Rapper Chuck D, creative leader of the seminal hip-hop group Public Enemy, talks through his early influences, charts the band’s development and reveals his songwriting process.
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Fueled by social and cultural transformations, a new generation of artists led by Chuck D, PJ Harvey and others triggers a surge in protest music. The vital sounds and outspoken messages coincide with the mainstream rise of hip-hop, confront injustices and reverberate across the American landscape.
In the venerated 1989 film “Do the Right Thing,” director Spike Lee shows how festering issues can snowball. A sobering reflection of American race relations, it remains equally significant for launching Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”
Goddess, guerrilla, guitar-slinger. Singer, songwriter, sorceress. Sculptor, poet, performer. Polly Jean Harvey’s arrival on American shores in 1992 with her power trio PJ Harvey startled everyone — a siren call into a tantalizingly deep, dark vision, potently punk and powerfully female. Over nearly three decades and a dozen albums, she’s morphed from electric blues-infused upstart to authoritative rock stateswoman, but has never strayed from an uncompromising artistic core, and a talent for surprise.
“We have coined our own term for what we do: Raptivism,” Chuck D explained during Public Enemy’s 2013 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction speech. Most musicians are put into genres; exceptional artists create their own. In February of 1987, with the release of its debut LP “Yo! Bum Rush the Show,” Public Enemy entered with a boom and forever changed the trajectory of hip-hop. The group created a catalog of disruptive protest music, addressing issues that still resonate after 30 years.
It was only a matter of time before the repressive policies and indulgent practices of the Greed Decade came to a head, stoking the anger of artists who would no longer remain silent. While ‘80s protest music existed before Ronald Reagan prepared to transfer power to his right-hand man, George H.W. Bush, it primarily functioned as a footnote to the era’s capitalist excesses or remained cloistered in underground punk domains.
Protest music surged in the late ‘80s and into the early ‘90s in response to world-changing events, including the war in Iraq, the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It all reflected what punk poet Patti Smith observed in ‘88 in her first new music in nearly a decade: “The people have the power.”