You may have noticed that while I talk about music and link to videos a fair amount around here (okay, more of the latter than the former, but still) I rarely do anything like an album review. The reason is pretty simple: while I enjoy reading music reviews, I almost never have any idea what the hell any given music reviewer is talking about at any given time and I absolutely cannot replicate the format myself. I can tell you why I liked or did not like a book. I can definitely tell you why I liked or did not like a movie. But the vocabulary of music reviews frequently eludes me completely; I’m inarticulate when talking about music in a way that I’m just not when discussing other subjects. I could make a living as a movie reviewer. I’d be fired after my first article if I tried to get a job at Rolling Stone, or wherever the hell people go to find music reviews nowadays.
Talk about music, though? Talk about, oh, late eighties-early nineties hiphop?
All day, every day. I think that it’s possible that my wife wouldn’t have married me had she realized my ability to turn any conversation into a short lecture about the history of hiphop. She made the mistake of watching a VH1 special about the hundred greatest rap songs of all time with me once. It was an experiment not repeated.
Tim Grierson wrote a book about Public Enemy, the greatest rap group of all time. Now, interesting fact: it’s an unauthorized book, so he didn’t have direct access to anyone in the band other than Terminator X, who left the group a while back and who he appears to have exchanged emails with. So he’s relying on a lot of third-party sources here, and tons of interviews that band members have done with other people or books that they’ve written themselves. Ordinarily that’s a red flag that indicates some sort of nefarious agenda, but in this case I think the guy is remarkably even-handed other than the hilarious (and entirely appropriate) disdain he holds for everything Flavor Flav has done with his life in the last ten years or so.
Loosely described, the book devotes a chapter or so to each of PE’s albums, starting prior to the release of Yo! Bum Rush the Show in 1987 and ending with the “double album” release of Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp and The Evil Empire of Everything in 2012. The book was released in February of this year, so there’s not much more recent stuff than that; it closes with the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which seems as good a place as any. Along the way he discusses the group’s rise and fall fairly, documenting the period of time where PE ruled the world (It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Fear of a Black Planet, and Apocalypse 91: The Enemy Strikes Black) but not skimping on everything that’s happened since. PE’s released thirteen studio albums and a host of other stuff, too, and Chuck D, Flavor, and Terminator X all have solo albums as well, although Chuck’s last two solo albums (one of which may have come out too late to discuss) go unmentioned. There’s a lot here, and I respect that the book doesn’t go quiet after the mess that was Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age in 1994. In fact, the foreword directly calls out a bunch of other “authorized” PE books for doing just that– the band never saw remotely the level of success they had in the early nineties again, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t doing a lot of interesting shit. Specifically, I like Grierson’s emphasis on Chuck D as an innovator, a guy who refuses to ever do the same thing twice, and I’m giving a lot of the latter albums another listen-through today to pick up on some of the details he discusses.
He also correctly assesses Rebirth of a Nation as the band’s best release since Apocalypse. It was important for me that he get that right. 🙂
It should probably go without saying that I loved the book, devouring the thing whole in basically a day. This is my shit here, y’all. If I hadn’t liked the book, there’d probably still be a post about it tearing it to pieces.
You will probably hear a bit more about this book in a couple of weeks. For now, go read it.