In the early 1980s, hip-hop music experienced a revolution. The creative hub of the genre moved from the inner-city streets of Harlem and the Bronx to the suburbs of New York City. Out of Long Island came a new, angry sound—a rebellious noise that would change hip-hop music forever. Hank Shocklee was one of the key architects of that noise. As a founding member and producer of the incendiary rap group Public Enemy, he helped develop the distinctive, multilayered sound that became the group’s trademark and influenced an entire generation of rappers. In addition to his work with Public Enemy, Shocklee added his unique production approach to recordings by acts ranging from Dr. Dre, 3rd Bass, and Bell Biv DeVoe to such pop and rock artists as Ziggy Marley, Paula Abdul, and Anthrax.
Shocklee’s early involvement in music was as a student at New York City’s Adelphi University. In the early 1980s, he worked as a promoter and deejay, setting up shows and parties in and around Long Island. At Adelphi, he met Carlton Ridenour, who would later take the name Chuck D and become lead rapper for Public Enemy. Ridenour shared Shocklee’s interest in hip-hop, and it wasn’t long before he was emceeing Shocklee’s parties. Shocklee and Ridenour went on to form a deejay collective they called Spectrum. This collaboration—which would grow to include rappers Flavor Flav (William Drayton), Keith Shocklee (Hank’s brother), Carl Ryder, Eric Sadler, and DJ Terminator X (Norman Rogers)—laid the groundwork for Public Enemy.
In 1983 Shocklee and Ridenour attracted the attention of Bill Stephney, program director for WBAU, Adelphi’s campus radio station. Stephney asked them to host a hip-hop show on Saturday nights. The duo agreed and the Super Spectrum Mixx Show—one of the first programs to feature rap and hip-hop music—hit the airwaves. The show was so far ahead of its time that Shocklee and Ridenour had difficulty filling a three-hour time slot because of the relatively few rap and hip-hop albums commercially available at the time. To solve this problem, they began recording their own rhythm tracks, rapping and mixing live on the air.
“The original Public Enemy sound was created on-air,” Shocklee explained in Option magazine. “We were 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. We were doing stuff without any live [instruments]. When we got the choruses, there would be nothing but scratching … absolutely no instruments … none! It’s the only way we could do our music on the radio…. 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 the time.”
The multilayered “noise” of those homemade recordings was something entirely new to rap and hip-hop. Over the next three years, Shocklee and Ridenour recorded hundreds of songs and gained a large cult following. But in 1986, one particular song put them over the top and set the stage for the birth of Public Enemy. As Shocklee recounted in Option, “Chuck had brought in Flavor Flav, 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 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.”
The success of “Public Enemy Number One” did not go unnoticed by record companies. Rick Rubin offered Shocklee and Ridenour a recording contract with his
For the Record …
Attended Adelphi University, Long Island, NY, c. 1980–86.
Began as a mobile DJ and concert promoter, early 1980s; formed DJ collective Spectrum with Carl Ryder, Eric Sadler, and brother Keith Shocklee, and future Public Enemy members Chuck D (Carlton Ridenour), Flavor Flav (William Drayton), and DJ Terminator X (Norman Rogers); with Chuck D, hosted rap/hip-hop radio program on WBAU, Adelphi University, 1983–86.
Public Enemy signed with Def Jam, and Shocklee formed the Bomb Squad with Ryder, Sadler, and brother Keith; Bomb Squad produced Public Enemy’s first album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, 1987; with Bill Stephney, formed S.O.U.L. (Sound of Urban Listeners) Records, 1990; produced Public Enemy’s Apocalypse ’91: The Enemy Strikes Black, 1991; signed and produced two albums on S.O.U.L. for rap group Young Black Teenagers, 1991–93; left S.O.U.L. and formed Shocklee Entertainment with Keith Shocklee, 1993; helped produce Public Enemy’s Muse Sick N Hour Mess Age, 1994.
Addresses: Record company —Def Jam/Columbia, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022–3211.
newly formed rap label, Def Jam Records. They refused, believing that rap artists were targets for victimization by record companies. Rubin continued to pursue them, until finally, in 1987—after Bill Stephney joined Def Jam—Ridenour (now Chuck D), Flavor Flav, and DJ Terminator X signed with Def Jam and officially became Public Enemy. To produce the album, Shocklee put together a production team he called the Bomb Squad, which included former Spectrum members Carl Ryder, Eric Sadler, and Shocklee’s brother Keith.
From the beginning, Shocklee wanted Public Enemy’s sound to be distinct. But he also wanted it to grab the listener’s attention in a way that would play off Chuck D’s raw, pointed raps and immediately identify it as a Public Enemy song. “We wanted to make something obnoxious,” Shocklee told Lewis Cole in Rolling Stone. “When people are asleep, you have to take drastic means to wake them up.” He elaborated further in Spin, “We wanted to put certain hooks in the sound so that when you heard it coming out of a car, you knew what record it was on. It was Noise [with a] capital N…. We wanted to submerge you in sound, a thunderstorm of sound. And Chuck’s voice would come out of it like the voice of God.”
The result was Public Enemy’s first album, 1987’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show. Shocklee’s chaotic rhythm tracks and mixes, which Detroit Free Press music critic Gary Graff described as “an aural assault of buzzes, sirens, knife-edged guitar riffs, turntable scratches, and a bass-drum attack that pummels like uppercuts to the chin,” were the perfect foil for the aggressive, often militant, political raps he wrote with Chuck D. The album was an instant hit, selling more than 400,000 copies without the benefit of radio airplay. Almost single-handedly, Shocklee and Chuck D created a new form of rap. Unlike the “party-music” rap that preceded it, this new genre was loud, angry, and provided a forum for serious social and political commentary. It gave people something to think about as well as listen to, and it would inspire both late 1980s rappers like Run-D.M.C. and L.L. Cool J. and the “gangsta” rappers of the 1990s.
Between 1987 and 1990, Shocklee and the Bomb Squad produced two more albums for Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988), and Fear of a Black Planet (1990). Credited with masterminding Public Enemy’s distinctive sound, Shocklee became a much sought after star producer. Between producing and helping write lyrics for Public Enemy albums, he produced and mixed singles for a wide variety of other artists ranging from Ice Cube and 3rd Bass to Sinead O’Connor and Paula Abdul.
In 1990 Shocklee struck out on his own and formed S.O.U.L. (Sound of Urban Listeners) Records with Bill Stephney. Their goal was to help promote rap and hip-hop by signing smart young acts. The partnership didn’t last long: Stephney left S.O.U.L. in 1991 over business differences with Shocklee. Undeterred, Shocklee went on to sign and produce records for a number of artists, including Son of Bazerk and Raheem. Shocklee’s only real success, though, came with the Young Black Teenagers, an ironically named, all-white New York City rap ensemble. He produced two top-selling albums with the group, Young Black Teenagers (1991) and Dead Enz Kids Doin’ Lifetime Bidz (1993).
Shocklee remained with S.O.U.L. until late 1993. During his time with the label, he regularly did production and remix work for groups both inside and outside of the rap/ hip-hop realm. He produced albums for Public Enemy (Apocalypse 91: The Enemy Strikes Black) and Another Bad Creation, and he remixed previously released tracks by Peter Gabriel, alternative metal band Helmet, and heavy metal group Anthrax.
In November of 1993 Shocklee left S.O.U.L. to form Shocklee Entertainment, a production firm and record label, with his brother Keith. The following year the two brothers served as producers on Public Enemy’s release Muse Sick N Hour Mess Age.
An innovator with a purpose, Shocklee remains a driving force in the world of rap. As Public Enemy’s producer and co-lyricist, he helped transform rap from party music into a medium for serious political and social commentary. Shocklee summed up his philosophy of rap in Option: “When we started Public Enemy, I had a vision of what I thought music should sound like in the future. 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 … because we felt there was a crucial need for that kind of power in rap. 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.”
As producer and co-lyricist; albums by Public Enemy; on Def Jam
Yo! Bum Rush the Show, 1987.
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, 1988.
Fear of a Black Planet, 1990.
Apocalypse ’91: The Enemy Strikes Black, 1991.
Muse Sick N Hour Mess Age, 1994.
Terminator X, Terminator X and The Valley of the Jeep Beets, Division/RAL/Columbia, 1991.
Young Black Teenagers, Young Black Teenagers, S.O.U.L., 1991.
Young Black Teenagers, Dead Enz Kids Doin’ Lifetime Bidz, S.O.U.L/MCA, 1993.
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, Billboard Books, 1991.
Details, March 1993.
Detroit Free Press, October 2, 1991.
Musician, October 1991.
Option, May 1, 1991.
Playboy, September 1994.
Rolling Stone, August 10, 1989; October 19, 1989; November 16, 1989; May 17, 1990; January 23, 1991; October 3, 1991; November 23, 1993.
Schwann Spectrum, spring 1994.
Spin, January 1991; September 1991; October 1991; March 1993.
Time, November 11, 1991; September 19, 1994.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the All-Music Guide, Matrix Software, 1994.
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