We had ‘x’ amount of time because remember that back then, it wasn’t like now where people just all of sudden start to record at the side of their bed,” he recalls. “You had this much time to execute this much of an idea. And this much budget.”
Looking at today’s hip-hop scene, Juice thinks that some songs are not receiving the traditional production values they require. “The artist isn’t directed as to what would be best for him,” he says. “He picks his own beats, he picks what he rhymes through, he picks how he sounds, and I hate to say it ‘cause it sounds almost arrogant, but it’s like, who are you to do that? You don’t know enough, you’re 18 years old. You don’t know enough to say, ‘What should I do?’ You just think this how everybody’s doing it.”
“One thing is that I didn’t step into an area that I wasn’t good at,“ Chuck adds. “I don’t say that I make my own beats. I always work with people who consider themselves great in their fields, not just in music making, but also in arrangements. Working with Johnny Juice is so great because he understands how to arrange and take something to the next level.”
And performance is key—as Chuck D notes that the music industry was initially founded on live performances, not on recordings. “If people studied the history of music that’s out there…you’ll start to realize that when Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong were going around, performing in different areas of the country, the thing that was the greatest business card for advertising their performances was the recording.”
For those aspiring artists seeking to break into the scene, Public Enemy offers two questions. “Number one, what are you doing this for,” asks Chuck D. “And number two, can you perform? You’ve got to take fame and fortune out of this.”
While recording technology has become increasingly accessible throughout the years, Juice notes that the difficulty is in eliminating those who don’t pursue music as an art, and are instead in search of the quick buck. “That’s like saying, ‘I just picked up a basketball last week, I’m going to be in the NBA in a month,’” he says. “That’s not going to happen because there are standards there. But there’s no standards in rap…There has to be some kind of a prerequisite for being what you are.”
Chuck also tells up-and-comers to focus on whatever fans and sales they happen to garner. “Don’t tell me that, ‘I ain’t selling nothing.’ You don’t count a million down. You count one by one. If you sell 30 MP3s of your song, that’s 30 people you better start concentrating on to make them believers. Can you go to that one person and really connect to that one person? You better reach out with some connectivity with that one person more than ever. This is a small extension of what SellaBand is all about, in trying to get its believers to even invest in them.”
“It’s hard to get someone to invest in you when you don’t make that connection,” adds Juice.
Another avenue available for distributing and selling music is via TuneCore, a website Chuck D has championed that allows independent artists to digitally distribute and sell their songs via a host of major online outlets. “I’m always involved in innovative things, but only pertaining to my genre, because of a lack of access that the genre has been unable to propel itself forward on its own terms,” he says. “Free is an option that you can use, but you can sell everything now in a system that delivers, like TuneCore will aggregate and deliver to digital stores like iTunes, which is 80 percent of the world market, and Amazon—which I think is fantastic—and Rhapsody.”
Technology has also given new artists tools that were once prohibitively expensive. As Chuck D says, two decades ago, if an artist didn’t have a purchase order from a label to record in a studio, they simply weren’t able to make an album.
“Now you have the equivalent of what was once millions of dollars of equipment,” says Juice, who uses Sonar. “You can get Fruity Loops (FL Studio) or Project5—it’s less than a Playstation 3.”
As for gear recommendations, Juice suggests a good microphone and recording interface for starters. “I like M-Audio products,” says Juice. “You’ve got to buy something that’ll fit. Let’s say you’re a guitar player and you do folk music. A Firewire Solo from M-Audio costs about $200. It’s got a mic input, got a high-impedance guitar input, and it also has a stereo inputs and outputs on the back. It probably comes with software. There you go—you’re straight.”
Monitoring is important, and Juice recommends a pair of M-Audio’s BX5a Deluxe studio monitors. “They’re like $300 a pair, that’s nothing, for powered speakers,” he says. “I think they sound great for the price.”
For mics, Juice says that Studio Projects’ B & C series are affordable and work great. “M-Audio makes the Solaris which is incredible for the price range, and that’s multi-pattern. It even comes with a shock mount.”
“Software-wise, if you’re using a Mac or PC, it doesn’t matter,” he continues. “But if you’re on a Mac, you can record on GarageBand and you don’t need to buy anything else. Later on, you probably want to do some better editing. But if you buy a PC, you could buy any of the Cakewalk products ‘cause they’re real cheap. You could buy a top-of-the-line joint for less than $500.”
Juice suggests that new artists work with those who are experienced and to educate themselves by taking advantage of free workshops offered by various music organizations. “Now this is where you either become that artist or you don’t,” he adds. “You want to sit back and have things come to you? Life’s never been that. So why would it change now that all of a sudden you’ve got 2,000 downloads?”
“You’ve got to learn, learn, learn, learn,” Chuck D emphasizes. “And there shouldn’t be no time limit on it. We learn every day.”