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Public Enemy: Prophets Of Rage

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James Hale James Hale | 10:15 UK time, Friday, 9 December 2011

If, like me, you grew up in the 80s, loved loud music and winding up your parents, there's a good chance you were into Public Enemy.

At one point they were the biggest thing in hip hop and were hugely popular in the UK with both indie kids and rock fans alike.

I was definitely one of the latter, mostly into hard rock and heavy metal. Hey, I was only 13.

Public Enemy

Professor Griff, Flavor Flav and Chuck D, with the S1Ws and Terminator X behind.

So, as a (sort of) grown up, I was very excited to find myself directing Public Enemy: Prophets Of Rage - a programme for BBC Four on these icons of popular culture.

Although it took some time to secure access to interview the key members of the group - Chuck D, Flavor Flav and Professor Griff - they were very accommodating in helping us to make this programme and I was surprised at their candour and openness when it came to the interviews.

I think (and hope) it makes for an insightful and enjoyable watch.

Like thousands of other young kids, Public Enemy were my first introduction to hip hop.

It wasn't hard for me to make the transition from metal to Public Enemy: the sheer power, energy and noise coming from a Public Enemy album was just as loud as any heavy metal band I'd heard.

Plus the lyrics weren't about winged avengers or satanic goblins - they were actually saying something important.

Of course it helped they looked and sounded cool too.

The serious Chuck D spitting righteous anger; his comedic foil Flavor Flav clowning around the stage with a giant clock around his neck.

Both backed up by the military-trained Professor Griff and his Uzi wielding security force the S1Ws. Maybe that's what was worrying my parents...

But what they didn't appreciate was the strong message the Public Enemy members were conveying.

Growing up in the leafy lanes of Warwickshire I certainly wasn't learning anything about black consciousness or the civil rights struggle from school or my peers.

It was the same for several of the contributors in this documentary - both American and British.

Rappers Darryl 'DMC' McDaniels and Method Man told us they had to listen to Public Enemy records to find out what Malcolm X was all about.

So despite all the controversy that surrounds Public Enemy I think their lasting legacy is a very positive one: they made a generation aware of racism and the need for equality at a time when the civil rights movement was in decline, especially in America.

And due to the far-reaching fingers of pop music their message connected with a white, middle class kid in a small English village. As I'm sure it did with thousands of other young fans in similarly remote places around the world.

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Preview of Public Enemy: Prophets of Rage

Having finished making the programme I think what sticks out for me most, aside from the sheer creativity of their music production, is their unwavering commitment to getting that political message across.

With the risk of sounding like a miserable old man (which I'm fast turning into I admit), it seems a world away from the bling obsessed elements of today's hip hop.

For me, a good measure of a classic band is their longevity.

Public Enemy leader and lyricist Chuck D calls his group the Rolling Stones of the Rap Game and that's exactly who they are.

They tour the world playing their extensive back catalogue to legions of adoring fans and they're still turning out quality material.

In making the documentary, we went to Montmartin sur Mer in France as this was the only place we could get an interview with Flavor Flav and some of the other band members.

I caught them playing a festival there and they put on an incredibly lively and exciting show.

They've settled on just the right combination of live instrumentation, incredible deck skills (from very talented Terminator X replacement DJ Lord) and just endless energy from both Chuck and Flav. Despite the fact both of them are over 50.

The Beastie Boys aside, there aren't many other of the older hip hop groups turning in shows like that.

Unfortunately that gig did mark one of my greatest regrets in life.

We'd just finished filming Flav's interview and he said to me and the cameraman: "We're all going for dinner and then ten pin bowling - you should come along."

Well, it sounded like an amazing opportunity but we'd been up since 5am.

We weren't going to finish until late and we had a whole day and night of filming lined up for the following day. Plus our hotel was an hour away.

So, unbelievably, for the sake of feeling "a bit tired", I turned him down. James Hale not in full effect.

Imagine going drinking, eating and then ten-pin bowling with one of the biggest names in the history of hip hop?

What an idiot!

James Hale is the producer and director of Public Enemy: Prophets Of Rage.

Public Enemy: Prophets Of Rage is on BBC Four on Friday, 9 December at 9pm.

For further programme times, please visit the upcoming episodes page.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    I bought "It takes a nation of millions..." as a young white British teenager. I must have listened to it hundreds of times and I still rate it as a strong contender for title of greatest album of all time. My life and the lives of many millions would have been immeasurably poorer without the sheer greatness that is Public Enemy.

  • Comment number 2.

    A great documentary, James. Captured the majesty of the group but didn't shy away from the controversial issues. I can still remember the sense of let down at the time when Griff's comments were made public. Not too comfortable either that he has now been embraced by the group again given that he still seems in denial about those comments. However, that should not detract from the fact that Public Enemy have produced some of the greatest music ever created (Black Steel always in my desert island discs), that they formed a vital role in the formation of my political awareness, and that Chuck D is just sheer class through and through. Would be interested to know any observations you have, having seen them up close, on the dynamics of the group as they currently operate given the opinions aired in the documentary. Any evidence of lingering tensions?

  • Comment number 3.

    I used to listen regularly to hip-hop before the gansta / pimping / biches / bling scene came into force. Public Enemy were my favourite group. Now another show for proper hip-hip from the 'old skool'........Fantastic BBC4, thanks for this. Documentary was excellent. PE were and are truly inspiration.

  • Comment number 4.

    As with niten-ryu, I also grew up as a white British teenager (and as James Hale did) in leafy suburbia, and was hit for six(ty-six) by PE, having spent most of the 80s moping about to the Smiths, Led Zep, The Blue Aeroplanes, plus a bit of rapping (Sugarhill Gang, Mantronix, West Street Mob etc.) PE opened my eyes to another world, a whole new set of values, an entirely different world-view. The embarrassing pap and drivel that 'hip-hop' has by-and-large become since, only refocuses the mind on what a new message they brought, what a force they were and how influential they now stand. Great programme, James, really well-made and interesting. But how did you NOT go ten-pin bowling with them?!

  • Comment number 5.

    i never tire of listening to PE music or chuck d talk. changed my life....for the better!

  • Comment number 6.

    Should add that I'm another one who was a white skinny British teenager that had his eyes opened by PE in the 80s (and one of my favourite memories is being in the crowd at Reading in, I think, 1992 when PE headlined, Chuck shouted 'Reading, you got soul?' and 40,000 of us white indie kids leapt up and down screaming 'Yeah! We got soul!'. Fantastic. He must have been peeing himself laughing inside.

    However, for those decrying hip hop since then check out artists like Jurassic 5, The Roots and Talib Kweli. There are some conscious hip hop artists out there who don't feel the need to rap about bling and guns. Thank you, PE, for giving me my lifelong love of good hip hop.

  • Comment number 7.

    P.E.'s first date of the 1987 Def Jam Tour was in Glasgow the Thursday night before the Hammersmith Odeon gig...which looked a very tame affair in comparison. Chuck D remembers it well...shame about the BBC..

  • Comment number 8.

    good documentary on Public Enemy; skimmed over a lot of important stuff; the Whodini feud, the Hammersmith riot, working with Ice Cube, the MC Serch contretemps, the fact that the BBC never played any of their records when it mattered, the Night Network rematch with Mark Thompson, Flava Flav's alleged wife-beating and difficulties with Lional Blair on The Farm, Chuck D's Autobiography of Mistah Chuck, but it was an exciting well presented hour and will hopefully encourage a few young'uns to check out the first 3 PE Lps.

  • Comment number 9.

    Yes, Galactacus, agreed: J5, Roots, Talib Kweli, alongside Soulsides (Blackalicious/Quannum Projects et al), Jungle Brothers, the Wu and so on are proper job. But I am sure you would agree that by-and-large, it has become a sad pastiche of itself, MTV being badly to blame, as the emphasis merely circled on women, money and sitting round a swimming pool for lame videos, seemingly. Still plenty to listen to, and good new stuff still comes out. Can't beat the 80s/90s, though, no way.

  • Comment number 10.

    Oh, quite agree, ah22. So much good stuff out there, but it's such a shame that when I play friends good hip hop it comes as such a surprise to them that it exists. MTV and the lame video community have a lot to answer for. Equally, the MCs that buy into it and let that be the dominant image of hip hop to make easy money. "Can't beat the 80s/90s" though? Not sure about that. Love that era, but some of the most lyrically and technically accomplished hip hop I've ever heard has been released since then. 2010's Revolutions Per Minute by Reflection Eternal is one of the greatest albums I've had the pleasure of listening to. Also UK stuff in the 2000s like Braintax. I'll admit, though, finding the good stuff requires a lot more digging than the mainstream audience or media is prepared to do or promote.

  • Comment number 11.

    True - a lot of time is needed to sort the sheep from the goats and with the disappearance of the good old record shop allied with a reluctance to go technically full on, and a time-consuming job/family (!), I don't get round to listening to that much new any more... Will check out your recommendations though. Still stand by my opinion that the 80s/90s were the pinnacle, with the rawest of energy, and the excitement of not knowing how the genre might evolve next. Fasbinder's comments about the bits missing from the documentary were spot-on and valid, too. Just good to see a show like that on tv and, as usual, it's the BBC and, in particular, BBC Four that provides it. Don't stop there BBC Four, plenty more to be made where that idea came from...

  • Comment number 12.

    ah22, yeah, should have added that Fasbinder made very good points. And couldn't agree more about BBC4. I'm one of those that's happy to pay a licence fee as long as I carry on getting this level of docs about a wide range of topics. Anyway, last post for me tonight but hopefully the BBC won't mind me posting a link and this will interest you: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bjsn9ifTwMg

  • Comment number 13.

    Just wondering if anyone knows what the track terminator x played for flavor flav to dance to in this documentary was??

  • Comment number 14.

    It just shows the influence of PE that the BBC dedicated an hour to the group. They had a massive impact on my life and many others. A decent documentary with some footage I hadn't seen before. The 80s and early 90s hip hop will never be surpassed in my opinion. Galactatus is right that the media hasn't helped this and maybe thats what some of the media would prefer. Underground hip hip doesnt get a look in but thats where the quality real hip hop is. Check out rapstation for chuck's radio show. Can't believe you missed the night out James Hale!

  • Comment number 15.

    For Zobomofo, the track is called "Do the James" by Super Lover Cee & Casanova Rud.

    Great documentary by the way.

  • Comment number 16.

    Thanks you James for an outstanding documentary. Public Enemy are, and will always be, my favourite group of any genre. Saw them back in the day at Hammersmith and Rock City. Still going strong. New material due next year.

  • Comment number 17.

    Terrific , took me back. I saw Beasties, Run dmc and PE , in the 80's , absolutley vital.
    Music with principals and integrity...somewhat lacking in the autotune charts today.

  • Comment number 18.

    As said above cracking docu. BBC 4 on the ball again, it'd be great if there could be an extended programme or even a series looking at the development of hip-hop, bit like the excellent Seven Ages of Rock that was on BBC 2 a few years back. It'd make up for the disapointing How Hip Hop Changed the World that was on Channel 4 a while back.

    PS

    I can't believe you turned down going out with P E for beer, bowling etc... Doh!

  • Comment number 19.

    Thanks for all your nice comments, much appreciated.

    Galactacus – regarding the group dynamic, there seemed to be a big family vibe. I don’t know how Flav and Griff get on today (they both separately said fine!) but you have to remember these guys have been friends for 30+ years. And they still are – so that must count for something.

    Chuck still has his childhood home in Long Island and it seems to be a meeting point for all the PE crew. Chuck still has the same road crew, Johnny Juice (scratch DJ on early PE records, later produced PE tracks) runs his studio, Brother Drew does the sound and has been since 1990 I think, Brother Malik has been doing the security for years – it’s quite sweet really. You know, in a no-nonsense, hip-hop sort of way of course.

    Fasbinder_62 – yes, I’ll admit a few things were omitted and on reflection should have included a couple more incidents. But that’s the nature of making these one hour profile programmes – you can only include so much. You also have to balance making a programme for the fans but not excluding the non-fans. However I must admit I didn’t know about Lionel Blair vs. Flavor – what a strange clash of cultures that must have been! Who won?

    And yes, ah22, Vaughany and Yorkshireplant - I am an idiot for not going ten pin bowling. Although, thinking about it - it would have been quite a strange activity to partake in with a pop music legend…

 

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