That was the power Public Enemy once held. Boasting Chuck D, whose resonant baritone is one of the all-time great voices in hip-hop; comic relief in the form of Flavor Flav, the clown prince of rap; "Minister of Information" Professor Griff, who was also the leader of the S1Ws (Security of the First World), a somewhat bizarre combination of bodyguards and backup dancers who dressed in military uniforms and carried Uzi replicas; DJ Terminator X; and production team the Bomb Squad, whose work was downright revolutionary, Public Enemy itself was revolutionary and attracted the attendant controversy attached to such a definer.
The group emerged out of Long Island in 1987, with the release of its Def Jam debut album Yo! Bum Rush the Show, which was full of loud guitar riffs over somewhat skeletal beats, and introduced the world to the power of MC Chuck D. Only a year later--though musically and lyrically, it seemed advanced by decades--came It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, in which the focus became charged political rhymes that unflinchingly and defiantly addressed the state of black America, paired with the Bomb Squad's sonic stew, which began incorporating samples of hip-hop, R&B, rock, and jazz, along with sound effects such as wailing sirens. Hip-hop would never be the same.
Independent filmmaker Spike Lee commissioned a song for use in his second film, and the scathing "Fight the Power" became the musical centerpiece of Do the Right Thing in 1989. The song was a further leap in sonic schizophrenia and became somewhat controversial for its lyrics: "Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant ____ to me, you see / Straight up racist that sucker was, simple and plain / Mother____ him and John Wayne."
But that was nothing compared to the controversy generated by an interview with Professor Griff, originally published in the ultra-conservative Washington Times, in which his past homophobic and anti-Semitic remarks caught up with him. Author David Mills and Griff got into a heated exchange in which Griff launched into conspiracy theories about Jews (e.g., "The Jews finance these experiments on AIDS with black people in South Africa") and summed up his viewpoint neatly by declaring that Jews were responsible for "the majority of the wickedness that goes on across the globe." Public Enemy went into bumbling damage-control mode; first Griff wasn't fired, then he was, via an eloquent press conference held by Chuck D, in which he stated, "We are not anti-Jewish; we are not anti-anybody--we are pro-black, pro-black culture, pro-human race." Griff has drifted in and out of the PE camp ever since.
He's currently very much a part of the group, and during an interview with the Weekly earlier this week, Chuck D somewhat tentatively defended Griff. "It was so much of a sophisticated conversation that he was havin' that, on both ends--both on the writer's standpoint and from Griff's standpoint--well, the ball was dropped, and the emotions and frustrations filled in, and it didn't make sense on both sides. But when it started out, it was a very sophisticated conversation about Israel and Palestine, which was totally new to a hip-hop community in 1989. ... And it just fragmented and went straight to being a sound bite that ended up sayin' that Jews are responsible for the wickedness of the world. And that's how they isolate the whole thing, almost like how Michael Richards' 'nigger' six times is going to signify his existence. ... I said in the beginning, when I first put together Public Enemy, Flavor is the type of black man that America feels comfortable with, and Griff is the one that they most definitely will feel uncomfortable with, and both of 'em are my partners."
The controversy was one of the underlying topics addressed on PE's third album, 1990's Fear of a Black Planet. This time, the group addressed, among many other things, the lack of good roles for black actors ("Burn Hollywood Burn"), flaws in the emergency response system ("911 Is a Joke," one of Flavor Flav's brightest moments) and race mixing (the title track and "Pollywanacraka").
The following year, the group released Apocalypse 91 ... The Enemy Strikes Black, which included "By the Time I Get to Arizona," a song that took Arizonans to task for refusing to pass a ballot proposition making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a state holiday. When I mention to Chuck D that the matter was one of financial concern (the original proposition would have created an extra state holiday), he responds, "Yeah, but me as a black person coming from New York, I didn't care about all that. I just dealt with the glaring omission and the fact, you know, get your shit together. That's all that song was."
After Apocalypse 91, Public Enemy began to falter. It issued a string of disappointing albums, with a bright spot in the 1998 soundtrack to Spike Lee's He Got Game. The following year, Terminator X retired from music, and eventually the Bomb Squad baton was passed to a new crew of producers.
In recent years, Chuck D has been running his own independent record label, Slam Jamz, has hosted a talk radio show on Air America and has become somewhat of a hip-hop elder statesman and mouthpiece.
"I'm always tri-folding different interviews," he says. "One is P.E.; the other is hip-hop spokesperson; and the other one is just regular civil rights issues." And Flavor Flav has become the unlikely star of a series of reality TV shows on VH1. Public Enemy has continued to release a slew of albums and tour, mostly overseas. The group's 56th tour, which will bring it to Tucson this week, is its first in the United States in four years. These days, Public Enemy performs with a live backing band called The Banned, which will also open the show.
"The Public Enemy show is a combination of Rage Against the Machine, the Roots and Run-D.M.C.," Chuck D says. "I mean, that's the only way I can explain it. It's the greatest show on Earth, and it's a show that the United States hasn't really seen."
Next year the group plans to release How Do You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul?, a new album celebrating Public Enemy's 20th anniversary.