Chuck D (1960—)

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Chuck D (1960—)

The primary rapper in one of the most significant hip-hop groups in the genre's history, Chuck D founded the New York City-based Public Enemy in order to use hip-hop music as an outlet to disseminate his pro-Black revolutionary messages. Because of the millions of albums Public Enemy sold and the way the group changed the landscape of hip-hop and popular music during the late-1980s, Public Enemy's influence on popular music specifically, and American culture in general, is incalculable.

Chuck D (born Carlton Ridenhour August 1, 1960) formed Public Enemy in 1982 with fellow Long Island friends Hank Shocklee and Bill Stepheny, both of whom shared Chuck D's love of politics and hip-hop music. In 1985, a Public Enemy demo caught the attention Def Jam label co-founder Rick Rubin, and by 1986 Chuck D had revamped Public Enemy to include Bill Stepheny as their publicist, Hank Shocklee as a producer, Flavor Flav as a second MC, Terminator X as the group's DJ and Professor Griff as the head of Public Enemy's crew of onstage dancers. Public Enemy burst upon the scene in 1987 with their debut album Yo! Bum Rush the Show, and soon turned the hip-hop world on its head at a time when hip-hop music was radically changing American popular music. Chuck D's early vision to make Public Enemy a hotbed of extreme dissonant musical productions and revolutionary politics came into fruition with the release of 1988's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Recognized by critics at Rolling Stone, SPIN, The Source and the Village Voice as one of most significant works of popular music of the twentieth century, It Takes a Nation… took music to new extremes. That album combined furiously fast rhythms, cacophonous collages of shrieks and sirens, and Chuck D's booming baritone delivery that took White America to task for the sins of racism and imperialism.

Chuck D once remarked that hip-hop music was Black America's CNN, in that hip-hop was the only forum in which a Black point of view could be heard without being filtered or censored. As the leader of Public Enemy, a group that sold millions of albums (many to White suburban teens) Chuck D was one of the only oppositional voices heard on a widespread scale during the politically conservative 1980s.

Public Enemy's commercial and creative high point came during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The group recorded their song "Fight the Power" for Spike Lee's widely acclaimed and successful 1989 film Do the Right Thing, increasing Public Enemy's visibility even more. After the much-publicized inner group turmoil that resulted from anti-Semitic remarks publicly made by a group member, Chuck D kicked that member out, reorganized the group and went to work on the biggest selling album of Public Enemy's career, Fear of a Black Planet.

By then, Chuck D had perfected the "Public Enemy concept" to a finely-tuned art. He used Public Enemy's pro-Black messages to rally and organize African Americans, the group's aggressive and propulsive sonic attack to capture the attention of young White America, and their high visibility to edge Chuck D's viewpoints into mainstream discourse. Throughout the 1990s, Chuck D appeared on numerous talk shows and other widely broadcast events.

Taking advantage of his notoriety, Chuck D often lectured at college campuses during the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. He became a political election correspondent for music video network MTV and, in 1997, he published a book on race and politics in America titled Fight the Power.

In a musical genre driven by novelty and innovation, Public Enemy's—and Chuck D's—influence and commercial success began to wane by the mid-1990s. In 1996 he released the commercially unsuccessful solo album, Autobiography of Mista Chuck. But unlike many artists who change their formula when sales decline, Chuck D never changed Public Enemy's course, and in 1998 the group released a highly political and sonically dense soundtrack album for Spike Lee's film He Got Game.

—Kembrew McLeod

Further Reading:

Chuck D. Fight the power: Rap, Race, and Reality. New York, Delacorte Press, 1997.

Fernando, S.H., Jr. The New Beats: Exploring the Music, Culture, and Attitudes of Hip-Hop. New York, Anchor Books, 1994.