Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

White pop critics who dig certain kinds of hip-hop get hit time and again with the accusation that the reason they’re into it is some secret Stagger Lee fantasy of the badass black male. As good liberals must, they strive to disavow this slur and this leads them down some nasty cul-de-sacs, since the best way to show that they’re not just culture tourists is to prove that they Understand, and the best way to do that is to get right behind what are (hip-hoppers being only marginally cleverer than your average rock stars) some rather dodgy personal and political viewpoints. Rather than bend over backwards to bone up on the Farrakhan, in other words, it’s a shame more critics didn’t admit that what made Public Enemy cool was indeed the heady aura of aggro and danger they carted around, an aura given a spin by their political stance but nonetheless mostly visual, and as central to their appeal as the Bomb Squad’s titanic end-times productions. Coming clean over this would be no more compromising than saying that Elvis or The Stooges were sexy.

This all springs to mind because “By The Time I Get To Arizona”, the last-to-date truly awesome PE track, is also one of the only times the group talk it as good as they walk it. Mostly, what makes PE fun (well, one of a million things) is the tension between the military-unit image, all aggression, and the actual songs, which are nearly always reactive: PE are reporters more often than they are soldiers, in other words. On “By The Time…”, though, the team are presented with an honest-to-God mission, celebrated on the album by the amazing fake-bulletin Sister Souljah intro, which describes how Public Enemy (“…and all aligned forces…“!!) are moving in on the hapless state, ready to bust some skulls. I honestly don’t think a pop song’s had a more gripping spoken intro since “Leader Of The Pack”: it is, every time, fearsomely exciting. Chuck D takes the thrill and amps it up throughout the song, culminating in the astonishing midsection, where he gives himself a time limit and then strains against it, while behind him churned fairground squeals and a blurry, half-drowned beat struggle against the same exhausting tide.

Musically, that’s the most out-there bit, but the kick of the track comes from the main sample, a ground-up guitar/drum hook of exceptional sleaze-funk heavitude, complete with louche soul backing singers. For PE, it’s unusually catchy, even glossy, and it focusses Chuck’s fury beautifully, driving him along and at the same time standing for the rotten, overheated culture he’s raging against. Total melodrama: I’m sure that if you knew the issues and agreed with them it probably sounded even better, but I certainly didn’t and “By The Time I Get To Arizona” still sounds like a stadium hip-hop judgement day to me, so I punch along whatever. Had Public Enemy never come back from Arizona, this would have stood as one unbelievable final ride.