The Roots Of… Public Enemy

Each week we take a band, pull apart the threads that make them who they are and build a Spotify playlist from those influences. This week, it’s Public Enemy!

At the heart of Public Enemy is a four-man production crew from New York State’s Long Island – the 148th largest island in the world, geography fans – known as the Bomb Squad. At their most prolific, between 1984 and 1991, they took every accepted idea about melody and song structure and crushed them, gleefully underfoot.


Over the eight years that the Boxley brothers, (aka Hank and Bill Shockley), Carleton Ridenhour (Chuck D) and Eric “Vietnam” Sadler worked together they used samples from innumerable sources in a way that redefined what popular music could be. Music became grit, noise and maddeningly controlled chaos and the very sound itself introduced a political, emotional and physical intensity that had rarely, if ever, been evident in the art form before. A quarter of a century after the release of their masterpiece – ‘It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back’, one of the best three hip hop albums ever made – still no one sounds quite like Public Enemy.

In The Beginning
The Boxley brothers’ grew up in a household obsessed with jazz and sound. Their mother was a pianist who loved Nancy Wilson and their father was a record collector who wired the whole house for sound – even the bathroom. A close family friend discovered funk legends Kool & the Gang, while another cousin returned from the Vietnam war with 7” singles by Sly and the Family Stone, Wilson Pickett. Keith became obsessed with rhythm; an obsession fed by records Parliament-Funkadelic, Earth, Wind and Fire, New Birth, AWB and Tower of Power. Hank was more interested in the music he heard on the radio, The Byrds’ ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ and the Beatles’ cover of the Isley Brothers’ ‘Twist And Shout’. “Music is about emotion and feeling,” he said some years later. “Sound is what accentuates that feeling.”


Sounds Of The Spectrum
As teenagers Keith and Hank created a radio station and sound system called Spectrum that played parks, at birthday parties and in school canteens. One fan that began following them from gig to gig was Chuck D. In the mid-70s the big sound was what wild grow into Disco – Fantastic Four, the Philly Soul of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, First Choice and, Chuck’s favourite, MFSB’s ‘Love Is The Message’. But Spectrum also made room for Kraftwerk’s Trans Europe Express too. “A bunch of white guys from Europe,” Keith remembered. “It was hot…”


Break Out
Gradually records like proto-rap club hits like Jimmy Spicer’s ‘Bubble Bunch’ led to something like Kurtis Blow’s 1980 single ‘The Breaks’ – which became the hottest record in the world. Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Eighth Wonder’ was nearly as hot. Run DMC and LL Cool J were becoming hugely popular. Chuck was still a DJ, but when Hank heard him make an announcement one night he knew he’d make an amazing MC. He also began a proper library for the massive amounts of vinyl that Hank and Keith were buying, funk records like Herman Kelly’s ‘Dance To The Drummer’s Beat’, Friend & Lover’s ‘Reach Out Of The Darkness’ and Dennis Coffey’s ‘Ride Sally’ that all featured the break-beats they craved.


The Name’s James
There is, of course, one artist without whom the Bomb Squad’s story would have happened in a radically different way – if it had happened at all. James Brown’s radical, funky productions had cut their way across RnB, funk, soul and pop since the late 50s. Take a listen to Escape-ism or Brown’s band The J.B.’s track ‘The Grunt’, play Clyde Stubblefield’s solo on ‘Funky Drummer’ or the stunning 1965 single ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’ and you hear pre-echoes of what is to come. Play Brown’s single from August 1968, ‘Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)’ or ‘I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open Up The Door And I’ll Get It Myself)’ from a year later and you can actually hear the sound that would shape Public Enemy.

More in this series

The Roots Of… My Bloody Valentine
The Roots Of… The Libertines
The Roots Of… Nirvana
The Roots Of… The Smiths
The Roots Of… The Killers