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.
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.
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.
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.
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