Rebel Music

by Dave Zirin / @EdgeOfSports

“Simple and plain—give me the lane I’ll throw it down your throat like Barkley” —“Rebel Without a Pause”

Sometimes a tweet opens a window to a much larger story. After NBA TV’s sterling Julius Erving documentary, The Doctor, SLAM Magazine sent out a note of praise on Twitter. SLAM received a response from the film’s narrator, the one and only Hard Rhymer, the front man for Public Enemy, Carlton Ridenhour, otherwise known as Chuck D. Chuck tweeted back, “Also driven by SLAM mags consistent dedication.”

It seems more than appropriate, as we hit SLAM’s 20th anniversary, to appreciate the symbiosis of Public Enemy, Chuck D, and what drives all the people who continue to champion this magazine. Since my humble column is called Louder than a Bomb in honor of a Public Enemy track, this seems like the place to do it.

For those too young to know, when this magazine took off in 1993, Public Enemy wasn’t a group that you liked or disliked so much as one you were either for or against. Today, as Kanye West rhymes about French croissants, it might even be difficult to even comprehend of a time when being a hip-hop artist put you in the crosshairs of people both powerful and dangerous. But Chuck D was that rarest of creatures: a successful commercial artist who truly “fought the power” without self-censorship.

In addition to the most challenging political rhymes over the Bomb Squad’s groundbreaking beats, Chuck also rhymed about sports, applying his stinging critique of US society to an analysis of our athletic industrial complex. Check out the lyrics to 1993’s “Air Hoodlum” about a fictional high school player named Mick described as “so quick, at six foot six/down to be picked by anyone but the Celtics.” (As a true New Yorker, Chuck had to get in that Celtics jab.)

But the whole of “Air Hoodlum” is actually a takedown of the high school to pros pipeline, with verses like this:

“SAT’s didn’t matter ‘cause he was all that
You know the pat on the back
He was always in the news you gotta know what it means
it means revenue, and I’m tellin you
I saw cars and Gs come to our school please
approach/Hell with the principal, where’s the coach?
Went to college four years with a scholarship
and won the championship
But when it came to his life he didn’t care.
‘cause he took it to the air”

The iconic Public Enemy song about basketball is of course the title track of Spike Lee’s 1998 film He Got Game, which uses the eerie guitar sequence from Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” and has—not unlike the star of that film, Jesus Shuttlesworth himself, Ray Allen—only elevated itself with age. Its goosebump-provoking chorus is about the emptiness of sports without meaning.

“I got game
She got game
We got game
They got game
He got game
It might feel good
It might sound a lil somethin
But fuck the game
If it ain’t sayin nuttin’”

Chuck D has also spent his career calling on athletes to use their platform to say something about their world. As he said to me in an interview we did in 2010, “We want athletes to speak up because they have advantages. They have everyday coverage. They’re covered by a person that has a mic and a camera in their face, and this is the time to step up.”

But what makes Chuck D—not to mention SLAM—so precious is he approaches his critique of sports and the athletes who play them with love. Chuck D is a sports fan who loves how the games make him feel even if he doesn’t like how the game is played behind the scenes. That’s why in the track that truly announced Public Enemy to the world, 1987’s “Rebel without a Pause,” Chuck took the time to announce that he’ll “throw it down your throat like Barkley.” PE has always understood the power of strength and fearlessness on the court. And Chuck D has always repped those values off of it. After 20 years, we can say with pride: They will always be the soundtrack of SLAM Nation.