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Yo! Bum Rush the Show
Def Jam, 1987
Public Enemy’s longstanding revolutionary image has led to firm preconceptions about the sonic and lyrical style of its releases and the current critical reflex is to heap praise upon the group for the militant manifestos found in It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back and its follow up. It’s often forgotten that prior to this, Chuck D was the party-rocking, sucka-emcee serving voice behind Long Island’s Spectrum City DJ Crew. It’s this younger, brasher Chuck D who helms the group’s debut opus Yo! Bum Rush the Show along with a Rick Rubin-assisted, still-developing Bomb Squad and the already charismatic Flavor Flav. The hardcore, self-proclaimed “Public Enemies” would drop a powerful drum-driven album that simultaneously turned the page on the early Def Jam sound and pointed towards hip-hop’s future.
The opening funk lick and engine revs of “You’re Gonna Get Yours” are the first signs that PE’s debut features a far more minimal approach to production than the layered style they’d later be known for. Combining hard rock instrumentation and crushing, bassy 808 drum machine programming with choice funk/soul loops, the original PE sound is undoubtedly loud if not chaotic. Tailor made to be blasted out of boomin’ systems and boxes, the group’s approach one upped contemporaries LL Cool J and Run DMC with an even more punishing array of beats. “Public Enemy #1”’s sustained synth line, the orchestral warm-up to “My Uzi Weighs a Ton,” Terminator X’s scratched bass drums in lieu of fills on “Sophisticated Bitch” and the perfect-for-a-political-poster pre-chorus breakdown on “Rightstarter” are just some of the highlights, distinguishing the album from the less imaginative competition without sounding over-produced.
Meanwhile, the vocal interplay between Chuck D’s booming baritone and Flava Flav’s treble is already in full effect, noticeably amplified by the filtered, metallic tone of the vocal recordings. Though Flave contributes, Chuck’s rhyming is clearly the main focus, marrying an oldschool party-rocking sensibility to the more modern shouting style his label was known for. The result is a booming, intimidating flow. While he occasionally throws barbs at causes ranging from apartheid to police oppression, the PE front man’s prime concerns for ‘86 are mostly personal in scope: taking out opponents, bragging about his mic skills and getting fly ladies’ numbers. Boasts like “I’m wanted in 50 almost 51, states where the posse got me on the run” and “U.S. defector South African government wrecker” offer a preview of the group’s future direction but in the context of the battle raps, they serve mostly to dispel “the non-believers” rather than fight the power and take down the system. Chuck’s looser and less structured rhymes more than stand up to those of his contemporaries. Yo! Bum Rush the Show stands apart from the rest of PE’s essential recordings but it’s no less vital an album. On the contrary, it stands up to repeated listens due to its more streamlined musical approach and the lighter subject matter, qualities that make it ripe for a modern revival.