Behind the Boards: After revolutionizing the art of noise with Public Enemy, Hank and Keith Shocklee's squad stays on point.
Words: Chairman Mao
Originally published in ego trip #13, 1998
Back in the days, I really thought rap would never die. That’s because before RZA brought the ruckus, before Cypress Hill scored ultraviolet dreams through bubbling bong water, Strong Island production terrorists, The Bomb Squad, were the be-all-to-end-all of organized noise. Originally centered around Spectrum City—the Roosevelt, NY DJ team founded by brothers Hank and Keith Boxley—this ensemble of MCs, personalities and audio philosophers channeled local fame and an unquenchable appetite for hip hop into a pioneering college radio mix show on Adelphi University’s now defunct WBAU. Somewhere along the line, Hank and Keith even snapped up a catchy alias from Clint Eastwood’s character (“Ben Shocklee”) in the cinematic action thriller, The Gauntlet.
But the action really got serious when Def Jam’s Rick Rubin displayed a keen interest in one of the radio jocks’ most popular on-air pause-tape jams. Said demo—later known to the world as Public Enemy’s “Public Enemy #1”—sounded like nothing that preceded it. Rooted firmly in the James Brown breakbeat tradition, yet catapulted by unprecedented, openly cacophonic abrasion, P.E.’s inaugural anthem paved the way for its production arm’s stupendous series of masterworks. Public Enemy’s first three classic forays—Yo! Bum Rush The Show, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back (a/k/a The Greatest Hip Hop Album Of All-Time) and Fear Of A Black Planet—as well as Squad-helmed side projects like Ice Cube’s epochal Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, perfectly exemplified the order-through-chaos genius of Hank and Keith Shocklee, Eric Sadler, Chuck D and company; one in which the Panthers’ revolutionary rage, the Godfather’s grits and gravy, Dr. Funkenstein’s ideological framework and heavy metal’s banshee wail collided in a high-speed wreck somewhere on the Long Island Expressway.
After stepping away from hands-on console duties for P.E.’s later work, the members of the Bomb Squad amicably went their separate ways. Eric relocated down South, Keith began supervising the construction of the Shocklee siblings’ recording studio and Hank (after the disappointing dissolution of his early ’90s’ Sound Of Urban Listeners Records label) became the Senior Vice President of Black Music at MCA Records. Having recently returned to active duty by turning in some of the finer moments from P.E.’s He Got Game soundtrack, lanky Brothers Bomb, Hank and Keith, recently discussed the Squad’s music while shopping for keyboard hardware on a sunny spring afternoon in midtown Manhattan.
Tell me about the early days of Spectrum City.
Hank: Back when we started building our DJ unit, it was me, Keith and Professor Griff. But me and Keith were looking for an MC because [all the DJ crews] had an MC at the time. We went searching for one at a function at Adelphi University [in Long Island] because they used to have Thursday night gigs. But most of those motherfuckers was wack. We were bored out of our minds listening to these wack-ass MCs rapping. And then this one kid grabbed the mic and he made an announcement. And he did such a good job of making the announcement, it fucked me up. And that kid happened to be Chuck D. I liked the way his voice sounded so I said, “Yo, do you wanna get down with us?” I was throwin’ parties, so Chuck came down and lit it up.
Keith: We was called “Spectrum,” but when Chuck came along, he said we might as well call ourselves “Spectrum City” because we had our own little world. We had a whole crew with us. The Security Of The First World, [back in the day] they was actually our security at parties! Later, when we brainstormed the whole P.E. thing, we just put everybody to use. Everybody had a place and a position.
Hank: And that’s also how we created the Bomb Squad. Eric Sadler, Keith, Terminator X, Flavor Flav and Chuck was all a part of the Bomb Squad. But we would work like a conveyor belt. Eric and Keith would make beats, Terminator would come in with the scratch parts, Chuck would go find the spoken word parts, I would organize and shape everything and mix everything. And Flavor would come in and play whatever he could lend his expertise to.
How did that production process shape your collective vision for the group?
Hank: Public Enemy was never an R&B-based, runnin’-up-the-charts, gettin’-played-all-day-on the-radio group. It was a street group. It was basically a thrash group, a group that was very much rock ‘n’ roll oriented. We very seldom used basslines because the parallel that we wanted to draw was Public Enemy and Led Zeppelin. Public Enemy and the Grateful Dead. We were not polished and clean like any of the R&B groups or even any of our rap counterparts that were doing a lotta love rap. That just wasn’t our zone—even though when we were DJs we played all those records. We decided that we wanted to communicate something that was gonna be three dimensional—something that you could look at from many different sides and get information from as well as entertainment.
Keith: We never wanted to not be noticed cuz if you didn’t get noticed, you got passed by.
Hank: And we always looked out for the underdog cuz we were the underdogs. When Public Enemy first came out, we was ridiculed, we was dissed: “They have plastic guns onstage, Chuck D can’t rap, they beats is noisy and wack.” So we never really dined at the table of “hip hop elegance,” if you wanna call it that. That was [also] our whole situation [when we were younger]. We were the people that couldn’t get into the upscale parties. We were never really accepted. We was always the grimy motherfuckers. When we was going through college, we wasn’t the motherfuckers in frats.
Keith: We’d get in fights with frats! Yo, it was crazy!
Hank: We couldn’t get in their gigs so we had to bum rush the party. That’s where “bum rush the show” came from.
Keith: They would hire us to DJ and then wouldn’t want to pay us at the end of the night because we did such a good job. The frat always wanted to take over the show. They wanted to be the main thing.
Hank: But we were the highlights. So the frats got a little jealous. They used to be like, “We didn’t like the way y’all was playing.” We was like, “What do you mean? Motherfuckers was losing their minds all night long!” I mean, we had DJing down to a science to where we had highs and lows, we had tempo changes, ups and downs. It wasn’t just a steady [flow of] record after record.
That style was reflected in the hectic nature of your production as well—the interludes, the dense, multi-layered walls of sound.
Keith: I think that came about because we was excited about what we were doing and we wanted to keep everybody’s attention. Being DJs and understanding the dance floor, we knew that when your record’s not full, it becomes stagnant. We liked to put stuff in a record so later on, after you heard the record like 12 times, you’d be like, “Yo, I didn’t know they put that in there!”
But the thing was, we put in stuff that made sense. I seen a lot of people copy the stuff that we were doing, but it just didn’t fit their records. We never put anything in a record that didn’t fit the record. We went through a lot of samples. A lot of samples! We liked confusion, but we still kept it at a point where it was danceable, it didn’t crowd anything and you always understood the song.
You also had a knack for working fast. How did that develop?
Keith: We had a bunch of groups we was working on at the same time as P.E. We had Kings Of Pressure, this kid True Mathematics and we had the Leaders Of The New School in the background. So we had to keep that pace up. What we did then is a blueprint for what everybody is doing now. That’s why everybody came with squads—the Flip Mode Squad, Def Squad. Everybody has squads because we set the whole blueprint of the artist and the team behind it.