Published Feb 01, 2006There's a George Bush in the White House and a war in Iraq but if you want to know how far we've fallen from the days when Chuck D declared hip-hop to be the "black CNN" just take a listen to your Fiddy-filled radio and imagine the Public Enemy frontman making that same comparison (besides P.E. was more like the black Fox News, pushing their agenda as hard as possible).
But though today's media proved just as surprised at African-American hardships in the wake of Katrina as they were during Rodney King riots, this time around listening to commercial hip-hop's jewel-encrusted chatter would not have necessarily warned them.
Public Enemy once ruled the rap game, helping transform a then-fledgling genre rooted in party rhymes and errant boasting into a wellspring of political revolution Africa medallions may have been trendy, but they still meant more than conflict diamond-encrusted watches. P.E. bum-rushed the burbs with paeans to "prophet" Farrakhan, demands that we not believe the hype and warnings about what would happen by the time they got to Arizona.
Their first four albums, particularly Nation of Millions and Fear of a Black Planet, are unparalleled achievements as blisteringly progressive in their noisy art-funk beats as in their power-fighting rhymes.
But despite the martial might of their S1W security force, once sampling laws defused the Bomb Squad and corporations began flooding the market with thug rap just like CIA allegedly did with crack, Public Enemy was forced to retreat. They abandoned record labels in favour of self-released MP3s while Flavor Flav battled addiction and Chuck replaced stages with lecture halls and radio gigs.
Their fall from public favour was precipitous and it seemed as though the rebels had finally pressed pause. Though occasionally emerging to rail against "son of a Bush" more people were watching Flav's reality show train-wrecks than heeding Mista Chuck's warnings. But after New Orleans sunk, hip-hop activism began returning with a new P.E. track as well as a host of inspired-by agit-hop from angry new-school rappers. With a greatest hits compilation and live DVD already out and the second of two brand-new full-length albums about to drop (produced and written by their comrade-in-arms Paris), Public Enemy is hoping for the rebirth of a nation. Welcome back to the Terrordome.
Carleton Ridenhour (Chuck D) is born in Queens, where he'll live for a decade before his middle-class family relocates to Roosevelt, Long Island, a suburban area known as the "black belt" which, between 1957 and 1972, jumped from 20 percent to almost 90 percent black. "You could walk from one end of Roosevelt to the other in about 20 minutes. [It] was only one square mile. Who don't know everyone?" recalls fellow resident Richard "Professor Griff" Griffin. "It was very black and a lot of black people couldn't live anywhere else on Long Island." Much tighter-knit than the Queensbridge project, it gives Chuck and his future crew an idealistic sense of community.
1970 to 1971
Involved in the civil rights movement and inspired by a trip to Senegal, Chuck's parents enrol him in a summer school program at Hofstra and Adelphi Universities called "the Afro-American Experience." Taught by former Black Panthers and members of the Nation of Islam, the seeds of Public Enemy's activism are planted here as future members Hank "Shocklee" Boxley and Griff also attend. "We were a group of ten- and eleven-year-olds on a college campus," recalls Chuck in his 1998 autobiography Fight The Power: Rap, Race, and Reality. "We learned Swahili, African drumming and facts about African culture, history and the slave trade."
Chuck graduates from Roosevelt High and is accepted to Adelphi in the graphic design program. He dicks around his freshman year rap has migrated here from the Bronx and Harlem and Chuck spends more time writing rhymes than attending class and is dismissed for three semesters. He gets a job paying $3.15 an hour but still parties with his former classmates. Showing up at an open mic party called "Thursday Night Throwdown" he does just that, impressing organiser Hank Shocklee, who founded Long Island's biggest soundsystem Spectrum City back in 1975, originally throwing disco parties at the roller rink and youth centre.
1980 to 1982
Chuck joins Spectrum as their resident MC Chuckie D and the crew continue to promote parties, run a nightclub and sell mix-tapes. Eventually they step up their game with a weekly radio show on Adelphi's WBAU on Monday nights hosted by Bill Stephney, who would go on to become president of Def Jam. They quickly break all listenership records and score Run D.M.C's first-ever interview. After Stephney is promoted to program manager, Chuck and Hank's brother Keith Shocklee get the prime Saturday midnight slot for their Super Spectrum Mix Hour.
Not having enough recorded rap to fill their show, Spectrum begin taping local MCs and William "Flavor Flav" Drayton arrives uninvited to a recording session. Chuck's first words to his jherri-curled future friend: "You can't smoke up here. You have to go outside." Drayton starts hanging around the radio station, answering phones and running errands, and is eventually given his own pre-Spectrum show under the aptly-confusing moniker MC DJ Flavor. Hank will soon suggest he make his name sound more like Melle Mel. Their slots become so popular and pivotal in promoting early MCs like LL Cool J and the Fat Boys sell cassettes of their shows outside the station's signal radius.
Spectrum cut their first single, "Lies" backed with "Check Out The Radio," the latter was a low-tempo rap and became a minor hit, inspiring the Beastie Boys' "Slow and Low." To make ends meet, Chuck and Flavor worked at Chuck's father's furniture shop in Queens, driving a delivery truck. "One of us would drive, most of the time it would be me, because I wasn't going to sit in the passenger seat while that crazy motherfucker drove," Chuck wrote. They would spend the Long Island Expressway drive-time practicing routines and after a local rapper calls Chuck out for not wanting to battle, the pair responds with the Schooly D-influenced "Public Enemy # 1" over a Shocklee demo beat. "Once I put that tape on BAU they left me alone because it was mad hard and it was dope," Chuck writes. "No one could compete against a tape back then. That was the first song I did that said anything about public enemy."
Chuck graduates and takes a job at a photo lab and later as a messenger. Tired of not getting paid, Spectrum shut down their radio show to focus on gigs, hiring a black beret-wearing security crew known as Unity Force and headed by Griff who had returned from a stint in the army. "I was military police," Griff says. "When I got back I was extremely radical and extremely militant and I put together an underground organisation." Stephney now works for Def Jam and the label, eager for new acts, wants to sign Chuck. Reluctant because he thinks he's too old and doesn't trust labels, Chuck refuses to answer Rick Rubin's calls to his mother's house.
Eventually, a meeting with Rubin is organised by Stephney; he hears a four-track demo: "Public Enemy #1," "The Return of Public Enemy" (which will become "My Uzi Weighs a Ton"), "Sophisticated Bitch" and "You're Gonna Get Yours." Rubin immediately wants to cut an album, albeit with Chuck as a soloist "What does Flavor do? I'm not going to sign anybody that's not a vocalist," Rubin says at the time.
Unable to explain exactly, but wanting Flav onstage to bounce off of, Chuck signs to Def Jam in June and splits the contract with his friend. They receive a $5000 advance and set about creating the group concept. Chuck wants to keep the name Spectrum City, but Hank suggests Public Enemy, which appears in two songs titles. Chuck uses his graphic design skills to create their infamous b-boy-in-the-crosshairs logo. He hires former Spectrum DJ Norman "Mellow D" Rogers re-dubbing him Terminator X and brings in Unity Force but renames them Security of the First World (implying black folks are first, not third world because people first appeared in Africa) and gives Professor Griff the job title held by Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, "Minister of Information." The production arm the Shocklee brothers, Stephney, "electronics wizard" Eric "Vietnam" Sadler and Chuck D under the alias Carl Ryder now operate as the Bomb Squad. They spend the summer recording their debut.
Though scheduled to drop the previous fall, Yo! Bum Rush the Show finally comes out in April and is their most rock-centric, even including Living Color guitarist Vernon Reid. But following releases by Eric B and Rakim and Boogie Down Productions, Chuck frets it already sounds out-of-date. Many American critics are unimpressed with some slamming the pro-black message and it becomes the label's worst-selling release to date, only picking up after P.E. replace Fishbone on the Beastie Boys' "License To Ill" tour. It also fails to make an impression on black radio, and one DJ, Mr. Magic, goes so far as to call it garbage and smash the record into pieces on air. They make a minor breakthrough in clubs with brand new single "Rebel Without A Pause," and hit the road with the Def Jam Tour, opening for LL and Rakim. The tour eventually makes its way to Europe though PE's budget has them sleeping in the bus rather than hotels where the press is mostly interested in "the Black Panthers of Rap"; as P.E.'s hype outstrips the headliners, Rakim leaves early. A legendary performance in England (as seen on 2005 DVD It Takes a Nation: The First London Invasion Tour 1987) features Professor Griff's siren-laden sound bite that opens their next album, "Armageddon has been in effect, go get a late pass."
"When we went to London for that first show, shit, we didn't know people were into Public Enemy like that. It blew us away. But when we came back from England, we had an idea of the magnitude and we took our responsibilities a little more serious," recalls Griff. They also record a new song for the soundtrack of the Bret Easton Ellis flick Less Than Zero. Their first attempt, "Don't Believe the Hype," is rejected, but the filmmakers do include the faster-than-usual 109 BPM cut "Bring The Noise," which attacks crack dealers, the government and music critics with equal gusto. Village Voice critic Robert Christgau calls it "merely the greatest piece of rock and roll released in 1987." The year ends on a down note when a December concert with Eric B and Rakim and N.W.A. in Nashville ends with two teenage girls trampled to death, leading to calls to ban rap shows.
The group fulfils their promise with their genre-defining follow-up It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, an album of laser-focused political rhetoric and artistically avant-garde but undeniably funky production. The Bomb Squad set their blueprint by densely layering Coltrane solos, funkadelic guitars, Nation of Islam speeches, Anthrax riffs and found sounds into a sampling masterpiece. "Sometimes Chuck and I would sample a record that sampled the record we really wanted to use just to fuck everyone up," Hank Shocklee would say later. Completed between January and March, the record is so complex they always have two studios going at the same time and they're aided by fortuitous accidents, such as leaving an effects lead half-unplugged and discovering "filtering" on prison-break classic "Black Steel in the Hour Of Chaos." Some of the scratching, as on the first album, is done by Johnny "Juice" Rosado, a Puerto Rican b-boy who gets no credit and soon joins the Navy (though he will later return to the fold). Nation is an instant critical and popular hit and within months had sold a million copies. "Public Enemy was only supposed to be a two-year thing," Griff says. "We're gonna be dead or in jail so we're only planning it for two years. That was the bottom line and if you keep that in context, I think a lot of the urgency in what you're hearing fits perfect."
Def Jam begins to implode and by the year's end Rubin will have left to start Def American while Bill Stephney and Hank Shocklee bail and launch SOUL Records; their first signing is Young Black Teenagers, a crew of white rappers. Already angry at his diminished role in the group especially babysitting Flav on tour Professor Griff conducts an interview with the right-wing Washington Times and is quoted as saying Jews are responsible for "the majority of the wickedness that goes on across the globe." Griff had said similar statements to the European media the previous summer, but this time the ensuing uproar over anti-Semitism brings Public Enemy to the edge of self-destruction. After a month of trying to ignore the increasing controversy, they finally fire Griff. Chuck holds a press conference, stating "We are not anti-Jewish, we are not anti-anybody we are pro-black, pro-black culture, pro-human race." Feeling stuck in a no-win situation, Chuck announces the group's break up on MTV and they return to Long Island to ride out the storm. "Those were common beliefs in the black neighbourhood," says Griff now. "I was angry at some dumb-ass niggers that would agree with me in private but want to condemn me in public. I called them all a bunch of fucking cowards and traitors. If you know anything about the law and treason you die for that, especially here in America. The black community wanted to take their fucking heads and I was like No, leave 'em alone.' [But] how you talk about fight the power one minute and then you sell out Griff the next?"
Speaking of "Fight The Power," earlier in the year Spike Lee commissions Public Enemy to rewrite a gospel standard to be the theme for Do the Right Thing, his incendiary take on race relations. They decline and instead come up with their best and hardest-hitting song to date. Written in a few hours while flying between European tour dates, it angrily trumps almost every protest song to come before it. The controversy over calling Elvis a racist and cursing John Wayne keeps radio programmers away, but the single sells nearly a half-million copies. In August, Chuck sends out a press release saying the group, including Griff, is back and recording their new album "The show must go on. Brace yourselves for 1990... please direct any further questions to Axl Rose."
Griff leaves again after Chuck gets him signed to Two Live Crew's Luke Records as the Last Asiatic Disciples. "How the hell do you sell me out and then go to Miami and get me a record deal? I wasn't even a rapper," Griff chuckles. "What you feeling guilty now or something?" "Raptivist" Lisa Williamson is recruited as Griff's replacement and renamed Sista Souljah (she will later be attacked by Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential campaign). But Chuck D reignites the anti-Semitic accusations with the lead-off single "Welcome To The Terrordome" which includes the line "Crucifixion ain't no fiction / So-called chosen frozen / Apology made to whoever pleases / Now they got me like Jesus." But when Fear of a Black Planet comes out in March, it debuts top ten on the pop charts and gets a rapturous critical reception. Calling it "a counterattack on the system of cultural white supremacy, which is conspiracy to destroy the black race" the group scores unlikely hits with "911 Is a Joke," "Brothers Gonna Work It Out," and "Can't Do Nuttin' For Ya Man." They invite heavily-influenced California rapper Paris to appear in their "Anti-Nigger Machine" video. "They were the single most influential catalyst of knowledge that I experienced at the time," Paris says. "I pretty much graduated college without learning about black history and when I heard them it was eye-opening and disturbing at the same time."
Early in the year Flavor Flav is arrested for hitting his girlfriend and serves 20 days. Public Enemy retrench their position with white fans, following up last year's collaboration with Sonic Youth by touring with Sisters of Mercy and Anthrax, with whom they rerecord "Bring the Noise" for their fourth album Apocalypse 91...The Enemy Strikes Black, which debuts at number four. Though still hyper-political, it features a much less chaotic beatscape, with production now handled by Gary G. Wiz and the Imperial Grand Ministers of Funk. Meanwhile, their DJ releases the largely instrumental Terminator X & The Valley of Jeep Beats.
Public Enemy joins U2's "Zoo TV" tour, but find themselves falling out of favour as hip-hop goes ever-more gangsta. Flavor Flav's increasing drug habit has him in constant trouble with the law and their quickie remix collection Greatest Misses contains only one solid track "Hazy Shade of Criminal" and is widely written-off.
The group takes a breather from touring as Flav faces an attempted murder charge after shooting at a neighbour he thought was sleeping with his girlfriend. While on bail, he checks into rehab for crack addiction and is later sentenced to 90 days in jail. Hank and Keith established Shocklee Entertainment, a production firm and record label.
Public Enemy returns with Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age but receive negative reviews in both Rolling Stone and The Source and make no impact on charts or radio. This is not helped by a tour delay after Terminator X breaks both his legs in a motorcycle accident when X recovers he releases the old school-centric Super Bad featuring Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc, and the Cold Crush Brothers.
Flav's troubles keep mounting and he's charged with possession of crack and a gun while Chuck retires Public Enemy from touring.
Chuck starts his own label Slam Jamz and brings Griff back into the fold to help with his solo debut The Autobiography of Mistachuck, which includes more soul and R&B, but peaks at #190 on the Billboard Top 200. Flav gets arrested again, this time because cops notice a bulge in his jacket while he bicycles through the Bronx. It's a kilo of marijuana.
Chuck publishes his autobiography and spends most of the year on a book tour and working the lecture circuit while also running his label and becoming a Fox News commentator.
Spike Lee gets the original group back together for the first time in a decade to record the first single-artist rap soundtrack for his basketball flick He Got Game. It's a surprisingly vital effort that's completed in under five months from start to finish and gets P.E. their best reviews and sales in years. They go on to headline the 30-date "Smokin' Grooves" tour. Chuck begins proselytising for file-sharing after "Def Scam" forces him to remove MP3s of remixed classics (recorded for the supposedly-impending Bring the Noise 2000 album) from Public Enemy's website. He's the first high-profile artist to use the new MP3 format to get his music to fans.
Chuck takes another swipe at Def Jam (and courts more anti-Semitic accusations) by posting the anti-industry "Swindler's Lust" on his site and writing "the execs, lawyers and accountants who lately have made most of the money in the music biz, are now running scared from the technology that evens out the creative field and makes artists harder to pimp." Public Enemy is released from their Def Jam contract after a dozen years and they sign to internet-oriented Atomic Pop. Their new album There's a Poison Goin' On is the first made available as MP3s "I want to step through that dark room swinging my machete," Chuck says at the time and is banned by many retail shops. Only ten percent of the 100,000 sold are digital, while the rest are CD sold online or in record stores. Flav reportedly records a solo album About Time but it is never released. Terminator X leaves the group to raise ostriches. Really. Griff works as bail bondsmen but forms a rock side-project with Chuck called Confrontation Camp. Everyone sets out on their 40th tour except Terminator X, who is replaced by DJ Lord Aswad. Chuck makes some money by appearing on Puff Daddy's "Public Enemy #1" remake "P.E.2000."
Chuck D testifies in favour of Napster in front of a congressional committee hearing. "I can get my music out this way, but more importantly, guys who don't have a record deal can be heard worldwide," Chuck explains. "So many artists don't get a chance to be on the radio or MTV or be on a major label. This is how they get heard. Why would you want to deny them that?"
Chuck forms Fine Arts Militia with bassist Brian Hardgroove, which puts his recent lecture series "Rap, Race, Reality and Technology" into song format over funk, metal and jazz grooves and is released online.
Signing to In the Paint, Public Enemy release the "compilation of ourselves" Revolverlution, a mix of new tracks, live cuts, interviews and four remixes that are done by fans after the original cuts were posted as a cappellas on the website. Paris goes on the public Enemy website and inquires about collaboration and is invited to guest on the remix of the single "Give the People What They Need" while Chuck and Flavor return the favour by guesting on Paris's Sonic Jihad album. Flav winds up in prison for nine weeks after missing appointments with his parole officer and failing to pay fines for traffic violations. Chuck tours without him.
Chuck D is hired on Unfiltered, a morning show on left-wing radio network Air America, though it is cancelled and replaced the following year by a Jerry Springer show and Chuck is shuffled to a weekly weekend slot. Flavor Flav somehow sullies his reputation even more by appearing the c-list celebrity reality show The Surreal Life, where he hooks up with Amazonian ex-Stallone wife Brigitte Neilson. He proceeds to embarrass himself further with Strange Love, features Flav following Neilson to Europe in an attempt to woo her. Chuck is not amused by this "Flavsploitation."
"We'd like to offer an apology for some of the actions that many considered offensive to black people, and especially black women and children, by our brother Flavor Flav as portrayed on the VH1 television show Strange Love," Chuck says in a statement. "Like I said, Flav is our brother but we cannot begin to agree with what the rest of us consider inappropriate behaviour and unfair actions towards his family and to himself." North Carolina Reverend Paul Scott goes further and labels Flav's performance a "coon act" on "a modern day minstrel show."
Paris is somewhat more forgiving. "He was the yin to Chuck D's yang. He had faults and that was what made PE endearing to a lot of people, they saw themselves in Flav. Chuck was basically a preacher how many people kick it with a preacher? There's a distancing thing because preachers tell you what to do almost like a parent. Flav is necessary element to PE in all his fucked-up glory."
Paris runs into Chuck at Bay Area radio station and offers to produce the next Public Enemy album. "[Chuck] said I'll tell you what, my time is tight. Go ahead and write it, put it all together, and we'll set a time and make it happen,'" recalls Paris. "I was a real student of Chuck D's cadence and inflections, so when it was written and presented to him, it sounded like him. The approach to this record is not the same approach I would take to other records because I did have to pay so much attention to what came before it."
Public Enemy is lionized all year, beginning with the American Library of Congress selecting Fear of a Black Planet to be one of 50 recorded works "enshrined for preservation" and a three-day seminar at New York University analyzing Nation of Millions. The archives are emptied with the DVD release of their London concert, a World Tour Sessions live compilation, the Power to the People and the Beats greatest hits CD and "deluxe" re-releases of their seminal albums. In September they come out swinging with "Hell No We Ain't All Right!" an online track savaging the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina. It's quickly followed by New Whirl Odor, their tenth studio album, which gets a middling-to-tepid and angers indie record shops by making it available exclusively at Best Buy for its first month.
The year begins with the January 1 premier of VH1's Flavor of Love, a Bachelor-inspired reality show featuring Flav while Chuck narrates the conflict diamond documentary Bling: Consequences and Repercussions. A bi-monthly Public Enemy comic book is prepared for release later in the year as is a third full-length album on Slam Jamz, How Your Sell Soul To A Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul. Delayed from the previous summer, their slamming Paris collaboration Rebirth of a Nation is finally set to drop next month on Paris' Guerilla Funk records with the original line-up augmented by MC Ren, Sister Souljah, Kam and Dead Prez. "If you open any music publication with any best-of list, Public Enemy is always on it. so initially it was intimidating, feeling the gravity of what I was about to do and recognising that this is one of the greatest hip-hop groups ever, if not the greatest. That's a pretty tall order," says Paris. "[But] Chuck has already proved himself. They're the architects of politically conscious hip-hop. There aren't too many conversations you can have without mentioning them."
Essential Public Enemy
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988)
Rap's premier radical, his trickster hype man and the rest of their fist-raised crew march through a dystopian beatscape of swiped samples, turntable shrapnel and stolen soul. The anti-military prison-break drama "Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos" alone makes Nation monumental, but it's merely the centrepiece of this first full-fledged agit-hop album that begins with a "Countdown to Armageddon" and doesn't let up until the Beastie Boys have been made moot on "Party For Your Right To Fight."
Fear of a Black Planet (1990)
While in hiding from the controversy-stoked media, Public Enemy maintained their sanity by crafting their magnum opus. Everyone is in full effect here from the Bomb Squad's increasingly-complex sample-crazed instrumentals and Flav's all-time classic "911 Is a Joke" to scorching cameos from Big Daddy Kane and Ice Cube. But as evidenced by the take-no-prisoners soundtrack joint "Fight The Power," it's all held together by the furious anger of Chuck D at his most boombastically righteous.
Apocalypse '91 The Enemy Strikes Black (1991)
Though overshadowed by its two predecessors and saddled with an unnecessary Anthrax remix, the underrated Apocalypse remains a still-fiery salvo. As disappointed by the rise of gangsta culture (Flav's funky "I Don't Wanna Be Called Yo Niga") as they are by racism new (the buzz-saw swooning "By The Time I Get To Arizona") and age-old (the slave-trade story "Can't Truss It"), a leaner-and-meaner Public Enemy widen their targets, rev up the sirens and throw bass in your face.