It’s hard to put across to anyone who wasn’t around then exactly how important and feared Public Enemy were as the eighties bled into the nineties. As the Berlin Wall fell in Europe, the USA faced its own internal demons, and the rise of intelligent, combative, hip hop caused more fear and alarm in white America than gangsta rap and the hyperbole around it.
From afar, the USA appears to have socially regressed in recent years, and the time has never been more appropriate for Public Enemy to be front and centre. With new album What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down?, they’ve teamed up with a roster of collaborations that will catch the eye of both a younger and, possibly, a returning audience. It also signals their return to Def Jam, the label they helped build. The end result is a curious mish-mash of revisited classics, loquacious rage, and end-of-a-long-life ruminations.
Track by Track
Not being a big fan of needless intro tracks, ‘When The Grid Go Down’ is a pleasantly groovy surprise right off the bat. Swirling wah guitar and a guest spot for the legendary George Clinton set an immediate tone, before a holler from Flavor Flav kicks off ‘GRID’, a stylistically classic slice of nodding PE. Dr Funkenstein and Cypress Hill chime in to give the track massive presence, and Sen Dog even does his trademark repeat of the chorus hook.
‘State of The Union (STFU)’ is a slouchy, deliberate, punchy groove from start to finish and is a direct missive to the current White House incumbent. ‘Whatever it takes / rid this dictator / POTUS my tail / ass debater’ spits Chuck D in the same smooth but directly aggressive flow he’s always had.
‘Merica Mirror’ is basically an intro to ‘Public Enemy Number Won’, a new version of the PE classic standard with added Beastie Boys and Run DMC. The original squelchy synth line upon which both versions hang is at the front of the mix, but Mike D and Ad-Rock rhyming over it brings a really different flavour to the original. However, something about the mega-eighties production of the original has always been part of its charm, and this update isn’t really necessary.
Previously released in 2017, ‘Toxic’ is a stuttering track, again directed at that regrettably half-Scottish guy that hangs about Washington DC. The track shouts out the names of a couple of basketball players, before segueing into ‘Yesterday Man’, which includes an unnecessarily brash metal guitar line, before giving way to James Bomb’s spoken word ‘Crossroads Burning’.
I approached ‘Fight The Power: Remix 2020’ with trepidation – not wanting an old masterpiece spoiled with unnecessary bells and whistles or the removal of the famous James Brown sample drumbeat. I needn’t have worried.
The verses from the likes of Nas, The Roots’ Black Thought and MC Rapsody have further embellished what was already great, and when Chuck brings back his famous ‘Elvis’ verse, I literally jumped in triumph.
One of the more forgettable moments on the album, ‘Beat Them All’ nonetheless has a second half that salvages its first plodding couple of minutes.
‘Smash The Crowd’ brings us a much more agreeably compressed guitar line, and features Ice T and PMD. The production is pleasingly saturated, meaning Ice T’s sneering delivery sounds all the more succinct when it takes centre stage.
‘If You Can’t Join Em Beat Em’ is just under a minute long, but sees DJ Lord focusing on the sort of turntablism that made Terminator X’s historic contributions so scattily enjoyable.
Jahi (who fronted PE 2.0 – a sort of licensed PE tribute act with slightly more invention) features prominently on ‘Go At It’, which is the best original track on the album. There’s a lot going on in the mix as samples, basslines and breaks meet and split and Jahi’s raspier delivery contrasts with Chuck’s smooth interjections. Every time the beat comes back it’s a funky revelation.
The last few tracks of the album turn their attention to loss and the passing of time. ‘Don’t Look At The Sky’ is a spoken word track that introduces ‘Rest In Beats’, another re-work from 2017’s Nothing is Quick in the Desert. The track is still an audio version of pouring one out for lost friends, name checking various lost legends of hip hop. Here it’s been remixed to give a more dynamic, growing track, where the layering of elements probably owes more to the sensibilities of dance music than hip hop. ‘
RIP Blackat’ is Flav’s direct tribute to graphic artist and friend Clyde Bazile Jr. It’s a hitherto unseen side of Flav, conveying a sweetness that’s at once childlike and brought from the voice of experience.
Final track ‘Closing: I Am Black’ is a simple poem by Ms Ariel that sounds like an acrostic but is really a list of identifying qualities.
Despite me earnestly loving WYGDWTGGD, it is a strange album. The reworked older tracks aren’t a waste of anyone’s time but are unlikely to make anyone rethink whether they love Public Enemy or not. The first half roars like a defiant lion at 21st century America and its political authoritarianism, but it signs off with all the sombre reflection you’d expect from men that have lived the Black American experience, from the sixties, through an era of a Black president, and back to whatever the hell is going on over there just now.
What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down? is out now on Def Jam
This article was first published in the October 2020 issue of SNACK magazine. You can read the full magazine below on your smartphone, tablet, or pc.