Key Tracks: Chuck D on “Public Enemy No. 1”

In light of our recently published oral history of Public Enemy’s performance at Rikers Island, we decided to dip into Chuck D’s 2008 lecture at the Academy for the next edition of our Key Tracks

View all series. Here, the PE frontman chats about one of the group’s earliest tunes, the Fred Wesley-sampling “Public Enemy No. 1.”

Public Enemy - Public Enemy Number One (Live 1987)

We wanted to make some music that your girlfriend was going to hate.

We didn’t make the sounds on “Public Enemy No. 1.” We wanted to be able to make a new arrangement of the sounds [from our records]. We had a knowledge of the records, we had a respect for the records and the different genres. Our thing was trying to make it all work. We didn’t know where R&B was in the mid-’80s. We thought the worst thing that ever happened to it was the use of synthesizers, or rather when synthesizers started to use the musician.

Stevie Wonder would pimp the hell out of a synthesizer, but synthesizers and drum machines started to use the producer. So you would have this corny ass [makes beat with mouth] that we wanted to rebel against. Most music made from 1979 to 1986 – except for rap records and a few organic records – was terrible, just wack. We wanted to make some music that your girlfriend was going to hate. [laughs] That was definitely the goal for me. I know if my girlfriend, who later became my wife, doesn’t like it, then we’ve got some hot shit here. I’m making some shit that makes you say, “Turn that shit off.”

Fred Wesley’s "Blow Your Head" was always a record I liked. There’s a whole ‘nother story behind me getting that record, which involved me going over to some chick’s house and asking her for the record after I didn’t get what I came for. [laughs] “OK, baby, whatever, can I have this record?” It was a record that was always played in the roller rink, but the DJs didn’t have enough skill to extend the break. It’s a tough break, it’s [imitates Fred Wesley - Blow Your Head synth intro]. I thought, “If someone would keep this shit going...”

Our whole thing is, “How can we present something that will make you feel uncomfortable?”

I made the first demo by pausing a cassette, like people made the old pause mixtapes, just by going over and over two tape decks. There were a couple of glitches because it wasn’t perfect timing, but I could rhyme over it and the rhyme connected the pieces together seamlessly. When we tried to make it in the studio for our first Def Jam release, we were able to duplicate it but Hank [Shocklee] and I considered it too clean. The breaks in the pause tape gave it that funkiness of feel and direction.

The hi-hats I played separately, the beat is enhanced by Eric Sadler in the studio, Flav, the musicians, they added to the sample with the kick behind it, half-live, half-sampled. It was hard for a lot of DJs to mix because it wasn’t syncopated correctly. Listen to it: You can’t go: “One, two, three, four.” People got into making structured jazz records, eight bars here, counting four bars. We felt that could lead to burn out for the audience. You might offer different sounds, but if every song you deliver is three-and-a-half to four minutes, and they begin the same way... People talk about hot 16 [bars], but why can’t it be a hot 17 or a hot 13-and-a-half? People are afraid to go outside the structure they’re comfortable with. Our whole thing is, “How can we present something that will make you feel uncomfortable?” Don’t deal in comfort.  

By Chuck D on April 29, 2013

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