The Most Influential Artists: #9 Public Enemy
We're counting down the 35 most influential artists of the past 35 years
As part of our 35th anniversary, we’re naming the most influential artists of the past 35 years. Today, we’re at #9. From Long Island, New York, here are Public Enemy.
Formed around the nucleus of rappers Chuck D and Flava Flav, production collective the Bomb Squad and others, Public Enemy was conceived as a rap army: militant Black musicians hell-bent on bringing the harsh realities of African-American strife to a mostly unaware audience.
Their sample-based sound was as jarring and impactful as Chuck’s megaphone bark was authoritative and Flav’s cartoonish squeal was absurdist — and it strived for a confrontational brio informed by history. (Their contemporaries in N.W.A. approached these matters from slightly different, more misogynistic angles — and, as such, were destined for greater popularity during a briefer career.) Public Enemy weren’t overtly forging a career; they were out on a mission. They raised a great many eyebrows in the process, releasing incendiary videos and earning accusations of anti-Semitism.
If there is sometimes an anti-mainstream joylessness at work in their art — particularly after a heyday in the 1980s and 1990s — they’ve served as a beacon for other artists for whom the political or revolutionary is explicitly personal. Pop music had been political before; everyone from Woody Guthrie to Jefferson Airplane to Black Flag took various anti-establishment stands. But Public Enemy advocated for minority rights and grievances with a stridency that couldn’t be shrugged off. And without Public Enemy, it’s difficult to imagine getting Rage Against the Machine, System of a Down, the Coup, M.I.A., Run the Jewels or an outfit as thoroughly outré, disruptive and disorienting as Death Grips.