Come get it get involved: the best of Public Enemy

By 1998 Public Enemy were history if not, in the words of “Brothers Gonna Work It Out,” his-story, especially in the year when Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott were writing and producing their own hits. No less than reading The Devil Finds Work, my listening to Fear of a Black Planet gained from a culture’s sense of its canonicity and from the manner in which it distinguished itself from the Puff Daddy and RZA era of hip hop multiplatinum.

Too black, too strong, Public Enemy’s work through 1994 mashed bewildering verbal dexterity and an ever-permutating instrumental bed that chopped up two decades’ worth of R&B and scored it to the symphony of tea kettle whistles. They’re exhausting records; listening to Public Enemy is difficult. Their albums don’t work as background music. I’m grateful to Chris Weingarten’s entry in the 33 1/3 series, a book devoted to It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, for the reasons mentioned above an album too abrasive and, well, historical to reach younger ears, as I’ve learned in recent years. Thanks to an ethos that prizes brothers working it out, the core of Chuck D, Flavor Flav, and intermittent collaborator Professor Griff don’t give much cop to women (“She Watch Channel Zero?!” misunderstands women and TV; deserves appreciation anyway) and sneer at faggots (“Pollywanacraka”). But “Pollywanacracka” unfurls as a polyphony: spoken-word cross-gender arguments over James Brown, Rufus Thomas, and Diana Ross samples that take at least a half dozen plays to suss out — and recontexualize. “All the associations that a listener may have with an existing piece of music are handed down to the new creation,” Weingarten wrote.

I’m sorry to say that after He Got Game my concentration waned until 2007’s spare, contained How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul?, which I admired long before “Harder Than You Think” became the highest charting single in England as a result of 2012 Summer Olympics exposure. I’ll take any early Bush II era recommendations.

1. Brothers Gonna Work It Out
2. By the Time I Get to Arizona
3. Bring Tha Noize
4. She Watch Channel Zero?!
5. Fight the Power
6. We Got Game
7. Cold Lampin’ with Flavor
8. Burn Hollywood Burn
9. Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos
10. Revolutionary Generation
11. Louder Than a Bomb
12. Sophisticated Bitch
13. Party for Your Right to Fight
14. Can’t Truss It
15. Harder Than You Think
16. Politics of the Sneaker Pimps
17. Lost in Space Music
18. 911 is a Joke
19. Shut’Em Down
20. Sex, Drugs and Violence
21. Terminator X to the Hour of Panic
22. You’re Gonna Get Yours
23. Nighttrain
24. Public Enemy No. 1
25. Revelation 33 1⁄3 Revolutions

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