An Oral History Of Yo! Bum Rush The Show Reveals How P.E. Launched A Revolution
Thirty years ago today, one of Hip-Hop’s most consistent forces unleashed its game-changing first album. On February 10, 1987, Public Enemy debuted Yo! Bum Rush The Show. The story began half a decade before. Meanwhile, 30 calendars deeper, Heads are still learning interesting facts and anecdotes about the Def Jam Records LP that helped put Long Island on the Rap map, while making a lasting introduction for Chuck D, Flavor Flav, The Bomb Squad production outfit, and more.
Veteran journalist Jerry Barrow compiled an astounding, eight-page “secret history” of the album for OkayPlayer. He spoke to Chuck, multiple producers, artists, and Def Jam Records staff for a host of revelations, and a chronological walk by through one of the finest LPs of the late 1980s. This is a feast of facts, for an album that goes down in history as a great, but not even Public Enemy’s most renowned.
Notably, the nucleus of the group did not begin with Chuck. Like so much Hip-Hop in the first dozen or so years as a culture, it apparently began with a DJ. “I was the guy that brought everybody to the table when I found Chuck [D], who was doing an announcement at a party,” recalls Spectrum City member Hank Shocklee. With brother Keith, Bill Stephney, and others, would create the P.E. sound. He attended a Rap battle at Long Island’s Adelphi University. “There was one mic and everybody had to bust a verse and all these cats were wack. So I had to sit through this nonsense and hopefully see somebody [I liked] because I was looking for an MC for my DJ set. And Chuck came on and did an announcement for a party and I was like, ‘Woah!’”
Chuck also remembers those gatherings. “Everybody would go to the parties at Adelphi. Thursday night was Black time. Eddie Murphy used to get on the mic and MC, while Keith Shocklee DJ’d. He was down with Spectrum. I was just a fan of Spectrum [City] and Hank [Shocklee] at the time. Hank was like the Afrika Bambaataa of Long Island. He’s the Phil Spector of Hip-Hop. He’s a master of records and also of sound.” Classmates, Chuck initially planned on approaching the Shocklee Brothers to solicit his services of improving their party flyers. (Chuck would later draft “87%” of the P.E. logo).
Hank Shocklee, who would never be credited as a member of P.E., did help mastermind the group dynamic. “Our whole mission was being an outsider coming into the game to change the game. That’s why we weren’t ‘the rapper and the DJ.’ It was a coup,” he notes. “You not supposed to know who the rapper was or who produced the record. What P.E. represented was neither one of us becoming superstars. It was in opposition of that. It’s supposed to be the community coming at you. It’s why we had the S1Ws. No one was supposed to know their role, but it was paramount, because everybody needs backup.” Hank said that Def Jam’s co-founder, Rick Rubin, wanted a one MC, one DJ group. The emerging label, now backed by Columbia Records found great success with LL Cool J two years earlier, and began with T. La Rock. While the Beastie Boys were Def Jam’s flagship act in 1986, the logistics of a solo act were much easier for the label director, who also hailed from Long Isle. The piece also chronicles how a whiteboard note led the group to a name change, inspired by Rap’s merger with Punk Rock, that would help give it the proper image.
While Rick Rubin would eventually contribute to the sound direction of the impending album (he is not interviewed for the piece), P.E. deliberately wanted to sound apart from some of Rubin’s other successes. “Everybody else was hybriding with live musicians and drum machines. Run-D.M.C. and Whodini were using keyboard players, bass players, guitar players,” Hank Shocklee points out. “All we had was [$5,000], so you can’t hire musicians with five grand. The record had to be made from what I had—my records.” The man who would eventually co-produce “Poison” for Bell Biv DeVoe and tracks for Eric B. & Rakim explains, “I wanted to compose the whole thing only using the samples inside the drum machine and using the DJ as the musician. Scratches and cuts were the instruments being played in this [album]. Then taking little snatches of records to build them up and create an idea. That idea had to be grounded in the grit, the backdrop of pain, angry and angst, because my community was being shredded. It had the backbone of racism we were feeling that was analog back then. Therefore P.E. was that awakening, it needed to be loud and obnoxious. It needed to be in-harmonic because harmony represented compliance.” The music matches the social politics of the MC.
With the paltry budget, the group used I.N.S. Recording in the Financial District. There, they waited while acts like Mantronix and Keith Sweat (with Vincent Davis and Teddy Riley at the boards) used prime-time sessions, as the crew (balancing jobs) recorded what would become Yo! Bum Rush… through the night. “I couldn’t wait to get in and rip what they’re doing to shreds—that was the mindset,” remembers Hank. “[The available studio time] made me realize I had a chance to deliver seven songs. We were just supposed to go in there and do a single. But I said let’s give Rick [Rubin] seven songs. We were there everyday. Me, Chuck and Eric Sadler. This was in ’86.” Shocklee points to his military background in R.O.T.C. as a backbone for his discipline at that time.
In those sessions, the group found its identity through interplay. Shocklee, who scored American Gangster nearly a decade ago, describes the P.E. musical theory as “Attack and release: Chuck is giving you the attack, Flav is the release.” Cadence mattered especially in this group of distinct voices. “I can hear phonetically every consonant and every vowel. That’s why Flavor [Flav] was there. It wasn’t his job to get lines. His job was to add punctuation. Punctuation is what makes language colorful. He added a warmth and friendliness. He’s very inviting while Chuck is standoffish. He’s attacking you. So you can’t be assaulted for but so long before you’re like ‘enough.’ From a radio perspective Chuck is the record and Flav is the DJ. The hardest thing in the world is to make the complex simple.” While the theory behind the LP may have been complex, the groundbreaking work was simple to many Hip-Hop Heads in early ’87: it was dope beats and dope rhymes.
Diving into the album, Chuck D makes an interesting revelation about opener “You’re Gonna Get Yours.” The song, often thought to be an ode to the Oldsmobile Ninety Eight model, was not exactly non-fiction or a car song…to the man who penned it.
“I never really did have a Ninety Eight Olds’. It sat on cinder blocks,” admits Chuck, who was 26 years old when the LP hit stores. “I actually had a Mercury Zephyr. My very first car was a ’68 [Chevrolet] Chevelle that I put a ’69 bumper on, because back in the day you had to put a car together.” The opener was in fact a salute to a crew who did have long sedans with white wall tires. “The song was a dedication to the ’98 Posse, a group of Long Island thug gangsters that always came to our events.” Chuck, who notes that he was regularly riding public transit, adds that LP/cassette tape sides of “E” and “F” were nods to the Long Island-directed trains from Manhattan. Some of the song’s producers, including Hank, felt the song was more honoring the Olds’ (and cars as a necessity on Long Island, as compared to the five boroughs), adding to the song’s wide application.
While there is a breakdown of many of the album’s 12 songs (while “Public Enemy #1” began as an early ’80s radio bumper by Chuck and Flav’, “Timebomb” was the first song recorded for the LP), what may be a parting fact of note is Yo!‘s reception. Moreover, the layered samples of “Myuzi Weighs A Ton” would be the foundation for The Bomb Squad’s niche. The track uses vocals from Bill Stephney and Flavor Flav, over top of two distinct samples, including Melvin Bliss’ “Synthetic Substitution” at a decreased pitch. This formula would come into definitive play on 1988’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back.
Bill Adler, now an accomplished author, historian, museum curator, and Too Old To Die Young podcast creator recalls The Village Voice review. Penned by John Leland (now of The New York Times), the title sent Chuck D off to write one of his coming classics. “Leland writes a review of the [Yo! Bum Rush The Show] and the headline was ‘Noise Annoys.’ He’s talking about that really deliberately ugly tone that opens up ‘Public Enemy #1.’ It was sampled from The J.B.’s and John hears it and praises it from a Punk Rock perspective,” deduces Bill (tka “Ill Badler). “Chuck saw the headline and got really mad. He sat down and wrote ‘Bring The Noise.’ He [basically] said you thought that was noisy? We’re really going to bring the noise. If you ask him today if it was a positive review he probably couldn’t tell you because he didn’t read it. But I’m here to tell you it was a positive review.”
Positive or otherwise, the review marked one of the first reactions to Public Enemy. The group would remain at Def Jam Records for nearly a dozen more years, releasing five more albums (two were Top 10s) and multiple compilations. P.E. last released Man Plans God Laughs in 2015.
Yo! The Bum Rush was later certified gold. Following that LP, Bill Stephney, who is prominently interviewed in Okay Player‘s extensive look back, would leave The Bomb Squad to focus on label duties at Def Jam. In the last year, Chuck D has rocked the world, quite literally, by joining Cypress Hill’s B-Real and members of Rage Against The Machine in band Prophets Of Rage.