public enemy: the forgotten innovators of post-hardcore

May 18, 2011

Flavor Flav’s entire career has walked the line between deserved legend and self-parody. As the comedic yin to Chuck D’s deadly serious yang, he was the sugar needed to swallow Chuck D’s bitter medicine. These days Chuck D’s ferocious political rhymes are most often credited for Public Enemy‘s success, with Flav’s entire career having been essentially retconned by his current stint as a pandering reality TV star. It becomes easy to overlook Flavor Flav’s pioneering role in both sampling and the development of the hype man in hip hop. Even more often overlooked (most likely even by Flav himself) is his accidental role in shaping the genre of music now known as post-hardcore.

Words by Nathan Leigh

Like most sub-genres of punk, post-hardcore is a term whose definition varies wildly depending on who you ask. Fans of one aspect or era of post-hardcore will vehemently deny that “that other crap” is post-hardcore, much in the same way drunk scene kids argue passionately about whether punk died in 78, 85, 93, 04, or is still going strong (trick question: they’re all right). Whether you mean the term as a polite way of saying “emo,” a description of the various bands that rip off Fugazi and/or Quicksand, or the current legion of bands for whom the universe was created when Thursday released Full Collapse in 2001, the intent is the same. Post-hardcore is like Potter Stewart’s famous definition of pornography: I know it when I see it. Heavily indebted to hardcore punk’s intensity and ferocity, the tempos are often slower, the melodies more melodic, rhythms more complex, and lyrics more personal. Put simply and in the most general possible of terms, post-hardcore is music made by musicians raised on hardcore who outgrew the genres limitations.

There are a number of watershed moments in the formation of post-hardcore. Husker Du‘s Zen Arcade in 1984 was one of the first hardcore records to include personal, reflective lyrics. Rites of Spring‘s Self-Titled in 1985 is another. Considered the album that birthed emo, the band led a movement of DC area bands who played fast and hard but weren’t afraid to get quiet or personal. Known as the “revolution summer,” bands like Rites of Spring, Embrace, Grey Matter, Soulside, and Nation of Ulysses formed out of the ashes of the legendary DC hardcore bands of the early 80’s. Although the revolution was brief (few of the bands even lasted into 1986), the impact would prove to be profound.

Rites of Spring members Guy Picciotto, Eddie Janney, and Brendan Canty spent 1986 attempting to recapture the magic with Embrace guitarist Michael Hampton in One Last Wish. Meanwhile Embrace (and Minor Threat, of course) singer Ian Mackaye began working with bassist Joe Lally and Dag Nasty drummer Colin Sears on a new project. One Last Wish fizzled out after only 6 shows and a recording session that wouldn’t see release for nearly a decade.

Then in January, 1987 Public Enemy released their debut LP. Yo! Bum Rush the Show barely charted on Billboard, but it proved to be massively influential. The elements of future Public Enemy classics were there. Chuck D’s righteous fury with the erudite charm of resistance leader cutting against Flavor Flav’s wry humor and irreverence on top of intricately sampled primal beats. Public Enemy sought to elevate hip hop beyond party music and into a medium for social change.

In the minds of many, Public Enemy were hip hop’s answer to hardcore punk. Although the sound was different, Public Enemy possessed many of the same elements as hardcore. A primal simplicity designed to simultaneously democratize the music and focus its’ anger matched with intelligence and humor. Guy Picciotto found kindred spirits in Public Enemy’s sarcastic rebels, and in April 1987, Guy reconvened the original Rites of Spring line-up for a new project which would seek to deconstruct, mock, and transcend the hardcore punk of his youth. The new band was called Happy Go Licky. Despite having an identical line-up to Rites of Spring, Happy Go Licky was a radical departure. The band used samples and repeated absurdist chants such as “get the dog—definitely” and “take me higher baby!” in the bizarre deconstructed take on Grand Master Flash’s White Lines.

Ian Mackaye meanwhile was struggling to keep his new project alive. Colin Sears was on tour with Dag Nasty, so Ian recruited Happy Go Licky drummer Brendan Canty to sit in on rehearsals. Excited by the trio’s chemistry, Ian booked a short tour and a few benefit gigs for the newly minted Fugazi. Ian quickly became aware of his limitations as a guitarist. Fugazi was the first time he had both played an instrument and sang in a band, and they had constructed their songs so that Joe Lally’s intricate bass lines could carry the band while Ian sang. With Happy Go Licky now broken up after only a handful of shows, Ian asked Guy Picciotto to join the band as a singer to free him up to play more interesting guitar parts. Guy accepted and modeled his role in the band after Flavor Flav. Early tracks like Waiting Room (your humble author’s all time favorite song), Suggestion, and Song #1 have Guy playing hype man to Ian’s socially conscious Chuck D.

Guy’s role in Fugazi would eventually expand to a co-frontman for the band, but the 2 singer dynamic they pioneered in their early songs would turn out to be revolutionary. Future post-hardcore bands influenced in equal parts by Fugazi’s dueling singers and Quicksand‘s alternative metal would eventually come to define the genre. With the ascendancy of bands like Thursday, Thrice, and Taking Back Sunday over the past decade, the dueling singer dynamic transformed into the ubiquitous singer-screamer dynamic we know and tolerate today. Flavor Flav may be sliding into irrelevance, but the genre he unknowingly inspired is going strong.