Public Enemy are a household name in hip-hop. Known as the first political rap music collective, the New York group mobilised African-Americans across the US with their conscious lyrics and were one of the only hip-hop acts using their music as a vehicle for social commentary in the 1980s.
Led by the legendary Chuck D (real name Carl Ridenhour), the collective addressed all kinds of issues in their songs. They highlighted a vast array of problems concerning America’s government and social justice system. However, the powers that be often didn’t receive this well. Often the five-piece ensemble addressed specific individuals and exposed their wrongdoings. This is precisely what they did with their song ‘By The Time I Get To Arizona’, and the backlash from the establishment was severe.
Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr, in 1991, Public Enemy released a song that directed the governor of Arizona. Under the presidency of Ronald Reagan, African-Americans saw a vast amount of injustice, and a sense of disdain and resentment was beginning to develop. By the early-’90s, Public Enemy had established a firm grip on Black social consciousness worldwide and upon releasing their fourth studio album, Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black, the ensemble provoked what can only be described as a collective uproar.
Recorded at The Music Palace in Long Island, the 1991 project was a critically acclaimed 14-track body of work. However, its anti-establishment material was not received well by many, especially the track ‘By The Time I Get To Arizona.’ The collective always kept true to its core beliefs. The civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. is a beloved a revered figure in the African-American community and is of such importance that the US has a national holiday dedicated to the man.
However, in 1991, following a state-wide vote in 1991, Arizona decided to ditch the holiday, making it one of the only states in America (aside from New Hampshire) actively disregarding King. The governor of Arizona at the time was more than happy to ignore the holiday. As such, Public Enemy thought it appropriate to react via their album.
‘By The Time I Get To Arizona’ was highly controversial. However, not only did the song contain some extreme and cutthroat lyrics such as, “With a gun cracker Runnin’ things under his thumb” and, “What’s a smilin’ face/ When the whole state’s racist?!” but the video created a lot of problems. The track’s music video depicted Public Enemy attacking the governor with a car bomb. The visuals incited so much hate, annoyance and shock in the US that it was banned from MTV rotation.