Known as the poetic lyrical son
I’m public enemy number one
—”Public Enemy No. 1″
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 two-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 30, 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.
Our solution — mind revolution
Mind over matter — mouth in motion
Corners don’t sell it — no you can’t buy it
Can’t defy it cause I’ll never be quiet
—”Rightstarter (Message to a Black Man)”
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 3,000 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 3,000 kids doing this,” he says. “That changes you. You believe so solidly in the music, you just want to defend it.”
Stephney ran a three-hour show devoted to rap. One day he saw the tall, lean, commanding Shocklee in the cafeteria. “I went wild,” he says. “I went up to him like the kid and Mean Joe Greene in the commercial.” After inviting Shocklee and Ridenhour on the air, he gave the two their own show; the opportunity spurred them to new creativity.
“We didn’t want to play a record twice in the show, and three hours is a long time,” says Shocklee. “So there weren’t enough rap records. What we would do was program a beat and make up records on the radio. We didn’t have any instruments, so we would use a turntable and scratch in when the chorus came in.”
The song that brought Shocklee and Ridenhour to the attention of record companies was “Public Enemy No. 1.” The inspiration for the song was a challenge issued by one of Ridenhour’s buddies, William Drayton, a musician and vocalist whose rapper persona was Flavor Flav, a character of flamboyant style. Drayton warned Ridenhour that the word on the street was he had lost his touch as a rapper. Never one to ignore a challenge, Ridenhour used the opportunity not only to answer his critics but also to wipe them out with a ferociously defiant Song of Himself: “For all you suckers, liars — you cheap amplifiers/You crossed up wires are always starting fires/For you grown up criers — now here’s a pair of pliers . . . / It’s you they never hire — you’re never on flyers/Cause you and your crew — is only known as good triers/Known as the poetic lyrical son/I’m public enemy number one.”
Rick Rubin, the cofounder of Def Jam records, had just signed a distribution deal with CBS; when “Public Enemy No. 1” became the most requested record on the Adelphi station, he wanted to sign Ridenhour.
“But we didn’t want to do a record,” says Shocklee. “Because rappers were treated like indentured servants. Then [Def Jam] called and offered Bill a job, and he came to us and said, ‘What should I do?’ We said, ‘Take it,’ and once he found out these guys are all right, we sat down and talked to them. They gave us a contract, it looked good, and we went with them.”
Who gives a fuck about a goddamn Grammy
Anyway, and I say the D’s defending the mike
Yeah, who gives a fuck about what they like
The power is bold, the rhymes politically cold
—”Terminator X to the Edge of Panic”
From the beginning, Public Enemy was about one thing: noise. The group intended to shake people up, politically and musically, to create an aural environment the listener couldn’t ignore — only turn off.
“Everybody was into ‘Let’s get dumb, let’s get crazy, let’s get stupid,’ ” says Shocklee. “That was the thing of 1985, ’86. So we decided, ‘Let’s put something together that will give people something to think about as well as listen to.’ Musically, we wanted to make something obnoxious. We wanted people to understand what we felt, how we were living. And when people are asleep, you have to take drastic measures to wake them up.”
The natural and preferred language of expression was rap: no-fear music, as Bill Stephney says — for rap enthusiasts the truest, most vital form of rock & roll today. “Rock & roll is not a guitar blaring at you,” says Shocklee. “It’s an attitude, a frame of thinking.”
Their frame of thinking was B-boy culture.
“The whole thing about B-boy culture is attitude,” explains Stephney. “If I want to wear shoes, I’ll wear shoes, if I want to wear sneakers, I’ll wear sneakers, if I want to wear a gold chain, I’ll wear that, and if I want to wear a hat upwards or frontwards, I’ll do that, too. We saw [white kids] driving cars and going into clubs wearing sneakers and jeans and dyeing their hair with purple, and we said, ‘Why can’t we live that — that life that’s supposed to be so unique to our society?’ So we decided to do a group like PE and voice some of those concerns.”
The band is marked by Ridenhour’s sense of design. He put together a team — a crew, as the B-boys say — of contrasting images, a political rap group as seen through the eyes of a Marvel Comics illustrator. The four key members — rappers Chuck D. and Flavor Flav, DJ Terminator X and Professor Griff — represent the African American male youth of today broken down into types. Chuck is Everyman, a truth teller, cap drawn to hide the adult forehead and convert his sensitive brown eyes into a menacing visage. Flavor is his sidekick, part fool, part pragmatist, frantic, confused, worried, supplying his leader with surreal images and language off the street — the “cold lamper” singing “live lyrics from da bank of reality.” The sternly militant-looking Norman Rogers — it’s hard to find a photograph in which he doesn’t have his fist in the air — is Terminator X, the DJ who “speaks with his hands” and whose turntable riffs of rhythms and counterrhythms can take the audience to “the edge of panic.”
Griff was the prophet, leading the S1Ws, the Security of the First World — plastic-Uzi-toting, karate-expert disciples of the Nation of Islam who originally served as security for shows and who perform martial-arts exercises, an ironic variation on the synchronized steps of Sixties Motown groups.
Public Enemy’s songs are composed by Ridenhour, Shocklee and programmer Eric Sadler, assisted by Drayton and Rogers. Operating as a team, they create in jam sessions in which records, cassettes, drum machines and all the technology of modern recording serve as the ensemble’s instruments.
“When I listen to albums, I’m listening for snare drums, snare sounds, kick-drum sounds, the style of the beat,” says Shocklee. “I may take beats from three different records and make one beat. It depends on the feeling. Once you get your data together, the feeling takes over. Like, for example, ‘Don’t Believe the Hype.’ We’re listening to the beat. Chuck is just dropping needles and scratching and making a mess. And I’ll say, ‘Hold it, right there, stop it, let’s listen to that, find out where that was.’ Then we’ll make a tape of the sampler, and I’ll say, ‘Yeah, that was all right, but let’s program the beat instead of taking it from the record,’ and Eric will program it. [If] it’s real good, Chuck will take it and say, ‘Yo, I like it.’ Chuck has to like it because he has to perform it.”
What the songwriters look for are def beats — straight-on, jarring, soul-twisting mixes of percussive rhythm. “Rhythm, beat, soul — then next are the lyrics and the meaning,” says Ridenhour. “It has to come across to the masses. Black people cannot feel Tracy Chapman, if they got beat over the head with it 35,000 times. I like to take what Tracy Chapman’s about, but only once my motherfucking funk is in place, because if you don’t have your funk in place, you’re not going to get over to the masses of black people.”
The songwriting team can pile beats on top of one another without fear of losing the lyrics — the message — because of the unique quality of Ridenhour’s voice. A resonant baritone, it has the power, in Shocklee’s words, “to cut through the noise.”
So does the message. At their clearest and cleverest, Public Enemy’s lyrics convert the styles and images of B-boydom — its chest thumping and individualism, posses and Olds 98s — into a radical, black-nationalist anti-authoritarianism. The title song of the first album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, is a B-boy anthem. A breathless monologue broken by choruses of the title words miked, amplified and reverbed over the ominous discord of what sounds like a hundred piano wires cut simultaneously in an echo chamber, it tells the story of a B-boy gatecrashing a nightclub. But the song’s power comes from its metaphoric richness. Shocklee explains: “Bum rushing is a phrase taken from the brothers who are outside the event. They either didn’t want to pay or didn’t have the money to pay and would hang outside and wait for an opportunity to crash. There was one group, and they had a fleet of 98s, and we became friends by first having a confrontation with them.”
Inspired by their former adversaries, the songwriters used bum rushing as an image for their own entry into the music industry; by implication, the song also describes the conditions of black America during the gaudy show of Reagan America. ” ‘Bum Rush the Show,’ ” says Ridenhour, “is about if you can’t get what you want, then you have to get it by any means necessary.”
RHYTHMS AND COUNTERRHYTHMS
Left or right, Black or white
They tell lies in the books
That you’re readin’
It’s knowledge of yourself
That you’re needin’
—”Prophets of Rage”
On its first album, the band deliberately tried to out-noise every other rap group. Wanting to expand the audience it had won, Public Enemy decided to set a new precedent with its second album: speed.
“Most rap records were doing 98 to 100 beats a minute,” says Ridenhour. “We did ‘Bring the Noise’ at 109 beats a minute. At that time it was unheard of.”
With It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Ridenhour established himself as a premier rapper. Cutting through more noise and at a faster clip than before, he mastered the fundamental tension in rap between articulating words and reducing them to rhythmic devices, sounds marking time. Riding the beat — following his own verbal accentuations, rather than simply tracing the music — he displayed a dexterous eloquence, rattling out the lyrics like a flamenco dancer hammering down an intricate pattern or a be-bopper blowing a barrage of notes. Ridenhour’s virtuosity permitted him to express increasingly complex ideas: “Writers treat me like Coltrane, insane/Yes to them, but to me I’m a different kind/We’re brothers of the same mind, unblind/Caught in the middle and/Not surrendering/I don’t rhyme for the sake of riddling.”
The attitudes expressed in the songs also changed; the general antiauthoritarianism of the first album became overtly political on the second. Taunting radio stations to play his record, challenging critics to understand him, Ridenhour urged his listeners to impeach the president (and “zap the next one”), imagined himself leading a jailbreak and associated himself with militant black-liberation leaders.
Not even sympathizers found all of Ridenhour’s attitudes to their liking. His lyrics were unapologetically macho, contemptuous of “hos” and “g’s” and adoring of uniforms, discipline and strength. And he emphasized his association with Farrakhan (“Don’t tell me that you understand/Until you hear the man”). Ridenhour endorsed Farrakhan’s calls for black capitalism and self-improvement; the Black Muslim ideology supplied a moral energy to the verbal denunciations of his songs.
About the persecution of Black Panther leaders, Ridenhour sings: “It was your so-called government/That made this occur/Like the grafted devils they were.” Whites, in Black Muslim theory, are the devil’s creation: animal souls grafted to the bodies of human beings. However offensive that idea might be to whites, in the song the description serves as an artistically vivid, if not biologically accurate, image befitting, say, the Chicago police who machine-gunned to death the sleeping 22-year-old Panther Fred Hampton in 1969: evil creatures, beings outside of nature.
Critics — left, right and center — bemoaned these political impieties. But in a way, the crudeness of the band’s message made its music more interesting, part of the noise, the grit that engaged the listener even at the risk of losing him or her. It helped fulfill Ridenhour’s task as an artist: not to promote a perfect political program but to illuminate and reflect raw feelings and experiences.
THE INCREDIBLE RHYME ANIMAL
Once again, back is the incredible
the rhyme animal
the incredible D, Public Enemy Number One
“Five-O” said “Freeze!” and I got numb
Can I tell ’em I really never had a gun?
— “Bring The Noise”
But there was a problem. Ridenhour didn’t present himself solely as an artist. Talking about the difference between black and white fans of Public Enemy, Ridenhour says, “The whites want to be down … they want an insight on black culture. The blacks are there to say, ‘Where do we go from here? What’s our next move? What’s the next step amongst ourselves to get ourselves together?’ ” Ridenhour was presenting himself as a leader, a prophet.
But what was he calling for? The answer increasingly came not from Ridenhour but from Professor Griff, a short, dour-looking young man who had worked as a DJ for Shocklee and Ridenhour in the old days and was a practicing adherent of the Nation of Islam.
Griff’s role had grown as the band had become famous. Originally, Ridenhour explains, Griff had been brought in to give the group an “edge,” to be the dangerous element in the ensemble, his discipline and stern visage as head of the S1Ws a counterpoint to Flavor Flav’s free-associating party-animal anarchy. Otherwise, his function onstage was minimal. Offstage he served as the source for the band’s historical references — pictures, tapes of speeches and the like — and, on Public Enemy’s last tour, as the group’s road manager.
Now Griff was acting as the band’s political spokesman, second only to Ridenhour. And what Griff said ranged from the foolish to the stupendously stupid. For instance, in a May 1988 interview with England’s Melody Maker, he explained the origins of the phrase monkey’s uncle: “It came from the Caucasian mountains because … that’s who [white people] made it with in the Caucasian hills.” In the same interview he also said political tensions in the Mideast were the aftereffect of slavery, because Jewish people “did the same thing to us. … They tried to sneak into Uganda to take the land…. Idi Amin … said no. He rounded up all these Jews and murdered them, all the black people that sympathized with them, he murdered them, too.” And this: “Who do you think backed Israel when they declared the State of Israel? I’ll tell you. Britain, America, South Africa . . . and Germany. Nazi Germany. Nazi Germany financed it.”
Griff’s abrasive individualism was causing friction among the band members. One source indicates that Griff resented his cameo role, and another says that Ridenhour continually undercut Griff whenever the group was on the road. A year ago the Minister of Information was relieved of his managerial duties. And his off-the-cuff extemporizing threatened not only the success of the band but also the future fortunes of the Shocklee-Stephney-Ridenhour team: Public Enemy was their showcase, their evidence to the record companies that they could produce a black rap band that was managed competently and could meet the challenge of a long career. Single-handedly, Griff was proving them wrong.
As the group’s guiding genius — Lennon and McCartney rolled into one — Ridenhour was the natural person to solve the problem. But Ridenhour’s instincts — so reliable with artistic choices — deserted him here. Ridenhour’s public persona contrasts sharply with his private self. Onstage he appears decisive and defiant, a hell raiser. But in person Ridenhour is very mild-mannered — eager to talk, not fight, more intuitive than willful, a political leader who doesn’t really care much for politics, a man of attitudes, not arguments.
Ridenhour believes the oppression of African Americans is qualitatively different from the suffering of any other group and speaks with passion against the divisiveness of racism. But beyond these convictions lies a fog of ideas, opinions and feelings that are more poetry than program. When Stephney and the group’s publicist, Bill Adler, tried to get Ridenhour to formulate short, quick answers to the bedeviling political questions that reporters liked to ask, Ridenhour resisted. “You’re asking me to be Jesse Jackson,” Adler says Ridenhour complained.
A day spent with Ridenhour reveals his contradictions. Dressed in classic B-boy fashion, with cap, sweat suit and Seventy-sixers jacket, he leaves the wife and child at home, marching around midtown Manhattan fulfilling his business obligations, carrying an attaché case with a faulty clasp, as harried as any salesman rushing from office to office.
“Hey, Chuck!” A fan dressed in a leopard-spotted jumpsuit greets him as he takes a minute to lunch on a knish from a street-corner vendor’s cart.
“Yo, black,” Ridenhour responds. “I like your suit.”
The fan seems moved. “You do?” he says. “That means a lot coming from you, man. Where’s the rest of the crew?”
Several minutes later Ridenhour hopscotches from one CBS executive’s office to another. Rummaging through his Sixers jacket — a cornucopia of scrap paper, his pockets are an 11-year-old’s dream of a walking file cabinet — he finds a transparency and discusses the cover art for the concert video with an art designer. Next Ridenhour goes upstairs to bogart another executive to spend more money on the video.
Finally, Ridenhour stops by the office of Ruben Rodriguez, vice-president of black music for CBS. “You think you can get me the next album in August?” asks Rodriguez, wheedling. “I’d like it in August.” Ridenhour shakes his head no while jotting something down in a flip-top, spiral-bound, dogeared, pocket-size notebook that contains rhymes, stray lyrics, bits of information and titles — the basis of all his songs.
From CBS, Ridenhour goes to Def Jam, charging down the street with the faulty briefcase, talking nonstop all the way, breaking down his vision of the music industry, explaining Public Enemy’s relations with CBS, remembering his own history: “I did my own tour the first time,” he says, meaning that he organized everything. “I had my wife rent a van. I couldn’t because I had no credit. They had beat me because of my school loan — I still owe them money.” If there’s hype in him, it’s too well hidden to find. The B-boy is a mensch, no meshuga star.
TO THE EDGE OF PANIC
If you kill my dog, Ima slay your cat
It’s like that y’all, can you handle it son
—”Terminator X to the Edge of Panic”
For a time these tensions were manageable; they even helped Public Enemy in some way — Griff’s murder mouthing was always good for attracting newspaper copy. But all that changed with the publication of the Washington Times interview.
The story was an accident. David Mills, a general feature writer for the Times, had arranged to talk with Ridenhour when the group was in the capital to do a show. When Ridenhour canceled, Mills spoke to Griff instead. Approximately 40 minutes into the interview, Mills mentioned an antisemitic comment Griff had uttered a few months before on a cable-television show. Instead of backing off, the Minister of Information added fuel to the fire. He told Mills that Jews were responsible for “the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe,” that Jews were “wicked,” and went on to accuse them of having financed the slave trade.
Griff’s comments went beyond even his usual provocations. “I had never seen anything that inflammatory associated with the band before,” says Mills. “You don’t even see anything that inflammatory being attributed to Louis Farrakhan.”
Mills, knowing he had a good story, played portions of the interview to Adler for comment. The band responded by inviting Mills to its Hempstead, Long Island, studio, where members of the S1Ws talked to the reporter.
“We sat down with Mills for hours,” says Shocklee. “We told him that [Griff’s comments] were not in line with Public Enemy’s goals.”
Mills, who tape-recorded most of the meeting, remembers it differently. “They believe what Griff says,” he insists about the S1Ws. “It’s part of their belief system. Their argument to me was that it was the wrong time to bring this up. They didn’t disassociate themselves from anything that Griff said. None of them said anything Griff said was wrong.”
Ridenhour also contacted Mills by telephone. In the past he had defended Griff, saying the Minister of Information had been quoted out of context or had spoken out of turn or, simply, had read books and was speaking the truth; his unyielding adherence to Griff mystified many friends and admirers who could not understand Griff’s hold over Ridenhour. In his conversation with Mills, Ridenhour again tried to justify Griff’s remarks with elaborate explanations.
Certainly, no member of the group instinctively repudiated Griff for what he had said. “No,” Shocklee replies when asked if he understands why people reacted so critically to the quotes. “Because I’m not Jewish. And it’s just like you don’t understand why blacks didn’t get mad [at Griff’s comments]. There are just a lot of things we don’t understand about each other. I’m trying to deal with them. I see where Griff went wrong in making those statements.”
Mills’s interview with Griff, published on May 22nd, instantly attracted attention, partly because Mills promoted the story to national publications. Shortly thereafter, the Jewish Defense Organization (JDO) — a militant group that claims a membership of 3,000 — announced a boycott of Public Enemy. Mordechai Levy, its main spokesman, said the JDO was going to “break PE in half.” This threat was more bluster than anything else. Adler received two calls from wholesalers saying they were refusing to sell Public Enemy’s records; the identifications left by both callers proved fictitious. (Levy was later arrested after shooting at the leader of the rival Jewish Defense League.)
Nor was there any evidence of a negative reaction from record-company executives as a result of the interview. Indeed, the response was a deafening silence. “One thing that’s very disturbing,” says Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Foundation, who monitored the drama, “is the apparent initial silence of people in the music and entertainment industry who have sometimes led the way in other important issues.”
Still, at the time, the group took the JDO and its threat of a boycott seriously. Ridenhour, Shocklee and Stephney worried about the repercussions of the interview on their future. Shocklee says they were concerned that their negotiations for a production deal would fall apart. “Everything was in jeopardy,” he says. “Spike Lee’s movie was in jeopardy. Russell Simmons [the head of Def Jam] had accounts that were in jeopardy.” They were also worried about people’s personal safety. “The people we worked with were receiving lots of threats,” recalls Shocklee. “My studio, Griff’s mother… Chuck’s mother. It got really nasty.”
The threats and silence combined for the worst possible effect. The fact that the people Ridenhour respected let the interview pass without comment made him underestimate the effect of Griff’s remarks; the threat of a boycott stiffened his resolve to resist any pressure. A public display of loyalty became more important than rejection of prejudice. “Chuck used to call for a raised-fist mentality,” says Stephney. “You know, like the Olympic athletes in 1968.” Ridenhour couldn’t decide what to do. In one telephone conversation with a reporter, he said in quick succession that he couldn’t let Griff go, might demote him and was worried that if he dismissed Griff, fans in Europe and throughout the black community would be angry.
Without Ridenhour’s leadership, everyone was stalled. “It’s Chuck’s group,” says Stephney. “They were waiting for him to take the lead, and he wouldn’t.”
After two weeks the whole band convened for an all-nighter at the Hempstead recording studio.
“The first thing was to make the group understand what was wrong with what Griff said,” remembers Stephney. “I don’t think this had ever been said. It was ‘Let them come and get us, we’ll put out records under other names on every corner in the black community’ — stuff that’ll never happen.” Griff apologized to the group, saying that his statements were wrong, that he could have spoken better and that he had been feeling badly about the band that day — a reference to his punctured ego as a result of his diminished role.
But even after this marathon gathering, Ridenhour still couldn’t decide on a clear course of action. Perhaps, he suggested to Stephney, he would suspend Griff, a move Stephney thought would be a step in the right direction. The decision came too late. In the June 20th Village Voice, columnist R.J. Smith reprinted the most damaging sections of Mills’s interview with Griff. “I thought the interview was news,” says Smith. (The Voice had been the group’s most vocal champion in the white press; It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back had topped the newspaper’s 1988 national critics’ poll.) After Smith’s reprint of Griff’s ravings, Ridenhour decided to respond publicly.
Early the next week, Ridenhour called a press conference at a downtown-New York hotel to announce Griff was being fired. Sitting at a desk, ever-present cap obscuring his eyes, he read a statement written by him and edited by Stephney.
“The black community is in crisis,” Ridenhour said. “Our mission as musicians is to address these problems…. Griff’s comments are not in line. We are not anti-Jewish. We are pro-black and pro-human-race. Griff was to transmit these values. He sabotaged this. We tried to deal with Professor Griff internally, but we couldn’t.”
For the mainstream press, Ridenhour’s performance was persuasive. New York Newsday ran an editorial praising the group. “I have to say for the record that Chuck D. did the right thing and made the right comments,” says Rabbi Cooper of the Wiesenthal Foundation. “I can’t point to a parallel action.”
But Ridenhour was less impressed with himself.
“He stalked back to the room and kicked over furniture and was cursing,” says Bill Adler. “He said, ‘I’ve been played for a sucker. I should have dealt with this internally.'”
Within the next 36 hours, Ridenhour decided to break up the band — “We came in together, and we’ll go out together,” he told Adler — then reformed it, declaring that the group would boycott the music industry because CBS Records was refusing to release Fear of a Black Planet. The statement took one spokeswoman at the group’s studio by surprise: She was unaware the album had even been recorded.
Well I’m all in — put it up
On the board
Another rapper shot down from the
Mouth that roared
— “Public Enemy No. 1”
Shortly after the press conference, Ridenhour and Shocklee wrote a statement condemning Griff for sabotaging the group, indicating it was for this reason, rather than for his remarks, that he had been dropped.
“Dissension inside the group caused disfavor for Professor Griff, and he dropped his guards and made statements that he knew would cause destruction for Public Enemy…. We have a certain strategy to raise the black youth through the media of records and mass communication…. We’re not anti-anyone, anti-white, or anti any religion. This policy is set by the leadership… and… anytime… a subordinate goes against that policy then that… is considered sabotage. Intentional sabotage is the worst crime to any organization.”
But the statement wasn’t released. (Shortly after the press conference, the band declared a “media silence.”) Reports about the group since then have sketched a troubled aftermath.
“The whole situation was rocky,” says one member of the band. “Every hour something was happening. Chuck went through a lot of pressure. I don’t think any human being could ever go through the pressure he [did]. It was so demanding; it was pulling at him from all sides.”
Throughout the summer the status of the group changed almost daily. In early July, it was rumored Griff was being reinstated. Then, at the end of the month, Shocklee said that the band was on an “extended hiatus,” that it would start work on the new record soon and that Griff wasn’t part of the band. Then on August 8th, Ridenhour released a statement saying Public Enemy was back in action with James Norman, an S1W, as the new Minister of Information and Griff as the Supreme Allied Chief of Community Relations. Fear of a Black Planet would be released in the winter.
In early September, Griff excoriated Ridenhour, Stephney and Shocklee as “weak-kneed Negroes” on the New York radio station WLIB, yet Ridenhour and Griff appeared onstage together several days later at a Public Enemy concert. At press time, there were reports that Shocklee and Stephney were about to sign a production deal with MCA and that Shocklee was working with Ridenhour cutting tracks for the third album.
Speaking before the controversy over Griff had occurred, Shocklee had said Public Enemy’s next album was going to represent the future, “the distant future, somewhere around what things might be like in the year 3000. It’s not going to be a sci-fi situation, not at all. It’s going to be very true, down to earth, very realistic, keeping in mind the path that we are going on right now. It might be grim, but it might be so grim that you might see hope out of the grim. You know in order for us to be here [on earth] there had to be an incredible explosion. And explosions are bad. But what happens after the explosion — the only thing that can happen is something good to come out of it.”
One hopes so, But for now, neither the band nor its founders nor its brilliant leader can do what made them famous: cut through the noise.