Public Enemy (band)

Public Enemy is an American hip hop group consisting of Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Professor Griff, and DJ Lord (replaced Terminator X in 1998 after his retirement from the group). Formed in Long Island, New York, in 1985,[1] they are known for their politically charged music and criticism of the American media, with an active interest in the frustrations and concerns of the African American community.

Public Enemy
Public Enemy performing in 2000
Background information
OriginLong Island, New York, U.S.
Years active1985–present
Associated acts
MembersChuck D
Flavor Flav
DJ Lord
Professor Griff
Past membersTerminator X

Their first four albums during the late 1980s and early 1990s were all certified either gold or platinum and were, according to music critic Robert Hilburn in 1998, "the most acclaimed body of work ever by a hip hop act".[2] Critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine called them "the most influential and radical band of their time."[3] They were inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.[4]


Formation and early years (1985–1987)

Carlton Ridenhour (Chuck D) and William Drayton (Flavor Flav) met at Long Island's Adelphi University in the mid-1980s. Developing his talents as an MC with Flav while delivering furniture for his father's business, Chuck D and Spectrum City, as the group was called, released the record "Check Out the Radio", backed by "Lies", a social commentary—both of which would influence RUSH Productions' Run–D.M.C. and Beastie Boys.[5] Chuck D put out a tape to promote WBAU (the radio station where he was working at the time) and to fend off a local MC who wanted to battle him. He called the tape Public Enemy #1 because he felt like he was being persecuted by people in the local scene. This was the first reference to the notion of a public enemy in any of Chuck D's songs. The single was created by Chuck D with a contribution by Flavor Flav, though this was before the group Public Enemy was officially assembled. Around 1986, Bill Stephney, the former Program Director at WBAU, was approached by Ali Hafezi and offered a position with the label. Stephney accepted, and his first assignment was to help fledgling producer Rick Rubin sign Chuck D, whose song "Public Enemy Number One" Rubin had heard from Andre "Doctor Dré" Brown.

According to the book The History of Rap Music by Cookie Lommel, "Stephney thought it was time to mesh the hard-hitting style of Run DMC with politics that addressed black youth. Chuck recruited Spectrum City, which included Hank Shocklee, his brother Keith Shocklee, and Eric "Vietnam" Sadler, collectively known as the Bomb Squad, to be his production team and added another Spectrum City partner, Professor Griff, to become the group's Minister of Information. With the addition of Flavor Flav and another local mobile DJ named Terminator X, the group Public Enemy was born." According to Chuck, The S1W, which stands for Security of the First World, "represents that the black man can be just as intelligent as he is strong. It stands for the fact that we're not third-world people, we're first-world people; we're the original people."[6] Hank Shocklee came up with the name Public Enemy based on "underdog love and their developing politics" and the idea from Def Jam staffer Bill Stephney following the Howard Beach racial incident, Bernhard Goetz, and the death of Michael Stewart: "The Black man is definitely the public enemy."[7]

Public Enemy started out as opening act for the Beastie Boys during the latter's Licensed to Ill popularity, and in 1987 released their debut album Yo! Bum Rush the Show.

Mainstream success (1987–1994)

Their debut album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, was released in 1987 to critical acclaim. The album was the group's first step toward stardom. In October 1987, music critic Simon Reynolds dubbed Public Enemy "a superlative rock band".[8] They released their second album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back in 1988, which performed better in the charts than their previous release, and included the hit single "Don't Believe the Hype" in addition to "Bring the Noise". Nation of Millions ... was the first hip hop album to be voted album of the year in The Village Voice's influential Pazz & Jop critics' poll.[9]

In 1989, the group returned to the studio to record Fear of a Black Planet, which continued their politically charged themes. The album was supposed to be released in late 1989,[10] but was pushed back to April 1990. It was the most successful of any of their albums and, in 2005, was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress. It included the singles "Welcome To The Terrordome", "911 Is a Joke", which criticized emergency response units for taking longer to arrive at emergencies in the black community than those in the white community, and "Fight the Power".[11] "Fight the Power" is regarded as one of the most popular and influential songs in hip hop history.[12] It was the theme song of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing.

The group's next release, Apocalypse 91... The Enemy Strikes Black, continued this trend, with songs like "Can't Truss It", which addressed the history of slavery and how the black community can fight back against oppression; "I Don't Wanna be Called Yo Nigga", a track that takes issue with the use of the word nigga outside of its original derogatory context. The album also included the controversial song and video "By the Time I Get to Arizona", which chronicled the black community's frustration that some US states did not recognize Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a national holiday. The video featured members of Public Enemy taking out their frustrations on politicians in the states not recognizing the holiday.[13] In 1992, the group was one of the first rap acts to perform at the Reading Festival, in England, headlining the second day of the three-day festival.

Terminator X's exit and DJ Lord's entrance (1998–current)

After a 1994 motorcycle accident shattered his left leg and kept him in the hospital for a full month, Terminator X relocated to his 15-acre farm in Vance County, North Carolina. By 1998, he was ready to retire from the group and focus full-time on raising African black ostriches on his farm.[14] In late 1998, the group started looking for Terminator X's permanent replacement. Following several months of searching for a DJ, Professor Griff saw DJ Lord at a Vestax Battle and approached him about becoming the DJ for Public Enemy.[15] DJ Lord joined as the group's full-time DJ just in time for Public Enemy's 40th World Tour.[16] Since 1999, he has been the official DJ for Public Enemy on albums and world tours while winning numerous turntablist competitions, including multiple DMC finals.[17]

In 2007, the group released an album entitled How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul?. Public Enemy's single from the album was "Harder Than You Think". Four years after How You Sell Soul ... , in January 2011, Public Enemy released the album Beats and Places, a compilation of remixes and "lost" tracks. On July 13, 2012, Most of My Heroes Still Don't Appear on No Stamp was released and was exclusively available on iTunes. In July 2012, on UK television an advert for the London 2012 Summer Paralympics featured a short remix of the song "Harder Than You Think". The advert caused the song to reach No. 4[18] in the UK Singles Chart on September 2, 2012.[19] On July 30, 2012, Public Enemy performed a free concert with Salt-N-Pepa and Kid 'n Play at Wingate Park in Brooklyn, New York as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Concert Series. On August 26, 2012, Public Enemy performed at South West Four music festival in Clapham Common in London. On October 1, 2012 The Evil Empire of Everything was released. On June 29, 2013, they performed at Glastonbury Festival 2013. On September 14, 2013 they performed at Riot Fest & Carnival 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. On September 20, 2013 they performed at Riot Fest & Side Show in Byers, Colorado.

In 2014 Chuck D launched PE 2.0 with Oakland rapper Jahi as a spiritual successor and "next generation"[20] of Public Enemy.[21] Jahi met Chuck D backstage during a soundcheck at the 1999 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and later appeared as a support act on Public Enemy's 20th Anniversary Tour in 2007. PE 2.0's task is twofold, Jahi says, to "take select songs from the PE catalog and cover or revisit them" as well as new material with members of the original Public Enemy including DJ Lord, Davy DMX, Professor Griff and Chuck D.[22] PE 2.0's first album People Get Ready was released on October 7, 2014. InsPirEd PE 2.0's second album and part two of a proposed trilogy was released a year later on October 11, 2015.[21] Man Plans God Laughs, Public Enemy's thirteenth album, was released in July 2015. On June 29, 2017, Public Enemy released their fourteenth album, Nothing Is Quick in the Desert. The album was available for free download through Bandcamp until July 4, 2017.[23]


Public Enemy made contributions to the hip-hop world with sonic experimentation as well as political and cultural consciousness, which infused itself into skilled and poetic rhymes. Critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote that "PE brought in elements of free jazz, hard funk, even musique concrète, via [its] producing team the Bomb Squad, creating a dense, ferocious sound unlike anything that came before."[24][25] Terminator X's innovative scratching tricks can be heard on the songs "Rebel Without a Pause", "Night of the Living Baseheads", and "Shut 'Em Down".

Public Enemy held a strong, pro-black, political stance. Before PE, politically motivated hip-hop was defined by a few tracks by Ice-T, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Kurtis Blow and KRS-One. Other politically motivated opinions were shared by prototypical artists Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets. PE was a revolutionary hip-hop act, basing an entire image around a specified political stance. With the successes of Public Enemy, many hip-hop artists began to celebrate Afrocentric themes, such as Kool Moe Dee, Gang Starr, X Clan, Eric B. & Rakim, Queen Latifah, the Jungle Brothers, and A Tribe Called Quest.

Public Enemy was one of the first hip-hop groups to do well internationally. PE changed the Internet's music distribution capability by being one of the first groups to release MP3-only albums,[26] a format virtually unknown at the time.

Public Enemy helped to create and define "rap metal" by collaborating with Living Colour in 1988 ("Funny Vibe") and New York thrash metal outfit Anthrax in 1991. The single "Bring the Noise" was a mix of semi-militant black power lyrics, grinding guitars, and sporadic humor. The two bands, cemented by a mutual respect and the personal friendship between Chuck D and Anthrax's Scott Ian, introduced a hitherto alien genre to rock fans, and the two seemingly disparate groups toured together. Flavor Flav's pronouncement on stage that "They said this tour would never happen" (as heard on Anthrax's Live: The Island Years CD) has become a legendary comment in both rock and hip-hop circles. Metal guitarist Vernon Reid (of Living Colour) contributed to Public Enemy's recordings, and PE sampled Slayer's "Angel of Death" half-time riff on "She Watch Channel Zero?!"

Members of the Bomb Squad produced or remixed works for other acts, like Bell Biv DeVoe, Ice Cube, Vanessa Williams, Sinéad O'Connor, Blue Magic, Peter Gabriel, L.L. Cool J, Paula Abdul, Jasmine Guy, Jody Watley, Eric B & Rakim, Third Bass, Big Daddy Kane, EPMD, and Chaka Khan. According to Chuck D, "We had tight dealings with MCA Records and were talking about taking three guys that were left over from New Edition and coming up with an album for them. The three happened to be Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, and Ronnie DeVoe, later to become Bell Biv DeVoe. Ralph Tresvant had been slated to do a solo album for years, Bobby Brown had left New Edition and experienced some solo success beginning in 1988, and Johnny Gill had just been recruited to come in, but [he] had come off a solo career and could always go back to that. At MCA, Hiram Hicks, who was their manager, and Louil Silas, who was running the show, were like, 'Yo, these kids were left out in the cold. Can y'all come up with something for them?' It was a task that Hank, Keith, Eric, and I took on to try to put some kind of hip-hop-flavored R&B shit down for them. Subsequently, what happened in the four weeks of December [1989] was that the Bomb Squad knocked out a large piece of the production and arrangement on Bell Biv DeVoe's three-million selling album Poison. In January [1990], they knocked out Fear of a Black Planet in four weeks, and PE knocked out Ice Cube's album AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted in four to five weeks in February."[27] They have also produced local talent such as Son of Bazerk, Young Black Teenagers, Kings of Pressure, and True Mathematics—and gave producer Kip Collins his start in the business.

Poet and hip-hop artist Saul Williams uses a sample from Public Enemy's "Welcome to the Terrordome" in his song "Tr[n]igger" on the Niggy Tardust album. He also used a line from the song in his poem, amethyst rocks.

Public Enemy's brand of politically and socially conscious hip hop has been a direct influence on new hip hop artists such as The Cornel West theory.

The Manic Street Preachers track "Repeat (Stars And Stripes)" is a remix of the band's own anti-monarchy tirade by Public Enemy production team The Bomb Squad of whom James Dean Bradfield and Richey Edwards were big fans. The song samples "Countdown to Armageddon" from It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. The band had previously sampled Public Enemy on their 1991 single Motown Junk.

The revolutionary influence of the band is seen throughout hip-hop and is recognized in society and politics. The band "rewrote the rules of hip-hop", changing the image, sound and message forever.[28][29] Pro-black lyrics brought political and social themes to hardcore hip hop, with stirring ideas of racial equality, and retribution against police brutality, aimed at disenfranchised blacks, but appealing to all the poor and underrepresented.[30][31] Before Public Enemy, hip hop music was seen as "throwaway entertainment", with trite sexist and homophobic lyrics.[32] Public Enemy brought social relevance and strength to hip hop. They also brought black activist Louis Farrakhan to greater popularity, and they gave impetus to the Million Man March in 1995.[33]

The influence of the band goes also beyond hip-hop in a unique way, indeed the group was cited as an influence by artists as diverse as Autechre (selected in the All Tomorrow's Parties (music festival) in 2003), Nirvana (It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back being cited by Kurt Cobain among his favorite albums), Nine Inch Nails (mentioned the band in Pretty Hate Machine credits), Björk (included Rebel Without a Pause in her The Breezeblock Mix in July 2007), Tricky (did a cover of Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos and appears in Do You Wanna Go Our Way ??? video), The Prodigy (included Public Enemy No. 1 in The Dirtchamber Sessions Volume One), Ben Harper, Underground Resistance (cited by both Mad Mike and Jeff Mills), Orlando Voorn, M.I.A., Amon Tobin, Mathew Jonson, Aphex Twin (Welcome To The Terrordome being the first track played after the introduction at the Coachella festival in April 2008), Rage Against The Machine (sampling the track in their song "Renegades of Funk") and My Bloody Valentine who was influenced by the Bomb Squad's production for their sound.[34]


Martin Luther King Day

The 1991 song "By the Time I Get to Arizona" from Apocalypse 91... The Enemy Strikes Black referenced the controversy a year earlier when Arizona cancelled a state holiday for Martin Luther King Jr., and the NFL switched Super Bowl XXVII from Arizona to California, costing the state an estimated loss of over $100 million.[35][36] A video of "By the Time I Get to Arizona", which was shown only once on MTV, depicted Chuck D killing Arizona officials with machine guns and a car bomb.[37] This violent behaviour attracted negative media attention, and was described by one newspaper columnist as being the opposite of what Martin Luther King died for.[38]


In 1989, in an interview with Public Enemy for the Washington Times, the interviewing journalist, David Mills, lifted some quotations from a UK magazine in which the band were asked their opinion on the Arab–Israeli conflict. Professor Griff's comments apparently sympathized with the Palestinians and he was accused of anti-Semitism. According to Rap Attack 2, he suggested that "Jews are responsible for the majority of the wickedness in the world" (p. 177). (In turn a quote from The International Jew) Shortly after, Ridenhour expressed an apology on his behalf.[39] At a June 21, 1989 press conference, Ridenhour announced Griff's dismissal from the group,[40] and a June 28 statement by Russell Simmons, president of Def Jam Recordings and Rush Artists Management, stated that Chuck D. had disbanded Public Enemy "for an indefinite period of time".[41] By August 10, however, Ridenhour denied that he had disbanded the group, and stated that Griff had been re-hired as "Supreme Allied Chief of Community Relations" (in contrast to his previous position with the group as Minister of Information).[40] Griff later denied holding anti-Semitic views and apologized for the remarks.[42] Several people who had worked with Public Enemy expressed concern about Ridenhour's leadership abilities and role as a social spokesman.[43]

In his 2009 book, entitled Analytixz,[44] Griff criticized his 1989 statement: "to say the Jews are responsible for the majority of wickedness that went on around the globe I would have to know about the majority of wickedness that went on around the globe, which is impossible ... I'm not the best knower. Then, not only knowing that, I would have to know who is at the crux of all of the problems in the world and then blame Jewish people, which is not correct." Griff also said that not only were his words taken out of context, but that the recording has never been released to the public for an unbiased listen.

The controversy and apologies on behalf of Griff spurred Chuck D to reference the negative press they were receiving. In 1990, Public Enemy issued the single "Welcome to the Terrordome", which contains the lyrics: "Crucifixion ain't no fiction / So-called chosen frozen / Apologies made to whoever pleases / Still they got me like Jesus". These lyrics have been cited by some in the media as anti-Semitic, making supposed references to the concept of the "chosen people" with the lyric "so-called chosen" and Jewish deicide with the last line.[45]

In 1999 the group released an album entitled There's a Poison Goin' On. The title of the last song on the album is called "Swindler's Lust". The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) claimed that the title of the song was a word play on the title of the Steven Spielberg movie Schindler's List about the genocide of Jews in World War II.[46] Similarly in 2000 a Public Enemy spin off group under the name Confrontation Camp, a name according to the ADL, that is a pun on the term concentration camp, released an album.[47] The group consisted of Kyle Jason, Chuck D (under the name Mistachuck) and Professor Griff.

Radical Afrocentrist, Black Panther and Nation of Islam spokesman Khalid Muhammad is sampled on Night of the Living Baseheads opening the song with the words “Have you forgotten that once we were brought here, we were robbed of our name, robbed of our language. We lost our religion, our culture, our God ... and many of us, by the way we act, we even lost our minds.”


In a letter to the editor, Leo Haber alludes to criticism by The New York Times writer Peter Watrous of the group's supposed homophobia.[48]

Zoe Williams defended Public Enemy against charges of homophobia by stating that:

If you look at the seminal black artists at the start of hip-hop, Public Enemy and Niggaz Wit Attitudes, you won't actually find much homophobia. The only recorded homophobic lyric in Public Enemy's canon was: 'Man to man/ I don't know if they can/ From what I know/ The parts don't fit' [a lyric from "Meet the G that Killed Me" on Fear of a Black Planet]".

Williams, Zoe, "Hiphopophobia", The Guardian, 29 April 2003

Band members

Current members

  • Chuck D (Carlton D. Ridenhour) – MC
  • Flavor Flav (William Drayton) – hype man, occasionally lead vocals
  • Khari Wynnguitars
  • DJ Lord (Lord Aswod) – DJ
  • Professor Griff (Richard Griffin) – Minister of Information
  • S1W
    • Brother James (James Norman)
    • Brother Roger (Roger Chillous)
    • Brother Mike (Michael Williams)
    • James Bomb (James Allen)
    • The Interrogator (Shawn K. Carter)
    • Big Casper (Tracy D. Walker)

Former members

  • Terminator X (Norman Rogers) - DJ, Producer
  • DJ Johnny "Juice" Rosado – DJ, Scratching, Turntablist, Producer
  • Sister Souljah (Lisa Williamson) – Minister of Information (took over Richard Griffin's place when Griffin left group)
  • S1W
    • Jacob "Big Jake" Shankle
  • The Bomb Squad
    • Hank Shocklee (James Hank Boxley III) *original member
    • Keith Shocklee (Keith Boxley) *original member
    • Eric "Vietnam" Sadler *original member
    • Gary G-Wiz (Gary Rinaldo) (took Eric Sadler's place when Sadler left group)


Studio albums

Collaboration albums

Soundtrack albums

Awards and nominations

Grammy Awards [49]

Year Nominated work Award Result
1990 "Fight the Power" Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group Nominated
1991 Fear of a Black Planet Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group Nominated
1992 Apocalypse 91... The Enemy Strikes Black Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group Nominated
1993 Greatest Misses Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group Nominated
1995 "Bring the Noise" (with Anthrax) Best Metal Performance Nominated

American Music Awards

Year Nominated work Award Result
1989 It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Album Nominated
1991 Fear of a Black Planet Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Album Nominated
1992 Apocalypse 91... The Enemy Strikes Black Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Album Nominated

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Public Enemy was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.


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  • Chang, Jeff (2005). Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. New York: Picador. ISBN 0312425791.
  • Chuck D: Lyrics of a Rap Revolutionary, Off Da Books, 2007 ISBN 0-9749484-1-1
  • Chuck D with Yusuf Jah, Fight the Power, Delacorte Press, 1997 ISBN 0-385-31868-5
  • Fuck You Heroes, Glen E. Friedman Photographs 1976–1991, Burning Flags Press, 1994, ISBN 0-9641916-0-1
  • Serpick, Evan. "Public Enemy Look Back at 20 Years of 'By the Time I Get to Arizona'." Spin. Spin, November 10, 2011. Web.
  • White, Miles. Race, Rap and the performance of Mascinity in American Popular Culture. 2011. University of Illinois. Urbana. ISBN 978-0-252-07832-3
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