"Boundaries between noise and sound are convention."
I had already been listening to Hip-Hop for nearly ten years when I first heard "Public Enemy No. 1" by Public Enemy, and I have to admit that I didn't like their music at first. It grated on my musical sensibilities. Their tunes were coarse, even for rap music. I remembered thinking then of my days as a 400 meter runner in high school. Several years later artificial, soft, and fast surfaces would become the rage, but this was not several years later. We ran on gravel, so when I fell, I sustained a gravel bruise on my shoulders and arms. It hurt like hell, but that's what it was like listening to PE. You see, my musical sensibilities were not refined yet. I hadn't yet learned to search for and to appreciate different styles of music (or art in general for that matter). PE changed that, and I am in their debt, for "Boundaries between noise and sound ARE convention."
Public Enemy became well-known for using "noise" in their songs as evidenced in the tune "Public Enemy No. 1." It eventually dawned on me that their intent was to peal convention from the ears of listeners as if our apathy was being scraped away by a cheese grater. The noise and sounds PE used, perfectly matched the tone and message of Chuck D's lyrics. They had begun to master "The Art of Noise" (pun intended), and by the time the second single off of the album "It takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" was released, I was hooked.
That album is my favorite Hip-Hop LP of all time. While Chuck D does a masterful job of rhyming with intensity and purpose, in retrospect, I am equally impressed with the music. He introduced many of us to the concept "the ryhthm is the rebel." If there wasn't one word uttered on the entire album, Public Enemy still would have communicated their defiant political positions. If Chuck D did indeed pour his metaphors into the poor, then the rhythm tracks were the funnel. The drums thundered disobediance. The noise elements screamed revolt. The scratches of Terminator X? Snow shovels against the pavement walked on the way to freedom.
From listening to PE, I made the jump to Jazz, especially the fusion styles of Cymande, War, and Mandrill. I looked at James Brown differently. He no longer was simply the master of up-tempo funk party grooves; there was civil disobedience in the "take-no-quarter" notes of his dance classics. Though that can be contrasted with the subversiveness of Public Enemy's Hip-Hop, I think the line of succession is clear.
In the 1980s, my growing politcal conscience aided the transition in my perception of PE's music from noise to sound. Public Enemy's message was familiar. In the early 1990s, a ride to work from a co-worker exposed me to a Blues tune, "I Can't Quit You Baby." When she informed me that the artist singing it was Led Zeppelin, I was surprised. Research into the debut album of Led Zeppelin revealed that two of the songs--including the aforementioned song--were covers of the Blues artist Willie Dixon and that the entire album is predominantly blues. This led me to sample more of Led Zeppelin's music which resulted in me becoming a big fan of the band. Until I had heard Led Zeppelin in the car that day, I considered Hard Rock and Heavy Metal noise. Afterwards, they became sound, music. Maybe the way in which people must break down boundaries is to find a commonality, a way to connect that seems familiar. Maybe conventions separate people by disguising harmony and likeness as discord and difference. I like to think PE understood this, which is why they had such a wide variety of fans.