Public Enemy is widely acknowledged to be the most important group to emerge in the rap medium since the mid-1980s. Self-proclaimed “prophets of rage,” the three main members of Public Enemy have sought to become a major force of social change, disturbing white America’s complacency with highlycharged political statements reminiscent of the 1960s Black Power movement. In the Chicago Tribune, Greg Kot notes that PE “is not just a great rap group, but one of the best rock bands on the planet—black or otherwise.” The critic adds that the group courageously “challenges listeners to step into their world.”
The world Public Enemy describes is not a pretty one. It is, quite simply, the United States as seen by young black men—a land of limited opportunities, drug deaths, and active oppression by a fearful white majority. Until recently, few rappers chose to address these issues as part of their work, but PE does so as its highest priority. As Richard Harrington puts it in the Washington Post, the PE message is “a rap-opera reflecting America’s social malaise and Public Enemy’s ongoing challenge to political and economic systems that have dehumanized and exploited minorities for centuries.” New York Times contributor Peter Watrous observes that, almost singlehandedly, “the band has jerked rap music into an active political sphere. The music outdistances other political pop with both its urgency and its visionary approach to the dance floor. And the group has made pop music that is vital in the contemporary debate about race in American culture for the first time since the 1960s.”
The principal members of Public Enemy are all from Long Island, New York. The group is headed by rapper Chuck D and his partner Flavor Flav. Much of the pulsing background accompaniment is provided by DJ Terminator X and a production team that includes Hank Shocklee, Carl Ryder, Eric Sadler, and Keith Shocklee. The group cut its first album in 1987 and released it through Def Jam, a division of Columbia devoted specifically to rap music.
Public Enemy burst on the scene at a time when rap was moving into the mainstream as entertainment for blacks and whites. What Public Enemy has brought to the medium since 1987 is a sense of higher purpose— the hardly novel notion that music should have a message for its listeners. Group members have been influenced by many of black America’s most controversial spokesmen, including Malcolm X and the leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan. Needless to say, this has meant rough riding for the young rappers as their public utterances and album lyrics have been combed for anti-Semitic and other racist remarks.
In May of 1989, a satellite member of Public Enemy, Richard “Professor Griff” Griffin, gave an interview to the Washington Times in which he made several disparaging remarks about Jews. The fallout from that interview stunned the other band members, who clearly stated that they held no malice for any racial or religious group. Professor Griff was asked to leave the band (he had been a backup performer at concerts), but then was reinstated when the members decided not to cave in to social pressure. Public Enemy subsequently released a single, “Welcome to the Terrordome,” that chronicled their frustrating battle with the media. Some of the lyrics in that work were attacked too for anti-Semitism, especially the lines “Crucifixion ain’t no fiction; so-called chosen, frozen.”
Chuck D answered the charges against his band in a profile for the Los Angeles Times. “I’m not anti-Semitic,” he said. “I think it is a waste of time being antianything. But I also won’t let this [controversy] keep me, as a black nationalist, from talking about problems of the black people and asking questions about how these problems came about. What is happening now is that people are... reading racism or anti-Semitic thoughts in everything we do.... I’m not a racist, but I am inquisitive and I hope that when I keep asking questions, people don’t respond to them by saying it’s
Membership includes Chuck D (Charles Ridenhour), Flavor Flav (William Drayton), and DJ Terminator X (Norman Rogers); group formed on Long Island, N.Y., in mid-1980s, signed with Def Jam Records (a division of Columbia), 1986, released first album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, 1987. Group’s song “Fight the Power” was featured in the film Do the Right Thing, 1989.
Awards: Best album award from Village Voice national critics poll, 1988, for It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back.
Addresses: Record company —Def Jam, CBS Records, 51 West 52d St., New York, NY 10019.
a racist question because there is no such thing as a racist question. There are only racist answers.”
The Public Enemy platform asserts that, genetically speaking, all people are descended from black ancestors (a theory long accepted by human evolutionists) and that whites oppress blacks out of a suppressed fear of this fact. In its music Public Enemy attacks the sources of that fear and the machinery used to keep blacks at bay. Commentary correspondent Terry Teachout writes that in the group’s songs, “policemen kill blacks casually and deliberately, and the federal government, usually personified by Ronald Reagan or, more recently, George Bush, is the mortal enemy of all blacks. White racism, one and indivisible, is the principle of American social organization, all blacks are its perpetual objects; white and black America are in a state of de-facto war.”
It comes as no surprise that three black men under thirty might feel this way about America. It is also not surprising that Public Enemy concerts—in which the band is surrounded by plastic Uzi-toting uniform-clad dancers—are received enthusiastically by young blacks. The message is not merely one of rage, however. Public Enemy exhorts its listeners to learn something about their culture and to disdain the tools of enslavement such as gold jewelry, drugs, and designer clothing. Chuck D told the Los Angeles Times: “Rapperscan do a lot of good because we have control of the media and that’s why we’re not liked because never before has the black man or so many black males spoken their opinion on so many things.”
In a review of the PE album Fear of a Black Planet, Rolling Stone correspondent Alan Light writes: “Public Enemy has never aimed for anything less than a comprehensive view of contemporary black America…. Chuck D and Flavor Flav and DJ Terminator X complement this ambition with stunning maturity and sophistication.” Most critics agree that Chuck D commands one of rap’s most compelling voices, with his harsh and resonating sermons on rage and pride. The group’s multi-layered accompanying sounds—the work of Terminator X and his crew—are dense and insistent, occasionally showing a moment of humor. Watrous describes the PE sound as “an unattended machine gone berserk. It’s the sound of urban alienation, where silence doesn’t exist and sensory stimulation is oppressive and predatory. But Public Enemy has conquered it. Through the mess comes the redemptive beat; the group makes some of the best dance records around.”
The Public Enemy song “Fight the Power” was featured in the 1989 Spike Lee film Do the Right Thing, principally because Lee finds Public Enemy’s work an accurate reflection/reaction to America in the 1990s. Critics see a new level of understanding in recent Public Enemy raps, a more pragmatic worldview born of their conflicts with the media. “Public Enemy is looking to the future,” writes Light, “not with apocalyptic despair but with fiery eyes firmly fixed on the prize. The group’s determination and realism, its devotion to activism and booty shaking, make [its work] a welcome, bracing triumph.”
Yo! Bum Rush the Show, Def Jam, 1987.
It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, Def Jam, 1988.
Fear of a Black Planet, Def Jam, 1990.
Chicago Tribune, April 15, 1990.
Commentary, March 1990.
Detroit News, May 14, 1990.
Ebony, January 1989; June 1990.
Los Angeles Times, February 4, 1990.
Mother Jones, February/March 1990.
Newsweek, March 19, 1990.
New York Times, April 22, 1990.
People, March 5, 1990
Rolling Stone, October 19, 1989; November 16, 1989; May 17,
Time, February 5, 1990.
Washington Post, April 15, 1990.
—Anne Janette Johnson
"Public Enemy." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/public-enemy
"Public Enemy." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved May 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/public-enemy
Members: Chuck D, lead rapper (Charles Ridenhour, born Roosevelt, New York, New York, 1 August 1960); Flavor Flav, rapper (William Drayton, born Roosevelt, New York, New York, 16 March 1959); Terminator X, DJ (Norman Lee Rogers, born New York, New York, 25 August 1966). Former member: Professor Griff, minister of information (Richard Griff).
Best-selling album since 1990: Fear of a Black Planet (1990)
Hit songs since 1990: "911 Is a Joke," "Brothers Gonna Work It Out," "Can't Truss It"
Chuck D, the leader of Public Enemy, said that his group set out to "destroy popular music," but the group accomplished something far more profound: They pushed hip-hop to the outer limits and thereby rewrote the rules for all forms of pop music. Their classic period lasted only a few years, but throughout the 1990s they remained a potent voice of dissent in both the worlds of politics and music.
The Founding Vision
Public Enemy emerged in 1982 as a concept dreamed up by Charles Ridenhour, a student and DJ at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. Along with his friends Hank Shocklee and Bill Stephney, he recorded a track titled "Public Enemy No. 1," which caught the attention of the producer Rick Rubin, a co-founder of the hip-hop label Def Jam. Ridenhour adopted the name Chuck D and began constructing his vision of a group that would operate as a hip-hop advance guard, blending the language and image of a revolutionary army with radical and inventive beats. He enlisted Shocklee as his producer (who dubbed his production crew "The Bomb Squad"), his friends Norman Lee Rogers (DJ Terminator X) on turntables and Willam Drayton (Flavor Flav) as a second rapper and comic foil, and his fellow Nation of Islam member Richard Griff (Professor Griff) to command the group's backup dancers, the Security of the First World.
Believing the Hype
With their revolutionary image and manifesto in place, the group released Yo! Bum Rush the Show in 1987 to critical praise but very low sales. The group made an enormous artistic and commercial leap with their follow-up, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988), widely considered one of the finest hip-hop albums ever made.
Shocklee perfected Public Enemy's sonic palate, an invigorating collage of hard funk, sirens, and industrial noise that succeeded both as dance music and avant-garde art. Chuck D emerged as a powerful rapper, delivering afrocentric political rants in a deep sonic boom; Flavor Flav perfected his court-jester persona, delivering gallows humor commentary on Chuck D's dead serious statements. They courted controversy from the white establishment for their antigovernment lyrics ("Both King and X they got ridda both" from "Rebel without a Pause"), and they drew praise from critics of all races for the unflinching honesty of their music. At the height of their power, the group made its first in a string of embarrassing public relations missteps when the Washington Times quoted and published Professor Griff's anti-Semitic invective. Chuck D promptly fired his friend and set to work on a new album.
Fear of a Black Planet was released in the spring of 1990 and garnered excellent reviews and sales. The album boasts a fuller, funkier sound, building on the frenetic production of Millions with an even more innovative sampling strategy. The single "911 Is a Joke," a seriocomic tale of urban injustice delivered with expert timing by Flavor Flav, shot to the top of the pop singles charts, and incendiary tracks such as "Burn Hollywood Burn" (featuring raps by Ice Cube and Big Daddy Kane) and "Brothers Gonna Work It Out" cemented Public Enemy's reputation as the most danceable political band in the world. No active group pushed hip-hop (or music in general) so far, and their influence would soon cross over into commercial rock.
Apocalypse 91 . . . The Enemy Strikes Black (1991) provided another triumph for the band, and their mix of rebellion and charged beats produced forceful tracks like "Can't Truss It" and "Shut Em Down." Their collaboration with the heavy metal band Anthrax on a remake of the Millions track "Bring the Noize" expanded their audience to heavy metal fans and predated the rap-rock trend of the late 1990s. Sadly, Apocalypse was the last album of their classic period—it was released just as hip-hop audiences began to swoon over the more laid-back West Coast sound of gangsta rap. By the time they released Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age in 1994, the band seemed hopelessly outdated as rap trends began to fall in and out of favor in a matter of months. It did not help that Muse Sick was a scattered affair hampered by Flavor Flav's increasingly erratic behavior and troubles with the police. The album produced the bouncy single "Give It Up" and promptly faded from the charts.
Faced with a crisis in popularity and group cohesion, Chuck D recorded a solo album, The Autobiography of Mistachuck, in 1996 and released his autobiography in 1997. With renewed energy Chuck D reassembled the group and the Bomb Squad, and recorded the soundtrack to Spike Lee's movie He Got Game (1998). The album reestablished Public Enemy for an audience that had long forgotten them, proving that they could warm up to the stripped-down productions and quicker rhyme schemes of the newer hip-hop era and dust younger acts with their cutting intelligence. The single "He Got Game" bests the repetitive style of Puff Daddy and his cohorts with a simple loop from Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" that propels Chuck D and Flavor Flav's biting lyrics on the exploitation of black culture by big business. The album sounds fresh and placed them back in the good graces of the critics.
Apostle of the Internet
As the MP3 format for music downloading rose in popularity in the late 1990s, Chuck D recognized the potential for taking music directly to the audience without the involvement of a major corporate label. He severed ties with Def Jam and released a new Public Enemy album, There's a Poison Goin' On . . . (1999), on the Internet before it was available in stores. Driven by a renewed political vitriol, the album harks back to the busy production style of Public Enemy's classic period. Chuck D quickly emerged as the most vocal advocate of Internet distribution, switching his political agenda from battling racism to taking on the music industry. While many major artists spoke out against piracy and lost profits, Chuck D spoke for smaller artists and the populist power of the medium and encouraged fans to download music rather than feed the corporate powers.
In 2002 Public Enemy released Revolverlution, an album that combines Chuck D's Internet obsession with a reflective view of Public Enemy's achievements. The album plays like a fan-assembled mix with its blend of new tracks, live recordings, and interview snippets. While not as cohesive or innovative as the classic albums, Revolverlution updates Public Enemy's mission by combining populism with revolutionary attitudes and styles. Although they may never recapture their former artistic glory, the group has become a vigilant watchdog of the abuses of corporate America.
Yo! Bum Rush the Show (Def Jam, 1987); It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Def Jam, 1988); Fear of a Black Planet (Def Jam, 1990); Apocalypse 91 . . . The Enemy Strikes Black (Def Jam, 1991); Greatest Misses (Def Jam, 1992); Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age (Def Jam, 1994); He Got Game (Def Jam, 1998); There's a Poison Goin' On . . . (Play it Again, 1999); Revolverlution (Koch, 2002).
"Public Enemy." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/public-enemy
"Public Enemy." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Retrieved May 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/public-enemy
pub·lic en·e·my • n. a notorious wanted criminal. ∎ fig. a person or thing regarded as the greatest threat to a group or community: he identified inflation as public enemy number one.
"public enemy." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/public-enemy
"public enemy." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved May 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/public-enemy