- Chuck D
- Flavor Flav
- Professor Griff
- Terminator X
“No one has been able to approach the political power that Public Enemy brought to hip-hop,” Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys told Rolling Stone in 2004.
“I put them on a level with Bob Marley and a handful of other artists – the rare artist who can make great music and also deliver a message.” Public Enemy brought an explosion of sonic invention, rhyming virtuosity and social awareness to hip-hop in the 1980s and 1990s. The group’s high points – 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and 1990’sFear of a Black Planet, stand among the greatest politically charged albums of all time.
Public Enemy – Chuck D. (Carlton Ridenhour), Flavor Flav (William Drayton), Terminator X (Norman Lee Rogers) and Professor Griff (Richard Griffin) – came together in 1986 at Adelphi University on Long Island. Ridenhour was studying graphic design and working at the college’s radio station, WBAU. He became friends with Hank Shocklee and Bill Stephney, and they would stay up late into the night, discussing politics, philosophy and hip-hop. Ridenhour rapped over a track that Shocklee created called “Public Enemy No.1.” He then began appearing regularly on Stephney’s radio show, calling himself Chuckie D.
Rick Rubin, of Def Jam Records, heard “Public Enemy No. 1” and contacted Ridenhour. Soon, the pair hatched an idea that involved Shocklee as producer, Stephney as a marketer and DJ Norman Rogers on turntables. They then added Richard Griffin to work with the backup dancers who were called the Security of the First World (S1W) and William Drayton to rap along with Ridenhour.
Calling themselves Public Enemy, the group released its first album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, in 1987. The album garnered some positive reviews, but it was the second album, 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, that made Public Enemy a household name. The album reached Number 42 on the pop chart and Number One on the R&B chart. The album, which included the singles “Don’t Believe the Hype” and “Bring the Noise,” was hailed as a hip-hop masterpiece and went on to sell more than a million copies. The Village Voice voted It Takes a Nation of Millions the best album of the year in the paper’s Pazz and Jop Poll.
In 1989, the group recorded “Fight the Power,” which was the theme song for Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing. The following year, Public Enemy returned with Fear of a Black Planet. The album became the group’s first to reach the Top 10. Songs such as “Burn Hollywood Burn” and “911 Is a Joke” examined white racism, while “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” urged African-Americans to unite.
Chuck D. – routinely rated as one of the greatest rappers of all time – pushed the art of the MC forward with his inimitable, rapid-fire baritone, as he connected the culture of hip-hop with Black Nationalism and the ideas of Malcolm X. His counterpart, Flavor Flav, brought humor (in the case of “911 Is a Joke,” pointed humor) and a madcap energy to the songs. Along the way, they brought a new level of conceptual sophistication to the hip-hop album and a new level of intensity and power to live hip-hop, inspiring fans from Jay-Z to Rage Against the Machine.
Public Enemy’s next album, 1991’s Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black, reached Number Four on the charts and included the hits “Can’t Truss It” and “Shut Em Down.” Another track, "I Don't Wanna be Called Yo Nigga,” is about how the urban culture uses the word nigga outside of its usual derogatory context. The album also included the song "By the Time I Get to Arizona.” That song and its accompanying video dealt with the fact that some states did not recognize Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a national holiday. But perhaps most noteworthy is the fact that the album included a new version of “Bring the Noise,” recorded with the thrash metal band Anthrax. Chuck D. said that upon the initial request of Anthrax, he "didn't take them wholehearted seriously,” but after the collaboration was done, "it made too much sense.” The collaboration between the two bands bridged the gap between heavy metal and hip-hop, and brought hip-hop to a much wider audience. The song, which also appeared on the Anthrax album Attack of the Killer B’s, was ranked Number 12 on VH-1’s 2006 list of the 40 Greatest Metal Songs.
In 1992, Public Enemy and Anthrax hit the road for a joint tour, closing each show with a joint performance of “Bring the Noise.” Public Enemy also opened for U2’s Zoo TV tour. Then, in 1994, a motorcycle accident shattered Terminator X’s left leg, and in 1998 he decided to retire from the group. Eventually, Public Enemy added DJ Lord as their full-time DJ.
Public Enemy has continued to record and tour up to the present. In 2005, the band released New World Order, and in 2007 the group issued How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul? That album included the single “Harder Than You Think.” In 2009, Public Enemy’s song “Fight the Power” was ranked Number One on VH-1’sThe 100 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs. The group returned with the album Beats and Places in 2011, while in 2012 Public Enemy issued two albums, Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp and The Evil Empire of Everything.
The group has also been a major influence on artists and bands in almost all genres of rock and roll, from Nirvana's Kurt Cobain to Björk, from Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nailsto Ben Harper and on and on.