Public Enemy: Def or Dumb?

Public Enemy blasted its way to success with the pulse of black power, only to lose control of its message – and maybe its destiny

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Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 563 from October 9, 1989. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

Perched on a stool, a red, black and green medallion of Africa hanging around his neck, Chuck D. stares at the video monitor. After a moment the taut face of Malcolm X appears on the screen. The steel voice utters the famous words: "We pledge to get our freedom by any means necessary." The pulse of a drumbeat begins. Next to Malcolm on the monitor, a car pulls up; B-boys dressed in fatigues pour out onto a New York City street. They are Public Enemy, the musically and politically radical rap group; a video editor is trying out this juxtaposition of images as a possible opening for the band's latest assault, an hour-long video of Public Enemy in concert.

"Then we'll have the titles, okay, Chuck?" asks the video editor.

Chuck is Carlton Ridenhour, Public Enemy's lead rapper, chief lyricist and marketing genius. Three years ago Ridenhour conceived of the group with two friends, Hank Shocklee, a record producer, and Bill Stephney, a record-company executive. Since then, Public Enemy has enjoyed spectacular success. The band's first album — Yo! Bum Rush the Show — released in 1987 by Def Jam, sold 300,000 copies and was widely hailed. The second, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, tripled those sales while reaping several critical awards. Def Jam's distributor, CBS Records, predicts that Public Enemy's next album may top the 2 million mark, an amazing achievement for a group whose music defies melody and whose lyrics praise the Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan.

This success has left Ridenhour in a state of constant busyness. This mid-May afternoon, for example, he has half a dozen things on his mind besides the video: a new single, "Fight the Power" (the lead song in Spike Lee's movie Do the Right Thing); the next album (titled Fear of a Black Planet, it is scheduled to come out this fall); the band's touring duties; and negotiations with major record companies for Shocklee, Stephney and him to set up their own production company (the first step toward realizing their dream of creating a new Motown).

Before Ridenhour can tell the editor his opinion, the telephone rings.

"What up?" Ridenhour answers, using a B-boy expression to greet a record-company executive on the other end of the line. Nearing thirty, Ridenhour — shorter, slighter, older and also more tired in person than he appears onstage — is married, the father of a one-year-old and the owner of a house in suburban Long Island. Still, he presents himself as a B-boy by personal choice and professional necessity, complete with street language and a baseball cap to shade his expressive face.

Ridenhour gets down to business: He wants to make sure a colleague isn't being stiffed. When the executive equivocates, Ridenhour cuts him off. "I don't mind nickel-and-diming everyone else, but not him," he says, reasonable yet unrelenting. "So we go back to what we agreed and we're straight, right?" Ridenhour wrests an okay from the man and signs off instantly, closing the discussion: "Peace."

Ridenhour hangs up, ready now to attend to the video. The scene seems ideal: the artist in command of his career and work. But from the first, Public Enemy — his masterwork — has been a creature of contradiction, a black-nationalist group that counts on white support, a political organization unsure of its program.

Soon these conflicts will all come to a head. In two weeks the Washington Times will publish an interview with Richard "Professor Griff" Griffin, the band's Minister of Information, in which he launches into an antisemitic tirade, saying Jews are "wicked" and responsible for "the majority of wickedness" in the world. In response, Ridenhour will at first announce the dismissal of Griffin, then the dissolution of the group; then he will reverse himself — all amid a cacophony of name-calling and cowardice that will leave the band in disarray, its future in jeopardy.

Two things brought the founders of Public Enemy together: rap and Long Island.

Rap may be the rhyme and rhythms of the urban streets, but the B-boys of Public Enemy spent their childhoods on the tree-lined avenues of New York City's suburban frontier. They enjoyed front yards instead of stoops, rode in automobiles rather than subway cars. They are genuine crossovers, raised on the black-liberation movement along with the junk food of American culture — television, sports and comic books. The sophisticated offspring of a cultural mix that left them critical of both black and white societies, they devoted themselves to a distinctive mission: to send a message of self-respect and defiance to black youth by mastering the marketing devices and business strategies of the music industry.

Shocklee — he's a few years older than his colleagues — brought the others together in the early Eighties. A student at Long Island's Adelphi University at the time, he was supporting himself as an entrepreneur, producing rap parties, hiring DJs, setting up his own nightclubs. Ridenhour was also at Adelphi, studying graphic design. Shocklee believes in the importance of the visual aspect of rock — "You have to be able to see things in records," he explains — and he employed Ridenhour to help promote his events.

"I started applying my knowledge to the music," says Ridenhour. "I marketed it and made it look like 'Hey, these motherfuckers are the fucking spearhead of this.' So we grew into promoters. We'd hire groups and make them look bigger than they were."

To Ridenhour's surprise, he also discovered another talent: he could rap and write. "At one time, rapping had echo chambers and muffled voices and sounds over the beat," he says. "I always used to be in the back of the car with my boys, saying, 'Shit, I can't hear a motherfucking word he's saying.' So one said, 'You think you could do a better job?' I said, 'I could, and another thing about it — -I'd be clear.'"

At the time, Bill Stephney, the youngest of the three, was the student program director of the campus radio station. He was in love with hip-hop. A trained musician — Ridenhour says he "can't even play Lotto," and Shocklee is limited to a rudimentary knowledge of keyboards — Stephney had fallen for the new sound in a revelatory moment. While playing his guitar at a party, he realized the kids working the turntables were the creative ones: He was merely repeating his teacher's lessons. Besides, rap and hip-hop brought kids together.

"The amazing thing about white criticism of rap music was that they never really appreciated it from a purely rhythmic dancing standpoint," Stephney says. "You never heard about how 3000 black kids were going like this." He slaps out a beat while making a snare-drum noise; a hefty fellow, he moves easily to the rhythm, conveying the natural pleasure of being in the presence of something loved. "That's what kept me in the music — -that I would enjoy seeing 3000 kids doing this," he says. "That changes you. You believe so solidly in the music, you just want to defend it."

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From The Archives Issue 68: October 15, 1970