Hank Shocklee: The Bomb Behind Public Enemy’s Squad

 

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In 1991, when I interviewed Hank Shocklee — the Bomb Squad production crew member who Chuck D once called the “Phil Spector of hip-hop” — the dazzling art of digitial sampling had reached a legal impasse. Shocklee, along with his brother Keith  and Eric Sadler, was one of the architects of the dense and chaotic clashes of found sounds, sirens, subway screeches, blasts of R&B horns, free-jazz squawks, and shards of rock guitar on such early Public Enemy classics as Yo! Bum Rush the Show and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. At the time of our interview for Option magazine, the wide-open creativity in hip-hop was being challenged in the courts, and Shocklee was worried about the future of the musical artform he not only helped pioneer but that he loved deeply.

Turntable Terrorist

By Mark Kemp, Option, May 1991

When New York hip-hop filtered down from Harlem and the Bronx into the suburbs of Long Island around the turn of the last decade, a young posse of b-boys took the inner-city hype and breathed into it a new kind of noise. It was an angry, rebellious suburban noise, not unlike the noise of the post-punk rock bands over on another coast, like Black Flag or Minutemen.

Hank Shocklee was one of the key architects of that noise. Along with his brother, Keith, a college friend named Carlton Ridenhour, now better known as Chuck D, and studio wiz-kid Eric Sadler, Shocklee formed a production team called the Bomb Squad, a rap group called Public Enemy, and introduced a sonic boom to hip-hop that would give pop music its loudest jar since the Sex Pistols. It was a sound that would forever change the way records are made.

Today, Public Enemy are hip-hop heroes, regarded by a new rock underground much the same as mega-rock bands like the Who and Zeppelin were regarded a generation earlier. “We’ve always been pretty much rock’n'roll kind of guys,” says Shocklee at the offices of S.O.U.L. Records, a label he co-founded last August along with his longtime partner and former Def Jam executive, Bill Stephney. Shocklee, sitting behind a conference room table, a gray Pistons cap pushed so far back on his head you can see the slightly Asian-like features of his eyes. His feet are hiked up on the table, and his arms are crossed.

“We always liked the way rock’n'roll built up its heroes,” he continues. “You know what I mean? Like Iron Maiden – they’re cult heroes. The way the whole concept is built around that huge mummified figure…that’s incredible.”

Hank1Maybe so, Hank. But Shocklee’s style has always been more early Zappa, particularly in the studio, than Iron Maiden; more punk attitude with an avant-garde aesthetic than heavy metal. Oh, sure, the theatrics are metal, but the sound is much, much more. If Run-DMC is rap’s Aerosmith, then Public Enemy is its Sonic Youth.

“What you’re calling the ‘signature Shocklee sound’ is something we developed over years,” he tells me. “We were doing stuff in the nightclubs back in the early ’80s that no one was doing: mixing sets, calculating the moods of our audiences. We’d go from reggae beats to soul to disco to slammin’ punk rock; then we’d hit them with the sound effects and lights and everything, and then bring the mood back to the floor. And then, all of a sudden, out of all the buzz and dramatic stuff, you’d hear, like BLIP-BLIP-BLIP – WHOOOMMMP!…and we’d be…” He jerks forward, slams his hand down onto the table, and then: “Right smack into our crazy hip-hop set!” Shocklee leans back again, relaxes, and then says very quietly: “And all of this was long before Yo! Bum Rush The Show ever saw the light of day.”

For the most part, Shocklee seems relatively serene at the moment; it wasn’t like that a few moments ago. He was animated, his hands were motioning wildly; he was speaking loudly and sharply to someone on the phone about the cover design for the S.O.U.L. debut by Young Black Teenagers, a rap group Shocklee and Stephney have been pushing with gusto. His personality shifts like Public Enemy’s mix, there’s moments of calm in a storm of chaos. He’ll be shy, then funny, then dramatic and outspoken. Shocklee shrugs his shoulders as if it’s all just routine biz.

The offices of S.O.U.L. have been a whirlwind today. In the main room, a few dozen crates of CDs and cassettes, some tables and chairs, and lots of paperwork litter the floor, reflecting the ambience. Busy-bees diligently package up the music goods and answer the telephones. Lots of telephones. Which may be another reason for Shocklee’s fluctuating anxiety. Ooops. Looks like it’s happening again. He glares up at an assistant who, for the fifth time in about ten minutes, has appeared in the doorway with a telephone in her hand.

“Hold all calls,” he instructs her. “I don’t want to hear from you. I don’t want to hear from anybody. I’m in an interview.”

Hank Shocklee is mindful of the interview process; he knows well the potential havoc an interview can wreak on one’s career. For four years, he’s been at the helm of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad through thick and thin. Ever since the shit hit the fan in 1989 over anti-Semitic remarks made by PE’s then-Minister of Information, Professor Griff, Shocklee and the rest of the PE posse have approached the press with caution. Yet he also knows the importance of marketing, imaging, publicity – the keys to commercial and artistic success in the ’90s, according to the 29-year-old artist and entrepreneur. Interviews are a necessary annoyance. Besides, controversy itself – in its more benign forms – is good for business.

Take the Young Black Teenagers. They’re actually white. A white New York City rap group that is already causing something of a stir among the hip-hop lot with their single, ‘Proud To Be Black,, and with their black-is-an-attitude-not-a-skin-color creed. Most recently, YBT and the Bomb Squad have been riding Madonna in the press for lifting PE’s ‘Security of the First World’ for ‘Justify My Love’, and not crediting PE (is this irony or what?). YBT also wrote a song honoring the Material Girl, called ‘To My Donna’. Shocklee, unlike his ’60s counterpart Phil Spector, is as much a marketing genius as he is the architect of a radical new urban pop music sound. “I try to treat every artist I work with individually,” he says. “From the sound right down to the image. Not every artist should get the treatment Chuck D gets; it just wouldn’t work – it couldn’t work.

“On the Teenagers’ record the production is a lot simpler; there’s less going on in the mix, a little bit more harmony in there,” Shocklee says. “It involved taking this particular group and – gosh, how am I going to say this? – you know, because they’re white, trying to get the sound across much easier to the audience.” The restraint in that comment is as radical for Shocklee as the lack of restraint he uses in Public Enemy’s mega-mix.

PublicE_YoBumRu_CoverAr_1500DPI300CMYK1000181782_1024x1024When Yo! Bum Rush the Show hit the record bins in 1987, there was no turning back for hip-hop. Public Enemy had cemented the relatively new aesthetic of sampling and layering techniques into America’s larger pop music consciousness. In the studio, the Bomb Squad took a no-holds-barred approach to noise. While others had been experimenting studiously with the technology for a few years – only a year before the record came out, Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys had taken the technology into the mainstream – it was PE that brought the form to its creative apex. The Bomb Squad created a constantly erupting and grating sound that gave PE the single most distinctive sound in rap. But it took them years to get it down on a widely distributed record.

“At first we was like…we’d always thought you had to be musicians to make records,” Shocklee says. “We weren’t musicians, we were just a bunch of DJs. We were just sampling stuff; taking a beat, pausing it up and doing a rap over it. This was still at a time when most of the other rap records were using a lot of live instruments: Kurtis Blow, the Sugarhill Gang, even Run-DMC would use bass or keyboards or lead guitar – something live. We were doing stuff without any live shit.” (Until the debut album, that is, on which Vernon Reid contributed quite a bit of lead guitar.) “When we got the choruses there would be nothing but scratching. It would be (he mimics Chuck D’s voice and the sound of Terminator X doing turntable maneuvers): ‘Yo – I’m bad! (pause) Beehhnnh-Behhnnh…chicka-chicka-chicka…Beehhnnh-Behhnnh…chicka-chicka…’ That was our chorus – absolutely no instruments…none! It’s the only way we could do our music on the radio show we had on WBAU. Even for sampling effects, we’d just have Chuck repeating his vocals. He would go something like: ‘Public Enemy Number One…One-One-One…One…” because we didn’t have any sampling machines at that time.”

THERE ARE SECRETS IN AIR. It’s a few hours later, and Shocklee and I are walking away from the Greene Street Studios in SoHo, where two of the most important records of last year – PE’s Fear of a Black Planet and Sonic Youth’s Goo – were recorded. Shocklee stops and spins around on the sidewalk. It’s the fourth time he’s done this routine since we first started leaving the place half an hour ago.

“Yo, Chuck!” he calls back to a friend he had come to see who’s now walking in the opposite direction. I half expect him to follow with a cool, “We gonna pull a power move on ‘em!” – but that’s Flavor’s line.

The Chuck in question is, of course, Chuck D, the man behind the deep voice that rumbles with authoritarian fervor such anti-authoritarian lines as, “Teach the bourgeoisie and rock the boulevard.” Shocklee continues: “Don’t forget what I told you, OK?” Chuck – who’s actually quite shy in the flesh – doubles over laughing, barely catching his Raiders cap before it slips off his head toward a puddle of rainwater. Shocklee mimics the move. It’s the fourth variation on that routine, too, and I’m completely in the dark. I think they like it that way.

Shocklee and Ridenhour met at Adelphi University in the early ’80s, when hip-hop was still a Harlem and Bronx thing. Shocklee was organizing parties at the time, and Ridenhour was a graphic design student. Shocklee enlisted Ridenhour to help him visually promote his shows. Meanwhile, Bill Stephney was the program director at the campus radio station, WBAU, and was known as a huge champion of hip hop. Stephney had heard of Shocklee and wanted him to do a show on the station – a three-hour show featuring nothing but hip-hop.

BombSquadBackIntheDay

The Bomb Squad: “That was the beginning of Public Enemy.”

“That was the beginning of Public Enemy,” says Shocklee. “The radio station was pretty much the focal point of how we all got together. Bill had this slot and asked us if we wanted to help him work on it. So we did. But we had to make master mixes of the local rap records, as well as our own demos of other rap groups in the community, because there just wasn’t enough rap records being made at the time to support a three-hour show. This was…I’d say, around ’82 or ’83. I mean, there were rap records out there, but not enough to sustain that much time. So we made these master mixes and that was where we developed our sound.”

When Shocklee talks about this development, he gets excited; his brain gets ahead of his words, often causing his sentences to bounce into each other. “We…uh, we-we-we…we were like mixing records and MCing at the same time on what we called the ‘Super Spectrum Mix Show.’ It’s like, it’s like…you know, it’s like, we’d mix the records right there, live on the air, do the MCing and do master mixes of the songs – ALL AT THE SAME TIME! Man, we were doing some innovative stuff back then.

We’d mix the records right there, live on the air, do the MCing and do master mixes of the songs – ALL AT THE SAME TIME! Man, we were doing some innovative stuff back then.” — Hank Shocklee

“And then we discovered multi-track recording. It’s, you know, it’s…when you’re doing disco DJing or whatever, you have two turntables and they’re going into one or two tracks. So that would be one set – BOOM! Then we would take a four-track and do it again – BOOM!” Shocklee is now shouting, his voice rhythmic and emphatic: “We would take that FOUR-track machine and do it aGAIN! So, now you have four turntable sounds going at once and what you’re hearing is all these strange sounds; like, a record would be coming in for a second and then it’d go out. It was just so chaotic, so wild; that’s how we developed the idea – the concept – for the multi-layering that you hear on Public Enemy’s records.”

The Bomb Squad isn’t just Shocklee. Each member is as essential to the sound as the other. “You talk to Chuck or Keith or me and we know our records backwards and forward. We’re record librarians. And Chuck and I are arrangement fanatics, too; we know arrangements, concepts, songs, ideas, beats. So we put that together and say, ‘This is what we wanna do.’ Then there’s Sadler. Eric Sadler knows the machinery. He was in a band, so he has a musician’s head. He’d say, ‘Yeah, we can go do this, but we can’t go that far out. Give it at least some kind of musical structure.’ Then once we knew what we wanted, we put together songs, which is ultimately what you want to do, right?

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Listen to Hank’s brother Keith Shocklee reminisce about the days of their ungodly creativity:

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“When Public Enemy decided to make records, it was important to us to have real songs; pure rap songs, mind you, on our own terms. And every song that we develop has a structure. It’s not all chaos. As a matter of fact, our song structures don’t get boring or tiring after x amount of time, because each structure and pattern changes and evolves. We took DJing and songwriting to a level that nobody had gone before. Not just to the point of counting beats per minute, but actually calculating mood.”

The original Public Enemy sound was created on-air. “Chuck had brought in Flavor Fav, and there was this one particular thing we did where at the beginning Flavor goes: ‘Yo, Chuck, man, brothers think you can’t rhyme…,’ and then, ‘Yo, why don’t you show these suckers how to do it.’ It was just another one of those battle raps, called ‘Public Enemy Number One’. That record was the number one smash hit on WBAU for…I dunno, three months or so. Out of all the stuff we were playing – even the new records that were coming out that was the number one song. By the time we put it on Yo! Bum Rush The Show it was old. We put it on that first album for the world to hear, because the record was already a hit in Long Island and Queens.”

Which may have influenced some of those who recorded before Public Enemy. “Guess who lived in Queens? Run lived in Queens, and Jam Master Jay lived in Queens, and DMC lived in Queens. And Rick Rubin lived over in Long Beach. And LL lived out there. All these people had tapes of ‘Public Enemy Number One’. DMC was so wild about it he played it to Russell [Simmons, of Def Jam] and Run every day. All of them knew the lyrics, the drum beats, everything – I mean, those guys were strung out on this record.”

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One of the earliest shots of Public Enemy: Professor Griff (far left), Chuck D and Flavor Flav (center) and Terminator X (next to the subway column).

Def Jam’s Rick Rubin wanted to sign Chuck D to a record deal because he liked his voice. But Chuck scoffed at the idea. “Rick kept calling and calling and saying, ‘Let’s do a record, let’s do a record’,” Shocklee says. “We were, like, ‘Sheesh, we don’t wanna do a record.’ We was doing concerts and we was doing the radio show; we had put together – me, Bill and Chuck – a video show that was being seen on two UHF channels; and we ran the nightclub, along with my brother Keith. We were, like, ‘No way, we don’t wanna do a record’.” Also, according to Rubin, Chuck D felt he was too old to do rap records; he had a wife, a child, a real job, and thought rapping was for kids. But Rubin persisted, and when Stephney went on board at Def Jam, Public Enemy was signed. At the time, Rubin told Rolling Stone last year, Russell Simmons hated the group; he felt they were nothing but a black punk rock group. Which was pretty much the point.

“Rap is like punk rock. The kids don’t give a fuck. You can give them a rap record that only has one verse in it over and over and over. You can’t do that in R&B. So we never really were into R&B so much.” – Hank Shocklee

“Rap is like punk rock,” says Shocklee. “The kids don’t give a fuck. You can give them a rap record that only has one verse in it over and over and over. You can’t do that in R&B. So we never really were into R&B so much. We didn’t like it because it didn’t have anything around it. It’s not that we couldn’t learn how to do R&B, it’s that rap was more intriguing to us because it allows you to express it all – rock’n'roll, R&B…everything. There’s no way that you could make an R&B record like, say, Snap’s ['The Power']. In fact, it really wouldn’t make it as a rock’n'roll song either because the rockers would be sitting there going, like, ‘This is nonsense.”‘

0abQX3ZBIN THE FOUR YEARS it’s taken Public Enemy to become a household name, Shocklee has become something of a star producer. He has laid down tracks for everyone from Ice Cube and 3rd Bass to Ziggy Marley to Bell Biv DeVoe; he also mixed singles for people as diverse as Paula Abdul and Sinead O’Connor. Right now he wants to focus on getting smart young acts signed to S.O.U.L.; so far, in addition to the Young Black Teenagers, the label has signed the wild and zany Son of Bazerk and a singer named Raheem.

“When we started Public Enemy, I had a vision of what I thought music should sound like in the future.” he says. “We started Public Enemy because we wanted to project this vision and the messages we had in as strong a way as possible. We worked hard on our sound – what you call my ‘signature sound’ – because we felt there was a critical need for that kind of power in rap. You have to remember, this was a time when people like [music writer] John Leland and some others were saying rap was supposed to be just dance music. And you still get that mentality out there; just look at what they’ve done with MC Hammer. He is getting pushed to the heights by the media. And I’m not dissing MC Hammer, because I think he’s a very conscientious brother, and I admire his business acumen and his hard work. But the media wants to take Hammer and say that this type of rapping is the way it is. Now you know that’s not true.

“If people would look more closely at rappers like Kris of Boogie Down Productions, then I’d be sitting here saying – BOOM! – it’s happening. So that’s why we created Public Enemy. We made a decision to go straight to the people, to be our own media, to reach them on our own terms and let them understand that we don’t believe things are correct on this planet. And we wanted to be noisy about it.”

© Mark Kemp, 1991

Citation (Harvard format)
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