A Dozen Pivotal Moments in the 30 Year Career of Public Enemy


Hard to believe, but Public Enemy–which headlines Irving Plaza tonight as part of the “Hip-Hop Gods Tour”–is celebrating 30 years of existence this year. As the late Adam Yauch once wrote of the rap icons: “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 political and social message. But where Marley’s music sweetly lures you in, then sneaks in the message, Chuck D grabs you by the collar and makes you listen.” In honor of tonight’s show, and PE’s 30th anniversary, here are a dozen pivotal moments from the group’s illustrious history.

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1. Though Long Island native Chuck D. had first put an early incarnation of PE together in 1982 and started releasing tapes and performing around New York City in the mid ’80s–before opening for the Beastie Boys during their License to Ill tour–the first glimpse most of America got of Chuck’s commanding stage presence and Flavor Flav’s hyper clowning was when they appeared on Soul Train at the end of 1987, performing “Rebel Without a Pause.” “That was frightening,” said uncharacteristically flustered host Don Cornelius after the group wrapped it up. He then conducted a brief, awkward, and hilarious interview with PE about their beginnings in Long Island. Flav, of course, stole the show.

2. Public Enemy’s 1987 debut LP, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, was a hit with the critics (over in England, it topped NME‘s year-end critics poll in ’87)–though it didn’t do much commercially–but it wasn’t until the following year’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back that PE really hit in the U.S. both critically and sales-wise. Nation of Millions topped the 1988 Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics Poll. Noted Robert Christgau in his accompanying P&J essay: “If Farrakhan’s a prophet my dick’s bigger than Don Howland’s, but that doesn’t make Nation of Millions anything less than the bravest and most righteous experimental pop of the decade.”

3. Public Enemy’s status as the most important new development in hip-hop–and a cultural force beyond the boundaries of the rap music world–was solidified when “Fight the Power” became not only the theme song but the central message of Spike Lee’s explosive, galvanizing 1989 film Do the Right Thing.

4. While riding high on their initial wave of success, PE sideman and “Minister of Information” Professor Griff was interviewed by the Washington Times in 1989 and dropped several verbal bombs, including his infamous statement that Jews are responsible for “the majority of wickedness that goes on around the globe.” After a firestorm of criticism, Chuck D. kicked Griff out of the group. Still, the charges of anti-Semitism dogging PE didn’t stop there. At the end of ’89, PE issued their new single “Welcome to the Terrordome,” which addressed the Griff controversy through the lines “Crucifixion ain’t no fiction/So-called chosen frozen/Apology made to who ever pleases/Still they got me like Jesus.” Even Def Jam founder Russell Simmons, speaking to The New York Times, was hesitant to back the sentiment: ”They’re not great lines, and I’m not happy about it. But he was frustrated and that’s what he wanted to say. I’m not defending everything he’s saying, but chopping people’s records up is not what I do. And in the end, Public Enemy has done a lot more good than harm.”

5. In 1991, PE boycotted the 33rd annual Grammy Awards in solidarity with Russell Simmons, who was angry that the award for Best Rap Performance By a Duo or Group wasn’t going to be presented during the telecast, saying that it amounted to “the same old broken-record snub of inner-city contributions to the music industry.” PE lost out to Quincy Jones in the category that year; the previous year, 1990, Young M.C.’s “Bust a Move” bested “Fight the Power” for the award, and in 1992, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s “Summertime” topped PE’s Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black in the same category.

6. Although Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C. helped pioneer the fusion of rock and rap in 1986 with “Walk This Way,” it was arguably much cooler, certainly more street, when Public Enemy and Anthrax teamed up in 1991 for a new version of PE’s 1987 single “Bring the Noise.” The only downside, of course, is that the collaboration probably helped pave the way for the hideous rap-metal movement that took hold the following decade.

7. In the smash 1991 film Terminator 2, “John Connor”–played by Edward Furlong–sports a Public Enemy t-shirt during the entirety of the film.

8. In 1990, Arizona voters rejected the establishment of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday in the state. A few years earlier, then-governor Evan Mecham had said “I guess King did a lot for the colored people, but I don’t think he deserves a national holiday.” Infuriated, PE recorded the hard-hitting “By the Time I Get To Arizona” for Apocalypse 91–and an equally memorable video–which helped stoke the backlash and boycott against Arizona over their resistance to MLK Day until two years later when state voters finally approved the holiday.

9. Though by the late ’90s PE’s mainstream commercial success was waning, in 1998 the group sampled Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” for their hit “He Got Game” (their theme to Spike Lee’s basketball drama of the same name, starring Denzel Washington)–and got Stephen Stills to sing the chorus on the track–and somehow managed to make it all sound cool.

10. In 2004, with PE’s future very much in doubt, Flavor Flav took to the airwaves to star in Season 3 of VH1’s reality show The Surreal Life, during which he fell in love with actress Brigitte Nielsen. Their completely baffling yet oddly touching relationship led to a spin-off reality series, Strange Love, in 2005, after which Flav spent a few seasons looking for love on Flavor of Love, which aired from 2006-2008. None of that sat particularly well with Chuck D., who called Strange Love “Flavploitation,” saying that Flav’s “character and private issues are being trashed in front of millions for mere sake of profit and ratings,” though he added that Flav’s participation in the shows was ultimately his own decision.

11. Left virtually for dead critically and commercially, PE returned with a great album–easily their best album since Apocalypse 91–in 2007 when they issued their tenth LP, How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul? Noted critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine in his review: “What’s remarkable about How You Sell is how PE grows and matures without abandoning their core identity, proving that it’s possible to age as a rap group without turning into an embarrassment. And even if PE doesn’t pack the same kind of commercial punch as it used to, it’s hard to call an album this spirited and alive irrelevant.”

12. Last month, Public Enemy was nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2013. They seem like a lock, but if they’re not selected for induction when the announcement is made next month, throwing garbage cans through windows might be the only appropriate response.

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