The break-up of Public Enemy — whether permanent or temporary — is the most alarming calamity to befall black music culture since Aretha Franklin’s funeral was turned into a Democratic National Committee stunt. Artists who once united us no longer know how to do so. They’ve become just that triggered.
And it’s gotten personal: Chuck D (Carlton Ridenhour) and Flavor Flav (William Drayton), vocalists for the legendary rap group, have split up over politics. Their disagreement began when Chuck D used Public Enemy’s renown for a campaign concert on March 1 in Los Angeles for socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Flav refused to participate, sending a cease-and-desist letter to the Sanders team, preventing use of Flav’s likeness. Next, Chuck D, the group’s founder, publicly fired Flav, but then tried walking it back on April Fools’ Day. Flav fired back, charging that the dismissal was real.
This unexpected rap battle pits Flav — Public Enemy’s most iconic member, instantly recognizable for wearing a clock to symbolize that he knows “what time it is” existentially — against Chuck D, its lead rapper, songwriter, and always politically agitated spokesperson. (Chuck D has since revamped the group as Enemy Radio, a retrogressive moniker.)
This is more than a minor, subcultural rift. It goes to the heart of pop politics, exposing how music culture boasts about freedom and liberty while often hiding an insistence on liberal conformity. If you haven’t heard about the Public Enemy schism, that’s because it embarrasses the mainstream media, with its mission to protect the illusion of leftist solidarity. The media can’t handle the truth that Public Enemy’s fracture is evidence of a significant political shift in black America toward new individuality. Flav himself prophesied this disobedience in one of PE’s greatest tracks, “Can’t Truss It” (1991), with his opening exhortation “Confusion!”
When Public Enemy first appeared in 1987, the rap group from Long Island, N.Y., updated the romantic black radicalism of the 1960s and ’70s to answer the miseries of urban life at the end of the 20th century. Chuck D’s concept for the group paid honor to the leftist fealty that has informed so much black American social messaging since the Sixties’ era of civil rights and the Black Panthers. PE’s logo was a silhouetted, beret-clad Black Panther, targeted in the crosshairs of a shotgun’s eyepiece. That model of fashionable radicalism unraveled with the arrival of gangster rap and now the inarguable example of PE’s own discombobulation. Not showbiz as usual, it shows that political cohesion has broken in the black community.
“Obama used to be my man!” Chuck D hectored at the Sanders event. His gnomic statement reflects that period when Public Enemy waned. It had been the most aesthetically brilliant — and rhetorically daring–of all American pop groups. But as the ingeniously inventive hits stopped coming, 9/11 happened — and then Obama’s “promise” short-changed political romance for the opiate of false hope.
PE’s relevant moment was eclipsed. Poor Chuck D, bred on leftist pop sentiment — and being the cleverest student of Malcolm X, Gil-Scott Heron, Frank Zappa, Oscar Brown Jr., and Jean-Luc Godard — has lately been grasping at straw men. He aligned PE with the obtuse proto-Antifa band Rage Against the Machine and now, in a last grab at political significance, with Bernie Sanders. This mistake connected Chuck D to ancestral race men Paul Robeson, Richard Wright, George Schuyler, Harold Cruse, and Ralph Ellison, who were smitten by the black protestor’s dream of change and who, for a while, trusted white empathy. Chuck’s foolhardy radical infatuation places him in familiar Communist-socialist gun sights.
Flav, As PE’s hype-man, was not so susceptible. His humor provided the reality check on Chuck’s virtuoso agitprop tirades. (Gossip columnist Wendy Williams put it best: “When Chuck gets through yelling at you, I want to hear Flav’s ‘911 Is a Joke.’”) It took Flav’s dissent to show how Chuck out-radicalized himself. To support Sanders, Chuck must ignore the candidate’s recent debate statement that “black communities should be put in charge of selling marijuana” as a business path out of race-based income inequality. Yet it was on “Can’t Truss It” that Chuck strongly cautioned, “Put the Buddha down!” Did he forget how that colloquial phrase associated laid-back escapism with the rise of crack-cocaine indolence in the hip-hop community? Did Sanders himself ever hear “Can’t Truss It”?
Sanders must symbolize some Marxist professor Chuck wanted to please at Adelphi University for having mentored him in his political awakening. Although an R &B adept, Chuck has always inclined toward left-leaning rock-music culture, embracing the standard of Village Voice radicalism, which coddled PE until 1990’s “Welcome to the Terrordome” provoked allegations that the group’s former “Minister of Propaganda,” Professor Griff (Richard Griffin), had made anti-Jewish statements — a controversy that Chuck also mishandled.
When listening to PE at its peak (songs such as “Rebel without a Pause,” “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” “Nighttrain,” “Revolutionary Generation,” and “Caught. Can I Get a Witness?”), one implicitly felt that Flav and Chuck D knew that they both stood to lose and gain the same things in life. That is the fact of their essential appeal, the rich source of their opposites-attract camaraderie. It doesn’t mean that Flav and Chuck D think alike — the former dogmatic, the latter uninhibited — only that each understands and respects the other’s temperamental difference as a true representation of black American plurality and, overall, harmony.
Now that’s gone. And it seems the political basis of their fracas comes close to confirming LBJ’s dire prediction after signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act: “We’ll have those niggers voting Democratic for the next 200 years.” But Flav has brought the instinctual displeasure and distrust of Blexit (blacks exiting the Democratic Party) against Chuck D’s blinkered optimism.
Out of desperation to maintain ties to the far Left (his perceived comrades in the overall political struggle), Chuck D has succumbed to the communist-socialist treachery of candidate Sanders (and of white liberal music journalists who think of him and his group in single-minded terms), rather than support independent black struggle. It would have been glorious to see Public Enemy join Kanye West’s campaign for free thinking. Given the fractious state of social relations that turns longtime collaborators Chuck and Flav against each other, the axiom “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” should take on new meaning.
The new Enemy Radio single, “Food as a Machine Gun” is a failure when compared with Public Enemy’s past work. Back on “Can’t Truss It’s” magnificent slavery narrative, Chuck pointed to “1555” as beginning the tragedy felt by American descendants of slaves — an insight that helpfully contradicts the New York Times’ 1619 Project. But “Food as a Machine Gun” is embarrassing self-parody, a mediocre track with an anonymous minion nostalgically faking Flav.
With the exception of Morrissey and Kanye West, Chuck D was the most impressive pop-music artist of past 30 years. PE was the most musically exciting, sonically innovative pop group of its time. But Chuck D’s self-betrayal is dismaying. He hasn’t reached the stage of disillusionment with Communist-socialist enablers that marked the maturation of Wright and Ellison. Instead, the disillusionment is ours.