While writing lyrics for Public Enemy’s debut album Yo! Bum Rush the Show, a 26-year-old Chuckie Dee was literally and figuratively focused on the big picture. As a deliveryman for a black-owned photographic company in Hempstead, Long Island, he spent hours a day behind the wheel ingesting beats and talk radio between drop-offs.
“As I’m driving around in the car six or seven hours a day I have my cassette deck and I’m listening to WLIB religiously,” Chuck D says of the New York talk radio giant years before its format switch to Gospel. “Mark Riley would come on in the morning and Gary Byrd would come on in the afternoon. And the callers would call in from all over the city, Jersey and Connecticut talking about black issues and how we had to think outside of this box. So you had a consciousness that was raised in New York at that time that lead into the voting of David Dinkins.”
This mobile incubator was responsible for hip-hop’s pivot to more critical and conscious content. In 1986, the music industry had fully embraced their new revenue stream spawned by black-and-brown youth in these New York streets. But Chuck and his band of brothers—brothers Keith and Hank Shocklee, Flavor Flav, Professor Griff and Terminator X—had no desire to be avatars for excess and machismo, but saw music as a means for galvanizing the masses. Yo! Bum Rush The Show would expose the government’s coordinated decimation of the black community under Ronald Reagan and New York Mayor Ed Koch. Def Jam Records was only three-years old, but had seen great success with releases from T La Rock, LL Cool J and The Beastie Boys leading to a distribution deal with CBS Records. There was a void for a voice that served up resistance between the revelry. Keenly aware of their audience of “kings, queens, warriors and lovers,” fraternities and sororities got shout outs right alongside the local hard rocks while simultaneously giving the middle finger to the cops. It was a dichotomy that had been instilled in Chuck and his peers as youths while attending Afrocentric summer camps at Hofstra University in the early ’70s.
“We all came up in the ‘Afro American Experience’ on the Hofstra Campus between ’70 and ’71. As young kids we were all bussed to this program, which was very radical. You had seminars with Muslims and Black Panthers and they were our teachers. College students. We were eight, 10 and 12. They disbanded it in 1972. We were bussed from Roosevelt, Freeport and Hempstead. Hank, Keith, myself and Griff were all part of it. So when we went back to school and they’d tell us that Columbus discovered America, we’d reject the agenda. This is the seed of what became Public Enemy.”
As focused as Chuck and his brothers were concerned, the path to Public Enemy’s debut album was far from linear. As a graphic design student at Adelphi University, Chuck was kicked out his freshman year for not attending classes, only to be reinstated and link with friends and future business partners like Bill Stephney, Harry Allen, Hank Shocklee and Andre Brown (better known as Doctor Dre of Yo! MTV Raps). As all of their academic and artistic interests converged via their campus radio show on BAU and parties thrown by the Spectrum City DJ crew — the ambition of Public Enemy was slowly realized.
“It was a throwback to our gigs. We knew that if you try to seal off a door and one toe gets in, you could have a 100 people behind you. If one toe gets in that door, it’s all gonna get in,” Chuck says of the title track. “It also stood for how myself, Hank, Keith, Eric, Bill, Flava, Griff, Dre and Tyrone were all gonna get into the music business. Rick Rubin wanted me to make Chuckie Dee records, but I come from a group aesthetic. I’m a group loyalist and if I get in we all come in. It was that attitude. Hank went into production, Bill [became] an executive, Harry went into writing, Dre went into radio and then TV and I went into being an artist. But we all came tumbling in off that one seed.”
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