Public Enemy makes Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
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Public Enemy's Chuck D. doesn't spend much time dwelling in the past. He's too busy building the future.
Ask him about the Roosevelt hip-hop group's accomplishments since its debut in 1987, and he says, "So much has been done, so much left to do."
Ask music historians, though, and the list quickly gets impressive -- from introducing political protest into hip-hop, pioneering sampling and production to influence hip-hop's sound for generations, and playing a major role in the creation of rap-metal. And that doesn't even take into account the quality of Public Enemy's creations, which include arguably the best hip-hop album of all time, 1988's "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back," and hip-hop's best song, 1989's "Fight the Power."
All of that should come up this week, as Public Enemy -- rappers Chuck D. and Flavor Flav, DJ Terminator X and Minister of Information Professor Griff -- get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility. However, most of that talk will come from others, including Harry Belafonte and Spike Lee, who will induct them into the Rock Hall.
"When you're looking at a band or group or artist who gets in on the first ballot, you're looking at an artist who changed the landscape," says Jason Hanley, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's director of education. "You're talking about somebody who's made enough of an impact that everybody has to stand up and recognize it immediately. That's not to say that people who don't get inducted right away aren't great artists who changed things, but Public Enemy is a group that really changed things a lot."
Of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 279 artists, only 36 were inducted in their first year of eligibility -- including The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, U2 and Madonna. Public Enemy belongs in that company.
"Their sound was so new," Hanley says. "Hank Shocklee and The Bomb Squad were doing their sound, and it was a sound that was designed to be noise in its truest sense . . . the music was going to be loud, it was going to be aggressive. It was going to use samples in a way nobody had ever done before -- layering all these things on top of each other in a jumble, in a good way, in a way that was going make you have to listen to it. It sounded different. It sounded noisy, but it was meant to be political noise as well. The words Chuck D. was speaking, the rhymes that he was rapping, they were meant to get at issues of race, of class, of all these things in American society that people talked about behind closed doors."
Public Enemy had a sound that demanded attention.
Run-DMC's DMC told the BBC that when he first heard Public Enemy's music, when the group was doing a radio show at Adelphi University's WBAU, he described it like "God has come down from heaven to rock the mic." That description, as well as the song "Public Enemy No. 1," landed the group a major-label deal with Def Jam Records.
"Some of the greatest innovators are from Long Island because we had to create something out of nothing," he says. "We didn't have the big situations from the city cater to us. We had to fight our way."
Though Public Enemy is known the world over and may actually be better-known in other countries than America these days, there is no question where the group is based.
"We're worldwide," Chuck D. says over the phone from Los Angeles. "But we're also from Roosevelt. When we started, we took great pride in saying, 'Hey, we're from Roosevelt. Let's not get it twisted.' We're from Roosevelt and those surrounding areas, Freeport, Uniondale, that area of Nassau County. . . . Roosevelt is in my physicality -- it's in my mind and my soul. As Memphis is to Stax, Roosevelt is to Public Enemy."
Hanley says that because Public Enemy's base was on Long Island rather than New York City, where concerns can often feel more immediate, that allowed the group to take a broader look at issues.
"Chuck D. and Flavor Flav could theorize a little bit more," Hanley says. "Chuck D. has often said that hip-hop was 'CNN for black folks.' They meant it that way. They meant it to be news. The fact that some of that stuff actually became hits was kind of amazing if you think about it."
However, Public Enemy's induction into the Rock Hall shows that although many of their songs were designed to address a timely issue -- from Arizona's decision to not have a national holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. ("By the Time I Get to Arizona") to the lax response times of emergency services in low-income neighborhoods ("911 is a Joke") many of those songs were also timeless.
It turns out, many also held international appeal.
"When we play 'Fight the Power,' and someone who was on the Eastern side of Germany says, 'I can relate,' that's big," Chuck D. says. "When someone in Ireland says they can relate with their feelings against the British Empire, that's big. When somebody is in Africa and Nelson Mandela is in prison, and they say, 'Look, we want to fight the power,' that's big."
He says Public Enemy's international appeal helped it weather some rough times in America and allowed the group to flourish.
"We never had radio play really," he says. "We never were accepted into mainstream circles, especially now. With us, we were considered taboo -- for reasons that we were blasphemous or misogynist or other reasons that weren't true, but they were just trying to tag on us. We still found that outlet, though, in 86 different countries."
Public Enemy continues to cultivate that international following. The group has a new album to promote "The Evil Empire of Everything," featuring one of the year's best singles "Everything," as well as an upcoming summer tour with fellow Long Islanders LL Cool J and De La Soul, and Ice Cube, fittingly called The Kings of the Mic.
And they are still inspiring artists today.
Anthony Mastroianni, from the Seaford-based group The Day Laborers, says he was in junior high school in East Meadow when he first saw Public Enemy. "I remember the controversy that they sparked up because there wasn't anybody putting out any kind of music in an activist type of form back then," says Mastroianni, also known as the rapper Aspect. "They brought it right to the front lines with their videos and stuff, and their music was catching on with a lot of people. It was almost like a whole movement."
Mastroianni says Chuck D. influenced him not just for his skills as a rapper but for his rhymes. "He has a meaning behind everything," he says. "It definitely opened people's eyes up to a lot of different things."
Public Enemy feels, though, that is simply part of their responsibility as artists. Chuck D. says the group's induction isn't as much an individual triumph as it is one for hip-hop in general.
"I see it as honoring the craft that gave us the platform," he says. "We always looked at hip-hop as a high art form. We want to honor everyone that's been in rap music and hip-hop. . . . If it was just about us, I know my speech would be real short."
The gift of time and two caps
When Public Enemy gets inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Thursday, the names of Chuck D., Flavor Flav, Terminator X and Professor Griff will be inscribed at the top of the museum in Cleveland.
Influential artifacts from the group also will be put on display at the museum, becoming part of rock history, alongside Elvis Presley's jukebox, the black wool coat John Lennon wore in "Help!" and Bono's first guitar.
Public Enemy will loan the museum:
One of Flavor Flav's clocks -- The white plastic DaliCo clock that Flav would wear as a pendant around his neck became his signature fashion statement and was as recognizable as his catchphrase, "Yeahhh boyeeee!"
A Public Enemy ball cap -- The group transformed the look of the "P" from the Pittsburgh Pirates logo and turned it into a "PE" to represent the group. The ball caps quickly became popular among hip-hop fans.
A black Chicago White Sox ball cap -- Part of Chuck D.'s personal collection, the cap is one Chuck wore in 1991.