On February 10, 1987, Public Enemy dropped their debut album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show. Recorded at Spectrum City Studios in Hempstead, New York, the album featured now-classic Public Enemy cuts like “Miuzi Weighs a Ton” and “Public Enemy No. 1.”
While Yo! Bum Rush the Show received critical acclaim, the album was largely ignored by radio stations and sales were moderate. “At that time the sales for Yo! topped at 200,000 compared to Beastie’s 4 million and Raising Hell’s 4 million and 2.7 million for Bigger and Deffer,” recalled Bill Stephney, Def Jam’s radio promotions director at the time.
Shortly after releasing the album, the group embarked on a tour with fellow Def Jam artists LL Cool J and Eric B. & Rakim. It was around this time that Chuck D heard “I Know You Got Soul.”
While the Long Island duo had making a name for themselves over the past year with “Eric B. Is President” and it’s b-side “”My Melody,” the way “I Know You Got Soul” hit the Public Enemy frontman felt different. To add to that, an upstart Bronx crew called Boogie Down Productions had just dropped “South Bronx,” another revelatory moment in hip hop history. Overnight, Yo! Bum Rush the Show sounded dated.
“‘I Know You Got Soul’ was the best fuckin’ record I had heard in my fuckin’ life, and it comes from Eric B who was givin’ us hell,” Chuck D said in an interview. “We were gettin’ ready to go out on the Bigger & Deffer tour, and we’re gonna have to look at the guys every day who made this fuckin’ record! I was, ‘No, man!'”
The Eric B. & Rakim record motivated Public Enemy to get back in the studio while their debut album was still fresh. “By the time we actually came out with Yo! Bum Rush the Show, Hank and I began putting together ‘Rebel Without a Pause,'” Chuck told Brian Coleman for Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies. “It came out first on the B-side of “You’re Gonna Get Yours” [from Yo!].”
“Hank and I came up with the track and then I locked myself in the house for two days, trying to nail it,” Chuck continued. “There was so much aggression in it because we were trying to prove a point – that we knew what the fuck we were doing.”
As they say, “‘steel sharpens steel.” The innovation and brilliance of “I Know You Got Soul” and “South Bronx” inspired Public Enemy to create one of the greatest hip hop singles of all time, which was accompanied shortly after by It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, one of the best hip hop records ever made.
In a Rolling Stone article about his top 50 hip hop songs of all time, The Roots frontman and drummer, Questlove, spoke about the impact “Rebel Without a Pause” had on him.
Questlove: Oh my God. What the hell is this?!?!? It was the sound of your brain in a vice grip. The sound of a tea kettle screaming for its life? The scream of a bunch of teens feeling my wrath!?? The steam of uncried tears??! It was like each squeal of St. Clair Pinckney’s alto sax represented my anger at something – but what? I wanted to blast this song to smithereens, but it was 1:30 a.m. and my parents were asleep. That did not stop me. I played and played and played and played and played this song, over and over and over, until it was 6 a.m. and I’d been listening to “Rebel Without a Pause” for four and a half hours.Questlove’s Top 50 Hip-Hop Songs of All Time | Rolling Stone