Every so often a song will come around that completely destroys one’s concept of what music is and the awesome of power it can wield. For me (and I’ll wager I’m not alone), “Rebel Without A Pause” from Public Enemy’s seminal sophomore effort, It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Def Jam, 1988) was just such a song. While perfectly defining the cultural zeitgeist of the golden era, “Rebel” simultaneously embodied a certain timeless quality, making it a true hip-hop classic. For these reasons and more, this title doubles as the name of my newsletter.
The first time I remember hearing “Rebel,” it was blaring from a passing car on the street in Cambridge, Massachusetts during the summer of ’87. “WTF was that!?!” I remember thinking, mesmerized by the siren-like saxophone wail that looped through the track’s entirety--a sample I later discovered came from The JB’s “The Grunt” (1970). As a newly inducted member of Harvard radio station, 95.3, WHRB, I bee-lined down to the Memorial Hall basement to see if I could find that record. Believe it or not, we had probably the best weekly rap show running at the time, Street Beat, courtesy of Jon Shecter and Dave Mays, fellow classmates of mine who started The Source magazine out of their dorm room. They were already steadily pumping PE’s debut LP, Yo! Bum Rush The Show (Def Jam, 1987), which had recently dropped, but the track in question wasn’t on it. Turns out, “Rebel” was initially released as the B-side to “You’re Gonna Get Yours,” from Yo!. Made after the album was released, it sounded like nothing else in hip-hop. The track eventually became the first single off PE’s heavily anticipated second album, It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, helping to launch the group into the stratosphere.
In an era when each new rap record distinguished itself from the next, innovating the sound and pushing the creative bar higher, “Rebel” just destroyed everything else out there in one fell swoop. Production-wise it was a dense composition full of samples, not only using “The Grunt,” but also James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” (1970) and “Get Up Offa That Thing” (1976) as well as a drum break from Jefferson Starship’s “Rock Music” (1979). DJ Terminator X also scratched in Chubb Rock’s “Rock N’ Roll Dude” (Select, 1987) and “Pee Wee’s Dance” (Vintertainment, 1986) by Joeski Love. And you can’t forget the memorable lines from Jesse Jackson’s introduction of The Soul Children’s “I Don’t Know What this World is Coming to,” from 1972’s Wattstax concert. At a time when most rap songs might have utilized one or two samples at most, the Bomb Squad, PE’s production team of the Shocklee Brothers (Hank and Keith) and Eric “Vietnam” Saddler, maxed out the 48-track mixing board with sounds. At 109 BPM, “Rebel” was also more up-tempo and energetic than the standard 98 BPM rap song. Like the best punk rock, it elevated noise—that signature saxophone shriek--as a major component of the music as well.
Lyrically, hard rhymer Chuck D sounds like he’s pissed off, and according to Brian Coleman’s indispensable Check The Technique: Liner Notes For Hip-Hop Junkies (Villard, 2007), he was. After taking two weeks to pen the lyrics, Chuck says, “I did it the first day and wasn’t happy with it, and I went home mad. Then I came back three or four days later and nailed it.” When he says, “Attitude, when I’m on fire/Juice on the loose, electric wire/Simple and plain, give me the lane/I’ll throw it down your throat like Barkley” he embodies both the gravitas of a Melle Mel and the matter-of-fact frankness of a Schoolly D. Radical without being overtly political he name drops (Joanne) Chesimard aka Assata Shakur, a black revolutionary who fled to Cuba after allegedly shooting a New Jersey State Trooper. In fact, breaking the mold of an MC from the block, Chuck follows in the footsteps of musical prophets like Bob Marley and Fela, using music as a weapon as he sets his sights on the struggle for black liberation. Already a fan of roots reggae, I was aware of the power and potential of ‘conscious’ music, and Chuck, like contemporaries KRS-ONE and Rakim, spread that consciousness to rap.
A song with no hook, four verses, and a running time of just over five minutes, “Rebel” brought it all together, saturating the airwaves during that summer of ’87. One of hip-hop’s first ever fist-pumping, revolutionary anthems, it made you want to break out the Krylon and paint the White House black.