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The Most Influential Artists: #9 Public Enemy

NEW YORK - 1988: (Clockwise from bottom left) Flavor Flav, Professor Griff, Terminator X, S1W and Chuck D of the rap group Public Enemy pose for a portrait in a studio. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

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.

The Most Influential Artists: #9 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.