Biography of Controversial Rap Group Public Enemy

Flavor Flav and Chuck D. of Public Enemy

Kowarski/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

By tackling racism head-on in songs such as “Burn Hollywood Burn,” “911 Is a Joke” and “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” rap outfit Public Enemy emerged during the late 1980s as one of the most politically charged music groups in history. This Public Enemy biography shows how the militant rappers rose to stardom.

Early Years

With members DJ Terminator X, choreographer Professor Griff and MCs Flavor Flav and Chuck D., the Long Island group formed in 1982. Public Enemy’s first album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, dropped five years later on Def Jam Records. Despite praise from critics and hardcore hip-hop fans, the album failed to make an imprint on mainstream music lovers. That group’s next release, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, would be received much differently.

Released in 1988, the album exposed the masses to Flavor Flav’s high-octane comic antics, Chuck D.’s vitriolic rhymes and the martial arts-infused choreography of Griff set to aggressive mixing and hard-hitting beats. It Takes a Nation… spawned the hits “Bring the Noise” and “Don’t Believe the Hype.” Featuring excerpts of speeches made by controversial Black figures Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan, the album went on to sell more than a million copies.

In 2003, Rolling Stone named It Takes a Nation… No. 48 on its list of the 500 greatest albums.

“Loud, obnoxious, funky, avant-garde, political, uncompromising, hilarious—Public Enemy’s brilliant second album is all of these things and, on nearly every track, all at once,” Rolling Stone characterized the album.

A Boost From Spike Lee

When Spike Lee featured “Public Enemy’s” single “Fight the Power” on the soundtrack to his 1989 film “Do the Right Thing,” the politically charged rap group built on the popularity its second album had already garnered for it. With fame, of course, often comes backlash, which Public Enemy faced when member Professor Griff, and later Chuck D., were accused of making anti-Semitic remarks. Whatever damage was caused by the controversy vanished with the 1990 release of Fear of a Black Planet. The album produced five hit singles, including “Welcome to the Terrordome,” which addresses the group’s trials and tribulations and led to more accusations of anti-Semitism because of the line, “they got me like Jesus.” The first album of Public Enemy to enter the Billboard Top 10, Fear of a Black Planet also scored a Grammy nomination.

A Rocky Transition

Public Enemy continued to garner both critical and commercial praise with the release of 1991’s Apocalypse 91. Chart-toppers from the album include “Can’t Truss It” and “Shut Em Down.” After Apocalypse, however, the group would endure a dry spell of sorts. Critics panned its 1992 remix album, Greatest Misses, while its 1994 album, Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age, lost momentum on the Billboard 100 soon after its release.

During the ’90s not only did Public Enemy struggle to remain on top, group member Flavor Flav suffered a litany of legal troubles allegedly stemming from drug addiction. By this time, the group had lost Terminator X and producer Hank Shocklee. And Chuck D. had already ousted Professor Griff from the group during the turmoil following the anti-Semitism controversy. As the group underwent a painful transition, Chuck D. didn’t falter. He arranged a tour with heavy metal band Anthrax and founded a record label, among other side projects.

Public Enemy’s Revival

When Spike Lee’s film He Got Game debuted, Public Enemy found itself in the spotlight once more. That’s because the director enlisted the group to record the film’s soundtrack. For the project, the original members of Public Enemy returned, their combined efforts resulting in the “He Got Game” soundtrack reaching No. 26 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Although the group has lost the stronghold it had on audiences during its heyday, Public Enemy continues to put out a copious amount of music. In the 21st century's first decade, the group dropped five albums: 1999’s There’s a Poison Goin’ On, 2002’s Revolverlution, 2005’s New Whirl Odor, 2006’s Rebirth of a Nation and 2007’s How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul? Public Enemy continues to tour as well, appearing at many festivals, including the popular Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in 2009.

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