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Classic Tracks: Public Enemy ‘Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos’

Producers: The Bomb Squad • Engineer: Nick Sansano By Richard Buskin
Published January 2010

Hank Shocklee's collaboration with Public Enemy brought a new aggression to hip‑hop — both sonically and politically...

Flavor Flav knows what time it is.Photo: Retna

"One of the things that's amazing to me is the fact that, over 22 years since Public Enemy were formed, I can still do an interview and people will know about a group that really didn't sell a lot of records,” says Hank Shocklee. Known for his sonically distinctive production style that introduced raucous, multi‑textured rap, rock and punk sounds to the hip‑hop records of LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane and EPMD, it was Shocklee's work with Public Enemy that helped elevate the genre to unprecedented heights while transporting the entire pop music scene into previously uncharted territory.

"It was underrated in its ability to communicate,” he continues with regard to the hardcore‑politico outfit. "Forget about all the bells and whistles, the beads and socially conscious rhymes — everybody can do that. But when you can communicate and move people around the world there's another element that's happening.”

Early Learning

A Long Island native, Shocklee grew up during the 1960s listening to the jazz that was piped into every room of the family home by his audiophile father, the African music that he was introduced to by his concert pianist mother (who also coached him on the keyboard), the reggae played by his West Indian grandmother and the soul records that he heard at his cousins' place in Harlem.

"Music has always been a backdrop to my life,” he says, "and my dad's fascination with the equipment, wiring the entire house with speakers that were connected to multiple amplifiers, led to me fiddling around with electronics, tearing apart speakers and amps to see what makes them tick. Still, never did I know that I would ever get involved with making records.”

When, during the early‑'70s, a musician friend who lived next door hooked up a turntable to his band's PA, Shocklee was amazed by the sheer volume of what he heard, and listening to the huge sound systems of the major DJs whom he followed around Manhattan then resulted in him opting for the same profession. Creating his own Spectrum City sound setup, he took whatever gigs came his way. Working in a heavy metal record store, he acquainted himself with the likes of Megadeth, Twisted Sister, the Scorpions, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, which further broadened his musical knowledge while teaching him to be versatile. Still, it was rap with which Shocklee became infatuated even before the term 'hip‑hop' had been coined, and his burgeoning socio‑political awareness was a driving force behind Public Enemy.

"With rap, you have more words to get across your ideas,” he says, "and that was more appealing to me than singing, because with singing you can only hint at the ideas. The early PE records were purely designed for communication, and Chuck D's lyrics were influenced by me. They were about what I had instilled in him. Public Enemy was basically an experiment to see what we could get across.”

Public Enemy Number One

Flavor Flav and Chuck D with Security Of The first World, 1988.Photo: Steve Double/Retna

During the early '80s, Shocklee recruited Chuck D to be his Spectrum City MC. Born Carlton Ridenhour, Chuck had been studying graphic design at Adelphi University on Long Island and DJ'ing at the student radio station WBAU when he and programme director/DJ Bill Stephney hooked up with Shocklee on the basis of their mutual interest in rap and politics. Together they mixed some proto‑hip‑hop dub‑plates that helped increase the local popularity of Stephney's night‑time show, and this in turn led to Shocklee and Ridenhour getting their own spin‑off, The Super Special Mix Show in January 1983.

"We were the first ones to create the mix concept for rap records,” Shocklee asserts. "We were heard within such a small bandwidth, only in the southern part of Queens, but that meant people like Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons got a chance to hear the show. There was this one song that we created, called 'Public Enemy Number One', which was kind of like a battle answer to one of the rappers who said we couldn't get down; we couldn't make no records and we couldn't DJ. Well, this battle dub‑plate was received very well — it was one of the highest‑rated records on WBAU, even though we were spinning a lot of commercially made product.”

When Def‑Jam co‑founder/producer Rick Rubin heard 'Public Enemy Number One', he immediately wanted to sign the rapper who now went under the pseudonym of Chuck D (with 'D' standing for 'Dangerous'). Hank Shocklee, however, persuaded him to do something more inventive.

"At the time, there was already a Heavy D who had a record out and there was a Schoolly D with a record out,” Shocklee recalls. "So, I said, 'Why would we want to put out a Chuck D?' Thus the concept of Public Enemy was born, taking the name from our record.”

Joining the three men was Flavor Flav (born William Jonathan Drayton Jr), whose own brand of trash talk had resulted in his contribution to the beginning of said record.

"I liked the way Flavor used to come to my studio and always just talk a lot of junk,” Shocklee explains. "Stuff like 'Yo, man, they tryin' t'fuck with us, man! Y'know this is crazy!' I said, 'Hey, why don't we just record that for the beginning of the track, and that's gonna be the concept for this group.' Flavor would be in the group, and now all I had to do was give it some window dressing. The window dressing, to me, was bringing in Griff [Professor Griff 'Minister of Information', aka Richard Griffin], who at the time was doing the security at the parties we were throwing — he had a bunch of 20 cats who were studying karate and things of that nature, so he would help me keep the peace.”

The four‑piece words/dance/martial-arts section, named Security Of The First World by Chuck D, enhanced the line up both musically and visually, and with the DJ'ing additions of Spectrum City's Norman Rogers (aka Terminator X) and Shocklee's brother Keith (the Wizard K‑Jee), Public Enemy were ready to roll once they signed to Def Jam in 1986.

Vocal Characteristics

Hank Shocklee.

"One thing I loved about being at Def Jam was the fact that Rick [Rubin] was a rock‑head,” Hank Shocklee says. "I could understand his philosophy and his musical direction, but I wanted to prove that rock & roll didn't have to be made with guitars; I wanted to prove that rock & roll could be made with any instruments, just so long as they're loud and abrasive. Thus came the musical concept. I made sure there were no bass lines on any of the Public Enemy records — traditional R&B bass lines formulated with funk were a little too melodic, a little too groove‑oriented. The sound needed for this group was something that suggested urgency, while Chuck's baritone voice was almost reminiscent of a gospel pastor. If I had put melodic chords behind him, Chuck would have sounded like an R&B crooner, and I didn't want that. What I needed was something that would juxtapose with his voice so that he was the music, enabling me to just score things around him so that the overall effect was of fire and brimstone, as if the world was coming to an end.

"The beautiful thing about having Flav was that he might be considered my tenor. He was high‑pitched, Chuck handled the low notes, and that marriage worked because of the sonics. What's more, they both had distinct voices. You see, the first rule of rap for me is to have a vocal characteristic, a tone, that sets you apart from everybody else. Otherwise, rap just doesn't work. There are too many rappers today who all sound similar, and you can't tell the difference, whereas all of the groups in the golden era of hip‑hop had distinct voices that were different from each other. I'm very much interested in voice. Voice is the key to me.”

Bring The Noise

When PE's remarkable debut album, Yo! Bum Rush The Show, was released in January 1987, it reached 125 on the Billboard 200 as well as the top spot on Billboard's Hip‑Hop/R&B chart, and introduced a musical force that, as time would tell, was near the top of its game and still in the ascendancy. While Chuck D was spitting out his revolutionary rhymes, the Bomb Squad production team of the Shocklee brothers, Chuck D and Eric 'Vietnam' Sadler didn't yet hold enough sway to pare down the guitar‑flavoured rock sound favoured by executive producer/mixer Rick Rubin. This all changed when the Bomb Squad created a new track titled 'Rebel Without A Pause' as the B‑side of Public Enemy's second single, 'You're Gonna Get Yours'.

"That was the breakthrough record for PE, because it was released within six weeks, and lo and behold, it became an anthem,” says Shocklee. "Once it became a street anthem, it established the credibility of Public Enemy as a legitimate rap group, and I could also roll that over into the next album.”

That album was It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, the ground‑breaking record on which the Bomb Squad created a dense, chaotic, multi‑layered, sample‑heavy backdrop for Chuck D's super‑charged vocals and Flavor Flav's manic humour by melding the rock‑edged rap elements of Run DMC with hard funk, free‑form jazz, soul and R&B. And one of the best examples of this was 'Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos', Chuck D's allegorical tale of a supposed prison break following his refusal to be drafted by the US Army. Constructed around a piano sample from Isaac Hayes' 'Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic' from his Hot Buttered Soul LP, the track also utilised samples of the Escorts' 'Little Green Apples' and Stevie Wonder's 'Living For The City'.

"By now, I knew my way around the studio a little more,” Shocklee says, "and I was more in tune with Eric [Sadler], my technical guide, who kept all of the machines in place while we tried to record this half‑experimental record. Everything we were doing in the studio was experimental — nowadays there are presets for the things we were doing.”

"I had a no‑reverb clause. No reverb on vocals, nothing. Reverb was a symbol of smoothness; I wanted everything edgy and raw. It was so rough, new techniques had to be developed in the studio, such as parallel compression. We didn't do parallel compression like everybody does today; we had to invent it. So, for example, if we had a main loop on something, bringing up a second copy of the main loop on another track meant putting massive amounts of compression on it so that it would distort and placing it in the background of the main loop to give it some body. It was all tricks like that.

"There's a difference between EQ'ing and filtering. But at the time, if you told engineers you wanted to shave off the high‑end and just use the bass frequencies from a particular sample, the first thing everybody had to go to was an EQ. They felt EQ'ing was the same until I was in the studio, listening to a piano loop on 'Black Steel', and I wondered why it sounded so ridiculously lo‑fi. It was coming out of the [EMU SP] 1200, and I thought somebody must have broken something on there or that something must have happened to the sample itself, where it somehow got corrupted. I was distraught until Eric went behind the drum machine, started wiggling the wire around and then realised it hadn't been pushed in all the way. I was like, 'No!' That was quite a revelation. I said, 'Hold up, pull it out halfway again,' and sure enough when he pulled it out halfway it gave me that lo‑fi filtering effect on the sample, whereas when he pushed it back in it was full‑blown.

"Now we were going to record one track with the wire in all the way, one track with it in halfway, and I could go into different parts of it so that I could create a bass line breakdown. You see, the thing filtered it so nice that all you heard was the bass. You didn't hear the piano, and I was like, 'Whoa!' It felt really, really amazing, and with this serving as the basis of that particular track the only thing we needed to do now was add in the kicks and snare and hi‑hats and get those things right. After that, one more piece was missing — it lacked tension. It was nice, it felt good, but it felt a little too good, and everything that was put on top of it took it in a different direction. Well, I didn't want it to go in a different direction, because to me the thing that Chuck had written for it was the most amazing piece of poetry that I have heard from anybody.”

Phoning It In

The black steel of the title refers to a gun that the protagonist pinches from a corrections officer during his jail escape, and in short the lyrics — delivered mostly by Chuck D while Flavor Flav intermittently talks to him on the phone (achieved by the latter actually calling the studio from another room) — liken his imprisonment to slavery while calling attention to the systemised racism and bigotry of the US authorities and armed forces.

"The track felt menacing but it didn't have enough tension,” Shocklee recalls, "so I decided to take the same piano loop and run it backwards. Whoa! That gave it the tension it needed and it almost made it electric. Now the only question was how to mix the record so that all those elements could be heard separately while also being glued together as one.

"The first time I mixed it was in Studio A with Roddy on the Amek board — it was like an SSL wannabe, fully automated with the flying faders. Something about the mix just didn't sit right with me, so I mixed it again in there and once again it came out real smooth. I mixed it with a different engineer, and after that I took it over to the small room where they had an old Trident board. This time Nick [Sansano] was the engineer, and mixing the track in there gave it the grit, gave it the tension, gave it the bite — all the stuff that it needed — and it just sounded like it had balls.

"One of the beautiful things about Greene Street was that they had two different types of board, so you could get an A‑B comparison. Still, that track was one of the hardest things to mix. Chuck had a cold, he wasn't feeling well, and his sound was a lot deeper and raspier. He didn't have the typical Chuck D power in his voice, but that actually worked for the concept of the record. That's why, when Chuck said he wanted to do the vocals over once his voice cleared up, I was like, 'No! It's hot like that because it stands on its own from all the other stuff.'

"The hardest thing when you're working with a rapper is figuring out the different types of vocal manipulation you can do so that it doesn't always sound like the same vocal. I want you to listen to each song like it is its own record, and the different manipulations that you can do vocally help set them apart. One example was having Flav call in on the phone and miking the speakerphone so it sounded real. That gave it a cellphone feel in a non‑cellphone era.”

Public Legacy

While It Takes A Nation was certified gold following its April 1988 release, peaking at 42 on the Billboard 200 and at number on the R&B/Hip‑Hop chart, the album's first single, 'Bring The Noise', was included on the soundtrack of the 1987 Andrew McCarthey/Robert Downey Jr film Less Than Zero, and the second single, 'Don't Believe The Hype', charted at number 18 on both the Billboard R&B chart and UK singles chart. Nevertheless, it is 'Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos', released as the record's third single at the start of 1989, that remains the bona‑fide classic.

"With that track I wanted to do something that almost had a West Coast kind of funkish feel,” remarks Hank Shocklee who, in addition to delivering a series of lectures on production, has recently been involved with an electronic Bomb Squad project, as well as an album of soul‑based dance music. "'Black Steel' was the only song like that, and lo and behold it's one of my favourite Public Enemy records. To me it was the father of gangsta rap, because after that the West Coast sound changed. That record was dark, and thanks to my classical background I'm a fan of the darkness. I like anything dark by Bach, anything dark by Rachmaninoff — I'm into that eerie, creepy feel that has a quiet calm to it and I like minor chords. That's why 'Black Steel' is definitely one of my favourites... It's like theme music for a badass.”  

Artist: Public Enemy

Track: 'Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos'

Label: DEF JAM

Released: 1988

Producers: The Bomb Squad (Hank Shocklee, Chuck D, Eric Sadler, Keith Shocklee)

Engineer: Nick Sansano

Studio: Greene Street Recording

Greene Street Recording

Whereas PE's debut album had been produced at New York's INF Recording and Chung King House Of Metal, It Takes A Nation made use of Greene Street Recording, where engineers such as Rod Hui, Nick Sansano and Chris Shaw were, according to Hank Shocklee, "geniuses when it comes to sound and making stuff sound amazing. To me, those guys were just as important to creating the sound of Public Enemy as we were in terms of producing it and making all the beats. They knew how to get anything I needed done. When it comes to mixing and engineering, I'm a real stickler for that.

"From a musical perspective, there's a certain sound that you have to get. For example, I mixed 'Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos' four times because I couldn't get it right. We were dealing with loops and dealing with samples, but this was back in the days when engineers didn't understand anything about samples — most people at that time brought in a drum machine and used the stock sounds so they could get a clean kick and a clean snare and a clean hi‑hat. Meanwhile, I was coming in with my kicks and snares off other records. That's a whole other treatment and most engineers didn't understand what the hell I was doing. Why would I not put a clean kick in there? They didn't understand that part of the sound was in the dirt that we would get from the samples, whether it be hiss from the record or a crackle on top of the kick that had them trying to zero in on that frequency and figure out a way to get rid of it. I'd be sitting there, saying, 'No, you need to boost that...' It was about that extra funk which I'd want to feel; that extra dirtiness which would make the fans of Public Enemy feel like we're from the gutter. This was the street; not clean, not processed.”