Chuck D spits to Jalen Rose about how he started Public Enemy with Flavor Flav

Chuck D doesn’t swear he’s nice — he knows he’s nice.

Proudly hailing from Long Island’s 516 territory, this man’s contribution to rap is the stuff of legend. Chuck D is a founding member of Public Enemy, known for hits like “Fight the Power” and “Don’t Believe the Hype” which skyrocketed the rapper’s illustrious group and solo career, one that’s now enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

My good friend Chuck D, who I absolutely idolized in the 1980s and ’90s, joined me on “Renaissance Man” this week to reflect on the good old days, including his adventures and experiences during that golden age of hip-hop — starting with the formation of Public Enemy alongside one Flavor Flav.

The duo first connected at Adelphi University in Nassau County, where they both dreamed big and took advantage of every musical opportunity which came their way.

But changing hip-hop forever as young 20-somethings is harder than you think — especially when you need to make ends meet.

“Me and Flavor used to drive the U-Haul trucks and other trucks to deliver furniture for my pops. It was a part-time gig or whatever, so we would actually be in the cab of the U-Haul talking about what we were doing [with music],” Chuck D told me.

What they were doing was creating a rap “collective,” as Chuck D called it, and had been recruiting some of the Island’s most coveted hip-hop talents like Hank and Keith Shocklee, along with local radio guru Bill Stephney.

Much of that group played key roles on Public Enemy’s critically praised debut album “Yo! Bum Rush the Show” in 1987, which, by the way, inspired “Yo! MTV Raps.”

“It was a collective before people actually saw Wu-Tang Clan, a collective from Long Island, outside of the five boroughs,” Chuck D said. “‘Yo! Bum Rush the Show’ was actually like, ‘We’re going to invade the music business,’” he added, boasting that it truly served as a “toe in the door” to move everyone up the ladder.

Before Public Enemy knew it, their major hit “Fight the Power” was featured in Spike Lee’s film “Do the Right Thing” and fellow powerhouse track “Shut ‘Em Down” was played over a Nike commercial in the 1990s.

Jalen Rose spoke to Chuck D. about the formation of Public Enemy and golden age of hip-hop.
Jalen Rose spoke to Chuck D about the formation of Public Enemy and the golden age of hip-hop.
Jason Kempin

By this point, there was no doubt the group was a driving force in hip-hop. 

It even got to a point where Chuck D had enough of a reputation where he could step in to defuse tension that Ice Cube was having in Compton, California, when he opted to leave West Coast supergroup N.W.A.

“[I told him,] ‘This is all of us against the world, to prove that we have [some of the best] music.’ So, we struck up a kinship. When Cube had some issues with his situation, I encouraged him to figure out how to work it out because it’s important …,” he said. “‘Man, the West needs you, you know?’ They couldn’t work it out so I said, ‘What is a civil way of going about this?’”

Ultimately, Chuck D recruited Ice Cube to link up with the Bomb Squad — another hip-hop group the Long Islander was making music with at the time.

Ice Cube’s N.W.A. departure and later independent work ended up proving a major change in how artists approached the genre. It’s perhaps why the iconic rap groups of the 1980s and ’90s are mostly a thing of the past nowadays.

“When Cube did that and got through all the turbulence, it also showed, the good and also the bad way, that solo artists could also make it bigger than groups,” Chuck D said, mentioning that record labels often preferred negotiating with one individual instead of many.

It was that experience with Ice Cube — among many, many others in the booth and onstage — that taught my brother Chuckie D a cardinal rule of making music. It’s one that also translates into an awesome life lesson.

“When you’re making an album and you’re making songs … Don’t always get on your knees and aim to please,” he said. “You’ve got to know who you are, man. It’s like once you go to the mirror, you don’t have to ask nobody how you look. You know how you look, you know who you are. We need to encourage all people, all human beings — know who you are.”

Detroit native Jalen Rose is a member of the University of Michigan’s iconoclastic Fab Five, who shook up the college hoops world in the early ’90s. He played 13 seasons in the NBA before transitioning into a media personality. Rose executive-produced “The Fab Five” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, is the author of the best-selling book “Got To Give the People What They Want,” a fashion tastemaker and co-founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a public charter school in his hometown.