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Membership includes Chuck D (Charles Ridenhour), Flavor Flav (William Drayton), and DJ Terminator X (Norman Rogers); group formed on Long Island, N.Y., in mid-1980s, signed with Def Jam Records (a division of Columbia), 1986, released first album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, 1987. Group's song "Fight the Power" was featured in the film Do the Right Thing, 1989. Addresses: Record company --Def Jam, CBS Records, 51 West 52d St., New York, NY 10019.
Public Enemy is widely acknowledged to be the most important group to emerge in the rap medium since the mid-1980s. Self-proclaimed "prophets of rage," the three main members of Public Enemy have sought to become a major force of social change, disturbing white America's complacency with highly-charged political statements reminiscent of the 1960s Black Power movement. In the Chicago Tribune, Greg Kot notes that PE "is not just a great rap group, but one of the best rock bands on the planet--black or otherwise." The critic adds that the group courageously "challenges listeners to step into their world."
The world Public Enemy describes is not a pretty one. It is, quite simply, the United States as seen by young black men--a land of limited opportunities, drug deaths, and active oppression by a fearful white majority. Until recently, few rappers chose to address these issues as part of their work, but PE does so as its highest priority. As Richard Harrington puts it in the Washington Post, the PE message is "a rap-opera reflecting America's social malaise and Public Enemy's ongoing challenge to political and economic systems that have dehumanized and exploited minorities for centuries." New York Times contributor Peter Watrous observes that, almost singlehandedly, "the band has jerked rap music into an active political sphere. The music outdistances other political pop with both its urgency and its visionary approach to the dance floor. And the group has made pop music that is vital in the contemporary debate about race in American culture for the first time since the 1960s."
The principal members of Public Enemy are all from Long Island, New York. The group is headed by rapper Chuck D and his partner Flavor Flav. Much of the pulsing background accompaniment is provided by DJ Terminator X and a production team that includes Hank Shocklee, Carl Ryder, Eric Sadler, and Keith Shocklee. The group cut its first album in 1987 and released it through Def Jam, a division of Columbia devoted specifically to rap music.
Public Enemy burst on the scene at a time when rap was moving into the mainstream as entertainment for blacks and whites. What Public Enemy has brought to the medium since 1987 is a sense of higher purpose--the hardly novel notion that music should have a message for its listeners. Group members have been influenced by many of black America's most controversial spokesmen, including Malcolm X and the leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan. Needless to say, this has meant rough riding for the young rappers as their public utterances and album lyrics have been combed for anti-Semitic and other racist remarks.
In May of 1989, a satellite member of Public Enemy, Richard "Professor Griff" Griffin, gave an interview to the Washington Times in which he made several disparaging remarks about Jews. The fallout from that interview stunned the other band members, who clearly stated that they held no malice for any racial or religious group. Professor Griff was asked to leave the band (he had been a backup performer at concerts), but then was reinstated when the members decided not to cave in to social pressure. Public Enemy subsequently released a single, "Welcome to the Terrordome," that chronicled their frustrating battle with the media. Some of the lyrics in that work were attacked too for anti-Semitism, especially the lines "Crucifixion ain't no fiction; so-called chosen, frozen."
Chuck D answered the charges against his band in a profile for the Los Angeles Times. "I'm not anti-Semitic," he said. "I think it is a waste of time being anti-anything. But I also won't let this [controversy] keep me, as a black nationalist, from talking about problems of the black people and asking questions about how these problems came about. What is happening now is that people are ... reading racism or anti-Semitic thoughts in everything we do.... I'm not a racist, but I am inquisitive and I hope that when I keep asking questions, people don't respond to them by saying it's a racist question because there is no such thing as a racist question. There are only racist answers."
The Public Enemy platform asserts that, genetically speaking, all people are descended from black ancestors (a theory long accepted by human evolutionists) and that whites oppress blacks out of a suppressed fear of this fact. In its music Public Enemy attacks the sources of that fear and the machinery used to keep blacks at bay. Commentary correspondent Terry Teachout writes that in the group's songs, "policemen kill blacks casually and deliberately, and the federal government, usually personified by Ronald Reagan or, more recently, George Bush, is the mortal enemy of all blacks. White racism, one and indivisible, is the principle of American social organization, all blacks are its perpetual objects; white and black America are in a state of de-facto war."
It comes as no surprise that three black men under thirty might feel this way about America. It is also not surprising that Public Enemy concerts--in which the band is surrounded by plastic Uzi-toting uniform-clad dancers--are received enthusiastically by young blacks. The message is not merely one of rage, however. Public Enemy exhorts its listeners to learn something about their culture and to disdain the tools of enslavement such as gold jewelry, drugs, and designer clothing. Chuck D told the Los Angeles Times: "Rappers can do a lot of good because we have control of the media and that's why we're not liked because never before has the black man or so many black males spoken their opinion on so many things."
In a review of the PE album Fear of a Black Planet, Rolling Stone correspondent Alan Light writes: "Public Enemy has never aimed for anything less than a comprehensive view of contemporary black America.... Chuck D and Flavor Flav and DJ Terminator X complement this ambition with stunning maturity and sophistication." Most critics agree that Chuck D commands one of rap's most compelling voices, with his harsh and resonating sermons on rage and pride. The group's multi-layered accompanying sounds--the work of Terminator X and his crew--are dense and insistent, occasionally showing a moment of humor. Watrous describes the PE sound as "an unattended machine gone berserk. It's the sound of urban alienation, where silence doesn't exist and sensory stimulation is oppressive and predatory. But Public Enemy has conquered it. Through the mess comes the redemptive beat; the group makes some of the best dance records around."
The Public Enemy song "Fight the Power" was featured in the 1989 Spike Lee film Do the Right Thing, principally because Lee finds Public Enemy's work an accurate reflection/reaction to America in the 1990s. Critics see a new level of understanding in recent Public Enemy raps, a more pragmatic worldview born of their conflicts with the media. "Public Enemy is looking to the future," writes Light, "not with apocalyptic despair but with fiery eyes firmly fixed on the prize. The group's determination and realism, its devotion to activism and booty shaking, make [its work] a welcome, bracing triumph."
by Anne Janette Johnson
Public Enemy's Career
Public Enemy's Awards
Best album award from Village Voice national critics poll, 1988, for It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back.
- Selective Works
- Yo! Bum Rush the Show Def Jam, 1987.
- It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back Def Jam, 1988.
- Fear of a Black Planet Def Jam, 1990.
- Chicago Tribune, April 15, 1990.
- Commentary, March 1990.
- Detroit News, May 14, 1990.
- Ebony, January 1989; June 1990.
- Los Angeles Times, February 4, 1990.
- Mother Jones, February/March 1990.
- Newsweek, March 19, 1990.
- New York Times, April 22, 1990.
- People, March 5, 1990 Rolling Stone, October 19, 1989; November 16, 1989; May 17, 1990.
- Time, February 5, 1990.
- Washington Post, April 15, 1990.
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