Author: Russell Myrie
Format: Book (hardcover)
Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd, Edinburgh
Date: 2008 (1st U.S. printing 2009)
Finally!—an authorized biography of Public Enemy, the hip-hop group that brought hope and intelligence to the ghetto, reinforced Black pride in a mainstream outlet, and said “F*** you” to the president. Public Enemy fan and all-around hip hop nerd, Russell Myrie, presents an in-depth study of the life and times of the group, relaying information about members from the days of young hoodrat mischief to those of professional musicality and political pertinence. This informative story, entitled Don’t Rhyme for the Sake of Riddlin’, provides a timeline of the group’s conception and progression. Importantly, it includes highly personal quotes from interviews with prominent members such as the controversial Professor Griff, Terminator X, the Shocklee brothers, Flava Flav, and of course the legendary Chuck D.
Myrie, a London cat born in 1978, wrote the book so that it reads like a hip hop textbook, a piece of scholarly research that manages to avoid the convoluted language so often associated with academia. The slang is easily recognizable to anyone who knows their hip-hop; Myrie says that, “It was really important to me to write it in a way hip hop heads across the world could understand. For us by us, right?” Absolutely. He also purposefully shapes the quotes into the dialect in which they were uttered, providing readers with the voice of these idols, not just their words. Easy to follow but sometimes confusing in the details, the book is complete with an index so you can look things up, or remind yourself what year an early album came out. Readers may also want to have Youtube at the ready, because the videos, songs, tours, etc. are almost always available in clips that really bring the text to life.
One qualm—is Myrie hard enough on Public Enemy? The combative rap personalities of the group seem to beg more antagonism than the author dishes out. I wanted to see Myrie yell at them and hear PE yell back. Though there were certainly years of highly questionable decisions and underground beefs within the band and their labels, it gets brushed off as being not so important. But Public Enemy made their reputation by going against convention, so why did they fall into the same traps as other performers? Perhaps it truly couldn’t be helped, but I would like to see Public Enemy mad again. The battle isn’t over.
So yes, it took a long time to finally create a biography and yes, it is by a British author and released by a Scottish press, and not written from a home-grown American perspective. Perhaps this is because of the controversy of members like Professor Griff and Chuck D’s market-loathing approach to mainstream media. Perhaps America got sick of the group too soon. Whatever the case, Public Enemy was certainly a globally, if not universally, loved, heard, and understood group. The politics of PE go beyond American borders, and Myrie does well in portraying this aspect of the group’s gravity and longevity.
Posted by Rachel Weidner
Editor’s note: Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet (1989) was one of the first hip hop albums added to the National Recording Registry, which includes the nation’s most culturally, historically or aesthetically important recordings selected to be maintained and preserved indefinitely as part of the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000. To nominate additional recordings for this honor, forms can be found here.