Hip-Hop of The 80’s: Public Enemy

Hip-Hop of The 80’s: Public Enemy

Back in the 1930s, it was a term used to describe the most notorious gangsters, outlaws and villains that were wanted by the FBI but by the end of 1980s, the words ‘Public Enemy’ meant something entirely different. Those that were around during the Golden Age of Hip-Hop will never forget the fist-pumping anthems from one the genre’s most controversial rap group. Although there were other songs at the time trying to spread a similar afro-centric message through their tunes, they were the first to fully embrace hip-hop’s calling as a much-needed voice for the frustrations and concerns of African-American youth living in the urban ghettos.

Public Enemy no Parque Tietê em São Paulo

They followed closely on the heels of Run-D.M.C and the Beastie Boys with their first release and continued to carve a path through the pages of hip-hop history. They weren’t the highest-selling or the most awarded but they have received praise from more music publications than any other act of the era as few can deny the impact they made in the previous century. Their messages in their music still echo this far into the future, which is why there is no better time to reflect on one of the most politically charged hip-hop groups ever.

Not to mention the fact that they still have the most legendary hypeman of all time (Yeahhhhhhhhhhhh boyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!). This is hip-hop of the 80s.

Public Enemy

 The Origin

Flavor Flav - Public Enemy- konser-Slakthuset-Malmö-1991 Carlton Ridenhour (a.k.a. Chuck D) met William Drayton (a.k.a. Flavor Flav) while studying graphic design at Long Island’s Adelphi University (he graduated by the way…s0 stay in school). While trying to promote the college radio station where he worked, and defend against a local MC that wanted to battle, Chuck D released a demo track called Public Enemy Number One, a reflection of his feelings of persecution that featured vocals from Flavor Flav. One thing led to another and that single fell into the lap of producer and co-founder of Def Jam Records, Rick Rubin.

The hypeman was a relatively new concept at the time and one that Rubin didn’t quite understand. He only wanted to sign Chuck D as a solo act but the rapper insisted he brings Flav on board as well. It didn’t stop there, though. He also recruited his brother’s production team, the Bomb Squad, to create the beats as well as DJ Terminator X and Professor Griff as Minister of Information (yeah, I don’t know what that means either). And with that, the group Public Enemy was born.


The Music

Their debut album, Yo! Bums Rush The Show was released in 1987 to critical acclaim. It would immediately set the tone for Public Enemy’s sound as we were introduced to the Bomb Squad’s signature production style and the first brand of music that embodied black resistance against the corrupt powers that be. Contrary to popular belief, it was a challenge to politicians and not one against authority and law enforcement.

Their raw and confrontational lyrics carried over into their second album It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back in 1988, which outperformed their previous album with hits such as Don’t Believe The Hype and Bring The Noise. After feeling the vibe of performing, the group experimented with faster tempos and a stronger amount of social commentary. It definitely wasn’t their best-selling album but, depending on who you ask, it remains one of their most iconic.

Themes, such as the self-empowerment of African-Americans, would reign supreme but their new-found exposure to all demographics would catapult them and the next album to incredible heights.

Power to the people…

Following the departure (and eventual rejoining) of Professor Griff, the rising stars released Fear Of A Black Planet in 1989. It would be their highest-selling album and added so much to hip-hop’s credibility that it could no longer be called a ‘fad’. This was the era that albums replaced singles and the group was out to make one that stood the test of time. Needless to say, they succeeded. Who could forget the genre-defining anthem that was Fight The Power, originally created as the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s movie, Do The Right Thing.

It became the anthemic song for political youth and has been called one of the greatest songs of all time by more publications than you can count. Regardless of what they say, I’d certainly call it the most important song Public Enemy ever made. Rather than fuel racial tension, their messages were aimed at the upliftment of African-Americans, encouraging them to rise above social stigmas and realise their full potential and value to society.

Human beings fear what they don’t understand and that’s the ‘fear’ referenced in the title. Taking the time to understand another culture’s differences is an easy thing to do and that’s all it takes for us to come together.


Where Are They Now?

Public Enemy stayed true to form with their next album Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Back but their pinnacle had long since been reached. The short time they spent at the forefront of hip-hop’s rampage was enough to make sure their presence was felt not just as a hip-hop group but as a bonified rock band as well. It was Chuck D’s work with Scott Ian (guitarist from thrash metal superstars, Anthrax) that reinforced the relationship rock and rap shared during the culture’s most formative years.

Public Enemy at Castillo Negro, Tenerife, Islas Canarias, 20 April 2007

Chuck D remained a force to be reckoned with behind the scenes throughout the nineties, working with acts like Rage Against The Machine and Ice Cube. Flavor Flav resurfaced in the 2000s, after battling depression and addiction, with a series of reality shows based on his love life (because you know, that’s how you make a comeback). The pair still performs today and tour across the United States regularly.

There’s no denying why it’s important to know who these legends were and why we still respect the name, Public Enemy.

Got any more questions on the group? Got some insights of your own? Feel free to share your thoughts and comments below.


Ryan C. Voller, Recording Artist – Producer – Lead Contributor for HowToMakeHip-Hop.com


Get Public Enemy on iTunes


8 thoughts on “Hip-Hop of The 80’s: Public Enemy

  1. Geoff

    Wow, I am glad I clicked on this page. That was a cool read.
    I still remember the first time I heard Public Enemy. I was mesmerized. Chuck D so intelligent and powerful, Flavor Flav so confusing/amusing. The music rocks as hard as anything else from that era while being hip hip at the same time. Had no idea they still perform live. Thanks!

    1. Ryan

      You’re Welcome, Geoff

      They very much do still perform. I’m glad you liked this article and hope to hear from you again soon.

      Thanks for leaving your comment.

  2. Nicki V

    This article brings me back to my youth. I grew up listening to hip-hop and Public Enemy was one of the first.
    Rappers and rap groups like Public Enemy, Run DMC, NWA, Beasties, Rakim definitely opened the door and set the stage for so many other rappers and rap groups that have followed in similar paths. If it weren’t for these pioneering individuals, hip-hop wouldn’t be what it’s become today. And if you read about where a lot of rappers have got their musical influences from, almost everyone will credit one of the above-listed groups.

    I really enjoyed this article and the few tracks that you included. Great job!!


    1. Ryan

      Hi, Nicki.

      I’m more than happy to shed a little light on legends in the hip-hop game. It’s true what you say, many artists would reference these that’s why a lot of beginners today need to be reminded of the roots of their art form. If you loved this, why not check out our article on Run-D.M.C. and many other legends of the golden age.

      Thanks for leaving your comment

  3. Caleb

    I actually recently acquired a taste to hip-hop music. I’m still very new to the genre, however. I actually used to not like this type of music. But it’s definitely grown on me as I’ve gotten older. How would you compare Public Enemy to other hip-hop artists? I want to know because I’m trying to round out my taste for the genre a little bit.

    1. Ryan

      Whaddup, Caleb.

      There’s really no comparison to today’s artists. I’d suggest taking a look at Run-D.M.C. or even DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince to get a sense of where the culture of hip-hop developed. Rappers from the Golden Age are a far better representation of the art.

      Hope that helps and thanks for leaving your comment.

  4. williamsb

    i really travel back in time when i read this article, i like you page, i hear for the first time about Public Enemy, and i like them, they really join what they does, full oldschool vibes, great lyrics. You explain well their “biography”, we can learn a lot about the crew. Great content man!

    1. Ryan

      Hi, William.

      I’m glad you enjoyed l;earning about Public Enemy. Why not check out other rappers from that era like Run-D.M.C. or even LL Cool J. A lot of great hip-hop came from the 80s.

      Thanks for leaving your comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *