A couple of albums of Public Enemy presented themselves to me while I was rummaging through the bins of CDs, and I thought fuck yeah, PE in full effect! So Apocalypse '91 - The Enemy Strikes Black and It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back made it onto the mix.
God damn. I was transfixed on the way to work; I'd intended to listen to Run-DMC but the PE was first on the disc, and it was fucking incredible. I'd partly forgotten how good it was, and even more just never really appreciated it for all it is. For one thing, I remember thinking Chuck D was paranoid as hell and obsessed with corruption in politics that "just wasn't that bad"... well, that was before eight years of W. He doesn't seem so far-fetched anymore. For another thing, again, I remembered how eloquent Chuck D was - or at least, how impressive his voice was - but jesus, even Flavor Flav's stuff is incredible by today's standards. "Cold Lampin' Wit' Flavor" is 100% Flavor Flav silliness, but it's also packed full of extremely clever wordplay of a kind you just don't see in hip-hop anymore.
I was also struck by the balance that was struck between Chuck's deadly-serious political commentary and Flavor's buffoonery; without Flavor, Chuck's moralistic lines would get leaden and tiresome - without Chuck, Flavor's antics would be clever but ultimately much less satisfying. I never really appreciated that as a teenager. Those guys had a plan, and made a truly coherent product with serious craftsmanship, aimed at producing tangible political thought as well as simple entertainment. How much music can you really say that of, of any genre?
By modern standards, of course, the soundscape tends to come across a bit hollow and simplistic - these tracks rarely exhibit the kind of multi-layered richness modern musical tastes demand, and Chuck's voice is noticeably rough and his breath not entirely controlled on a lot of the tracks in Nation. The vocal pace is generally slow by modern hip-hop standards, as well - but there's almost nothing wasted; the lyrics are intelligent, intelligible, and make sense even when read without the music. Even Flavor's buffoonery makes sense.
I wish I'd been equipped to appreciate these guys properly when the music was new - or that new music would appear that was this impressive.