Behind the Band Name: Public Enemy

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The origins of Public Enemy are rooted in the United States Constitution of 1789.

“The United States Constitution once considered black people to be three-fifths of a human being,” said founding member Chuck D. “If this is a public document, obviously we must be the enemy, so that’s where the name Public Enemy came from.”

Underdogs and Enemies

Initially, early Public Enemy producer and co-writer, Hank Shocklee, came up with the name Public Enemy, following a string of racially charged and violent events in New York City.

Chuck D (Carlton Douglas Ridenhour) and Flavor Flav (William Jonathan Drayton Jr.) adopted the name based on the racial issues of the day, saying “the black man is definitely the public enemy.”

Racial Violence in NYC

Around the time Public Enemy was forming in the early 1980s, Michael Stewart was killed following his arrest for writing graffiti on a New York City Subway wall in 1983. In 1984, Bernhard Goetz shot four young black men on a New York City Subway after they allegedly tried to rob him.

On Dec. 20, 1986, three black men were severely beaten by a group of white teenagers yelling racial slurs at them in the predominantly white, middle-class section of Howard Beach, New York, resulting in the death of 23-year-old Michael Griffith.

Public Enemy #1: The Early Days

In the early 1980s, Chuck D and Flavor Flav met while in college at Adelphi University in Long Island City, New York. D hosted a hip-hop radio program at the school’s radio station and soon the two started rapping together, releasing two songs, “Check Out the Radio” and “Lies,” under the name Chuck D and Spectrum City in 1982.

By 1985, the two worked on a track that D and Hank Shocklee co-wrote called “Public Enemy #1.” Initially, the song was a response to other rappers in the local music scene who were against D and later appeared on Public Enemy’s 1987 debut album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show.

Bill Stephney, who would later go on to work at Def Jam, was the former program director at Chuck D’s college radio station and later formed a production team. Working alongside the writing team The Bomb Squad—which also consisted of Stephney, along with Eric Sadler, brothers Keith and Hank Shocklee, and Gary Rinaldo—D and Flav pulled in rapped Professor Griff and DJ Terminator X to officially round out Public Enemy in 1986.

In 1986, Rick Rubin, who recently launched Def Jam Records, signed Public Enemy. A year later they released Yo! Bum Rush the Show, followed by the more socially and politically charged It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back in 1988, featuring the hit “Bring the Noise” and 1990 follow Fear of a Black Planet, birthing the still-resonant anthem “Fight the Power.” In 1991, Public Enemy released the third part of a powerhouse trifecta of platinum albums with Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Back.

Between 1994 and 2020, Public Enemy released 11 more albums, as well as a soundtrack to the 1998 Spike Lee film, He Got Game. In 2013, Public Enemy (Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Terminator X, and Professor Griff) became the fourth hip-hop group to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Spanning their 40-year career, Public Enemy were fighting the powers that be in their music, protesting racial polarization and the incessant division of black and white.

Their 2020 album, What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down? featured an “ode” to the former Trump administration “State of the Union (STFU).” Released 30 years after Fear of a Black Planet, D said the battle is still the same.

“With a song or a song title, you have to grab people immediately,” D told American Songwriter in 2020. “What I wanted to do with the entire album [‘Grid’] is just use the platform of music, or recording or releasing an album to ask the question.” 

Photos: Eitan Miskevich / Grandstand Media

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