Public Enemy, the most forceful and acclaimed force in urban rap, will bring the noise to a white audience when it tours with hard-rock compatriots Anthrax later this month. But the message that the group will take to the suburbs is one that, more than ever, is aimed at urban blacks.
Public Enemy's previous three albums virtually defined militant and political rap, setting the stage for the hard-core likes of N.W.A, Ice Cube and a whole new generation of such Malcolm X-influenced rappers as Brand Nubian and X-Clan.
The group's second album, "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back," was named the best album of 1988 in the Village Voice's annual poll of the nation's rock critics; 1990's "Fear of a Black Planet" finished in the Top 10.
Such PE titles as "Don't Believe the Hype" and "Fight the Power" (the latter featured in Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing") became rallying cries for black activists. Along the way, leader Chuck D's forceful lyrics and delivery got him embroiled in controversy as charges of anti-Semitism and racism came from some quarters. Meantime, admirers proclaimed him the Bob Marley or Bob Dylan of rap.
Now comes the fourth album, "Apocalypse '91: The Enemy Strikes Back," containing the most specific issue-oriented songs Public Enemy has ever done, with a common theme about blacks' taking control of their own communities and cultural identity.
"This album deals with \o7 us\f7 ," Chuck D said while taking a break from shooting a video for the upcoming single, "Can't Truss It," at the power generating station in San Pedro. He wore a hard hat bearing the PE logo--a black man's silhouette in the cross hairs of a gun sight--and shifted a large lug wrench from hand to hand as he spoke.
"It's like, 'Wait a minute, I got to go back to my block and tell the brothers, you know, you blame the white man for things . . . (but) you gotta make the system work. . . . The system's got its faults, and we can attack it. But also we got faults too. Let's clean up our (problems) before we go in the field and play."
Among the new songs are "Shut 'Em Down," about non-black businesses in the black community, and "One Million Bottlebags," addressing the urban marketing of potent malt liquor. (The latter is a personal as well as political issue to Chuck D, who is suing the makers of St. Ides malt liquor over a radio commercial that contains a snippet of his voice.)
What really sets this apart from previous PE albums is that the rhetoric and sloganeering have been toned down in favor of reasoned problem-solving. For example, "Shut 'Em Down" is not a blanket condemnation of non-black businesses, but a call for blacks to build their own businesses.
"The best way to boycott a business is to build your own," he said. "I don't agree with standing in front of a business or burning it down. You build your own just like it. You don't build your own, someone else is gonna come in and do it for you. I mean, our goal is to be self-sufficient. That's the best way to shut 'em down."
The group's co-headlining tour with hard-rockers and fellow Long Islanders Anthrax--with whom Public Enemy recently collaborated on a metalized remake of the rappers' 1987 song "Bring the Noise"--begins Sept. 24 in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., coinciding with the release of "Apocalypse." It's expected to reach Southern California in mid-October, and it puts Public Enemy in virgin territory.
"When we do a major rap tour, I might go to (inner-city) Chicago, but we couldn't play (suburban) Rosemont, you see what I'm saying?" said D, whose cohorts in the group are the colorful Flavor Flav and turntable manipulator Terminator X. "I've been a participant in six major rap tours in the United States, but this is more of an alternative rock crowd. Why not? It was a different thing to do."
This tour (which also includes art/funk rockers Primus) isn't the first time Public Enemy will play to largely white crowds. The group recently shared the bill with Gothic English rockers Sisters of Mercy for the first leg of a scheduled national tour that was aborted due to low ticket sales and the high cost of the Sisters' elaborate staging.
But this will be the first time Public Enemy has toured on a hard-rock package. Still, Chuck isn't looking to tailor his approach.
"Yo man, you give me any crowd to play for, you give me a piece of toast to perform on, it doesn't matter," he said with the no-nonsense swagger that he is known for. "You put us in front of any crowd and we're gonna do our best to exert our energy and smoke the stage. We've done it all, and now we're trying to do more."