Public Enemy’s Chuck D tries to make a break for it

Public Enemy’s Chuck D tries to make a break for it

In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week: For Breaking Bad week, we talk about our favorite songs about troubles with the law.

Chuck D spends most of Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back fighting—the critics and radio stations who don’t understand his music, the courts suing over his samples, the government that’s made him a target for his words—but on “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos,” he’s already lost. The song finds Chuck in storyteller mode, narrating the tale of a prison riot and his subsequent escape from “under a swarm of devils,” who keep “four of us packed in a cell like slaves.” Like the rest of the album it’s a rebellion, a warning that no matter how much they think they have him beaten, the power of conviction and the strength in numbers guarantees he’ll triumph. Unlike the rest of the album, this rebellion is an act of grim desperation that’s guaranteed to end in bloodshed, even in victory. 

That desperation and oppression is built right into its sound. The looped piano line, lifted from Isaac Hayes’ “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic,” sounds strangled, a lo-fi result producer Hank Shocklee said was achieved by the sampler wire not being plugged all the way in. Isolated and reversed, it continually circles back on itself—a bit of imprisoned soul, pacing its sonic cell. Chuck D’s voice sounds hoarse and whipped, the symptom of a cold he had around the time of recording. Flavor Flav offers his usual hype man support from a distorted distance, literally phoning his lines in from the next room over. Everything about it seems buried under grime and concrete. 

With those classic opening lines, Chuck D sets up a prison that’s both real and allegorical: “I got a letter from the government, the other day / I opened and read it, it said they were suckers / They wanted me for their army or whatever,” he says, scoffing, “Picture me giving a damn / I said ‘never!’” He’s thrown in jail after dodging the draft, but those bars are just window dressing. He’s already stuck in a system that demands his life and service, but treats him like nothing more than a slave. “Here is a land that never gave a damn about a brother like me,” he says, later declaring, “I’m not a citizen.” He’s a captive.

The elaborate jailbreak he goes on to plan—grabbing the “black steel” out of the holster of his C-O, sparking a riot, heading 53-prisoners-strong for the fence—builds to an increasingly violent, increasingly unlikely denouement. The video makes this even clearer: Just as Chuck D is about to be swept away in the nick of time by the S1Ws, he swings from the hangman’s noose—“An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge”-style twist revealing it’s all been just a death row dream. He can’t escape. The oppression and institutionalized racism that runs the prison system also runs the outside world, and all Chuck and his fellow captives can do is scheme to break out, and live to keep that fire alive. “A cell is hell,” he says. “I’m a rebel, so I rebel.”