As the chief sonic architect for Public Enemy, rap’s visionary radicals, Hank Shocklee has made some of the angriest sounding music ever in the pop world.
The dense, tumultuous tracks that he constructs with the group mirror the tension and fury reflected in such album titles as “Fear of a Black Planet” and “Apocalypse 91 . . . the Enemy Strikes Black.”
Now Shocklee has applied the same aesthetics to the film world. He has composed the score and compiled the soundtrack album for “Juice,” a film in which director Ernest Dickerson lays out the hard choices for urban African-American teens.
But Shocklee isn’t satisfied.
“I couldn’t take this score as far as I wanted to,” says the lanky, constantly moving 32-year-old with a sense of ambitious determination.
Oddly, it’s not an image of stark reality that comes up when he tries to explain his vision.
“Next time I’d like to do a ‘Fantasia’ of rap.”
The Technicolor unreality of Disney animation seems an unlikely reference point for the celebrated producer of hard-hitting rap. Still, there’s a sense to it; his soundscapes are already aural “Fantasias,” vivid, layered jewels that have set the genre’s standards. And, in truth, his entire career in rap--which now includes running his own record company--has been something of a fantasy tale.
Shocklee never wanted to be a record producer. “I got roped into it,” he says, “because nobody else was doing what I thought could be done with this music.”
In 1984, while in college as a member of the R&B; group Spectrum City, he watched a producer botch the music the act was recording. Deciding he could do better, he took over the sessions for the song’s stripped-down B side. The next few years were spent in various roles in radio and music production, and by 1987 he was the behind-the-scenes leader of Public Enemy, rap’s most acclaimed and, sometimes, controversial group.
Now, as executive producer of the “Juice” soundtrack and head of his own label, Shocklee is taking another reluctant step.
“There’s a void, a need for big picture people,” he explains in an office in the New York headquarters of MCA, his label’s parent company. “There’s no structure in the rap business, and if it ain’t going to be people like me, people with a passion and understanding for it, who take it into other areas, then it’s never going to happen.”
Last year, soundtrack albums from “Boyz N the Hood” and “New Jack City” proved that there is a sizable audience for urban-oriented musical companions to popular films. With these successes fresh in the music industry’s mind, commercial expectations are high for the “Juice” album. And since Shocklee’s label, SOUL (Sound of the Urban Listener), has yet to release a major hit, there would seem to be plenty of pressure on “Juice” to deliver the kinds of sales that “New Jack” (more than 2 million) and “Boyz” (almost a million) enjoyed.
The album seems a good bet to meet those expectations. It features a lineup of proven rap stars (Eric B. & Rakim and Big Daddy Kane), new tracks by up-and-comers Naughty by Nature and Cypress Hill Crew, and new jack swing selections by Teddy Riley and Aaron Hall.
“The soundtrack encompasses a lot more music than just rap,” says Shocklee, “because I don’t think the teen-age audience is listening to all hip-hop and nothing else. I wanted to show that the kids are broad and are exposed to a lot more things.”
In addition to compiling the soundtrack, Shocklee was given the task of composing the score for Dickerson’s story of four young black men growing up in the mean streets of Harlem. Shocklee says that “Juice” has the first true contemporary African-American movie score--"African because the drums are communicating the mood, and American because we have samples in there with the drum tracks.”
Conceptualizing such a project was difficult enough, but the logistics of actually recording this accompaniment proved the greatest challenge. “Film and music are both advanced in their situations,” he says, “but when you put them together, you got something that’s prehistoric.”
The process of film scoring has not yet adapted to the elaborate machinery of rap recording, and the engineers and film editors haven’t come up with a system to get these computerized beats in sync with the action on the screen, so Shocklee could only work on one scene at a time. “If we wanted to change the tempo,” he says, “we had to change the whole set-up and start over.”
Shocklee is used to finding new outlets for rap beats. The product of a musical, black middle-class family in Long Island (his uncle was a founding member of Kool & the Gang), he built a following in the late ‘70s as a deejay for disco parties and dances during high school. A neighbor named Carlton Ridenhour helped him promote his events by designing posters and fliers. Rap was just being born when the two of them began attending nearby Adelphi University.
A student named Bill Stephney hosted one of New York’s first rap radio shows on Adelphi’s WBAU. Soon, the three students had gravitated to each other and began putting in all-night sessions at the radio station talking about the music and its untapped potential--artistic, commercial and as a means of political communication for black youth.
Shocklee started actually mixing records on the air, putting together instrumental tracks in the new rap styles. The threesome discovered that Ridenhour had a powerful voice on the microphone and, renamed Chuck D., he started rapping over Shocklee’s tracks on the program. The core of Public Enemy was in place. When fellow Long Islander Rick Rubin, co-founder of Def Jam Records and now head of Def American Records in Los Angeles, heard their program, he immediately offered them a contract.
The buzzing, roiling sound of Public Enemy’s first album, 1987’s “Yo! Bum Rush the Show,” was unlike anything rap had ever heard. “When we came in the game, musicians said we’re not making music, we’re making noise,” Shocklee has said. “I said, ‘You wanna hear noise?’ I wanted to go out to be music’s worst nightmare.”
Through Public Enemy’s three subsequent million-selling albums, the sound painstakingly crafted by Shocklee and his partners in the Bomb Squad (including his brother Keith and Eric (Vietnam) Sadler) has continued to evolve. It was dense and skittery on 1990’s “Fear of a Black Planet,” funkier and more bass-heavy for their latest, “Apocalypse 91 . . . The Enemy Strikes Black” (which lists Shocklee as executive producer, though he did less hands-on production than before, concentrating on directing the album’s overall creative direction).
Through it all, Shocklee has remained a behind-the-scenes figure. He makes no attempt to separate his musical settings from the strident black nationalist messages in PE’s material, but his priorities were always music and marketing, while Chuck D. acted as the focal point and spokesman.
Still, Shocklee attracted plenty of attention as the leader of this audio blitzkrieg, and he was brought in to produce records for rappers 3rd Bass and LL Cool J and new jack heartthrobs Bell Biv DeVoe. His talents have also been tapped as the remixer of hits by Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul and Sinead O’Connor. And in a remarkable, unprecedented meeting of West Cost gangsta attitude and East Coast sonic sophistication, Shocklee and his Bomb Squad troops produced Ice Cube’s 1990 smash “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted.”
Last year, MCA signed a deal with Shocklee and Stephney that established SOUL (the two producers subsequently had a creative falling-out which resulted in Stephney leaving the organization). Albums by the Young Black Teenagers (five white kids with a “black state of mind”) and Son of Bazerk have lacked the focus and verbal skills of Public Enemy’s work and have met with commercial indifference, but the eyes of the rap community remain fixed on Shocklee. “He’s like (Motown founder) Berry Gordy,” says Chuck D. “No one has his vision.”
The producers of “Juice” came up with the idea of bringing Shocklee in to work on the movie. He had already met director Dickerson, who has been Spike Lee’s longtime cinematographer, when Public Enemy wrote “Fight the Power” as the theme song for Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” in 1989.
“I liked him, but I was a little nervous (about the ‘Juice’ project),” Shocklee recalls. “He had never directed before, the producers had never made a movie, I had never scored a movie before.”
Shocklee maintains that composing a movie score, though, is not all that different from producing a rap record. “For Public Enemy or Ice Cube,” he explains, “we make what we call pictorial music. We try to give you an image that you can hear and look at.” Indeed, the “Juice” score remains true to rap’s aggressive beats and propulsive spirit without overwhelming the action on screen.
Eric B. & Rakim wrote the movie’s theme (and the album’s first single), a tense voyage through the gangster life over a throbbing jazz bass line. Kane’s high-speed rap stops the show in one of the film’s early scenes. “Kane is like a Jedi rapper,” says Shocklee with a laugh. “Imagine being in a spaceship and watching all these words fly by.”
Serving as executive producer despite its suit-and-tie overtones means something simple to Shocklee. “It just means giving the artists the latitude to go in and do what they do best,” he says. “We wanted these artists to go in the studio like when they first went in--with no expectations.”
But drawing out the artists’ strengths doesn’t mean keeping the genre static. Shocklee has grand visions for the future, plans for merchandising, for video--even dreams of a rap opera. “In 1992, we want to do a lot of things that make people say, ‘I can’t believe they’re doing that!’ ” he exclaims.
“Juice” also made Shocklee hunger for more meetings of rap and the big screen. “We’re in a sound-and-rhythm age,” he says. “And aside from Martin Scorsese and somebody like Tony Scott (“The Last Boy Scout”), a lot of directors haven’t gotten how important sound is right now.”
Yet Hank Shocklee’s ambitions are grounded in the realities of a musical style still fighting for acceptance after 10 years on the pop charts.
“What rap needs now is to be good ,” he says. “Not great, not spectacular, just well-oiled and consistent. Once it gets out there like that, people can say that we have real music here and deal with it and not just hurry up and rush things out because rap might not be here tomorrow. Because, you know, it’s not going anywhere.”