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Public Enemy 'Bomb Squad' Producer Studies Music At UMKC

The induction ceremony for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame took place Thursday, April 18, in Los Angeles. Some of this year’s inductees included Heart, Randy Newman, Rush and Public Enemy.Public Enemy is only the fourth hip hop band to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. And along with rappers Chuck D and Flavor Flav, a Kansas City-based composer and master's student at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance, Kerwin Young, shared the spotlight.

From the neighborhood

Kerwin Young was born in New York, and grew up in Roosevelt, Long Island. Public Enemy’s lead rapper Chuck D lived just around the corner – and it was in this neighborhood that Young was introduced to their hard, hip hop sound.

"I first heard their music on a local college radio station, WBAU. That was 1986," recalls Young. "The regular radio stations wouldn’t play their music, and some of the guys in my high school brought their music to school."

Public Enemy’s second album, It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back (1988), hooked Young on their music. It’s an album Rolling Stone described as “loud, obnoxious, funky, avant-garde, political, uncompromising and hilarious all at once.”

An excerpt from the song "Bring the Noise" from the album It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988).

"I was like, wow, it was so much different from their first album," says Young. "(It was) so much different from the music that was out at the time."

"Going there with sound"

Young had been DJ-ing since his early teens and told some friends about his records; they took him to Public Enemy’s studio. And that’s where, at age 17, he met the Bomb Squad, Public Enemy’s production team, who layered sounds, music and spoken word, sirens and scratches.  

"They listened to a lot of old Motown, Temptations, Sly Stone, the Beatles, Stockhausen, Sun Ra," says Young. "(They were) just going there with sound, and seeing what they could contribute to music as a whole, to create something that paid homage to the artists they appreciated, but still could contribute something new. And that was the whole premise."

For the next few years, Young spent time at the studio as an apprentice, "getting the guys potato chips, Chinese food," or just watching and learning.

"I was still green, I didn't know anything about the business," he says. "I just wanted to make music, and make records."

Working as a team

By 1989, he was a part of the Bomb Squad and assisted with Fear of a Black Planet, probably best known for "Fight the Power," featured in the Spike Lee film, “Do The Right Thing.”


"We were a team that worked collectively together," says Young. "Most of the time we’d do songs and it would be our own individual thing, but the other guys would come in and say, hey, you know, why not this, or that. It was a collaborative effort all the time."

Young continued to produce or perform music on records - working with Public Enemy and other artists, like Ice Cube, the James Brown Band, and Mobb Deep. He’s also written music for films ("Sister Act 2," "He Got Game,") and for television ("New York Undercover," "Flavor of Love 2").

Exploring new challenges and new sounds

About a decade ago, he started composing for orchestra – and to hone this craft, he’s now studying composition at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance. He earned his bachelor’s in 2012 – and he’s working on a Master of Music degree. Studying with faculty members like Chen Yi and Zhou Long, he started writing for Chinese instruments, such as the pipa and erhu.

"I’ve been able to meet other students who play some of these instruments," says Young. "It’s a great challenge and I enjoy it.

His future plans include teaching composition and orchestration at the college level. But, for now, he says, he’s taking it slow, spending time creating - and getting his own name and his own work out there.

HBO will air the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony and performances on May 18.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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