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.
“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.
“I just wanted to go to the parties to dance,” Chuck D says in his “Great Songwriters’’ interview with Paul Toogood. “I wanted to get on the mic to sit whack MCs down, so I could enjoy myself.”
At the time of Public Enemy’s debut, its Def Jam labelmates included the brash and arrogant Beastie Boys and teenage wunderkind LL Cool J. Both pioneering trendsetters in their own right, but not politically motivated. The Beastie Boys were fighting for the right to party, LL presented a mix of battle raps and teenage love songs, while Public Enemy rapped about systemic social justice issues such as mass incarceration, the prison industrial complex, the war on drugs and the destruction of the social safety net.
The band inspired countless descendants, from contemporaries such as Ice Cube and KRS-One, to next-generation bands Rage Against the Machine and Dead Prez, along with 21st century artists Kendrick Lamar and Run the Jewels. Through its music, Public Enemy urged and inspired hip-hop fans throughout the country — including artist Shepard Fairey, former President Barack Obama and activist Mariame Kaba — to pay attention to politics and get involved in social justice movements.
Hip-hop is political in nature. The art form was born in New York’s South Bronx, an area cut in half by a highway and then neglected, depreciated and forgotten. The borough’s youth community was written off, left to fend for itself in a concrete jungle of poverty and crime. These conditions were injected directly into rap music in 1982 with the release of “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5. The song is recognized as the first of its kind, powered by Melle Mel’s sharp, blunt lyrics. Mel provided a first-person account of life on unforgiving New York City streets, and introduced social commentary into hip-hop. Chuck D and Public Enemy took it a step further, attacking systemic racism and classism. Mel famously rapped about the ills of his environment, but Chuck D explained how redlining, miseducation and Rockefeller Drug Laws created such ills.
Bands like U2 created protest songs urging peace; Public Enemy demanded justice.
Chuck D bestowed hip-hop with an intellectual MC who critiqued white supremacy, government dysfunction, corporate greed and police corruption. When he began the third verse of “Fight the Power” with “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me,” it was polarizing. When he rapped, “I got a letter from the government the other day, I opened and read it, it said they were suckers,” on “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” you almost felt bad for whoever wrote that letter. “By the Time I Get to Arizona”, a song created in response to the state’s refusal to recognize Martin Luther King Day, was so visceral that the video was banned, and the song shunned by fearful politicians. Bands like U2 created protest songs urging peace; Public Enemy demanded justice. These weren’t kumbaya records, these were battle hymns.
Public Enemy opened doors for similarly conscious groups like Boogie Down Productions and Poor Righteous Teachers. They provided space for movements like The Native Tongues (home to A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Queen Latifah among others) to thrive without the pressure of duplicating PE’s angst. Public Enemy’s music was equally as unrestrained as most gangsta rap coming from the likes of N.W.A and Ice Cube, but with a different agenda, a mix of James Brown, Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.
“They were, to me, more politically focused than N.W.A,” Ice Cube told beloved hip-hop personality Combat Jack in 2017. “They had knowledge of self; we were still mental zombies, as far as our place in the world… These dudes helped us get over the hump with that. Chuck is my favorite rapper of all time, because of message and content.” It is worth noting that when Ice Cube left N.W.A to start his own solo career, he did so by relocating to New York City and recording his debut LP, “Amerikkka’s Most Wanted,” with PE’s in-house production crew, the Bomb Squad.
According to Spotify analytics, Public Enemy’s music experienced close to a 300 percent increase in streams around the time of George Floyd’s death in May 2020 and another surge when police shot Jacob Blake in August. In those months, America was forced to confront racial injustice with new urgency.
“You can’t just break it down and say it’s the same power and the same fight,” Chuck D told me back in 2008. “We can repeat some of the tactics. We can repeat some of the fight. Can’t repeat the time.”
While music and culture has undergone tremendous change since 1987, many of the same issues still exist, and the same fights for justice are going on. Luckily, no matter the protest, no matter the fight, there’s a Public Enemy song to provide the soundtrack.
Alexander (DJ RTC) Fruchter was born and raised in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. He has been a mainstay in Chicago’s hip-hop community as a DJ, journalist and label owner for close to 20 years. Fruchter is the founder of the significant underground hip-hop blog rubyhornet, an accomplished DJ and an Associate Professor of Instruction at Columbia College Chicago. He is also the founder of the indie hip-hop label Closed Sessions, and was recognized by the Chicago Tribune as a “Chicagoan of the Year” in 2016. He is a graduate of Indiana University and currently lives in Humboldt Park.