What You're Not Listening To

What You're Not Listening To

When Public Enemy Were The Most Dangerous Band In The World

February 08, 2020

The group that changed Hip Hop forever when many in the industry were about to declare it dead by the end of the 1980’s. #publicenemy #hiphop #BHM2020

By the end of the 1980’s, it had almost seemed that the dream of a new type of urban music, Hip-Hop, had run its course. Albums by major artists at the time, including Run-DMC and Whodini, had been met with less than stellar sales and ever diminished expectations. Hip Hop was considered a minor genre, one that was about to run itself into history.

Part of this was due to the industry itself. Hip Hop, at the time, was by and large party music. After the ugly crash of Disco music at the end of the 1970’s, where major music labels lost truckloads of money on a scene that had experienced a less-than subtle racist, homophobic and misogynist backlash from white Rock fans, insiders were hesitant to spend money on music they believed could not “cross over”, especially from music that came from major cities by African-American artists.

(l-r) Flavor Flav, director Spike Lee and Chuck D. during the “Fight The Power” video shoot, New York City, 1989. Image courtesy of Getty Images.

Unlike today, where many Hip-Hop acts are attached to one of the three major labels left, the scene was birthed from minor, independent and regional labels, much like R&B and Rock and Roll were in the 1950’s. Within these labels grew entire new breeding grounds of sound that spoke to the very people in those regional areas: Hip Hop wasn’t just party music, but became, in the words of Public Enemy’s Chuck D., “Black people’s CNN.”

Leading the way was Public Enemy, started by Carlton Ridenhour (Chuck D) and William Drayton (Flavor Flav), who met while students at Adelphi University. Their first recordings stood out among the pack, not just being the traditional MC battles, but overtly political songs as well. They were signed to Def Jam, an independent, New York-based label founded by Rick Rubin, who had found fame with LL Cool J and distribution by one one of the biggest names in the music world, Columbia.

“Music and art and culture is escapism…sometimes is healthy for people to get away from reality. The problem is when they stay there.”Chuck D., vocalist and lyricist, Public Enemy

By the time of their second full-length LP, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, the template was set, the die was cast and all of a sudden, music journalists at major at influential media outlets took notice of this new band who were saying things no one had been saying for almost 20 years. Politics in music at the time was considered a career-killer, but this group, along with their DJ, Terminator X and the greatest production team assembled since Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, The Bomb Squad, they were making some of the most important and exciting music of any act anywhere.

Album cover for Sister Soulja’s sole LP, with its harrowing image of a black mother holding her dead child, a scene that still plays out almost daily almost 28 years later in the U.S. 1992, courtesy of Def Jam Records.

After their career-defining single “Fight The Power” in 1989 and their career-defining LP in 1990, Fear of A Black Planet were released, the white power establishment were not just afraid, they were down right terrified. Here was a group of Black people speaking the truth to power and getting more and more people to not only listen, but openly support them. They endured a few major public embarrassments during this time as well, with the poor handling of Terminator X’s anti-Semitism, but rebounded in spectacular fashion. They even recruited a new member,