Public Enemy: Inside the Terrordome
by Tim Grierson
The Overlook Press, 2015; 336 pp
Reviewed by Charlie Riccardelli
Musician Chuck D. thought of himself as someone deeply influenced by the music of the 1960s, politically driven songs that tackled heated issues in America like race and war. When Chuck D. started the hip-hop group Public Enemy with other aspiring artists from Long Island, he hoped to infuse the still young genre with the same socially conscious ideas that defined his youth, particularly those messages addressing the black community. According to Chuck, “I wasn’t ‘political’, but I would say things on the radio and in my raps about the community. Youknow, you play the rap jams, then you kick it with like, ‘This goes out to the brothers there on the corner – man, you gotta stop all that crazy shit.’ Stuff like that, looking out. As I saw it, I was just being a responsible adult.”
Chuck D.’s quote appears early in Tim Grierson’s Public Enemy: Inside the Terrordome and helps to capture what made the band such an influential group in the early years of hip-hop and how they’ve continued to define themselves as the genre has morphed since the release of their debut album Yo! Bum Rush the Show in 1987. Grierson draws from interviews, reviews, and articles to chart Public Enemy’s four decades in the music scene, chronicling their creative triumphs and brushes with the media over incendiary statements.
This unauthorized biography never mines Public Enemy for their most scandalous moments. Rather, Grierson tries to distance the artists from their private lives, focusing on how the group dealt with the changing social tides over the course of their careers, as well as the rapidly changing music industry. More than the significance of the music, Grierson makes a compelling story of how Chuck D. considered how his music would reach his audience, from perfectly timing a cassette tape to change over at the right moment to his early championing of digital music.
Grierson presents an even-handed take on Public Enemy’s tracks, fair to show that not all of their music had the bite of a “Fight the Power” or “By the Time I Get to Arizona” especially during the most tumultuous of times. Yet the author does an incredible job of placing many songs in the context of how they were created musically and lyrically. Chuck D. did not interview for the book, but Grierson portrays him as a thoughtful and socially conscious public figure who wanted to make art through hip-hop while encouraging people to rise up for the common good.