The Production of Public Enemy: Gear, Sampling and Embracing Distortion

Public Enemy (1980). Photo by David Redfern/Redferns, Getty Images.

Public Enemy, the self-titled “prophets of rage,” didn’t merely succeed at hip hop, they defined it. As Adam Rauch wrote for Rolling Stone, they “completely changed the game musically,” and that game-changing style propelled them to the top of the music world. LA Times music critic Robert Hilburn called their first four albums “the most acclaimed body of work ever by a rap act;” Rolling Stone ranked them at 44 on their 100 Greatest Artists list — the highest ranking of any rap or hip hop act — and in 2013 they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

This success was no accident, nor did it come without preparation. The original members of Public Enemy — Chuck D (Carlton Ridenhour) and Flavor Flav (William Drayton) — and of their production team, The Bomb Squad, led by producer Hank Shocklee, had grown up in rich and diverse musical environments. Chuck D told Billboard that he had become a record collector because “my parents collected records, belonging to the Columbia Record Club and jazz record clubs. My mother was into Stax, Motown, Atlantic. My grandmother would have Etta James, Muddy Waters.” Shocklee told Torsten Schmidt that his father had been “a crazy jazz buff” and that all his musical background arose “from the aesthetics of jazz.” On the other hand, The Bomb Squad member Eric “Vietnam” Sadler was a guitar player. Shocklee says the different backgrounds contributed to the final product:

I’m coming from a DJ’s perspective. Eric is coming from a musician’s perspective. So together, you know, we started working out different ideas. (Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling by Kembrew McLeod and Peter DiCola)

This breadth of knowledge would be crucial to the musical technique that they adopted and helped define: sampling, wherein sounds, often from other albums, are recorded, manipulated and then pieced back together to create a new musical work.

Public Enemy

Sampling: A Collage for the Ear

Almost as soon as audio tape came into being in the 1930s musicians had begun experimenting with it, putting together pieces from different sources to create new works out of the “found” parts. “Tape music” was performed as early as 1944, and in 1953 John Cage presented a piece composed of 600 different sounds that he’d recorded over the course of a year. Laurie Anderson developed a “tape-bow” violin in 1977 for her live and recorded art music pieces. But it was hip hop that plucked sampling from the experimental fringes and placed it front and center for all to hear.

As hip hop came into being in New York City in the 1970s, it had always made use of multiple sound sources. First it was two turntables, then two turntables with an MC adding vocals. But the medium really took off with the arrival of digital sampling, wherein a recording of one or more pieces of music (or later, non-musical sound) was repeated, often with alterations, to create a new piece. Or as Chuck D said:

Sampling basically comes from the fact that rap music is not music. It's rap over music. So vocals were used over records in the very beginning stages of hip-hop. In the late 1980s, rappers were recording over live bands who were basically emulating the sounds off of the records. Eventually, you had synthesizers and samplers, which would take sounds that would then get arranged or looped, so rappers can still do their thing over it. The arrangement of sounds taken from recordings came around 1984 to 1989.

Public Enemy - Yo! Bum Rush The Show

No one was more instrumental to the development of sampling as the essence of hip hop than Public Enemy and The Bomb Squad, who had joined forces after meeting at Adelphi College on Long Island in the early 80s. David Sheridan called their 1987 debut album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show “a brilliant combination of hard-edged guitar, largely supplied by Vernon Reid, and off-kilter samples of all descriptions, topped with in-your-face raps by Chuck [D] and [Flavor] Flav.” Their followup album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back, hit 42 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart and was nominated for a Grammy. According to Rolling Stone, the album, which showcased Public Enemy’s “unique, noisy, layered avant-garde-inspired sound that incorporated sirens, skittering turntable scratches, and cleverly juxtaposed musical and spoken samples,” was “immediately hailed as a masterpiece.” And in 1990 their third album, Fear of a Black Planet, was even more successful.

The sampling used on those albums didn’t come together by accident. In a 2005 lecture for the Red Bull Music Academy, Shocklee recalled “combing through records, finding the right sound or the right part or the right drum break or the right turnaround or the right horn hit or the right tambourine loop or the right spoken word piece, the right bass piece.”

Their work, and especially their sampling, grew more complex over time. Rolling Stone writes of their second album that “the samples are stacked on top of each other, crowding each other out and swirling into a chaotic, noisy stew.” And when Spike Lee called on them to create the musical theme for his 1989 movie “Do the Right Thing,” they produced the single “Fight the Power,” of which Gaby Alter, writing for Mix, said in 2006:

Public Enemy's “Fight the Power” was a quantum leap for rap music. In the late '80s, hip hop songs used only a few samples each, with the beat often created with a single break from an old funk recording ... But “Fight the Power” featured a large number of samples that were layered and altered so heavily that it was hard to identify the sources … “Fight the Power” was a masterpiece of sound collage.

Public Enemy - "Fight The Power"

There was more to the Public Enemy sound than complexity, however. For one thing, there are no bass lines on any Public Enemy record — Shocklee told Richard Buskin that he considered them too “melodic” and “groove‑oriented” for the urgency he wanted the music to suggest. Similarly, to keep things as “edgy and raw” as possible Shocklee insisted that The Bomb Squad use no reverb, which he considered “a symbol of smoothness.” These and other techniques were a reflection of what Chuck D called Shocklee’s desire to “destroy music.”

Technical Limitations: Destruction through Distortion

That desire to destroy music, to excise from it any smoothness and melody and deliver an end product that was edgy and raw, may have been the goal … but it was a goal advanced not only by the efforts of Shocklee and the rest of The Bomb Squad but also by genuine technological limitations. In short, the electronics available in the late ‘80s simply could not reproduce sound as accurately as some might have liked, but they were perfect for Shocklee in helping to produce what became Public Enemy’s distinctive sound.

Before there were dedicated sampling machines, musicians used the sampling capabilities of drum machines. Public Enemy DJ Johnny Juice told Guitar Center that the group made extensive use of a Korg DDD-1 drum machine, an E-mu SP1200, “an integral part” of the sound on It Takes a Nation, a Roland TR-808, and others; Shocklee recalled also using an Ensoniq Mirage, an Akai MP60, and eventually an Akai S-900, the only truly professional sampling machine of the group. Of the Roland, which became such a classic that it inspired band names and tribute songs, Vintage Synth said, “the TR-808 was OK in its time — it just didn't sound like real drums.” Further, all of the machines were limited by their 12-bit capacity (8-bit in the case of the Ensoniq).

And as samplers, the drum machines’ capabilities were sharply constrained. For example, Shocklee told The Voice that when using the SP-1200 “you got 12 seconds [actually about 10] of sample time to divide amongst eight pads. So depending on how much you use on each pad, you decrease the amount of sample time that you have. You take a 33 1/3 record and play it on 45, and you cheat the system.”

But short samples weren’t the only or the most important limitation. The speed-altering “cheating” that Shocklee used introduced distortion, which added to the already-audible limitations of the 8- and 12-bit systems. Shocklee told Mix that he preferred the resulting low-fidelity sound because “you can't pick out the exact instrument and things that are going on, and it kind of meshes it all together, so the frequencies of where the guitar and the bass come in are not clearly defined,” which perhaps helps explain why the group doesn’t mention using any of the 16-bit machines that were already on the market at the time.

Public Enemy - It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back

The samples were further distorted by sharp clipping at their endpoints, which Shocklee’s brother Keith, a fellow member of The Bomb Squad, told Mix “gave it a rough sound, a real edgy sound.” But even that wasn’t enough distortion for the team. Shocklee told Buskin that they used a looping technique that “meant putting massive amounts of compression on it so that it would distort and placing it in the background of the main loop to give it some body.” And he also told of the time that he and Sadler discovered that the sound coming from the SP-1200 was “ridiculously lo-fi” because a jack had accidentally been pushed only halfway in; rather than fix the problem, they used it in the production of It Takes a Nation.

The Bomb Squad had run up against the limitations of their instruments and rather than try to work around them, they used them to full advantage, making a sonic collage where many parts bled into each other indistinguishably. Public Enemy were perhaps the first to accomplish what “Son Lux has called hip hop’s “creat[ion of] textural music through patchwork.”

But Shocklee himself summed up the effect best to Buskin:

Part of the sound was in the dirt that we would get from the samples, whether it be hiss from the record or a crackle on top of the kick that had [other sound engineers] trying to zero in on that frequency and figure out a way to get rid of it. I'd be sitting there, saying, 'No, you need to boost that...' It was about that extra funk which I'd want to feel; that extra dirtiness which would make the fans of Public Enemy feel like we're from the gutter. This was the street; not clean, not processed.

From the street; not clean; not processed. That was the Public Enemy sound, and it came together as a result of hundreds of hours of research, countless experiments… and the limitations of 1980s technology.

Ensoniq Mirage Sampler and Synthesizer

With just 8-bit capability and samples limited to just 6.5 seconds, Vintage Synth’s description “pretty old-school specs by today's standards” seems a bit of an underbid — but this classic, one of the first affordable synthesizers, was an integral part of The Bomb Squad’s ensemble of tools.

Korg DDD-1 Drum Machine

The Korg DDD-1 drum machine featured 18 different drum sounds and the ability to modify those sounds in various ways. While limited by today’s standards, the DDD-1 helped get The Bomb Squad started in drum sampling; Johnny Juice told Guitar Center it was their initial drum machine.

E-mu SP-1200 Drum Machine and Sampler

Vintage Synth calls the SP-1200 THE drum machine and sampler combo to rap and hip hop artists in the ‘80s, and ‘90s, including Public Enemy. The SP-1200’s predecessor, the SP-12, had been limited to samples of just 1.2 seconds in its original form; the SP-1200 could handle 10 seconds. The 1200 was so popular that it was re-released in 1997, and it is still cherished today for its gritty sound.

Roland TR-808 Drum Machine

The TR-808 drum machine, which Robert Henke called “a piece of art” in an interview with The Wire, is such a legend in the hip-hop world that it even inspired its own tribute album, Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak. Its obviously synthetic analog tones were initially the cause of widespread criticism but it went on to become a fixture of the dance and hip-hop scene.

Akai MPC-60 Sampler and Drum Machine

The compact music production studio that Vintage Syth calls “main instrument of HipHop production,” MPC-60 helped The Bomb Squad and countless others create thousands of tracks in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Akai S900 Sampler

With its 63 second sample maximum, the Akai S900, which Vintage Syth calls the company’s “first truly professional sampler,” was the most sophisticated of those regularly used by The Bomb Squad on its early productions.

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