Hip-hop is a landscape littered with one-hit wonders, second albums destined for the bargain bin and artists cut down in their prime. In the rap game, staying power hasn’t enjoyed much staying power. This is what makes Public Enemy all the more remarkable. When Chuck D, Flava Flav and the crew dropped their first album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, Ronald Reagan was in the White House and Who’s the Boss? was just edging out Night Court in the Nielsen ratings. Yet somehow, 23 years later, PE is still bringing the noise.
“Connecting with fans, performing, is a one-on-one situation,” frontman Chuck D explains in a phone call from their bus en route from a show at Cleveland’s House of Blues to Green Bay, Wisc. “Touring is how you make someone really want to take the music home with them.”
From the moment PE hit the scene, they’ve made it a mission to build a following show by show. “From the very beginning, we used the hell out of our passports,” Chuck D explains. They’ve performed more than 1,300 shows in 53 countries to date. PE pays regular visits to Europe and beyond, and they are recognized as one of hip-hop’s premier worldwide ambassadors.
PE has bumped speakers across the world with a furious sound and a socially conscious message that remains a cornerstone to this day. From black-on-black crime, to Hollywood stereotyping, to the current immigration chaos in Arizona, PE has never shied away from the issues, regardless of what was selling.
“You have to be satisfied with your own creative process,” Chuck says. “You can’t wait for some A&R person to tell you what to do.” PE stayed true to their message from day one, and became one of the best-selling rap artists in history. They logged three platinum and three gold albums. But as booty shaking and bling began to rule corporate rap, PE forged their own path to get their music heard and their message out.
Cutting ties with record execs, PE dived into Internet distribution. The innovators released an album on MP3 before iTunes was even a twinkle in Apple’s eye. PE’s distribution is now done on their own online label, Slamjamz.com. “If we made selling records the goal, it would wipe away the reasons we did this in the first place,” Chuck says.
So PE jumped off the grid; well, made their own grid really, designed to share their uncompromising music and message with as many people as possible. Their legacy is etched in stone. Rolling Stone recently named PE one of the 50 greatest artists of all time. But they show no signs of stopping.
Chuck, who turns 50 this year, sums it up perfectly. “The passion and energy has always got to be there.” PE has never lacked either.