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Public Enemy: Rockin' the Joint

The incendiary rappers preach black self-sufficiency at New York's Riker's Island. But are they prisoners of their own racist doctrine?

Chuck D and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy
Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
September 22, 1988

Depending on your point of view, Riker's Island Correctional Facility, in New York City, is either the first place or the last place you'd expect the controversial rap group Public Enemy to appear. Certainly, anyone who makes a statement like "If the Palestinians took up arms, went to Israel and killed all the Jews, it'd be all right" is an interesting candidate for a jail gig. And that's precisely what attracted approximately 100 journalists to the group's sweltering media circus at the prison on August 12th.

Public Enemy is one of the hottest-selling rap groups, with its seethingly militant album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, moving 750,000 copies in six weeks. The group's outspoken endorsement of Louis Farrakhan, along with several blatantly racist comments made to the press by the band's "minister of information," Professor Griff, has also given Public Enemy a well-deserved infamy. That the group would be given clearance to perform at the prison was, to say the least, surprising.

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Although prison officials were aware of the group's political nature, they did not know at the time the show was planned that the band's song "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" describes a violent jailbreak. The possibility that Public Enemy would perform the song loomed over the entire proceedings. During the event, the band gave off mixed signals, ostensibly bearing a positive message but also revealing some disturbing beliefs.

Accompanied by their onstage bodyguards, S1W (Security of the First World), the members of the group entered the prison's gymnasium, where the audience of 250 prisoners was separated from the press by police barriers and a phalanx of TV cameras. More than thirty corrections officers were also present.

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

The three-man S1W team, dressed in black paramilitary outfits and sunglasses, took the stage and stood stock-still, arms folded, staring stonily ahead. For obvious reasons, the bodyguards were without the toy Uzi machine guns they normally tote onstage. Griff, SlW's leader, announced, "Public Enemy feels like America is one big jail. So we want you to know that we feel what you feel." After getting the inmates to stand, he said, "Everybody put your fist in the air – whether you're white, black, Chinese, whatever – don't be afraid!" When the inmates stood with their fists in the air, the tension level in the room rose, causing the officers and the warden to motion for them to sit down, which they did. Immediately.

Public Enemy, including leader Chuck D, his foil, Flavor Flav, and DJ Terminator X, then jumped onstage and ripped into "Rebel Without a Pause," a theme song of sorts. The inmates waved their arms, still sitting, as Flavor Flav swaggered about the stage and mugged for the cameras.

When the song ended, Chuck D began the first of several long speeches, saying, "I curse a lot because I don't have a regard for the English language. England was the hub of Western civilized culture, a culture which is the reason that black people are in the situation we're in today. So if you hear me curse – fuck it."

He plugged away for black economic self-sufficiency, the doctrine espoused by Farrakhan. "Black men and women are treated like bullshit," Chuck D continued. "We are brainwashed to think nothing of ourselves. You've got to know the rules of the game so we won't be falling into traps and keep coming back to motherfuckin' places like these!"

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