1987: Rebel Without A Pause

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Rebel Without A Pause was the first single released from Public Enemy’s sophomore album, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. I actually remember where I was: boot camp. A place where there is no music. After that? Infantry school. Some music, but not much. After that? An overseas duty station in the United Kingdom. All this happened in less than a year. It was in England that I first heard Public Enemy. Their innovative sound had been tearing its way from New York and across the nation, skipping from city to city, a wave of something new in hip-hop that was going to signal an expansion in the genre. Where hip-hop production and sampling were, at the time, The Bomb Squad were going to exponentially blow that up. But I was mostly unaware that it was happening, having been removed from the city and my old neighborhood for the better part of a year.

Yes - the rhythm, the rebel
Without a pause - I'm lowering my level
The hard rhymer - where you never been I'm in
You want styling - you know it's time again
D the enemy - telling you to hear it
They praised the music - this time they play the lyrics
Some say no to the album, the show
Bum Rush The Sound - I made a year ago1
I guess you know - you guess I'm just a radical
Not on sabbatical - yes to make it critical
The only part your body should be parting to
Panther power on the hour from the rebel to you

My first duty station, near an out-of-the-way, seaside resort town in Cornwall, England, was part of the U.S.M.C. Security Forces. We guarded a munitions depot attached to an R.A.F. base surrounded by green fields and flocks of sheep. The direction of the wind determined whether or not standing guard was a pleasant day in the English countryside or an olfactory hell. It was a small duty station, only a company of Marines, but on my arrival, I was only one of two brown-skinned personnel. That would change in the coming months.

Radio - suckers never play me
On the mix - just O.K. me
Now known and grown when they're clocking my zone it's known
Snakin' and takin' everything that a brother owns
Hard - my calling card
Recorded and ordered - supporter of Chesimard2
Loud and proud kickin' live next poet supreme
Loop a troop, bazooka, the scheme
Flavor - a rebel in his own mind
Supporter of my rhyme
Designed to scatter a line of suckers who claim I do crime

Within a year, there were a significant amount of black men serving at the duty station. Enough so that there was the occasional friction between more urban or southern black men and more suburban or middle-American white men. Sometimes. But we were all Marines and it generally always boiled down to that. And we all learned from each other, taking some steps towards breaking down the cultural barriers that had been built up over the previous few-hundred years. The point is, these young men brought with them something important: cassettes of hip-hop music from America.

From a rebel it's final on black vinyl
Soul, rock and roll comin' like a rhino
Tables turn - suckers burn to learn
They can't dis-able the power of my label
Def Jam - tells you who I am
The enemy's public - they really give a damn
Strong Island - where I got 'em wild and
That's the reason they're claimin' that I'm violent
Never silent - no dope gettin' dumb nope
Claimin' where we get our rhythm from
Number one - we hit ya and we give ya some
No gun - and still never on the run
You wanna be an S1 - Griff will tell you when
And then you'll come - you'll know what time it is
Impeach the president - pullin' out the ray-gun
Zap the next one - I could be you're Sho-gun
Suckers - don't last a minute
Soft and smooth - I ain't with it
Hardcore - raw bone like a razor
I'm like a laser - I just won't graze ya
Old enough to raise ya - so this will faze ya
Get it right boy and maybe I will praise ya
Playin' the role I got soul too
Voice my opinion with volume
Smooth - know what I am

The most distinctive sound on that first single—that warbling squeal repeated and laid over a rumbling, syrupy beat—raised the hairs on my arms. It was mesmerizing, it blew my brains. I recognized the squeal as a saxophone, and it sounded familiar, to boot. I’d re-learn its origin later, digging up old James Brown and affiliates records because it was about one half of the alto saxophone, glissando opening of “The Grunt,” by the JBs. This track was a deafening debut, a bombastic proclamation of Public Enemy’s signature sound. An aggressive, thundering wall of combative, rhythmic…noise. There was plenty of parallel with aggro music across other genres, but none in hip-hop, at the time. That insistent squeal, the rumble of the beat, and Chuck D’s distinctive and clear voice meant that track could be heard even when you were blocks away.

No matter what the name - we're all the same
Pieces in one big chess game
Yeah - the voice of power
Is in the house - go take a shower boy
P.E. a group, a crew - not singular
We were black Wranglers
We're rap stranglers
You can't angle us - I know you're listenin'
I caught you pissin' in you're pants
You're scared of us dissin' us
The crowd is missin' us
We're on a mission boy

My nascent Public Enemy fan story doesn’t end there, of course. Over a year into my tour of duty, a friend decided to marry one of the natives. (These things happen. A lot.) The ceremony was to occur in Birmingham, well north of Cornwall. All of us invitees (and the groom) piled onto a chartered bus for the ill-fated “Jack Daniels” tour. I do remember stopping for steak and mushrooms, just before dark, for dinner. I do remember arriving at the hotel, signing in, and going—with some assistance—to my room. And later becoming reacquainted with the steak and mushrooms I’d had earlier. (They were delicious the first time.) I woke up around midnight. Alone. Which is difficult when you’ve spent the last two years always having at least twenty guys at your back. Birmingham, at the time, was a sleepy city. Retail and other services had closed well before I got downstairs to the lobby. Even the hotel’s lobby was closed, glass doors drawn shut. Outside the glass doors, one of my comrades stood perplexed at being locked out. I opened up for him and, as he led me to the rest of the crew, we bumped into yet another Jarhead. The three of us continued and, sure enough, heard that squeal and the thunderous beat somewhere ahead. We followed the sound for about two blocks and—I should mention this to best explain the impact of what was to come: Even though there were several more non-white Marines at the duty station, we were still part of a notable minority. I’d spent nearly the last two years in the whitest white people country that is arguably the original source of the white world’s white-most-whitey-whiteness, whiteyouverymuch. So… We followed the sound to an old brick building with smoky windows. The music came from the basement. Without hesitation—because that’s the kind of boldness engendered by routinely having twenty guys at your back—we opened the door. At the bottom of the stairs began a sea of black flesh, wall to wall people dancing to the booming sounds of Public Enemy. We waded in, forgetting about the rest of our squad. Thirty years later, it remains one of the few albums I’ve never stopped listening to, and an artist I’ve continued to follow.

Attitude - when I'm on fire
Juice on the loose - electric wire
Simple and plain - give me the lane
I'll throw it down your throat like Barkley
See the car keys - you'll never get these
They belong to the 98 posse3
You want some more son - you wanna get some
Rush the door on a store - pick up the album
You know the rhythm, the rhyme plus the beat is designed
So I can enter your mind - Boys
Bring the noise - my time
Step aside for the flex - Terminator X

  1. Bum Rush The Show, Public Enemy’s first album only features some of their signature sound. Made a few years before their second LP, it still bore the taint of hip-hop’s past when it’s release was delayed. Though it was fairly well received, the sound wasn’t anything very special.
  2. Chesimard is the married surname of Assata Olugbala Shakur, a member of the Black Liberation Army. She is a notorious figure in America’s modern history, and well worth looking up.
  3. Chuck had a thing for the '98 Oldsmobile. No idea why…