This is the 102nd post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine called Public Enemy “the most influential and controversial rap group of the late ’80s and, for many, the definitive rap group of all time.” That’s high praise coming from a music writer who we at Pop Culture Experiment love to quote. And it is praise with which I agree.
The group’s 1987 debut, “Yo! Bum Rush the Show,” demonstrated that Chuck D, Flavor Flav, and and the rest of the crew were a powerful ensemble. “You’re Gonna Get Yours,” “Miuzi Weighs a Ton,” and “Public Enemy No. 1” have all been rightfully referred to as classics, though my favorite track from the record remains the fast and ferocious “Rightstarter (Message to a Black Man).”
But for all the power and talent that “Yo! Bum Rush the Show” indicated, the follow-up a year later was where we got to hear Chuck, Flav, The Bomb Squad, and everyone else associated with Public Enemy rise to the potential they all demonstrated in that first album. Released in 1988, “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” peaked at Number 42 on the Billboard 200 and Number 8 in the UK.
In a review for AllMusic, the aforementioned Erlewine explained what made that sophomore album so good:
…what’s particularly ingenious about the album is how it reconfigures things that came before into a startling, fresh, modern sound. Public Enemy used the template Run-D.M.C. created of a rap crew as a rock band, then brought in elements of free jazz, hard funk, even musique concrète, via their producing team, the Bomb Squad, creating a dense, ferocious sound unlike anything that came before. This coincided with a breakthrough in Chuck D’s writing, both in his themes and lyrics. It’s not that Chuck D was smarter or more ambitious than his contemporaries — certainly, KRS-One tackled many similar sociopolitical tracts, while Rakim had a greater flow — but he marshaled considerable revolutionary force, clear vision, and a boundless vocabulary to create galvanizing, logical arguments that were undeniable in their strength. They only gained strength from Flavor Flav’s frenzied jokes, which provided a needed contrast.
Erlewine is not the only fan of the album. Rolling Stone ranked it Number 48 on the list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The album spawned many singles, including “Rebel Without A Pause,” “Don’t Believe The Hype,” and “Night of the Living Baseheads.” These songs had varying levels of success on the charts, but it retrospect, “Bring The Noise” might be the track that stands out on “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.”
Before appearing on the second Public Enemy album, “Bring The Noise” had appeared on the soundtrack for “Less Than Zero,” the film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel of the same name. The soundtrack also included The Bangles’ cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “A Hazy Shade of Winter.”
In the song, Chuck D masterfully weaved politics, braggadocio, and pop culture references to bring attention to issues while addressing critics. Rolling Stone quoted him as having said, “If they’re callin’ my music ‘noise,’ if they’re saying that I’m really getting out of character being a black person in America, then fine – I’m bringin’ more noise.”
At 109 beats per minute, song was one of the faster rap songs of the era. In Mark Anthony Neal’s book, “That’s the Joint!: The Hip-hop Studies Reader,” Chuck D explained the approach he and the rest of the group took toward the song:
Rap comes from the idea of a deejay working a party. A lot of our decisions are still based on that structure. We figure the thing that makes people really respond is changes in beats-per-minute. At one time, most of the rap music coming out was around 99 to 102 beats per minute, and that’s what made us do “Bring the Noise”… where we jetted it up to 109. We changed the whole approach to rap by putting a different rhyme style over it. We tried to make that album like Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” in a fast, hectic rhythm. Then once we’d established that pattern, everybody followed. Young MC and all those guys started getting up there.
At that pace, “Bring The Noise” was that much more impressive, as Chuck D not only had to rhyme and flow, he had to do it quickly. And these lyrics are not easy to rap fast. Trust me, I have tried. The real tongue-twisters come when Chuck is name-dropping left and right:
Get from in front of me, the crowd runs to me
My deejay is warm, he’s X, I call him Norm, ya know
He can cut a record from side to side
So what, the ride, the glide should be much safer than a suicide
Soul control, beat is the father of your rock’n’roll
Music for whatcha, for whichin’, you call a band, man
Making a music, abuse it, but you can’t do it, ya know
You call ’em demos, but we ride limos, too
Whatcha gonna do? Rap is not afraid of you
Beat is for Sonny Bono, beat is for Yoko Ono
Run-DMC first said a deejay could be a band
Stand on its feet, get you out your seat
Beat is for Eric B. and LL as well, hell
Wax is for Anthrax, still it can rock bells
Ever forever, universal, it will sell
Time for me to exit, Terminator X-it
The precision with which Chuck D can say each of these lyrics is impressive. But just as impressive is how he draws from all sorts of influences. In addition to mentioning hip-hop peers Eric B., Run DMC, and LL Cool J, Chuck also mentioned Sunny Bono and Yoko Ono, two artists who would be well-known to a wide audience.
But buried in those lyrics was another reference: Anthrax. Chuck D decided to give the metal band a shout-out seeing Anthrax perform in 1987. Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian was a huge fan, and often wore Public Enemy shirts onstage. The blossoming appreciation that the two groups had for each other eventually led to Chuck D and Anthrax collaborating on a version of “Bring The Noise.”
But the key word is “eventually.” “Bring The Noise” had awakened a desire within Ian to collaborate with Chuck and Public Enemy. When Anthrax was finishing its 1990 album, “Persistence of Time,” Ian pitched his bandmates the idea of covering “Bring The Noise.” He transposed the horn part and came up with a guitar riff. He then recorded a cassette tape that he sent to Chuck D. But when Ian called Chuck to let him know the tape was coming, Chuck was skeptical, suggesting they record something new together instead. Rick Rubin, Public Enemy’s producer, said the same thing.
Then Chuck listened to the tape. Ian told Tablet that Chuck’s response was, “‘Holy shit. This is slamming. When do you need us? When and where?'”
A video was recorded when Public Enemy had a day off in Chicago. A tour followed in 1991, and the song ultimately peaked at Number 14 in the UK. But the collaboration was not without snags. Many people wondered how Ian, a Jewish man, could perform a song that glorified Louis Farrakhan in the first verse:
Now they got me in a cell cause my records, they sell
Cause a brother like me said, “Well
Farrakhan’s a prophet and I think you ought to listen to
What he can say to you, what you wanna do is follow for now”
Farrakhan, who has led the Nation of Islam since 1977, has a long history of anti-Semitism. And then there were controversies within Public Enemy. In a 1989 interview with The Washington Times, non-performing member Professor Griff said, “The Jews are wicked. And we can prove this.” Griff was then fired from the group, but was allowed back in after apologizing, much to the dismay of some Jewish groups. Public Enemy’s affiliation with Griff led many not just to boycott Public Enemy, but to boycott Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing.” Lee’s film, which came out the same year as Griff’s comments, had used Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” prominently.
In many interviews, Ian was asked how he could tour with such a group. As he told Tablet:
I can’t tell you how many interviews I did back then, in 1991, when people said, “How could you work with Public Enemy? They hate Jews, they hate whites.” And I said, “Well, if they hate Jews and they hate white people, they’re all really great actors because I just spent two months on tour with those guys and we had the best time ever.” Especially Professor Griff, who got the most heat back in the day. He was my best friend on that tour, and even now when I see Griff it’s all hugs and kisses. I’m like, if these guys hate me, they’ve got a good way of not showing it, you know?
…My attitude with it is I never judge anyone until I meet them. And obviously I already knew Chuck, and I never felt for one second that this guy had an evil bone in his body, so what he felt about Farrakhan wasn’t my business. My business was my relationship with Chuck D.
That relationship has endured, as has “Bring The Noise.” This was not the first rap/rock collaboration, as Run-DMC and Aerosmith had already reworked “Walk This Way” in 1986. Nor was it Anthrax’s first foray into rap; that had been “I’m The Man.” But in “Bring The Noise,” Public Enemy and Anthrax were able to reach wider audiences.
None of the subsequent versions of “Bring The Noise” had the reach of this one, though. And that’s probably a good thing.
In 2000, “Bring The Noise” became a country song when a band called The Unholy Trio contributed a cover of the song to the compilation, “Down to the Promised Land: 5 Years of Bloodshot Records.” The premise of a black man’s pointed rhymes about Farrakhan and police treatment of black Americans being sung by a white man won’t sit well with everyone, especially when the song is performed as a country tune. But the delivery sounded entertaining, until the interlude with “Dixie” in the middle. As entertaining as the song might have been up until that point, putting “Dixie” in the middle was a middle finger to Chuck D, Public Enemy, and “Bring The Noise.” Not to mention that the video was weird, and apparently banned by YouTube for a time.
That same year, a version by Fred Durst and Staind appeared on the compilation, “Take a Bite Outta Rhyme: A Rock Tribute to Rap.” This collection’s most famous track is probably Dynamite Hack’s cover of “Boyz-N-The Hood.” By the end of the Durst and Staind version of “Bring The Noise,” the song devolved into a sampling of different ways Durst could say “fuck.”
In that recorded cover, Durst and Staind had slowed “Bring The Noise” down. At first, it was hard to tell if that was because that was they style of rap metal at the time, or if because Chuck D’s flow on the original is too challenging to emulate. After watching some videos of Limp Bizkit playing the song live with Anthrax, though…
…I realized I may have underestimated how fast Durst could rap. And it wasn’t a one-time thing, either…
Granted, his delivery is not as crisp as Chuck D’s, but that’s a high bar, and as someone who has tried to rap this song myself, I can appreciate the challenge of getting it out with the enunciation and speed that Durst had.
Of all of these versions, none were as big as the version Anthrax did with Chuck D. I have to ask, though: Should we consider the Anthrax version of “Bring The Noise” a cover? It doesn’t have the samples that the Public Enemy version did, but it did include original lyricist and rapper Chuck D. In past posts, I’ve split hairs about whether or not versions that include the original artists should be considered covers. I particularly belabored the point when reviewing “Our Lips Are Sealed.” In that song, I argued that because Terry Hall and Jane Wiedlin co-wrote the song, neither version that they performed on could be a cover. That meant that the versions by Fun Boy Three and The Go-Go’s were disqualified from being covers, as was the version Wiedlin herself recorded.
By that logic alone, I would initially be inclined to say that any version of “Bring The Noise” that featured Chuck D rapping would not be a cover. But if you listen the song closely, you’ll realize that it’s more Anthrax than Public Enemy. Chuck sings, but only at the beginning before turning it over to Anthrax. So, enough of this version of “Bring The Noise” is different from the original that I would rule that yes, this counts as a cover, even if it’s a cover with an asterisk.
And it’s a cover that had some influence. It was fitting that Durst, Limp Bizkit, and Staind would want to cover the song, because that version by Anthrax helped pave the way for rap/rock bands like Limp Bizkit. And of the covers we’ve reviewed so far, how many covers can we say helped create a genre?