Public enemy meant everything to a generation of angsty teens – noisey

On “Keeping It Moving,” a cut from A Tribe Called Quest’s Beats, Rhymes and Life, Q-Tip posits that while valuable, hip-hop can’t tell you how to raise a child or treat a wife. And though his logic is not necessarily flawed—we have to be reasonable about what art can truly accomplish—it’s not to say rap lyrics can’t instruct, enlighten, and, in some cases, save. There have been people who, upon hearing a track at the perfect hour, found the strength to keep living. Although the culture’s elements should never be regarded as one’s sole means of education, artists have long served as sires and spiritual advisers. Rappers, many of whom were not much older than me and my friends, became the reverberations of father figures. They imparted hard-won lessons not at the dining room table but through cassette tapes and videos.

The gems Phife Dawg dropped—juxtaposed with the poetic allure of Q-tip—gave Tribe a gleam; it confirmed everything I felt but didn’t have the words for. I was drawn to these and other characters. Their anger, their violence, even the ways in which they publicly processed their own fatherlessness. And I was open, word to Buckshot and Black Moon.

We were in detention when I overheard Domingo talking about how he needed a fresh cut. “Can’t be busted for this jam, right?” he said to Tomás, to which I replied, “I got you, my man.” The plan was I’d take the bus to Domingo’s place and shape up his Gumby-style cut out back. Problem was, and I dared not say this to Domingo, I’d never done so much as a fade in my whole life. But I liked to volunteer myself for whatever randomness came my way—indeed, my audacity was remarkable. Domingo had the clippers and a few bucks to spare so reason was clearly on my side.

The first thing I noticed at Domingo’s was the pool table. I’d played a few times at Woody’s, the dive where my neighbor Joe used to take us, so I talked my smack. Watch, I warned Domingo with the certitude of a pro at billiards. Step and get waxed. He set up the 9-ball and whipped me bad. “Coño, you’re rusty as hell.” He made sandwiches and blasted tunes, bass coming off the walls like a concert. Then PE came on out of nowhere, and me: “Mingo, what the hell is this?”

To achieve this, Public Enemy sought to elevate the visual component of their show. They enlisted road crew member Keith Godfrey to learn the ropes from Anthrax light man Rick Downey. This made for friendly competition night after night, as both groups attempted to outdo one another with an electrifying set. It became about who could leave the strongest impression.

My father’s days were wasted deceiving his wife and making sporadic jaunts to Colombia, the region of his childhood. He was a man of impulse, my father, the type to fake a heart attack, frighten the kids, and be taken away in an ambulance—simply to gain sympathy from those he hurt. It was pitiful but painfully urgent. I remember accompanying him to Bogotá once, looking out of the bedroom window, twenty-one stories up, listening to the account of how his brother, high on something mind-altering, had leapt, meeting the ground with his face. The way my father told the story was plain as bones, but it had a strange virtue to it.

Through his absence, my father taught me about the beauty of being present. Even when he was around, he was always competing for my affection, and my admiration. It didn’t matter whether he was aware of it. My eventual heroes, those I listened to on records and watched on the box, were constantly vying for his spot. And more often than not, their star shined brighter than his.

Before Chuck Dangerous became Chuck D, he was Carlton Douglas Ridenhour. Born in 1960, Carlton grew up amid the tensions of the Vietnam War and the unrest of the Civil Rights Movement. Carlton’s father, Lorenzo Ridenhour, remembers his son, the oldest of three, as a quiet kid who gravitated to books. “I used to have to make him go out to play,” he said. “His friends would come walking all the way over to take him to go play basketball and he would tell them to go on back.”

After graduating from Roosevelt Junior-Senior High School, Carlton went to Adelphi University. He was into music and graphic design. While working at the college’s radio station, he produced a promotional piece for the show, called “Public Enemy No. 1.” It made waves and landed on the radar of producer Rick Rubin, who was instantly sold on the rapper and his dynamic delivery. It was 1984, and though you wouldn’t believe it now, Chuck D had never wanted to be the front man of an engine for black resistance. Indeed, he’d wanted to help build the culture, but preferred to do so from behind the scenes. After some badgering from Rubin to get serious about a future at Def Jam, Chuck D agreed. And since his vision was far bigger than just himself, Chuck D masterminded a music industry assault complete with all the right bits for worldwide provocation. “It’s not Chuck D, it’s Public Enemy,” Rubin recalls him saying. There was Professor Griff, Flavor Flav, Terminator X, Hank Shocklee, the S1Ws, the whole of it. A crew of militant shape-shifters who could not be ignored. Rubin was sold; he saw the vision. There was a unit in place, and to him this unit was the definition of counterculture. Public Enemy was the black version of the Clash; pure street, pure punk rock. By 1986, they were set to storm rap with their take on black radicalism.

Public Enemy was an impassioned artistic and social response to the Reagan era. A number of black and Latino families were living well below the poverty line, and getting access to resources became increasingly challenging. People made do with what little they could find, but it was never enough. Unemployment, poor education and health care, dilapidated housing, and the spread of crack cocaine left many desperately scrambling into the underworld, where crime wreaked havoc on any and all. The streets were the battlefield, and the ones in power were supplying every kind of poison to bring about an implosion. The praise Reagan’s ideas received from his admirers pointed to a stark cultural disconnect in America. While some have argued for decades that Reagan’s epochal presidency ultimately improved America’s standing, rappers like Jay-Z (“Blame Reagan for making me into a monster”), Scarface (“Reagan never planned for us to rise”), and Chuck D (“Reagan is bullshit”) who experienced its negative effects have long sung a different tune.

Following the success of albums Yo! Bum Rush the Show (1987) and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988), Chuck D became a father. This is significant because not only was he a mouthpiece for the great rebellion that he helped spark, but now he also had a daughter to look after. And when you’re busy forging a cultural institution and educating through rap, which Chuck D called “the CNN of the ghetto,” bringing a child into that environment can take the pressure to another stratosphere. But his fire only intensified.

In a November 1990 interview in Playboy, Bill Wyman asked Chuck D, somewhat offhandedly, which of his heroes had broken his heart. Chuck D shot back in his wonted candor. “Ralph Abernathy went out like a cold-ass wig,” he said, referring to the Civil Rights Movement leader and friend of Martin Luther King Jr., whose controversial book And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: An Autobiography, outed Dr. King’s alleged infidelities. “It’s sad to see people of that stature disappear with no tears,” Chuck D said.

Boys and girls know only enough about their heroes to want to worship them. They see flesh and bone performing great feats and they cling to the possibility that they, too, might someday do the same. They marvel at the blinding lights, the magic of it all. They see endless glory, and their own outstretched hands. In adulthood, we know the price of putting too much hope in another person. If we’re the least bit sensible, we take careful stock of our emotional investments, question everything. We break our own hearts in the process, wondering if we, too, were ever that hero who missed the mark. As a father, mother, friend. And we realize that, yes, we have failed someone. We discover that failure is one of the certainties of life. All of our heroes fall short. They slip through our fingers like so much water. All we can bank on is the cold facts: three rights make a left, Wu-Tang is for the children. And a hero, like a father, is a thing that you lose. But I wouldn’t understand this until much later.