No other group in hip hop, maybe with the exception of NWA, has lived up to their name quite like Public Enemy has. For the past 29 years, the group led by Chuck D and Flavor Flav have been at the forefront of racial, political, and social injustice and oppression, and through their music, they have brought this troubling aspect of American life to the attention of fans all around the world.
In order to tell the story of Public Enemy properly, you have to go back to the days of Chuck D and Spectrum City, when D (b. Carlton Douglas Ridenhour) and Flavor Flav (b. William Jonathan Drayton Jr.) released the EP Check Out the Radio in 1984. An important track on that album was “Lies”, which gave a blistering commentary of the struggles of life that became the inspiration for groups like Run D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys, and would also lay down the template that would be the core sound for the group.
That same year, Chuck D, with a contribution from Flavor Flav, released a promo rap for local radio station WBAU called “Public Enemy No. 1”, feeling that he was being persecuted by rappers already in the game at the time. Impressed with the promo, former WBAU Program Director Bill Stephney helped producer and co-owner of Def Jam Recordings Rick Rubin sign Chuck D to a record deal in 1986, and he believed that D could mesh the minimalist, tough style of RUN-D.M.C. with the political, social and economic plight of African Americans to create a new sound and movement within the genre.
So, that same year, Chuck D recruited his Spectrum City crew (Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee, and Eric “Vietnam” Sadler), Professor Griff (b. Richard Griffin, Minister of Information) and Terminator X (b. Norman Rogers) to join him and Flavor Flav to create Public Enemy, named after his WBAU promo recording.
In the beginning, Public Enemy was an opening act for Beastie Boys on their Licensed to Ill tour and this garnered the group much attention and introduced them to new fans, and in 1987, they group released their debut album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, to great acclaim from both music critics and hip hop fans. The album contained “Public Enemy No. 1”, the WBAU promo single that led to the group getting a record deal with Def Jam, and “You’re Gonna Get Yours.”
While Yo! Bum Rush the Show was a mild success on the charts, it was their sophomore LP, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, that really set them on the course to history-making success. One of the singles from that album, “Don’t Believe the Hype”, would become one of the defining singles of hip hop, and the rest of the album was a tour de force of politically charged rhymes and booming beats that was intoxicating to the ears.
Nation of Millions truly was the hip hop equivalent to Marvin Gaye’s landmark LP What’s Going On? in the fact that it really brought to the forefront the struggles of African-Americans in America and introduced suburban America to a problem that was largely thought of as non-existent. Nation of Millions would go Platinum and also became the first hip hop album to voted Album of the Year by The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop poll.
Public Enemy wasted little time capitalizing on their rise, releasing Fear of a Black Planet in 1990 that took the political and social commentary that made Nation of Millions so iconic to another level. Fear of the Black Planet would become Public Enemy’s best-selling album, reaching number 10 on the Billboard 200 and going Platinum. It is rightfully considered one of hip hop’s most important releases and an album that should be required listening for all fans of the genre.
Fear of a Black Planet was honored with a spot on Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest albums of all-time list in 2003, and in 2005, the LP was added to the National Recording Registry in the Library of Congress. Fear of the Black Planet is the album that produced “Fight the Power,” which called for ordinary citizens to fight the “powers that be”, and was also featured in the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.”
1991’s Apocalypse ’91… The Enemy Strikes Black continued Public Enemy’s commercial and creative winning streak as the LP became the group’s highest-charting album, going to number four on the Billboard 200 and topping the R&B/Hip Hop charts and becoming the group’s third straight Platinum album. Leading the way was the singles “Can’t Truss It”, which highlighted the struggles of slavery; “I Don’t Wanna be Called Yo N***a”, which targeted people who takes the derogatory term out of its original context to make it “cool”, and “By the Time I Get to Arizona”, a single that at the time was highly controversial in pointing out the states that refused to recognize Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday,
The next year, Public Enemy became the first hip hop act to perform at the Reading Festival in England, and it seemed like the success would be never ending for the group. But by the beginning of 1994, things began to turn for the group.
First, their fifth album, Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age, became their first album to not go Platinum, going Gold instead, and to add insult to injury, Terminator X was badly injured in a motorcycle accident, and afterward he retired from the group to focus on raising African black ostriches on his farm in North Carolina.
In 1998, after an extensive search, DJ Lord (b. Lord Aswod) was selected to be the successor to Terminator X as the group’s official DJ, a position that he still has today. Although their subsequent albums have failed to generate action on the charts, Public Enemy is still one of hip hop’s most sought-after groups and is still speaking out on the injustice and oppression America’s inner-city minority residents have to endure.
Public Enemy has empowered millions of people to fight the “powers that be” through their music, and it is a mission that, 29 years later, is still resonating to millions of hip hop fans, and that’s why Public Enemy is not only one of the genre’s most important groups but in all of music as well.