Rap Rock Is Actually Awesome and We Have Public Enemy to Thank for It
Last week, Public Enemy released their 14th album as a free download. We trace the group's impact, from 90s grunge to nü-metal and everything in between.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images
The best thing I ever did in college was attend a lecture by Chuck D, who had been booked to speak at my campus for reasons I'm not even sure he understood. Rather than rapping, he just talked to the audience for an hour straight, free-associating through a laundry list of topics––he told us about the genesis of Public Enemy and how he met Flavor Flav, explained that after he found out about the football player Buster Rhymes he told a guy named Trevor he should call himself Busta Rhymes before somebody else did, stressed the importance of preaching as a rhetorical form, and claimed that the United States was on the verge of merging currencies with Mexico and Canada, which meant that we all needed to get passports. It was hilarious, insightful, informative, and at times utterly baffling, but my main takeaway from his talk was that Chuck D is an eccentric genius and Public Enemy is maybe the most influential rap group of all time.
Last Friday, amid all the hullaballoo about JAY-Z's 4:44, Public Enemy quietly released Nothing Is Quick in the Desert, their 14th album, which was available for free download on Bandcamp until July 4th. It's basically everything you could ask for in a Public Enemy album in 2017––full of righteous fury, slightly outdated politics, and Chuck D showing absolutely no consideration to the fact that his straight-ahead, staccato bullhorn flow has been outmoded by several generations of other rappers. Following the departure of The Bomb Squad from the group, P.E. was musically adrift for a few years, eventually picking up guitar wunderkind Khari Wynn, who became the group's musical director in 2011. As a result, a lot of Nothing Is Quick in the Desert is full of crunchy riffs, and a good half of the record scans as straight-up rap-rock (not to mention, the album's cover looks a lot like the work of Ed Repka, who did the art for like a bazillion Megadeth albums.
Then again, Public Enemy has always been sort of a rock band. Even when the band wasn't sampling Slayer on "She Watch Channel Zero," collaborating with Living Colour for "Funny Vibe," and re-recording "Bring the Noise" with Anthrax, Terminator X's turntablism often served as a surrogate lead guitar, and Chuck D's booming delivery eschewed the jazzy inflections of Rakim and KRS-One in favor of a cadence that had the directness of a hardcore barker. More than anything else, the whirring cacophony and unexpected left turns that characterized The Bomb Squad's production work offered listeners the same the same twitchy aggression that could be found in a slab of choice thrash. So when I say that Public Enemy is maybe the most influential rap group of all time, I mean that in addition to helping guide hip-hop's sense of social consciousness, they also opened up the door for nü-metal, perhaps the most maligned and misunderstood genre to emerge in our lifetimes.
In perhaps the most unintentionally hilarious article about music I've ever read, the critic Steven Hyden wrote that nü-metal "wiped away the gains alternative rock had made in the early 90s… grunge was consumed by a new beast, and vomited back up with the most rank, least edible chunks of metal and hip-hop." This, I think, is the wrong way to think about how popular music works––not as a battle between authenticity and corporate schlock, but as an aesthetic pendulum, constantly swinging between music that adheres to a genre's core and that which rebels against it, whose speed and direction is a reflection of the greater culture that this music exists in. If grunge had killed hair metal by fusing by-the-book indie and punk with gen-x cynicism, then of course something ridiculous and showy was going to come along and blow it out of the water. As Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park (who, let it be known, is one of the smartest and most enthusiastic musicians I have ever interviewed), put it to me a few years back, "The alternative to 'alternative' was nü-metal."
The early 90s from which nü-metal emerged were in part defined by a cultural desire to co-opt and hybridize. Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992 in part by adopting planks of the Republican platform. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China staved off revolution by incorporating free-market economics into its communist system. A Wesleyan film grad named Michael Bay redefined the blockbuster with his debut film Bad Boys, which paired a famous rapper (Will Smith) and a famous comedian (Martin Lawrence) with car chases and explosions. At its core, nü-metal drew upon a truth that seems obvious in retrospect: that for many, the appeal of hip-hop was that it provided a radical new context for the aggression and intensity that typified rock at its heaviest, and if someone were to combine elements of each, they might have something pretty massive on their hands.
With the rise of hip-hop groups such as Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, and Run-DMC flirting with rock music, as well as rock bands such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, Faith No More, and Anthrax bringing hip-hop into their sound, it was only natural that a wave of groups would come along with a perfect hybrid of the two. "Influence is not a kind of copying, it is permission unexpectedly received to do things in new ways," wrote the scholar Fredric Jameson, and early nü-metal acts such as Korn, Rage Against the Machine, and Deftones crackled with the energy of the possible. When I spoke with Shinoda, he explained, "When I was [a teenager] I was listening to Public Enemy and N.W.A. and Rakim. And when I did get into rock, it was Metallica and Alice in Chains. The nü-metal thing… spawned from people learning from those bands."
Curiously, nü-metal's rise also coincided with the introduction of the idea of scrappy start-ups "disrupting" various industries, a theory that, however dubious it may prove to be, began gaining traction in the tech world before the dot-com bubble burst. Just as small companies such as Google and Blackberry saw the internet and increased microprocessing power as avenues to upend the way we go about our everyday lives, nü-metal bands were using new technologies (i.e., turntables and samplers, as well as vocal techniques cribbed from hip-hop) to make a kind of music that, for better or worse, was legitimately new. And, for whatever reason, people were in the mood for something new. Once nü-metal's first wave got the ball rolling, the market got stuffed with cash-ins and posers. "If a scene is happening, no one wants to be left behind," metal label vet Gordon Conrad told Decibel in 2015. "Bands who are working really hard, they are all ultimately trying to do the same thing: help their band grow. And when everything in the top and middle levels are saturated with nü-metal… [it's hard to] not get caught up with it." By the mid-90s, even legacy metal acts such as Sepultura and Slayer had dipped their toes in the style. Which, in retrospect, might have been the first sign nü-metal would end in a quick and unceremonious death. Just as the dotcom bubble burst, pop music was barraged with so much nu-metal that what had seemed fresh and new just years before quickly felt tepid and unoriginal.
The meteoric rise and quick dismissal of the style en masse is a case study in how perceptions of quality inform the aesthetic terms we use to describe music. Limp Bizkit were essentially one screening of a Weathermen documentary away from being Rage Against the Machine––when I saw them a couple years back they actually closed with a cover of "Killing in the Name Of"––but because critics liked Rage they were labeled "punk" while Limp was lumped in with nü-metal. One detail of the nü-metal era that many tend to gloss over is that there was pretty significant crossover between it and actually good rap music. Ice Cube recorded the track "Fuck Dying" with Korn; Cypress Hill's "Rock Superstar" featured Chino Moreno of Deftones; Crazy Town somehow convinced KRS-One to rap on their debut album, The Gift of Game. Limp Bizkit, meanwhile, managed to use the gravitational pull of their massive success to wrangle collaborations with (*inhales deeply*) Method Man and Redman, Swizz Beatz, DMX, Xzibit, Snoop Dogg, Neptunes, E-40, 8-Ball, Timbaland, Diddy, Bubba Sparxxx, DJ Premier, Ice Cube, Birdman, Run-DMC, Lil Kim, Rock from Heltah Skeltah, and Lil Wayne. And not only is Linkin Park's Collision Course EP with JAY-Z a thing that totally happened, but their remix album Reanimation featured a who's-who of the west coast underground rappers that Shinoda loved.
Regardless how people feel about a given sound, if there are enough smart, charismatic, and talented people working within it, it's bound to produce some good––or at least interesting––shit. The rap-rocktastic Judgment Night soundtrack featured kind of incredible collaborations between Cypress Hill and Sonic Youth ("I Love You Mary Jane"), as well as Del the Funkee Homosapien and Dinosaur Jr. (the charmingly titled "Missing Link"). Biohazard and Onyx toured together as BIOnyx and released a remix of "Slam" that should be required listening for basically anybody ready to knuckle up on somebody. Early Marilyn Manson, Korn, and Deftones truly did sound like nothing else that had come before it, and if you watch a video of Kid Rock, fresh off the success of Devil Without a Cause, playing Woodstock '99, he shows a magnetism and eclecticism that explains how he became a nü-metal superstar and then seamlessly switched over to essentially becoming a country singer.
But when you're flying without a sense of historical context, let alone a net, it's easy to plummet back to earth. Just as nü-metal killed grunge, pop-punk in the mainstream and the Strokes-led wave of no-frills indie rock in the underground slowly ate into nü-metal's market share, and have since been supplanted by a wave of bands who are ostensibly rock but more indebted to folk, electronic music, and sometimes both. At this point, mainstream rock has never been mellower or less guitar-centric, concerned with providing tasteful music stuffed with hooks rather than terrifying some kid's parents (ironically, Linkin Park's current hit, "Heavy," is an extremely un-heavy synth-pop song). Meanwhile, there's a new wave of critics and musicians who grew up listening to nü-metal and remember it fondly, even if they tend to coat their nostalgia in the hefty dollop of irony requisite for expressing public appreciation for things we enjoyed when we were younger. But on some level, that appreciation is legitimate, and some day not too far into the future, we may wake up and find that the staid festival-rock dominating popular music has been replaced with something as over-the-top, absurd, and novel as nü-metal once felt.
Recently, people have begun to begrudgingly accept the idea that fusing rap and rock together is not an inherently terrible idea. One of the most visceral albums of the past few months was the self-titled debut of Powerflo, which finds Biohazard's Billy Graziadei and Fear Factory's Christian Wolbers delivering pummeling riffs over which Sen Dog from Cypress Hill raps his ass off. The rap-obsessed hardcore band Cold World has collaborated with Kool G Rap, Meyhem Lauren, and Sean Price. Antwon and Kerry McCoy of Deafheaven, who are friends and occasional collaborators, redid the rapper's "In Dark Denim" as a shoegaze-rap song. And in the build-up to Young Thug's Beautiful Thugger Girls, he retweeted his engineer saying that Thug "could make a death metal album and it'd be fire at this point." Given Thug's tendency to depart on flights of post-genre experimentation, it's not out of the question that he actually might just try it. And if it does happen, Chuck D will be somewhere, hopefully at a lectern, feeling vindicated.
Future Days is a weekly column by Drew Millard. If you agree or disagree with what he writes, feel free to text him at 828-675-8574.
Drew Millard used to work at Noisey, but now he doesn't, so now he has this column. He lives in North Carolina with his dog. Follow him on Twitter.