Chuck D

The frontman and prime mover of Public Enemy, Chuck D (born Carlton Ridenhour) was a key figure in the development of hip-hop, one of the movement's first social and political spokesmen. Both he and William Drayton (alias his Public Enemy partner Flavor Flav) were students at Adelphi University on Long Island; Chuck earned a BFA in graphic design. He also hosted one of the first regular hip-hop shows at independent radio station WLIR, and later moved into community station WBAU. To promote the latter show, he and Flav cut a single, "Check Out the Radio," under the name of Chuck D and Spectrum City. The sound of the record, with the rap underlined by heavy funk riffing, anticipated fusions to come. Public Enemy made its above-ground debut as the opening act on the Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill tour, where PEs stage image (they were flanked by Uzi-carrying bodyguards) was a notable contrast to the young Beasties' party vibe. Their first album Yo! Bum Rush the Show was released after the tour, and proved influential for its gritty imagery and dense, sample-driven production. However the real breakthrough was 1988's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back which produced two anthems in "Bring the Noise" and "Don't Believe the Hype," and whose conscious lyrics and dense soundscapes made it one of the most-praised and biggest-selling albums in rap to that point. The classic run continued with the non-LP single "Fight the Power" (from Spike Lee's film "Do the Right Thing" (1989), 1990's Fear of a Black Planet.Though there was a brief flap when some of Chuck's lyrics on the single "Welcome to the Terrordome" were interpreted as anti-Semitic, the album was arguably the last time that Public Enemy truly captured the zeitgeist. While the crew's place in rap history was now secure, Public Enemy's later career would be a mix of triumphant moments (like the '91 single "Can't Truss It," which addressed the legacy of slavery; and the 1998 Spike Lee soundtrack "He Got Game") along with albums, like 1999's Revolverlution, which were considered a letdown from the peak era. But Chuck D would remain a respected figure as he did more work outside the group-- collaborating with musicians as diverse as Sonic Youth (on their single "Kool Thing"), Rage Against the Machine, George Clinton and probably most surprisingly, Meat Loaf. His own solo debut, 1996's Autobiography of Mistachuck, wasn't lyrically far from the Public Enemy template but the music was more steeped in classic R&B. Under the name Confrontation Camp, he also made an album (2000's Objects in the Mirror are Closer Than They Appear) with Kyle Jason-- who like Chuck hosted a show on the progressive political Air America channel. (Chuck's show, Unfiltered, was co-hosted by a pre-TV Rachel Maddow). He was a commentator in numerous rap documentaries, reported on Barack Obama's inauguration for the BBC, and even played a comic role in Judd Apatow's "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" (2004). Public Enemy's 14th album, Nothing is Quick in the Desert, was released as a free download in 2017.