Public Enemy - Biography
By Paul Glanting
Hip Hop came into prominence by empowering the individual, allowing the artists to explicate and amplify themselves to appear favorable. Consequently, Hip Hop developed a tendency to restrict its artists’ concerns essentially to themselves, forcing them to ignore the external world. Public Enemy sought to change these conventions; armed with a militant and selfless mentality- an anomaly within Hip Hop- Public Enemy brought empowering anthems which urged black youth to challenge the status quo and snatch a sense of self awareness by any means necessary.
The roots of Public Enemy lie on Long Island New York, where the core members all grew up. While studying graphic design, Charles Ridenhour hosted a college radio show where he met a young, yet skilled musician named William Drayton Jr. The pair began to rap together and they yielded the song “Public Enemy No.1”, which caught the ear of Def Jam Records producer Rick Rubin, who signed the two, to the then, little known record label. The duo created an uncanny dynamic; Ridenhour, now going by Chuck D was the bold politically minded front man and Drayton, going by Flavor Flav, was the eccentric comic relief. Chuck D also brought several other Long Islanders on board, including Terminator X who would be Public Enemy’s lead DJ for years to come. D also recruited the production team known as the Bomb Squad, who would craft Public Enemy’s thundering sound.
Dropping in a climate where rap music was predominantly composed of braggadocio-laced vanity, Public Enemy’s debut albumYo! Bum Rush the Show (Def Jam-1987) was a certainly a departure from the norm. Forceful tracks like “Miuzi Weighs a Ton” and “Raise the Roof” featured Chuck D’s roaring wake-up calls which were supplemented by Flavor Flav’s almost disturbingly humorous punch-ins. The pair sounded off on militant action, materialism and revolution. Flavor Flav and Chuck D’s powerful diatribes were amplified by the chaotic soundscapes provided by the Bomb Squad.
Following their acclaimed debut, Public Enemy put out the monstrously influential It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Def Jam-1988). Public Enemy’s masterpiece surpassed their debut and then absolutely demolished the hype. The record was a revolutionary melting pot of anger, humor, anxiety, and radical, yet progressive politics. Chuck D’s ambitious vision was complimented by Flavor Flav’s animated jabs and this dynamic distinguished Public Enemy from their rapping peers. With the addition of the ultra-disciplined Professor Griff, Public Enemy tore into a variety of institutions including the media and the U.S. military, on roaring songs like “Don’t Believe the Hype”, “Night of the Living Baseheads” and “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.” The Bomb Squads musical explorations also continued to expand, exploring genres such as funk and free jazz; some critics even claim that portions of Nations employ the esoteric technique musique concrète. “Rebel Without a Pause” is a showcase of Terminator X’s scratching ability, which is said to have innovated turntablism.
Public Enemy’s legacy can perhaps be summed up best on the defiant track “Fight the Power”, which was also the theme song to Spike Lee’s indie classic Do The Right Thing and has gone on to be one of the most essential songs in the Hip Hop canon. This defiant anthem was featured on their sophomore album, Fear of a Black Planet (Def Jam-1990), which hears Public enemy more aggressively attempting to uproot societal standards. On “Fight the Power” Chuck D subverts the idea of the “American hero” by tearing down prototypical American icons like John Wayne and Elvis Presley. And, “911 is a Joke” explicated a microcosm based on the tardy response emergency response systems allegedly show predominantly black areas. However, despite receiving a good amount of acclaim, the music on Fear of a Black Planet was overshadowed to some extent by the surfacing of recordings, which revealed comments made by professor Griff, where he supposedly insinuated that Jews were at the root of a majority of the world’s troubles. Although Griff insists these recorded tapes were altered to make him look bad, Chuck D publicly apologized and announced that Professor Griff was no longer with the group.
Moving on as a trio, Chuck D, Flavor Flav and Terminator X also parted ways with The Bomb Squad, who had now established themselves having produced songs for the likes of Ice Cube, Bell Biv Devoe and Slick Rick. Public Enemy had always received nods from punk rock circles for it’s rebellious nature. This bridge between rock music and Public Enemy was further solidified on the group’s fourth album Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black (Def Jam-1991) the group re-recorded the song “Bring The Noise” with the assistance of thrash-metal band Anthrax. The song is one of the first hybrids of rap and rock, helping to pave the way for the plentiful amount of rap-rock crossovers which would be endemic of the late ‘90s. Never shying away from controversy, Public Enemy angrily responded to the state of Arizona’s decision to not recognize Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday as a holiday on "By The Time I Get To Arizona." The video depicted the group killing the then governor Fife Symington III among other Arizona politicians. This depiction angered leaders of all colors, black leaders included, claiming that the violence portrayed in the video were smearing the message of Dr. King.
Public Enemy stuck to their ideals with reckless abandon. However, their next studio album Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age (Def Jam-1994) was widely seen as not being of the same caliber as previous Public Enemy releases. Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age was also released simultaneously with the rise of hardcore acts such as Wu Tang Clan as well as gangsta rap on the West coast. Despite the success of the single “Give It Up” Public Enemy’s fierce political commentaries were viewed as slowly becoming archaic to Hip Hop.
The group took a hiatus and its members pursued other projects. Chuck D began to lay the groundwork for what has become a prolific solo career on his album The Autobiography of Mistachuck (Mercury-1996), which was still true to PE’s progressive nature but drew from deeper musical influences such as funk and soul. The group reformed for a reunion with director Spike Lee in 1998. This time Public Enemy recorded an entire album for Lee’s film He Got Game, which starred Denzel Washington. The soundtrack He Got Game (Def Jam-1998) featured Chuck D and Flavor Flav in an uncharacteristically mellow state on the title track, which samples the ubiquitous guitar strums of the band Buffalo Springfield.
The legendary Long Island group had plans to release a remix album of past songs titled BTN 2000. However, Chuck D was (and still is) one of the most staunch supporters of internet file-sharing. Subsequently, disputes over the distribution of the shelved BTN 2000 arose and He Got Game would ultimately be Public Enemy’s final album on Def Jam records, excluding Power to the People and the Beats: Public Enemy's Greatest Hits (Def Jam-2005), which was a compilation of Public Enemy’s past accolades.
Public Enemy released There’s A Poison Goin’ On (Atomic Pop-1999) which has since been rereleased through Koch Records, with whom Public Enemy also released their album Revolverlution (Koch-2002). Public Enemy then proceeded to release New Whirl Odor (Slam Jamz-2005) which was notable for its collaboration with influential DJ, Moby on "MKLVFKWR (Make Love, Fuck War)". Public Enemy then teamed up with revolutionary Bay Area rapper Paris, for Rebirth of a Nation (Guerilla Funk-2006). Considering the radically conscious nature of the guest appearances on the album (Dead Prez, Sista Soulja, Immortal Technique, The Conscious Daughters, etc.) Rebirth of a Nation can perhaps be considered a homage to Public Enemy’s immense contribution to the discourse of politics within Hip Hop.
Public Enemy later reunited with Bomb Squad member Gary G-Wiz for the group’s tenth studio album How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul? (Slam Jamz-2007) which featured "Sex, Drugs & Violence" a critique of the current state of Hip Hop that was assisted by fellow rap-pioneer KRS-One. The Hip Hop legends sound off on what they percieve to be a severe degradation in the genre. The album marked the twentieth anniversary of their debut album Yo! Bum Rush the Show as well as the twenty-fifth anniversary of the group.
Chuck D remains very politically active and is critical of the media’s portrayal of Hip Hop. However, the Long Island native also harshly censures what he feels is an excessive amount of materialism and sexism within the rap music as well. Chuck D has penned his thoughts in a book titled Fight the Power: Rap, Race, and Reality. He’s also testified to congress, pleading the benefits of peer-to-peer file sharing as well as participating in panel discussions on the topic. Flavor Flav has been introduced to an entirely new audience on several of prominent VH1 reality shows where his always jovial antics are amplified.
Political commentaries within Hip Hop didn’t originate with Public Enemy. However, Public Enemy was the first group to devote their entire body of work to the critique of socioeconomic institutions. One of the vastest bodies of work in Hip Hop, Public Enemy’s hard-hitting catalogue remains one of Hip Hop’s most influential and inspiring forces. Armed with educated, bold and sometimes humorous examinations of society, the Long Island crew is indeed Public Enemy #1.