Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Shut 'Em Down for MLK

"Shut 'Em Down" is the second single (following "Can't Truss It") off of Public Enemy's Apocalypse 91: The Enemy Strikes Black album. The song consists of almost constant, fresh scratching over a wailing sample and hardcore beat, while Chuck kicks what are essentially freestyle rhymes with a message. Ultimately, the song seems to be about shutting down the major corporations that are oppressing us: "I like Nike; but wait a minute. The neighborhood supports; so put some money in it. Corporations owe; they gotta give up the dough to the town, or else we gotta shut 'em down." But he's just as apt to be tossing around battle rhymes or whatever the heck else just randomly pops into his head: "1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9: what I use in the battle for the mind. I hit it hard like it's supposed; pullin' no blows to the nose. Like Uncle L said, I'm rippin' up shows."

Now that track is just lifted straight off the album, but what's new to this 12" is the "Pe-te Rock Mixx" ...it's tempting to ask, "why the hyphen?" but I find it's best not to question PE's kooky, pseudo-intellectual spelling games. A better question might be how well does Pete Rock's cool and soulful production style jells with Chuck's angry, hardcore delivery; and the answer is: not too smoothly. This is early in his career, remember... before he'd broadened his range to include a rougher edge. It almost sounds like a mixtape remix, where the DJ just takes the acapella of one record and matches it up as best he can over another instrumental. But after a few spins, you won't care; because it's just a really dope instrumental you'll want to listen to again and again. The constant, high energy scratching of the original is replaced with some new, subtler scratching that blends better with this new groove. It's good stuff, but won't make you think, "damn! I gotta have this record for the scratching alone!" like the original version. Pete also replaces the hook with his own ad libs of the phrase "shut 'em down" (anyone familiar with Pete Rock's records from back then will know exactly what I mean) and he plugs himself in with the requisite "remix producer bonus verse," like Warren G on "Behind Bars" or something... where he name drops but never really speaks on topic:

"I wreck for respect
Check one, hit the deck.
Let the man of the hour
Commit the soul power.
For once I gotta say, 'shut 'em down' on the regular.
'Causin' mass hysteria... in ya area.
Kickin' it for my man Chuck D,
Down with PE
On the remix,
Hun, on the flix.
So check it:
Before I step down,
When I'm in your town,
Ya know, I got ta shut 'em down."

So the reason to get this is the "Pe-te Rock Mixx" of "Shut 'Em Down," but the reason I'm writing about this, naturally is the B-side, "By the Time I Get To Arizona." Why? Because it's Martin Luther King Day, of course; and this song is all about today. This is the big hit off the album, which featured the controversial video (I think "Shut 'Em Down" had a video, too; but it's the stuff of PE completist DVDs, not influential pop culture fare), but surprisingly - this was only a B-side.

See, at the time, Martin Luther King Day wasn't an officially recognized state holiday in every state except two (although, of course, it was a federal holiday in those states anyway): Arizona and New Hampshire. And there was a bill being proposed to make it a holiday in those two remaining states, so PE took up the cause: performing in Arizona and writing this song about it (for some reason, New Hampshire got a pass, as it's not even mentioned in passing). The bulk of the controversy resulted form the video: showing the band going to Arizona, training, and then killing the governor and his political staff (snapping a cop's neck, sniping someone, delivering a mail bomb and ultimately blowing up the governor with a bomb planted in his car) - probably not the way most people choose to respect and honor the memory of this nation's greatest advocate of non-violent protest and civil rights. I've heard it argued, in fact, that the only violent message is in the video and not the song, and that's certainly where the bulk of the violence is; but with lines like, "I'm on the one mission to get a politician to honor, or he's a goner," and "what he needs is a nosebleed," I think it's safe to say that it's in the song, too.

At any rate, it's a hot song. It's definitely the stand-out single of this album (and possibly the last stand-out single of their career), and the only one with real hit potential, even if I am partial to the True Mathematics cameo on "Get The Fck Outta Dodge" myself. The beat is a nice blend of soul, banging beats, and a grinding guitar... and on the breakdown, when most of the instrumental is stripped away and replaced with screams of terror? Forget about it. That's just powerful stuff. Now, interestingly, the notes for this and the LP version of "Shut 'Em Down" say "rhythm of the cut" by Terminator X and "Additional scratchwork" by Kamron. So, let me guess... does that mean Kamron did all the real cuts and scratches and Terminator X just sorta "oversaw" it... kinda like how Eric B and Puffy produce? Well, it's just speculation. Kamron, by the way, is part of Young Black Teenagers, and you'll probably remember him best as Kid's wacky, white dreadlocked roommate in House Party 2.

So, for this Martin Luther King Day, rock a hip-hop holiday classic, and then enjoy a nice Pete Rock remix (the instrumental's included, yes).

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