Public Enemy: Thesis and Introduction

On their 1990 album, Fear of a Black Planet, Public Enemy criticizes the whitening of black culture in white rock n’ roll appropriation, economic motivations for interracial relationships, and black artists sanitizing their message for mainstream appeal.  Their looped and layered instrumentals paired with aggressive, shouted rapping create a chaotic soundscape intended to cause anxiety in white critics and listeners. Each song on their third album is hostile and chaotic with fast tempos, extra-musical sounds, and samples referencing black artists with few exceptions. White artists are only referenced in ironic contexts or to rewrite them as racist, because of the historical appropriation of black music, like rock n’ roll. To counter what they saw around them, in terms of black artists being forced to change for white audiences, Public Enemy made a record that scared some white listeners and critics, showcasing themselves as black artists unbending to the masses in sound, image, and attitude.

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Public Enemy often dressed in Black Panther-militant style uniform as depicted here. Chuck D has voiced his admiration of the Black Panther movement in interviews as well and the group never deviated from this fashion or ideology. Photo credit to

The members of Public Enemy are New York natives, fronted by Chuck D and Flava Flav with The Bomb Squad (Terminator X, Hank and Keith Shocklee, and Eric “Vietnam” Sadler”) producing the beats (Public Enemy). The group stood apart from their west coast counterparts, N.W.A. and other gangsta rap groups in the late 1980s, because of their conscious, political approach to hip hop. N.W.A. leader, Ice Cube once said, “Chuck D gets all involved in that black stuff. We don’t. Fuck that black power shit: we don’t give a fuck” (Serrano). In The Rap Year Book, Shea Serrano calls Public Enemy “the greatest, most impactful political rap group to ever have existed.” Whether or not that claim can be fully substantiated isn’t really the point, but Chuck D certainly saw himself as a revolutionary. In 1988 he did an interview with Spin in which he’s asked if he considers himself a prophet, “I guess so… What is a prophet? One that comes with a message from God to try to free people. My people are enslaved within their own minds.” African-Americans are “his people,” and he attempts to speak for them and urge them to act unflinchingly. He sees Providence as having intervention in his music, and with that he has the confidence and urgency to rap about race, politics, social stereotypes, injustice, and tell his audience to fear a black planet.