Public Enemy’s Behind-the-Scenes Wizards, the Bomb Squad
Public Enemy

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Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.

Public Enemy simultaneously released two new albums this week — The Evil Empire of Everything and Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp. At times, P.E.’s new music is remarkably close to the style they worked up 25 years ago: see, for instance the latter album’s single “I Shall Not Be Moved,” produced by Gary G-Wiz.

Beyond Chuck D. and Flavor Flav‘s unmistakable voices, though, the core of Public Enemy’s early sound was their production by the Bomb Squad–a crew with shifting membership, headed by Hank Shocklee (and often including G-Wiz). They crammed dozens of tiny, fragmented samples together to make maniacally rich, detailed, dissonant tracks. Here’s what might be their masterpiece, Public Enemy‘s “Fight the Power.”

In 1990, Hank Shocklee launched an MCA-distributed label with longtime Public Enemy associate Bill Stephney: S.O.U.L., an acronym for Sound of Urban Listeners. The first single they released managed to baffle a lot of their listeners. “Nobody Knows Kelli” was a parody of Married… With Children, by a group called Young Black Teenagers–four of whose five members were white. With 20-plus years’ worth of distance, though, its Bomb Squad production sounds pretty great.

Young Black Teenagers kept at it for a couple of years, often with more Bomb Squad production; 1991′s single “Loud & Hard to Hit” sounds very much like the Public Enemy of that era (complete with different samples underscoring each verse). They even approximate the motormouth flow of Chuck D. (a.k.a. the song’s co-writer “C. Ryder”), although Chuck’s vocal presence is seriously missed.

The other group that got in at the beginning of S.O.U.L. was Son of Bazerk Featuring No Self Control and the Band (yes, that was their name). Their debut single “Change the Style” takes the zero-attention-span aesthetic to a new extreme, switching directions every few lines as if somebody’s just twisted a radio dial. (The Bad Brains-style hardcore freakout of its final few seconds is a nice touch.) The video is also packed with musical, lyrical and visual allusions to James Brown.

Son of Bazerk’s album Bazerk Bazerk Bazerk–its sleeve based on Brown’s Please, Please, Please–arrived in 1991, and featured the chaotic, Bomb Squad-driven track “The Band Gets Swivey on the Wheels.”

The one really successful album S.O.U.L. released was the soundtrack to the 1992 Tupac Shakur vehicle Juice. One of its singles is something of an oddity in the Bomb Squad catalogue: “Don’t Be Afraid,” a #1 R&B single by former Guy singer Aaron Hall, and one of Gary G-Wiz and Hank Shocklee’s few major attempts at New Jack Swing-style production (aside from a few tracks on the first Bell Biv DeVoe album). That, naturally, meant that it incorporated more dissonance than any other New Jack Swing hit.

G-Wiz and Shocklee also produced a Juice track for another artist they never got to work with otherwise: old-school Cold Chillin’ rapper Big Daddy Kane, whose “Nuff Respect” is a race between MC and producers to cram in as much stuff into as little time as possible.

Hank Shocklee bought out Bill Stephney’s half of S.O.U.L. less than a year after the label had launched. The company dissolved by early 1993, and Shocklee took an A&R position at MCA records. One of the projects he oversaw there (and helped to produce under the Bomb Squad name) was another oddity by a white rapper: Chilly Tee‘s 1993 album Get Off Mine. (The production on the track below, “Audi Like Jetta,” is built on a pretty straightforward loop from Roy Ayers‘ “Running Away.”) Chilly Tee, as it happens, was Travis Knight, the son of Nike boss Phil Knight; these days, Travis is running the animation studio Laika.

By then, the Bomb Squad was winding down too. They were only credited under that name for a few more productions outside Public Enemy–notably Run-DMC‘s 1993 single “Ooh, Whatcha Gonna Do.”

The golden age of hip-hop sampling was also coming to an end: a few high-profile lawsuits had made labels wary of releasing anything with uncleared samples, and Bomb Squad-style mince-and-mix production abruptly went out of style. In 2010, interviewer D. Strauss asked Hank Shocklee if it’d still be possible to make an album like Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet. “You couldn’t,” he replied. “You couldn’t afford it.”

Keith Shocklee and Chuck D

Keith Shocklee and Chuck D speak at an Apple Store event in New York City, February 2011. Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

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