Chuck D Explains How Public Enemy #1 Was Made & Got Them Signed To Def Jam
Public Enemy has a litany of power-packed jams. 1987’s “Public Enemy #1” is one of the singles that showcased the Long Island, New York collective as something different—in vocals, production, and command. Appearing in “Once Upon A Rhyme” for B-Real TV, Chuck D gives his Prophets Of Rage band-mate’s platform some jewels in telling the story behind the Yo! Bum Rush The Show breakthrough.
“‘Public Enemy #1’ was actually a song where I put together this difficult from [Fred Wesley and the J.B.’s] ‘Blow Your Head.’ [It] was a song that they played at the roller-rinks; the DJs were not quick enough to keep that [one part of the loop] going–that sound of the synthesizer,” explains Chuck, who was also a DJ in the early 1980s. “Every once in a while, a DJ would get two loops going on [different] turntables and keep the beat going—once the [drumming] comes in. They never could do it, ’cause it was a really quick beat that even changed tempos. So the first time that this beat could ever get looped [was by way of a pause tape]. And I did [that] in 1984.” Chuck would use his creation to promote his Long Island, New York college radio show, which is posted below.”I laid vocals over it as a WBAU promo. Andre Brown [now known as] Doctor Dré of ‘Yo! MTV Raps’ and [Run-D.M.C.’s] Jam Master Jay were up there at the radio station when I was up there. I gave them the cassette. It became a WBAU mainstay; it was a staple. That was the record—the song, the tape, that got around so infectiously that [Def Jam Records co-founder] Rick Rubin called my house for two years to try to get me to do records, especially that record.”
Rubin would eventually sign Chuck D via Public Enemy, and work on the group’s first two albums before leaving Def Jam to start his own Def American Records imprint. Chuck D recalls explaining to Rubin—and others that Public Enemy defied the commonplace Rap group structure of the mid-1980s.
While Run-D.M.C., Whodini, Fat Boys, Beastie Boys were trios, Chuck asserted, “We’re not a trio. This is something that’s gonna have a lot of members, but kinda one MC, one DJ, and everything else will have a new definition to it—hence Flavor Flav.” Upon inception, P.E.’s DJ was Terminator X. Today, the band has DJ Lord in that role.
Chuck then explained the famous vocal intro to “Public Enemy #1” as being a real, orchestrated thing. “When I cut this  demo, [Flavor Flav and I] were actually driving trucks together in Long Island. We were movin’ furniture for my Pops. We would talk about things in the truck. When we got to the studio, I told Flav, ‘Just [set the intro to the song up]. I need you to say that stuff we talked about in the truck. Open it up like that.'” Flavor would begins the record with a conversation, that he reprised in a cover version by Puff Daddy, and others have recreated. Chuck told his band-mate and hype-man, ‘”I’ll knock it out and do the rest. You close it out. That Schoolly D and [DJ] Code Money type thing.'” West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s Schoolly D and DJ Code Money had begun making mid-1980s hit singles like “P.S.K. (What Does It Mean?)” with interplay between MC and his DJ. Like Flav and Chuck, Schoolly and Code remain in tandem today.
Chuck frames the context of creating a beat and vocal style that even in ’87—appeared pioneering. Notably, some heard a very similar variation of it nearly three years earlier. “When it came out in February 1987 it was a record [adapted] from the demo in 1984. So it’s really one of those things where it’s before its time.”
As a related note, an artist close to the iconography of Public Enemy in a different medium, has passed. Actor Bill Nunn, who famously played “Radio Raheem” in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing died this weekend. In the acclaimed film, the socially-minded, stylish, and confident “Raheem” carries a boombox, often playing P.E.’s “Fight The Power” at high volume.