In 1986, the founder of Def Jam Recordings, Rick Rubin, in cooperation with Bill Stephney, signed an MC named Carlton "Chuck D" Ridenhour to his label. Said MC came up with a plan, that involved combining politically charged lyrics with hard-hitting productions. To that end, he formed Public Enemy with his two friends, hype-man William "Flavor Flav" Drayton and DJ Norman "Terminator X" Rogers, with the production crew known as the Bomb Squad (Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee, and Eric Sadler) to produce their albums. The result is one of the most highly regarded hip-hop groups of all time.
The hallmarks of Public Enemy's style are the interplay between Chuck D's sociopolitical diatribes (delivered in a booming, large hammy voice) and Flavor Flav's comic relief humour (high-pitched squealing) and The Bomb Squad's dense, innovative productions, incorporating many samples at once, and even harsh, unmusical sounds.
Their first three albums often appear on lists of the best hip-hop albums of all time.
Public Enemy members:
- Chuck D (Carlton Ridenhour) - rapping
- Flavor Flav (William Drayton) - hype man, comic relief
- Terminator X (Norman Rodgers) - DJ, scratching, production
The Bomb Squad members:
- Hank Shocklee (James Boxley)
- Keith Shocklee (Keith Boxley)
- Chuck D (Carlton Ridenhour, sometimes credited as "Carl Ryder")
- Eric "Vietnam" Sadler
- Gary G-Wiz (Gary Rinaldo)
Additional fringe contributors:
- Bill Stephney - bass, guitars, additional production and mixing on Yo! Bum Rush the Show
- Steve Linsley - bass, mixing on Yo! Bum Rush the Show
- Johnny Rosado - scratching on Yo! Bum Rush the Show and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
- DJ Lord - replacement DJ after Terminator X left in 1999
- Professor Griff (Richard Griffin) - Minister of Information, who was forced out of the band from 1989 to 1998 after being accused of anti-semitism
- Harry Allen - journalist, "media assassin"
- Security of the First World
- 1987 - Yo! Bum Rush the Show
- 1988 - It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
- 1990 - Fear of a Black Planet
- 1991 - Apocalypse 91... The Enemy Strikes Black
- 1994 - Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age
- 1998 - He Got Game
- 1999 - There's a Poison Goin' on
- 2002 - Revolverlution
- 2005 - New Whirl Odor
- 2006 - Rebirth of a Nation (featuring Paris)
- 2007 - How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul?
- 2012 - Most of My Heroes Still Don't Appear on No Stamps
- 2012 - The Evil Empire of Everything
- 2015 - Man Plans God Laughs
- 2017 - Nothing Is Quick in the Desert
- 2020 - What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down?
Yo! Bum Rush the Tropes:
- Album Title Drop: From "Party for Your Right to Fight":"But it's proven and fact
And it takes a nation of millions to hold us back".
"Muse Sick In Hour Mess Age"
- From "Live and Undrugged Pts. 1 and 2":
"New Whirl Odor, doesn't need us"
- From "MKLVFKWR"note
"Most of my heroes still don't appear on no stamp, so I rant"
- From "Get Up, Stand Up":
- Alcohol-Induced Idiocy: "One Million Bottlebags"
- Alliterative Title: "How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul?"
- Arc Words: "Public Enemy Number One" and "Bring the Noise" are all over their work.
- Audience Participation Song: Many of the interludes and introductions on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back were recorded during their 1987 UK tour.
- Bigot with a Badge: While the original version of "Fight the Power" touched on this, its 2020 remix, recorded in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the worldwide protests that followed, made it more explicit with new verses from Nas, Rapsody, Black Thought, and others criticizing police brutality and prejudiced cops, particularly the ones complicit in Floyd's death.
- Black Gal on White Guy Drama: The first verse of "Pollywannacracka".
- Call-Back: Most of My Heroes Still Don't Appear on No Stamps references a line from "Fight the Power".
- The Cameo: Not one you'd usually expect... Stephen Stills doing guest vocals on "He Got Game" (which samples "For What It's Worth").
- Catchphrase: "Yeeaaaaaah boooooyeeeee!!!!"
- Cloudcuckoolander: Flavor Flav with his bizarre antics.
- Concept Album: Most of their albums deal with the problems faced by the black community in the USA and the government's oppression.
- Concept Video: "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" depicts Chuck and a few of his compatriots escaping from a prison.
- Courtroom Episode: "Caught, Can We Get a Witness?" is framed in a courtroom setting, complete with banging gavel at the beginning.
- Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Flavor Flav, especially in recent years, seems more like a caricature of a rapper than a genuine MC. But he is by all accounts a very intelligent guy, and plays fifteen instruments. This made Terminator X's job easier because instead of looking for certain samples, Flav could just play them and X would use his recording.
- Department of Redundancy Department: The album title How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul?
- Downer Ending: If it's a Concept Video from PE telling a story, it usually ends this way.
- "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" & "Hazy Shade of Criminal": The protagonist is executed.
- "Can't Truss It": A black man is hanged and another is out of a job (the video has a past/present Two Lines, No Waiting scenario).
- "Brothers Gonna Work It Out": A group of young, energetic activists bring their petition to the authorities... only to have the authorities send it straight to the trash can.
- Drugs Are Bad: "Megablast", "Night of the Living Baseheads".
- Early Installment Weirdness: Yo! Bum Rush the Show can throw people off if they hear it after the later material... in fact, you hardly ever hear Chuck rapping about sex:Chuck D (from "Timebomb"): I'll be the burger, you can be the bun, girl!
- Funetik Aksent: The Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age title ("music and our message"). While done for impact, it still makes some sense.
- The Golden Age of Hip Hop
- Iconic Item: Flavor Flav and his giant clock medallions. To a lesser extent, his Viking helmet.
- Image Song: you could make an argument for "Bring the Noise".
- In the Style of...: the "Bring the Noise" collaboration with Anthrax on Apocalypse 91.
- Done once again recently with "Bring the Noise 20XX", a new mix featuring Zakk Wylde on guitar (and half of the original lyrics), featured on Guitar Hero 5.
- Kent Brockman News: The video for "Night of the Living Baseheads" is set up as a newscast. Flavor Flav is one of the anchors for the fictional PETV, comedian Chris Thomas and rapper MC Lyte are field reporters, and Chuck D is the subject of a kidnapping. The video doesn't take itself too seriously, as judged by the "Beeper Tie" commercial.
- Large Ham: Chuck D.
- List Song: Where to start...
- The Load: Less charitable interpretations of Flavor Flav cast him as this.
- Maligned Mixed Marriage: The 'maligned' part of this trope is heavily criticized in "Fear of a Black Planet."
I try to tell my people
- "Pollywannacracka" discusses this trope, and ends with the following verse:
There should not be any hatred
For a brother or a sister
Whose opposite race they've mated
Cause no man is God
And God put us all here (yeah)
But this system has no wisdom
The devil split us in pairs
- Murder Ballad: "By The Time I Get To Arizona", arguably a Sequel Song to "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos".
- Non-Appearing Title:
- "Sophisticated Bitch" (the closest it comes is "the bitch got a problem cuz she thinks she's so sophisticated").
- "Terminator X To The Edge Of Panic" (Flav goes "take 'em to the edge of panic" near the end)
- "Cold Lampin' With Flavor"
- "Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos"
- "Revolutionary Generation"
- Performance Video
- Precision F-Strike: The only vulgarities on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back are in "Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos", "Terminator X To The Edge Of Panic" and "Rebel Without A Pause" ("I see you pissin' in your pants, you're scared of dissin' us").
- Protest Song: Almost their entire output.
- The Quiet One: Terminator X was a man of few words, offering no vocal contributions on the albums (in fact, the final track on Yo Bum Rush The Show is called "Terminator X Speaks With His Hands") and not speaking much, if at all, during group interviews.
- Questioning Title?: How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul?, "She Watch Channel Zero!?", What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down?...
- Pun-Based Title:
- Rap Metal: "Bring The Noize" (with Anthrax), "She Watch Channel Zero!?" (sampling Slayer's "Angel of Death" from Reign in Blood), "Sophisticated Bitch" (guitar played by Living Colour's Vernon Reid).
- Another version of "Bring the Noise" was later made, this time featuring Zakk Wylde.
- Rated M for Manly
- Repurposed Pop Song: "Harder Than You Think" was used by the UK's Channel 4 to advertise their coverage of The Paralympic Games. Today, it's the theme to The Last Leg, which started as a show covering the Paralympics.
- Shout-Out: In the song "Bring the Noise", they name drop rap artists Eric B, LL Cool J, RunD.M.C., as well as non-rap artists Sonny Bono, Yoko Ono, and Anthrax.
- In "Burn Hollywood Burn", which is a Take That! towards racist Hollywood movies, Big Daddy Kane is heard saying "Yo, I've got Black Caesar back at the crib", indicating that Larry Cohen's independent film starring Fred Williamson (considered a classic of the Blaxploitation genre) is a more dignified portrayal of black characters, as it doesn't feature its black cast being denigrated to butlers, slaves or "jigaboos". The same song also proclaims "lets make our own movies like Spike Lee".
- Stage Names
- STD Immunity: Averted in the brief but Aesop-laced "Meet Tha G That Killed Me".
- Straight Man and Wise Guy: Chuck D and Flavor Flav, respectively.
- Take That!:
- A certain infamous line in "Fight the Power".note While they eventually softened on their view on Elvis Presley, their stance on John Wayne rightfully remains just as much "up yours" as ever.note
- "Amerikan Gangster" is a big one towards Gangsta Rap and Glam Rap, done in the style of said genres.
- "Burn Hollywood Burn", towards racist portrayals of black characters in Hollywood cinema, particularly films that have blacks portrayed as servants/slaves or engaging in Uncle Tomfoolery. In particular, Driving Miss Daisy is criticized as a "bullshit" movie.
- "Hitler Day". Nope, not aimed at Der Fuhrer himself, but Christopher Columbus and his alleged atrocities. And they sum it up by saying that Columbus Day "is as crazy as Hitler Day".
- Any references in the It Takes A Nation album to "Honeydrippers" are aimed at the seminal funk band most famous for their "Impeach the President" single, and not the Robert Plant side project from The '80s.
- Three Chords and the Truth: Okay, okay, the correct term would be "Three thousand samples and the truth".
- Title-Only Chorus: "Give It Up", "Fight the Power", "Can't Truss It"
- Worst Aid: "911 Is a Joke"
- You Watch Too Much X: Replace "X" with "daytime TV", and you have the general gist of "She Watch Channel Zero?!"
Fifty-three brothers on the run... and we are gone!