Like many college-educated Caucasians of a certain age, I first encountered Public Enemy in 1988, when the band released its monolithic masterwork of a second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. It was terrifying. Over what would become the band's signature audio hurricane—compressing the wildest exertions of free jazz into harsh layered beats to create the densest, most intense racket ever made in the name of pop music—Chuck D laid out his explicitly political call to revolutionary action, with a righteous fury that, to this white American, felt inevitable and historic. Armed with only a cursory knowledge of race relations in the U.S., I nevertheless understood why any black American with a claim to consciousness might feel the need to blow shit up, and as an impressionable undergrad, I listened to PE out of duty and fear as much as any desire for entertainment or escape.
I wasn't alone. For the next two years, Public Enemy held court at the center of a media firestorm they alternately instigated and endured. For those who didn't witness it, the avalanche of expectations, accusations, and hype dumped on Public Enemy from 1988 to 1990 will be hard to explain. I've never seen anything like it—the Nevermind revolution, one would-be parallel, was a triumph of aesthetics and commerce, but with It Takes a Nation of Millions, Public Enemy was entrusted with leading the charge to change the world. Thrust from his chosen role as artist/observer/commentator into the elected role of leader, Chuck D was ambivalent but engaged, and Public Enemy consistently trumped hype and controversy with art. Between Nation of Millions and its almost-as-good follow-up Fear of a Black Planet came a run of work—building with "Fight the Power" and Do the Right Thing in the summer of '89 and peaking with "Welcome to the Terrordome" in the months before Black Planet in 1990—that only helped to inflate the unrealistic expectations threatening to devour the band.
Foiling the predictions of many (including several of the band's members), PE survived and continued to thrive, releasing the stark Apocalypse '91: The Enemy Strikes Black to typically great acclaim. It would be three years until Public Enemy's next record, 1994's Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age, whose tortured title hid a strong collection of songs most now-former fans couldn't be troubled with. The backlash was sudden and fierce. In a cruel twist, the momentous sense of urgency PE cultivated over its first four records came back to bite the band in the ass. After skyrocketing to prominence as harbingers of the revolution, PE were now being held somehow responsible for the revolution's failure to materialize. As hiphop plunged into the brain-dead hedonism of "gangsta rap," Public Enemy were relegated to relic status, and those of us who'd listened to the band out of duty no longer felt so compelled.
Popular lore has it that Public Enemy stopped making music worth hearing after 1991. Popular lore is bullshit. Revisiting the band's catalog over the past few years, I was shocked at what I found—a body of work positing Public Enemy as the most original, vital, and flat-out best band America has ever produced. Fittingly, it's the music that nails it: The dense rhythmic clamor invented and perfected by PE's Bomb Squad is one of modern music's truly great innovations, and the thrills don't end with Apocalypse '91. Prime latter-day PE can be found all over 1994's unfairly reviled Muse Sick and 1998's unfairly ignored He Got Game soundtrack, and last year the band added another song to its canon of classics: "MKLVFKWR," AKA "Make Love Fuck War," a spare, ferocious polemic by Chuck laid out over a Bomb Squad–inspired beat by Moby.
Speaking of Chuck and his other-half-for-life Flavor Flav: While not as groundbreaking as the musical inventions of the Bomb Squad, the double-headed hydra of the frontmen's personas is every bit as crucial to Public Enemy's stature. From the coupling of the heavy-with-consciousness Chuck with the pull-my-finger Flav to the placement of the fake-Uzi-wielding S1Ws onstage, Public Enemy deeply understood their mission as revolutionary artists, and raised the stakes in pop music like no American group before or since. This week, the band's at the Showbox, and you'd be an idiot to miss them.