Public Enemy Return With Their Original Vitality on ‘What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down?’
When Public Enemy released “Fight the Power” in 1989, they introduced a bold rebellion and social consciousness that changed the face of hip-hop. In 2020, with the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many more having brought the issue of systemic racism to the forefront of politics, Public Enemy’s message is more relevant than ever. We last heard from the group in a publicity stunt involving hype man Flavor Flav’s failure to show up at a Bernie Sanders rally. The incident created a buzz in anticipation of “Loud Is Not Enough,” a record released under the moniker Enemy Radio, in collaboration with Oakland rapper Jahi. While that release celebrated the minimalism of turntables and a microphone, Public Enemy’s latest album, “What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down?” finds Chuck D, Flavor Flav, and DJ Lord reviving and amplifying their classic sound with all their original verve and edge.
“Bring the Noise,” from 1988’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,” referred to a specific sound that set Public Enemy apart. “The noise” was a charged, colorful update on the relatively minimal boom bap basis that had previously dominated hip-hop, with samples chopped and sliced with a prescient boldness, over hard beats, punctuated with scratching and all sorts of colorful found sound. This “noise” is on display at the onset of the titular opener, featuring none other than George Clinton. Chuck D and crew have centered on a very valid modern day concern: what would you do if the grid went down? Those who ask Siri about the weather instead of looking out of the window would be in for a nasty surprise, and the hunter gatherers of the Amazon would likely have a better chance at survival than the “developed” word. Clinton stays on for “GRID,” joined by Cypress Hill. The song runs like an indictment of reliance on technology, almost to the extent of Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto. In this case, it’s delivered with a more becoming, festive bombast, with rappers taking turns, spitting verses with as much vigor and enthusiasm as in Public Enemy’s heyday. B Real puts his stamp on the track, with his outlandishly nasal, trademark voice. Flavor Flav is on hype man duties, and the crew rap over a metal guitar solo that fits the song in its unabashed indulgence and flash.
“State of the Union,” featuring the illustrious DJ Premier, is an unhinged attack on Trump, Public Enemy might be the most vocally political rap group in history, and this song is in line with their tradition, but somewhat sells them short lyrically. Chuck D could have easily taken apart specific policies and issues as he has so often done. Instead he turns out the most generic criticism, likening Trump to a Nazi and ridiculing his hair. When he raps, “Better rock that vote or vote for hell,” it’s hard not to feel like you’re being sold something with a halfhearted effort. Still, there’s enough passion in the song to carry its weight, as Chuck D growls with fury, and Flavor Flav raps, “Sorry ass motherfucker, stay away from me” in a way that hits hard, and compels you to at least nod your head. The next track, “Merica Mirror,” is a bit more targeted, with featured artist Pop Diesel speaking, “America has bought all of her troubles up on herself / She alone is to be charged with being the cause of the troubled word.” Even the most enthusiastic patriots should recognize some truth in this.
The definitive single “Public Enemy No. 1” is revisited on “Public Enemy Number Won.” An update on a classic hit is always a risky affair, but Public Enemy have a no nonsense persona that makes it work. Ad-Rock and Mike D of the Beastie Boys begin the track, reminiscing about when Rick Rubin first introduced them to Public Enemy in ‘85. The nostalgia here should be a special treat for anyone who has seen “The Beastie Boys Story,” the documentary released earlier this year. Rev Run of Run DMC drops the first verse, followed by the Beasties. While most rappers alter their style of delivery to fit the current of popular music, the Beastie Boys have always generally stuck to the old school way of spitting bars, with their rapping serving as the constant in an ambitious evolution. It’s Run DMC after whom the Beasties largely modeled their act in the first place, so this track is monumental in the era-defining talents that it brings together. DJ Lord, the man behind the decks, takes the spotlight at the end, with a jaw dropping performance.
Chuck D is dead serious on “Toxic,” rapping with a formidable ferocity, taking stabs at the state of hip-hop and at Trump again. The chorus seems to nod to Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage,” not just because Chuck D uses that word, but because of how he delivers his syllables. It could be a mere coincidence, but most likely not. The ‘80s guitar solos that colored “GRID” come back with full force on “Yesterday Man.” Daddy O contributes a half-singing bit that sounds a bit out of place, although it’s a novel spin on the sound. When Chuck D raps,”Tomorrow we’ll all still be yesterday men,” it recalls the frustration with reliance on technology hinted at on “GRID,” and also serves as a defense of bringing yesterday’s styles to today with a bold defiance of times and trends. A chant of “What happened” comes interspersed with lines like “Kanye marryin’ Kim / Bruce Jenner turned to fem.”
This is a comeback album of the highest ambitions, and Public Enemy continue with a star-studded 2020 remix of their seminal hit “Fight the Power.” Chuck D raps with all the vigor and vitality of the original. Nas drops a quick and pointed verse, and ends tipping his hat to Public Enemy. He has long worn the influence of Chuck D and crew on his sleeve, in both his social consciousness and the boom bap stylings that characterized songs like “Made You Look.” Rapsody stands out as a female voice on the album, and her verse is a high octane riot, referencing Fred Hampton, Booker T. Washington and Breonna Taylor. Black Thought of the Roots drops a verse, at one point referring to, “The revolution on all platforms.” Gil Scott Heron once claimed, “The revolution will not be televised,” but television is hardly relevant anymore. Jahi calls out institutionalized racism and again shouts out to Breonna Taylor, and YG follows, noting, “History class ain’t tell us ‘bout Juneteenth.”
“Beat Them All” features a chanted chorus that screams of flattops and eight edition Jordans. Public Enemy’s trademark noise is on display at its most colorful, in a perfect example of music well suited for the energy and passion of the accompanying lyrics. “Smash the Crowd” draws from the rap rock sounds that Chuck D dabbled with in Prophets of Rage with Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello. Among the pioneers of that sound was Ice-T, who blended the genres with Body Count, and he drops a verse here, sounding fully in his element. Distorted vocals give the track a raw energy brought over the top by Flavor Flav’s hype man antics. The interlude “If You Can’t Join Em Beat Em” fleshes out a line from “Beat Them All” with a beat of brass and cymbals that looks back to the earliest days of hip-hop. Jahi returns on “Go At It,” over blaring guitars. When Public Enemy experiments with their rock rap fusion, the rock emerges from the energy of hip-hop, rather than the other way around.
Public Enemy shine a light on several unrecognized artists over the course of the album, among them the Imossibulls, who deliver razor sharp, classic rap on “Rest In Beats,” a track that memorializes rappers we have lost, with shout outs to the likes of B.I.G. and Eazy E. Flavor Flav takes the spotlight on “R.I.P. Blackat,” and puts on a performance that makes one wish he would take on a more active role more often. The way he wears his heart on his sleeve without any machismo fear of coming across as sappy, in his refrain of “I Miss you, dog,” is endearing. Finally comes a short spoken word outro, “Closing: I Am Black,” with a female voice beginning, “I am black,” and running through a litany of adjectives, ending with “influential, unapologetic, and woke.”
These last words encapsulate Public Enemy. While the incessant braggadocio of hip-hop can so often ring hollow, Chuck D and crew have earned their bragging rights. They were “woke” before the term existed, and the world is only now catching up to what they first put forth over two decades ago. A sound as tightly tied to a specific era as Public Enemy’s can easily devolve into retro rehashing, and it’s a considerable feat that they manage to endure without ever sounding stale. Towards the end of the album, the tracklisting can seem a bit hastily pieced together. Apart from that, however, “What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down?” is quite flawless. The collaborations with Cypress Hill, Rev Run, Ice-T, Mike D and Ad-Rock make the album a goldmine for hip-hop heads. Chuck D’s righteous indignation, Flavor Flav’s flamboyant antics, and DJ Lord’s trademark noise sound as vital as ever, and achieve a new resonance in the present moment.
“What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down?” releases Sept. 25 on Apple Music.