“No one has been able to approach the political power that Public Enemy brought to hip-hop,” Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys told Rolling Stone in 2004. “I put them on a level with Bob Marley and a handful of other artists – the rare artist who can make great music and also deliver a message.” Public Enemy brought an explosion of sonic invention, rhyming virtuosity and social awareness to hip-hop in the 1980s and 1990s. The group’s high points – 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and 1990’s Fear of a Black Planet, stand among the greatest politically charged albums of all time.
Public Enemy – Chuck D. (Carlton Ridenhour), Flavor Flav (William Drayton), Terminator X (Norman Lee Rogers) and Professor Griff (Richard Griffin) – came together in 1986 at Adelphi University on Long Island. Ridenhour was studying graphic design and working at the college’s radio station, WBAU. He became friends with Hank Shocklee and Bill Stephney, and they would stay up late into the night, discussing politics, philosophy and hip-hop. Ridenhour rapped over a track that Shocklee created called “Public Enemy No.1.” He then began appearing regularly on Stephney’s radio show, calling himself Chuckie D.