Musically, Public Enemy was just as revolutionary, as their production team, the Bomb Squad, created dense soundscapes that relied on avant-garde cut-and-paste techniques, unrecognizable samples, piercing sirens, relentless beats, and deep funk. It was chaotic and invigorating music, made all the more intoxicating by Chuck D's forceful vocals and the absurdist raps of his comic foil, Flavor Flav. With his comic sunglasses and an oversized clock hanging from his neck, Flav became the group's visual focal point, but he never obscured the music. While rap and rock critics embraced the group's late-'80s and early-'90s records, Public Enemy frequently ran into controversy with their militant stance and lyrics, especially after their 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back made them into celebrities. After all the controversy settled in the early '90s, once the group entered a hiatus, it became clear that Public Enemy was the most influential and radical band of their time.
Chuck D (born Carlton Ridenhour, August 1, 1960) formed Public Enemy in 1982, as he was studying graphic design at Adelphi University on Long Island. He had been DJing at the student radio station WBAU, where he met Hank Shocklee and Bill Stephney. All three shared a love of Hip Hop and politics, which made them close friends. Shocklee had been assembling Hip Hop demo tapes, and Ridenhour rapped over one song, 'Public Enemy No. 1,' around the same time he began appearing on Stephney's radio show under the Chuckie D pseudonym. Def Jam co-founder and producer Rick Rubin heard a tape of 'Public Enemy No. 1' and immediately courted Ridenhour in hopes of signing him to his fledgling label.
Chuck D initially was reluctant, but he eventually developed a concept for a literally revolutionary Hip Hop group -- one that would be driven by sonically extreme productions and socially revolutionary politics. Enlisting Shocklee as his chief producer and Stephney as a publicist, Chuck D formed a crew with DJ Terminator X (born Norman Lee Rogers, August 25, 1966) and fellow Nation of Islam member Professor Griff (born Richard Griffin) as the choreographer of the group's backup dancers, the Security of the First World, who performed homages to old Stax and Motown dancers with their martial moves and fake Uzis. He also asked his old friend William Drayton (born March 16, 1959) to join as a fellow rapper. Drayton developed an alter ego called Flavor Flav, who functioned as a court jester to Chuck D's booming voice and somber rhymes in Public Enemy.
Public Enemy's debut album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, was released on Def Jam Records in 1987. Its spare beats and powerful rhetoric were acclaimed by Hip Hop critics and aficionados, but the record was ignored by the rock and R&B mainstream. However, their second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, was impossible to ignore. Under Shocklee's direction, PE's production team, the Bomb Squad, developed a dense, chaotic mix that relied as much on found sounds and avant-garde noise as it did on old-school funk. Similarly, Chuck D's rhetoric gained focus and Flavor Flav's raps were wilder and funnier. A Nation of Millions was hailed as revolutionary by both rap and rock critics, and it was -- Hip Hop had suddenly become a force for social change.
As Public Enemy's profile was raised, they opened themselves up to controversy. In a notorious statement, Chuck D claimed that rap was "the black CNN," relating what was happening in the inner city in a way that mainstream media could not project. Public Enemy's lyrics were naturally dissected in the wake of such a statement, and many critics were uncomfortable with the positive endorsement of black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan on 'Bring the Noise'. 'Fight the Power,' Public Enemy's theme for Spike Lee's controversial 1989 film Do the Right Thing, also caused an uproar for its attacks on Elvis Presley and John Wayne, but that was considerably overshadowed by an interview Professor Griff gave The Washington Times that summer. Griff had previously said anti-Semitic remarks on-stage, but his quotation that Jews were responsible for "the majority of the wickedness that goes on across the globe" was greeted with shock and outrage, especially by white critics who previously embraced the group. Faced with a major crisis, Chuck D faltered. First he fired Griff, then brought him back, then broke up the group entirely. Griff gave one more interview where he attacked Chuck D and PE, which led to his permanent departure from the group.
Public Enemy spent the remainder of 1989 preparing their third album, releasing 'Welcome to the Terrordome' as its first single in early 1990. Again, the hit single caused controversy as its lyrics "still they got me like Jesus" were labeled anti-Semitic by some quarters. Despite all the controversy, Fear of a Black Planet was released to enthusiastic reviews in the spring of 1990, and it shot into the pop Top Ten as the singles '911 Is a Joke', 'Brothers Gonna Work It Out', and 'Can't Do Nuttin' for Ya Man' became Top 40 R&B hits. For their next album, 1991's Apocalypse 91...The Enemy Strikes Black, the group re-recorded 'Bring the Noise' with thrash metal band Anthrax, the first sign that the group was trying to consolidate their white audience. Apocalypse 91 was greeted with overwhelmingly positive reviews upon its fall release, and it debuted at number four on the pop charts, but the band began to lose momentum in 1992 as they toured with the second leg of U2's Zoo TV tour and Flavor Flav was repeatedly in trouble with the law. In the fall of 1992, they released the remix collectionGreatest Misses as an attempt to keep their name viable, but it was greeted to nasty reviews.
Public Enemy was on hiatus during 1993, as Flav attempted to wean himself off drugs, returning in the summer of 1994 with Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age. Prior to its release, it was subjected to exceedingly negative reviews in Rolling Stone and The Source, which affected the perception of the album considerably. Muse Sick debuted at number 14, but it quickly fell off the charts as it failed to generate any singles. Chuck D retired Public Enemy from touring in 1995 as he severed ties with Def Jam, developed his own record label and publishing company, and attempted to rethink Public Enemy. In 1996, he released his first debut album, The Autobiography of Mistachuck. As it was released in the fall, he announced that he planned to record a new Public Enemy album the following year.
Before that record was made, Chuck D published an autobiography in the fall of 1997. During 1997, Chuck D reassembled the original Bomb Squad and began work on three albums. In the spring of 1998, Public Enemy kicked off their major comeback with their soundtrack to Spike Lee's He Got Game, which was played more like a proper album than a soundtrack. Upon its April 1998 release, the record received the strongest reviews of any Public Enemy album since Apocalypse 91...The Enemy Strikes Black. After Def Jam refused to help Chuck D's attempts to bring PE's music straight to the masses via the Internet, he signed the group to the web-savvy independent Atomic Pop. Before the retail release of Public Enemy's seventh LP, There's a Poison Goin' On..., the label made MP3 files of the album available on the Internet. It finally appeared in stores in July 1999.
After a three-year break from recording and a switch to the In the Paint label, Public Enemy released Revolverlution, a mix of new tracks, remixes, and live cuts. The CD/DVD combo It Takes a Nation appeared in 2005. The multimedia package contained an hour-long video of the band live in London in 1987 and a CD with rare remixes. The new album New Whirl Odor also appeared in 2005. The "special projects" album Rebirth of a Nation -- an album with all rhymes written by Bay Area rapper Paris -- was supposed to be released right along with it, but didn't appear until early the next year. The odds-and-ends collection Beats and Places appeared before the end of 2006. Featuring the single 'Harder Than You Think', How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul??? arrived in the summer of 2007. Public Enemy then entered a relatively quiet phase, at least in terms of recording, releasing only the 2011 remix and rarities compilationBeats & Places in the next five years. Then, the group came back in a big way in 2012, releasing two new full-length albums: the summer's Most of My Heroes Still Don't Appear on No Stamp and the fall's Evil Empire of Everything (both were available digitally before they had a physical release in November). Public Enemy also toured extensively throughout 2012 and into 2013.
Yo! Bum Rush the Show was an invigorating record, but it looks like child's play compared to its monumental sequel, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, a record that rewrote the rules of what Hip Hop could do. That's not to say the album is without precedent, since what's particularly ingenious about the album is how it reconfigures things that came before into a startling, fresh, modern sound. Public Enemy used the template Run-D.M.C. created of a rap crew as a rock band, then brought in elements of free jazz, hard funk, even musique concrete, via their producing team, the Bomb Squad, creating a dense, ferocious sound unlike anything that came before.
This coincided with a breakthrough in Chuck D's writing, both in his themes and lyrics. It's not that Chuck D was smarter or more ambitious than his contemporaries -- certainly, KRS-One tackled many similar sociopolitical tracts, while Rakim had a greater flow -- but he marshalled considerable revolutionary force, clear vision, and a boundless vocabulary to create galvanizing, logical arguments that were undeniable in their strength. They only gained strength from Flavor Flav's frenzied jokes, which provided a needed contrast. What's amazing is how the words and music become intertwined, gaining strength from each other. Though this music is certainly a representation of its time, it hasn't dated at all. It set a standard that few could touch then, and even fewer have attempted to meet since.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
At the time of its release in March 1990 -- just a mere two years after It Takes a Nation of Millions -- nearly all of the attention spent on Public Enemy's third album, Fear of a Black Planet, was concentrated on the dying controversy over Professor Griff's anti-Semitic statements of 1989, and how leader Chuck D bungled the public relations regarding his dismissal. References to the controversy are scattered throughout the album -- and it fueled the incendiary lead single, "Welcome to the Terrordome" -- but years later, after the furor has died down, what remains is a remarkable piece of modern art, a record that ushered in the '90s in a hail of multiculturalism and kaleidoscopic confusion. It also easily stands as the Bomb Squad's finest musical moment. Where Millions was all about aggression -- layered aggression, but aggression nonetheless -- Fear of a Black Planet encompasses everything, touching on seductive grooves, relentless beats, hard funk, and dub reggae without blinking an eye.
All the more impressive is that this is one of the records made during the golden age of sampling, before legal limits were set on sampling, so this is a wild, endlessly layered record filled with familiar sounds you can't place; it's nearly as heady as the Beastie Boys' magnum opus, Paul's Boutique, in how it pulls from anonymous and familiar sources to create something totally original and modern. While the Bomb Squad were casting a wider net, Chuck D's writing was tighter than ever, with each track tackling a specific topic (apart from the aforementioned "Welcome to the Terrordome," whose careening rhymes and paranoid confusion are all the more effective when surrounded by such detailed arguments), a sentiment that spills over to Flavor Flav, who delivers the pungent black humor of "911 Is a Joke," perhaps the best-known song here. Chuck gets himself into trouble here and there -- most notoriously on "Meet the G That Killed Me," where he skirts with homophobia -- but by and large, he's never been so eloquent, angry, or persuasive as he is here. This isn't as revolutionary or as potent as Millions, but it holds together better, and as a piece of music, this is the best Hip Hop has ever had to offer.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Sometimes, debut albums present an artist in full bloom, with an assured grasp on their sound and message. Sometimes, debut albums are nothing but promise, pointing toward what the artist could do. Public Enemy's gripping first album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, manages to fill both categories: it's an expert, fully realized record of extraordinary power, but it pales in comparison with what came merely a year later. This is very much a Rick Rubin-directed production, kicking heavy guitars toward the front, honing the loops, rhythms, and samples into a roar with as much in common with rock as rap. The Bomb Squad are apparent, but they're in nascent stage -- certain sounds and ideas that would later become trademarks bubble underneath the surface.
And the same thing could be said for Chuck D, whose searing, structured rhymes and revolutionary ideas are still being formed. This is still the sound of a group comfortable rocking the neighborhood, but not yet ready to enter the larger national stage. But, damn if they don't sound like they've already conquered the world! Already, there is a tangible, physical excitement to the music, something that hits the gut with relentless force, as the mind races to keep up with Chuck's relentless rhymes or Flavor Flav's spastic outbursts. And if there doesn't seem to be as many classics here -- "You're Gonna Get Yours," "Miuzi Weighs a Ton," "Public Enemy No. 1" -- that's only in comparison to what came later, since by any other artist an album this furious, visceral, and exciting would unquestionably be heralded as a classic. From Public Enemy, this is simply a shade under classic status.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Coming down after the twin high-water marks of It Takes a Nation of Millions and Fear of a Black Planet, Public Enemy shifted strategy a bit for their fourth album, Apocalypse 91...The Enemy Strikes Black. By and large, they abandon the rich, dense musicality of Planet, shifting toward a sleek, relentless, aggressive attack -- Yo! Bum Rush the Show by way of the lessons learned from Millions. This is surely a partial reaction to their status as the Great Black Hope of rock & roll; they had been embraced by a white audience almost in greater numbers than black, leading toward rap-rock crossovers epitomized by this album's leaden, pointless remake of "Bring the Noise" as a duet with thrash metallurgists Anthrax.
It also signals the biggest change here -- the transition of the Bomb Squad to executive-producer status, leaving a great majority of the production to their disciples, the Imperial Grand Ministers of Funk. This isn't a great change, since the Public Enemy sound has firmly been established, giving the new producers a template to work with, but it is a notable change, one that results in a record with a similar sound but a different feel: a harder, angrier, determined sound, one that takes its cues from the furious anger surging through Chuck D's sociopolitical screeds. And this is surely PE's most political effort, surpassing Millions through the use of focused, targeted anger, a tactic evident on Planet. Yet it was buried there, due to the seductiveness of the music. Here, everything is on the surface, with the bluntness of the music hammering home the message. Arriving after two records where the words and music were equally labyrinthine, folding back on each other in dizzying, intoxicating ways, it is a bit of a letdown to have Apocalypse be so direct, but there is no denying that the end result is still thrilling and satisfying, and remains one of the great records of the golden age of Hip Hop.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
If Greatest Misses was viewed as a temporary stumble upon its release in 1992, Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age was viewed as proof positive that Public Enemy was creatively bankrupt and washed up when it appeared in 1994. By and large, it was savaged in the press, most notably in a two-star pan by Tour in Rolling Stone, whose review still irked PE leader Chuck D years later. In retrospect, it's hard not to agree with Chuck's anger, since Muse Sick is hardly the disaster it was painted at the time. In fact, it's a thoroughly enjoyable, powerful album, one that is certainly not as visionary as the group's first four records, but is as musically satisfying. Its greatest crime is that it arrived at a time when so few were interested in not just Public Enemy, but what the group represents -- namely, aggressive, uncompromising, noisy political rap that's unafraid, and places as much emphasis on soundscape as it does on groove.
In 1994, Hip Hop was immersed in gangsta murk (the Wu-Tang Clan's visionary 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang, was only beginning to break the stranglehold of G-funk), and nobody cared to hear Public Enemy's unapologetic music, particularly since it made no concessions to the fads and trends of the times. Based solely on the sound, Muse Sick, in fact, could have appeared in 1991 as the sequel to Fear of a Black Planet, and even if it doesn't have the glorious highs of Apocalypse 91, it is arguably a more cohesive listen, with a greater sense of purpose and more consistent material than that record. But, timing does count for something, and Apocalypse did arrive when the group was not just at the peak of their powers, but at the peak of their hold on the public imagination, two things that cannot be discounted when considering the impact of an album. This record, in contrast, stands outside of time, sounding better as the years have passed, because when it's separated from fashion and trends, it's revealed as a damn good Public Enemy record. True, it doesn't offer anything new, but it offers a uniformly satisfying listen and it has stood the test of time better than many records that elbowed it off the charts and out of public consciousness during that bleak summer of 1994.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Nominally a soundtrack to Spike Lee's basketball drama, but in reality more of an individual album, He Got Game appeared in 1998, just the second Public Enemy album since 1991's Apocalypse 91. Even though Chuck D was pushing 40, the late '90s were friendlier to PE's noisy, claustrophobic Hip Hop than the mid-'90s, largely because Hip Hop terrorists like the Wu-Tang Clan, Jeru the Damaja, and DJ Shadow were bringing the music back to its roots. PE followed in their path, stripping away the sonic blitzkrieg that was the Bomb Squad's trademark and leaving behind skeletal rhythm tracks, simple loops, and basslines. Taking on the Wu at their own game -- and, if you think about it, Puff Daddy as well, since the simple, repetitive loop of Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" on the title track was nothing more than a brazenly successful one-upmanship of Puff's shameless thievery -- didn't hurt the group's credibility, since they did it well.
Listen to the circular, menacing synth lines of the opening "Resurrection" or the scratching strings on "Unstoppable" and it's clear that Public Enemy could compete with the most innovative artists in the younger generation, while "Is Your God a Dog" and "Politics of the Sneaker Pimps" proved that they could draw their own rules. That said, He Got Game simply lacked the excitement and thrill of prime period PE -- Chuck D, Terminator X, and the Bomb Squad were seasoned, experienced craftsmen, and it showed, for better and worse. They could craft a solid comeback like He Got Game, but no matter how enjoyable and even thought-provoking the album was, that doesn't mean it's where you'll turn when you want to hear Public Enemy.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Apart from their 2001 installment in Universal's ongoing 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection series, Public Enemy had not been given a career compilation prior to 2005's Power to the People and the Beats: Public Enemy's Greatest Hits. The 2001 comp overlooked such major cuts as "Rebel Without a Pause" and "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos," plus it was sequenced in a non-chronological order. Power to the People rights those two wrongs by including all of PE's major songs from 1987-1998 -- which doesn't mean it's all their best music, of course -- presented in a chronological fashion, beginning with "You're Gonna Get Yours" and ending with "He Got Game." As such, it provides not only a useful summary of their groundbreaking work, it's also a bracing, exciting listen in its own right.
Of course, each individual Public Enemy release recorded during these ten years is worth hearing -- especially 1988's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and 1990's Fear of a Black Planet, which are two of the great works of art of the 20th century -- but for those who want a quick introduction to the greatest Hip Hop group of all time, this fits the bill perfectly.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
A 16 track live album from a Public Enemy show recorded in Australia.