How Public Enemy used a classic rock riff for their song ‘He Got Game’
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How Public Enemy used a classic rock riff for their song 'He Got Game'

When hip-hop first emerged from the Bronx in New York, it was undoubtedly a funk-based genre. Created by tech-savvy DJs who realised they could manipulate records to create an endless breakdown, the genre began by sampling and interpolating funk and soul songs. However, things slowly but surely changed as the sound developed and evolved. Public Enemy were a crucial part of this movement.

During the early 1980s, hip-hop tracks such as ‘Rapper’s Delight’ by the Sugar Hill Gang and ‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five were prevalent. However, as people struggled to let go of this sound, the genre stagnated and became extremely homogenous concerning sonics. Fortunately, in the mid-’80s, artists began experimenting, samples grew more abstract, and genre fusion became increasingly common.

As the 1980s were in full swing, the counterculture attitude of punk had faded in rock and a diluted, mainstream rock was pushed to the forefront. The intense scrutiny of social and political injustices was now absent, and suddenly it was about love. However, many rock fans still pined for punk’s cacophony and belligerence. Hip-hop had already broken barriers, and sure enough, the two anti-establishment cultures met each other in the middle to make ground-breaking music.

These early cross-genre collaborations proved to be hugely successful. They sparked a new wave of creativity and inspired a new era of hip-hop producers and MCs to embrace genres beyond funk. From here, a rock-rap alliance began to form. Aside from Run-DMC, many collectives and producers began to use old rock music as a basis for their songs. Adding a unique hip-hop spin, many of these songs are still popular today. The Beastie Boys, Rick Rubin and others embraced this movement. However, one prominent group that helped push the sound was Public Enemy.

Comprised of Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Professor Griff, Terminator X and Sammy Sam, the five-piece ensemble used a legendary rock song, their iconic track ‘He Got Game.’ The single was made for the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s 1998 film He Got Game and sample’s the protest song ‘For What It’s Worth’ by Buffalo Springfield. The aforementioned band was formed in Los Angeles, and was a mixed nationality group comprised of Neil Young, Bruce Palmer and Dewey Martin, Stephen Stills and Richie Furay.

Initially released in 1966, Stephen Stills wrote ‘For What It’s Worth’. The track was written following the Sunset Strip curfew riots of 1966, more commonly known as “the hippie riots.” The curfew targeted an LA road frequented by those involved in the rock and roll counterculture movement of the ’60s. The avenue (Sunset Strip) was home to one of the most formidable rock clubs, the ‘Whisky a Go Go’. The curfew received a vicious backlash.

This was the perfect song for Public Enemy to sample as an anti-establishment outfit. For this 1998 single, they even called upon vocalist Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield to provide some vocals on the track, which he does. ‘He Got Game’ overtly interpolates the original and is an exceptional fusion of the two genres. You can listen to the sample and the Public Enemy version in the videos below.