Public Enemy was formed by Carlton Ridenhour and William Drayton in 1982 while they were both studying at Adelphi University, New York. Majoring in graphic design and communications respectively, they created one of the most recognisable and influential hip hop acts of all time.
Their rich social agenda encompassed blackenomics, sexism, racial profiling, and represented the frustrations of a young black population in a white dominated society. These messages were delivered utilising a powerful multifaceted approach, which clearly linked and amplified both their message and their brand. This was done using an unprecedented mix of raw musical talent (Drayton was a self-taught child prodigy), strong contrasting characters (Ridenhour’s strong and serious Chuck D vs Drayton’s flippant jester Flavor Flav), and a clearly articulated social agenda.
Their dancers (Security of the 1st World, or S1W) set the tone in para-military style uniforms and carrying fake plastic Uzis, a clever tongue-in-cheek portrayal of a strong, intelligent black community made to feel like Public Enemy number 1 by white America.
I was introduced to Public Enemy when I was 8. Hip-hop of the era had a poor reputation in my Australian white middle class existence. NWA cast a long shadow, especially in the media, portraying hip-hop as a culture that expressly glorified violence, drug use and the objectification of women. This played a major part in music video programs being banned from my family TV.
Watching the Spike Lee directed film clip for Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” at a friend’s house, my young self was overwhelmed by their catchy music while also being intimidated by the obvious anger in the delivery of the lyrics and the presence of para-military types dancing. Their logo was a person in gun sights. Their message was racial in tone and angry…was the person in gun sights white?!
This clear and clever branding was perceived by many in the white community as literal, which had the effect of turning large swathes of the white controlled press against them. To their young, angry and proud black fan base, this only further amplified their message.
My young eyes and ears were confused. Was this a Black Panther movement? I understood the rudiments of American racial history, but this was a historic thing, surely, in a progressive city like New York? I saw no racism (or let’s face it, many people who weren’t white) in my day to day life so racism didn’t exist for me. Enjoying the music but intimidated by apparently violent black supremacy, I wore a gifted Public Enemy hat for a few years and didn’t think much more of it.
That changed recently due to a newfound interest in the roots of modern hip-hop. I listened to Public Enemy again, for the first time with grown up ears. I was blown away by the contrast between my nascent perceptions of their message and the reality. There are songs about racial inclusion and gender equality lovingly expressed with powerful vocalisations and ground breaking production.
Public Enemy will now always be one of my favourite groups, not just because of their funky beats and laudable social message, but also because their music will forever remind me to look deeper into cultures and messages I don’t understand.