Chuck D 1960–
Chuck D 1960–
As the serious side of rap group Public Enemy—once described as “the most radical and politically charged band in America” by the Washington Post —Chuck D helped politicize a musical genre that had largely served to champion escapism. After captivating audiences with their early releases, P.E., as it came to be known, joined a small cadre of hip-hop artists who broadened the reach of their medium by placing emphasis on learning one’s history and confronting and overturning racism and other forms of oppression.
With uncompromising jams like “Fight the Power” and “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” Chuck D backed up his widely cited claim that rap had become the “Black CNN” [Cable News Network], while simultaneously cultivating a white listenership with excursions into rock. Meanwhile, his role expanded to that of a community spokesperson not afraid to expose his personal politics. As Def Jam Records president Russell Simmons once remarked in the Chicago Tribune, “Chuck’s mouth is his gun, and words are his bullets.” But as the subgenre gangsta rap gained popularity in the mid-1990s, Chuck and his confederates were forced to defend their own relevance.
Chuck D came by his strong views early in his youth. Born Carlton Ridenhour in Long Island, New York, Chuck D was raised by activist parents who introduced him to the history of the civil rights struggle. “My mom was active in lots of community-oriented things, and she put me into these special summer school [programs] when I was around 11 or 12, and they taught us a lot about black history,” Chuck told the Los Angeles Times’ Robert Hilburn. Run by former members of the Black Panther Party, a militant, revolutionary black organization founded in the late 1960s, the summer courses provided Chuck D with an intense dose of cultural pride and lessons on empowerment—“things that were helpful to me later… about the black community pulling together.”
Chuck D’s perspective was broadened by his childhood icons. “My father was my number one hero,” he emphasized to Hilburn. Other role models came from sports, including baseball legends Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Reggie Jackson; basketball’s Willis Reed; football star Gale Sayer; and former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, who Chuck described to Hilburn as “one of the first black men to come along and speak his mind.” Later, as he got older,
Musician, lecturer. Hosted radio program, The Super Spectrum Mix Show, WBAU, 1983–84; recorded single “Check Out the Radio”/“Lies” for Vanguard label, 1984; formed Public Enemy with Hank Shocklee, Flavor Flav, and others; released Def Jam debut Yo! Bum Rush the Show, 1987; contributed to soundtrack of film Do the Right Thing, 1989; collaborated with rock group Anthrax on remake of Public Enemy song “Bring the Noise,” 1991; released video recording Public Enemy: Fight the Power Live. First participant in “Hip Hop: Talk Back” lecture series, School of the Art Institute, Chicago, 1993. Spokesperson for Music Television’s “Enough Is Enough” antidrugs/antiviolence program, c. 1993—.
Awards: Platinum awards for it Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, 1988, and Fear of a Black Planet, 1990; best album, Village Voice Critics’ Poll, 1988, for It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back; best rap group, Rolling Stone Readers’ Picks, 1991.
Chuck D discovered the politicized proto-rap jazz of Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets.
Chuck busily pursued a degree in graphic design through coursework at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York, but his hobbies revolved around music. Among other endeavors, he hosted the Super Spectrum Mix Show at the college’s radio station WBAU along with newfound friend Hank Shocklee. While in school, Chuck D experienced another pivotal moment. Activist, comedian, and health guru Dick Gregory impressed Chuck with the impact that provocativness and humor offered together can make.
“He came to Adelphi in 1981, and the beginning of his speech was 15 minutes of the funniest [material] I had ever heard in my life,”’ Chuck said of Gregory to the Washington Post’s Richard Harrington. “He caught our attention, everybody was cracking up, and then, suddenly he… got real serious and to the point. I’d never seen anything like that in my life,” the rapper continued. “Edutainment”— rival rapper KRS-One’s name for educative entertainment—was to become an integral part of the soon to be formed Public Enemy.
In the early to mid-1980s, Chuck began venturing into his own music. He recorded “Check Out the Radio”/“Lies” for a small label in 1984, but the experience was sufficiently unpleasant to deter him from seriously considering music as a career. Even after stardom, he confessed to the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot, “I work from the title on down. I write and rewrite songs 14 or 15 times. It doesn’t come naturally to me.”
Fortunately, fellow Long Islander Rick Rubin, who had segued from punk rocker to rap entrepreneur while still a college student himself, found Chuck D’s voice irresistible and vowed to sign the rapper—who had continued doing music for fun—to his fledgling Def Jam label. “It was one of the greatest rap things I had ever heard,” Rubin told Rolling Stone, referring to a tape he heard containing the Shocklee-Chuck collaboration “Public Enemy Number 1.” “His voice was amazing; [the song] was very well written and unusual sounding.” Rubin eventually wore down Chuck’s resistance, and the rapper began assembling his crew, which he named after the song.
Joined by producers Shocklee, Hank’s brother Keith, and Eric Sadler; WBAU program director and marketing whiz Bill Stephney; DJ Norman Rogers, a.k.a. Terminator X, on turntables; Nation of Islam propagandist Richard “Professor Griff” Griffin; and a coterie of security guard/dancers; Chuck D was nearly ready. But he had to fight with the label to include his cohort William Drayton, who, in the persona of P.E.’s court jester, Flavor Flav, offset Chuck’s relentless militancy with comical asides.
With all his cohorts in place, Chuck designed the Public Enemy logo—a figure in the crosshairs of a rifle—and the ensemble set about turning the music world on its ear and stunning it visually, too. The group’s onstage gear consisted of military outfits complemented by automatic weaponry. “The guns… symbolize why black people are in the situation they are in today.… The Europeans had the guns and took us out of Africa and sent us to America. The guns are us saying, ’Okay, never again is our culture going to be snatched away from us the way it was before,’” Chuck theorized in the Los Angeles Times.
Public Enemy fired its opening shot, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, in 1987; the title track was a revised version of “Public Enemy Number 1.” Havelock Nelson and Michael Gonzales, authors of rap and hip-hop guidebook Bring the Noise, praised the album as “one of the most relevant, ambitious projects ever committed to vinyl. It molded bristling, active soundscapes to post-apocalypse visions.” Chuck’s rapping challenged the complacent boasting of his peers by making the enlightenment of black youth a top priority. “Chuck D uplifts spirits and stirs minds with his stentorian voice that booms with the emotional intensity these serious times demand,” Nelson and Gonzales opined.
Next came what many fans consider the group’s shining hour, 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, which reached the top of the R&B charts within a few months of its release. Featuring what Nelson and Gonzales called “Chuck’s tough, sinuous raps,” Flavor’s wisecracks, and the increasingly eclectic and innovative techniques of the Bomb Squad—as Hank Shocklee and the production end of the musicians came to be known— Public Enemy was at last fully formed.
The Bomb Squad had developed an assaultive, effects-strewn sonic landscape for P.E.’s raps; by the time of the singles “Rebel Without a Pause” and the landmark “Bring the Noise,” the group had brought about a revolution in rap. “When we said ’too black, too strong’ on ’Bring the Noise,’ and people found out that was Malcolm X, they started getting into his speeches and trying to realize what Malcolm was saying,” Chuck proudly intoned to Harrington in the Washington Post. Gushed Rolling Stone’s Alan Light, “Rap would never be the same.”
The militancy of Chuck’s rhymes and the wailing sirens that punctuated them frightened many whites as well as any listeners inclined to monitor popular culture for “decency,” “family values,” and the like. Chuck’s affiliation with the Nation of Islam and his defense of its controversial leader Louis Farrakhan also sparked negative publicity, but almost as if in response to mounting criticism, a track from the album insisted, “Don’t Believe the Hype.” It Takes a Nation went on to become a million-selling recording. Light maintained the work, “demonstrated what rap could be and everything that a group like Public Enemy could accomplish.”
With 1989 came P.E.’s highest visibility and an increase in notoriety. Influential filmmaker Spike Lee included the P.E. single “Fight the Power” on the soundtrack to his hit movie Do the Right Thing; the song became a huge hit and brought the group to the attention of a growing number of white listeners. At the same time, Professor Griff, P.E.’s “minister of information,” went public with a variety of anti-Semitic remarks. Suddenly Chuck and his colleagues found themselves in a rhetorical firestorm.
Chuck D quickly fired then rehired Griff—though relegating him to a diminished role—then announced the impending breakup of Public Enemy. Shortly thereafter, when interviewed on cable’s Music Television (MTV), he seemed to contradict the proclaimed demise. The Los Angeles Times noted, “Several people who have worked closely with Public Enemy … express concern about Chuck D’s leadership abilities. They don’t think Chuck D is a racist or anti-Semitic, but they fear he’s in ’over his head’ as a social spokesman, a role that was never imagined when the principals in the Public Enemy story first gathered.” In his own defense, Chuck D explained to Hilburn in the Los Angeles Times that “the important thing to me was to make it clear that I thought what Griff said was wrong but to also show that we can forgive.”
For his part, Griff decided to leave the group of his own cognizance. The conflict didn’t end there, however. The success of “Fight the Power,” also contained on P.E.’s third album, Fear of a Black Planet, was bolstered by the follow-up single “Welcome to the Terrordome,” which in turn ignited more fury over the issues of anti-Semitism and what Hilburn categorized as “self-martyrdom.” The lyrics in question included the lines “Crucifixion ain’t no fiction / So called chosen, frozen / Apology made to whoever pleases / Still they got me like Jesus.”
Chuck D insisted that he’d written the lyrics as a response to how he was treated after the Griff incident and not as a jab at the Jewish population. He complained to Hilburn, “You can’t let your artistry be intimidated by the fear that people are going to misinterpret you. To me there’s a bit of paranoia going on here. I was talking about a media crucifixion.” Yet many refused to accept his stance. Light commented in Rolling Stone,“Public Enemy may still be rap’s greatest talent, but the band is becoming increasingly hard to defend.”
Changes were rapidly taking place within the ranks of Public Enemy. By the end of 1990, Terminator X had initiated a solo career; the following year both Hank Shocklee and Stephney had left too. Flavor Flav was arrested that year for battering his girlfriend, creating another brief scandal. Still, Public Enemy was named best rap group in a Rolling Stone readers’ poll. The remaining members issued Apocalypse ’91: The Enemy Strikes Black. “One Million Bottle Bags”—an indictment of the malt liquor industry’s hold on a large portion of the black community—led off P.E.’s latest cry. Action replaced words when Chuck D sued the company that marketed St. Ides Malt Liquor for using a portion of “Bring the Noise” in one of its commercials.
Meanwhile, that song had been revamped in a collaboration with Anthrax. Chuck and Flavor joined the metal rock band in the studio and in a popular video, further increasing P.E.’s popularity with young white fans. Chuck maintained the need to cultivate white listeners who otherwise might not be exposed to certain black issues. “Whites aren’t educated about racism because they’ve benefited from it,” he told the Chicago Tribune’s Kot. Clarifying himself, Chuck mused to the Tribune’s Rohan Preston that through rap, “white kids are more informed about black sensibilities—black culture and frustrations—and information knocks down prejudice a little bit.”
Public Enemy’s video for “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” caused an even bigger commotion. The song and accompanying video were a diatribe against Arizona state officials P.E. branded as racist because of their refusal to recognize civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday as a legal holiday. The song’s video, summarized in the Los Angeles Times by Steve Hochman, “intersperses re-enactments of King’s 1968 slaying and scenes from the 1960s civil rights movement with dramatizations of Public Enemy members leading an armed insurrection against Arizona state officials,” ending with a series of assassinations.
Civil rights and human rights organizations asked MTV to dump the clip from rotation, but the music channel’s senior vice president refused, according to Hochman, who noted that “in a viewer poll conducted by MTV… two-thirds of nearly 10,000 callers said they support the video as a legitimate form of protest.” The network did decide, however, to precede each airing of the video with a discussion of the video’s implications.
With all kinds of standpoints entering the debate, including the dissenting views of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Arizona’s state president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Chuck D was invited to interpret his convictions on NBC’s news program Nightline. Music critic Greg Kot quoted Chuck in the Chicago Tribune as telling the show’s host, Forest Sawyer, “We’re tired of being disrespected.” When confronted by the other Nightline guest, Tribune columnist Clarence Page, who intimated that P.E. was not only selling violence, but was gaining more sales because of the publicity, Chuck D answered back vehemently: “The point of the video is not to sell, but to raise dialogue.” It succeeded.
“I call us dispatchers of information and not more,” Chuck told the Washington Post’s Harrington. “Our job is to make the listener curious and begin to explore that information on their own. I think that’s what rap music does—it says, ’check this out for yourself.’” Those who did were divided about Apocalypse as a whole; while some praised it as one of the group’s strongest efforts, others, like Charles M. Young of Musician, indicated that he would “look to someone else to lead the revolution” in the future.
Chuck D sustained his influence by touring as a lecturer and defender of the importance of rap as a communicative medium. He called the 1990s a “do-or die” decade for African Americans. Speaking before 400 Emory University students in February of 1992, Chuck D assured the young adults that “blacks need to stop conforming or begging to be accepted as equal in white America,” as Carlous Daniel reported in the Atlanta Journal/Constitution. Chuck’s remedy for blacks remained the same as that expressed in “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” from Fear of a Black Planet —cultural education and social and economic self-determination, the same ideas propagated by the Black Panthers.
In September of 1993, Chuck D railed against blacks’ failure to take his missives to heart. According to Preston’s Chicago Tribune piece, the rapper lecturing to 900 students at Chicago’s School of the Art Institute, “spoke forcefully about the lack of control African Americans exercise over what they produce, whether it is in the arts, culture, or industry. ’We start things, create things, do it off the vibe—just like [fictional Southern cook and brandname] Aunt Jemima—then somebody comes along with a box and a cash register.’” Chuck D also discussed record company exploitation and addressed the lack of responsible leadership within the black community.
Continuing to fill that gap, in January of 1994, Chuck D appeared on a half-hour television special on black history, geared towards young people. Taped in Hartford, Connecticut, the program mesmerized 1400 high school students as Chuck urged them to stay away from drugs and violence. The show’s developer, Yvonne Davis, told New York Times reporter Jackie Fitzpatrick that she had hoped Chuck would emphasize, “how important it is for young black men and women to take charge of their own destiny.” He did so in a rousing manner, letting the kids know, “You gotta make your demands, let people know what you need.” Davis and Chuck D worked so well together that he allowed her to work on a book she proposed about his lyrics.
In the years since Apocalypse, Chuck D expressed concerns about gangster rappers’ glorification of drug use and mayhem. “There’s other ways of swinging—without your fists,” Chuck intoned to in the Los Angeles Times. “I’ve said from day one our solution is a mind revolution.” But the rap audience was becoming more and more enraptured by the style championed by acts like N.W.A., Ice-T, the Geto Boys, and, later, Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg.
With the growing preeminence of gangsta rap—not to mention a lengthy P.E. hiatus—Chuck D and Flavor Flav released an ill-fated collection of B-sides, appropriately called Greatest Misses. Chuck thus began to look like an elder statesman rather than an artist on the cutting edge— “too old to be a gat[lin gun]-toting knucklehead but too young to have actually marched in [1960s civil rights protests in] Selma [Alabama],” as Vibe’s Kevin Powell declared.
Returning to the rap scene with something to prove, Public Enemy’s 1994 release, Muse Sick n Hour Mess Age, resumed Chuck obsession with what Time’s Christopher John Farley called, “the American Patriarchal Military Industrial Racist Complex, Inc.” The explosive dissonances of the Bomb Squad approach had been replaced with soul music samples. But despite the high-profile stylistic change and a popular animated video on MTV, Chuck was quick to keep expectations in check. “It’s impossible to be groundbreaking every time we release a record,” he told a Pulse! reviewer. Indeed, one Rolling Stone essay slammed it as a “poorly conceived, virtually unlistenable album.” Differing in opinion, Request’s Leonard Pitts, Jr. deemed it “the album we need to hear just now, a call to action and an emphatic rejection of the nihilistic thuggery of gansta rap.”
Regardless of its commercial prospects in the mid-1990s and beyond, Public Enemy’s contribution to the growth of rap was already a matter of record. As rock critic Greg Kot stated in the Chicago Tribune, “What Bob Dylan did for rock in the 1960s, what George Clinton did for funk and Bob Marley did for reggae in the 1970s, Public Enemy’s Chuck D has done for rap: given it legitimacy and authority far beyond it’s core following.” Certainly, the entire P.E. opus could be considered a series of texts on modern black American life.
In the midst of all the chatter, Chuck D moved to Atlanta in search of a warmer and friendlier environment than New York City could offer him. From his new home, he scoffed at accusations that he’d lost momentum. “I’ve been doing it for nine solid years, and I’m going to do it again, God willing,” he told Smith, referring to an upcoming tour. “I’ve never felt better. I’m feeling invincible as far as this [music] game is concerned.” And enthusiasm, as he hastened to remind Powell, is what has kept him in the game: “To make hip-hop music you have to be a fan. And I’m a mad fan.”
“Check Out the Radio” / “Lies,” Vanguard, 1984.
Yo! Bum Rush the Show (includes “Public Enemy #1”), Def Jam, 1987.
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (includes “Rebel Without a Pause,” “Bring the Noise,” and “Don’t Believe the Hype”), Def Jam, 1988.
“Fight the Power,” Do the Right Thing (soundtrack), Motown, 1989.
Fear of a Black Planet (includes “Fight the Power,” “Welcome to the Terrordome,” “Fear of a Black Planet,” and “Brothers Gonna Work It Out”), Def Jam, 1990.
Apocalypse ’91: The Enemy Strikes Black (includes [with Anthrax] “Bring the Noise,” “One Million Bottle Bags” and “By the Time I Get to Arizona”), Def Jam, 1991.
Greatest Misses, Def Jam, 1992.
Muse Sick n Hour Mess Age, Def Jam, 1994.
Nelson, Havelock, and Michael Gonzales, Bring the Noise: A Guide to Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture, Harmony, 1991, pp. 144–49.
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, Billboard, 1991.
Atlanta Journal/Constitution, February 20, 1992, p.A3.
Chicago Tribune, July 8,1990, section 13, p. 8; January 23, 1992, p. section, 11; September 16, 1993, section 1, p. 26.
Los Angeles Times, February 4, 1990, Calender section, pp. 64–6; January 10, 1992, p. F1.
Musician, November 1991, p. 96.
New York Times, April 3, 1994, p. 3.
Pulse!, August 1994, pp. 46–50, pp. 98–101.
Request, August 1994, p. 54.
Rolling Stone, September 20, 1990, p. 77; October 3, 1991, p. 18; January 23, 1992, pp. 36–7, pp. 50–3; September 30, 1993, p. 124; June 30, 1994, p. 30; July 14, 1994, pp. 101–02.
Time, September 19, 1994, p. 76.
Vibe, September 1994, pp. 59–64.
Washington Post, July 3, 1990, pp. D1–D2; January 19, 1992, p. G1.
—Simon Glickman and Lorna M. Mabunda
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