The Lineup

Public Enemy

Long Island, NY

To call Public Enemy “the most influential rap group who ever lived” would still be underestimating their importance.

With the release of 1988’s landmark It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, Public Enemy was the acidic punk band throwing three-minute Molotovs at racist cops and misguided music critics; they were the mosh-worthy rock group bringing unparalleled levels of noise and grit; they were the avant-garde collective distending and layering samples in tangled ways that no one had done before and no one has done since; they were an electronic group that found new ways to rattle and groove; they were a political engine that energized the rap generation and exposed suburban teenagers to pro-Black politics.

But, first and foremost, they were a rap group. Or, maybe even, the rap group—probably the best, certainly the most outspoken. Public Enemy was the trailblazing, de facto leader of the late-’80s hip-hop nation, the time when rap’s ability to both provoke and inspire were first sweeping headlines and the Billboard charts. With his severe tone and library of soundbites, Chuck D remains one of popular music’s most gifted orators, a neverending stream of knotty wordplay and arresting agitprop booming from a stentorian baritone. Sidekick Flavor Flav practically invented the hip-hop hypeman, a caffeinated voice of support, energy, comic relief and unpredictability. Original DJ Terminator X was as influential to scratching as Eddie Van Halen was to riffing, though current tablist DJ Lord brings his own level of virtuosic, effortless intensity. The S1W’s are a camouflaged security force strapped with plastic Uzis and sober looks, and during the ’80s hip-hop panic, they scared paranoid parents way better and smarter than Marilyn Manson.

What’s more, Public Enemy’s 1990 album Fear Of A Black Planet was possibly sample-based music’s crowning achievement. The four-man production team known as the Bomb Squad volleyed an art-splatter of hundreds of record snippets colliding in a cyclonic swirl. Follow-up, Apocalypse ’91… The Enemy Strikes Black, was a bruising headbanger that helped invent rap-rock for better or worse. By the late ’90s, they were one of the very first music groups anywhere to fully embrace the power of releasing music in MP3 format. And though they’ve slogged through a few changes in producers and record labels, every album in their catalog (currently standing at 11 strong) refuses to waver from their original bottom line of radical politics, blistering beats and power-to-the-people rhetoric.

Chuck celebrated his 50th birthday this summer, and anyone who saw Public Enemy's monumental Nation Of Millions 20th anniversary tour knows that they still carry more sweat and chaos than rappers half their age. Clear the way for the prophets of rage. —Christopher R. Weingarten