“There goes the neighborhood!” Those are the words Carlton Ridenhour, better known as rapper Chuck D, admits were going through his mind as he stood on stage Thursday night in Los Angeles at the induction ceremonies of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
As the frontman for the seminal Public Enemy, Chuck D, along with Terminator X, Professor Griff, and Flavor Flav, turned hip-hop on its head with the release of their second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, more than 25 years ago this month. Their debut album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, was also critically acclaimed.
Still, it was arguably their second album that forced the mainstream masses to take notice of the four young men (one wearing a large plate-size clock around his neck, no less) from Roosevelt, on New York’s Long Island.
Nation of Millions spoke bluntly about America’s rampant racism America in the ’80s with hit records like “Don’t Believe the Hype’’ and “Bring the Noise.’’ The Village Voice voted it the top album of 1988, an honor that had never been awarded for a hip-hop act.
“It’s good to look back from time to time to see where you impacted change or if you impacted change. I had parents who encouraged me to speak out and say what was on my mind and speak my truth,” Chuck D said, after a sound check at the House of Blues in Los Angeles on Tuesday. “I think PE wanted to make change in some way through the music, and we did in the way we said what we said and how we said it. Unfortunately, parents like mine aren’t around that much today—parents that teach their kids to know something about something so they can talk about it.”
Public Enemy and its members knew quite a bit about “something,” and their music revealed that knowledge with every release. Albums offered stories and history from an African-American perspective, often sampling the voices of Malcolm X and other black leaders to drive their point home.
“It was always about the knowledge,” said Chuck D. “And it still is. The beat can be bumping, and the content can be amusing at times. But there can still be information in there for the mind.”
In 1990 came Fear of a Black Planet, with songs like “Welcome to the Terrordome,” and “911 Is a Joke,” a track that famously criticized emergency-response units for taking longer to arrive in black communities than in white ones. The record was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress in 2005.
“Fight the Power’’ rounded out the hits on the album and remains one of hip-hop’s best-known songs, in part for its infamous lyrics about two of American icons: “Elvis was a hero to most/but he never meant shit to me/straight up racist, the sucker was/ simple and plain.’’ Flavor Flav chimed in: “muthafuck him and John Wayne.’’
Their influence on pop culture was undeniable, with even Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain citing A Nation of Millions as one of his favorite albums. Yet notable awards and major mainstream accolades never came the group’s way.
“It’s amazing to get the induction into the hall of fame now, given we never won a Grammy, never had a Rolling Stone magazine cover, and never had a Billboard top 10 single,” Chuck D said. “All the things that define success today, we never had. We had the influence, but not the awards to go with it. That speaks volumes about why you have to just do your thing and not worry about the other stuff. It comes when it comes.’’
The rapper says he believes international popularity, particularly the group’s success in the U.K. and across Europe, contributed to its eventual vote into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—but only after acts like Run DMC, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and the Beastie Boys. This was Public Enemy’s first year of eligibility.
“We have the fans and always had them around the world, and they supported us without fail, decade after decade,’’ said Chuck D. “They were always into our work, and that was undeniable. So even though we weren’t popular in the sense of winning awards, we had the support of the fans and the people who understood what we were saying and why we had to say it—which was always the point anyway.”
Though Public Enemy’s lineup has changed over the years—Terminator X left the group in the late ’90s—its political focus has not, with strong social messages on the most pressing issues facing minorities, such as poverty, health care, and gun control on more recent records.
“I never thought I’d see a black president, like most black people,’’ Chuck D said. “But of course when we got one, it would be when the country was in such a mess that he has to work three times as hard, which is OK. But as black people, that’s what we know we must do anyway. But he won’t even get credit for it. He gets nothing but grief for it while he’s working much harder than the guy who had the job before him.”
While the 52-year-old says he and the group he helped to create keep their eyes and lyrics centered on key world issues, he can’t deny a certain disappointment with the topics of choice many others in hip-hop and rap music focus on today.
“Again, everyone didn’t have my parents to guide them,” said Chuck D. “A lot of kids don’t have real parents raising them in homes around this country today, and that’s very sad. I talk to some of these young guys out there in music, but unless you’re getting them at 14 years old, what can you say to them really? They’re adults. They’ve already been shaped. They can talk about what they want in their music.”
Some could argue that fellow group member Flavor Flav lost his focus years ago: the “hype man,” a.k.a. William Drayton Jr., was arrested on charges of felony assault with a weapon and child endangerment last October, after he was accused of chasing and threatening his longtime girlfriend’s 17-year-old son with a butcher knife during an argument. He almost didn’t attend the Thursday night’s ceremony, until a judge decided to postpone his arraignment hearing that was scheduled for the same day. (A lawyer for Flav says he will plead not guilty.)
The group was inducted into the hall of fame by Harry Belafonte and Spike Lee.
“If I could, I would take this honor or recognition and divide it a hundred ways so that all the other hip-hop and rap groups that won’t get this chance could be a part of it,’’ Chuck D said. “This ride was never just about us. Hip-hop, rap—none of it was ever just about one group or one sound. It was the sum total that made it all work.”
To celebrate the induction and commemorate Black Music Month, Centric Television will broadcast a special tribute to Public Enemy in June, including their Wednesday night show at the House of Blues, with performances by Kool Moe Dee and the Treacherous Three, Whodini, and JJ Fad.