Did you know that Chuck D, the frontman of iconic rap group Public Enemy, trained as a graphic designer? Also known as Carlton Ridenhour (b. 1960), Chuck D graduated in 1984 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Adelphi University in New York.
What is now Public Enemy’s instantly recognizable logo was designed by hand by Chuck D in 1986, the year the group was founded. He notes that at the time, there were “no computer[s] or Photoshop” to build designs – only the essentials, like magic markers, white-out, and Exacto knives.
The ink on paper drawing in our collection reflects the sketch-like quality that Chuck D’s early mock-up of the Public Enemy logo must have had. The emcee specifically created this drawing for display in our Musical Crossroads exhibition. While completing the sketch, he explained to Museum Specialist Timothy Anne Burnside that the central figure’s silhouette was sourced from a picture of E Love next to LL Cool J and the text was first laid out using a stencil.
While people sometimes interpret the figure as a state trooper because of his hat, he is actually a representation of an African American B-Boy. His hat references one worn by hip-hop group Run-D.M.C.
The target through which we view the figure is identifiable as the crosshairs of a gun sight. “The crosshairs logo symbolized the black man in America,” explains Chuck D. As the graphic emblem of the politically engaged Public Enemy, the logo blatantly portrays the violence suffered by African Americans at the hands of the police and the state – in the eighties and still today. It also calls attention to Public Enemy’s role as, in Chuck D’s words, the “black CNN,” addressing issues of racial inequality that were otherwise overlooked by mainstream media.
To reflect Public Enemy’s political bent in the group’s overall look, Chuck D drew inspiration from bands like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, whose identities encompassed more than just their sound – but also their “sight” and “story.” From their logo to their album covers and uniforms, Public Enemy’s identifiable branding stems from Chuck D’s thoughtful initial design.
“When it came to be around that potential time of making logos, I wanted to make something that understood what a logo could do, you know? Look at the Rolling Stones. The tongue and the lips say it all without you looking at the font. I wanted to be able to make something that detaches. I don’t think there’s too many logos out there that don’t deal with a font, that you can detach and know what it is. Wu-Tang is still the W, but that kinda comes close. But Public Enemy… no font whatsoever. Circle with a man, you know what it is.” -Chuck D
We don’t often stop to consider the impact of design elements like logos on our daily lives. These graphics shape our perceptions and understanding of the world around us. For entities like Public Enemy, who take on a radical position, visual choices become tied to activist engagement.
If you were to design a logo for a band today, how would it reflect our current political reality?
Check out more Public Enemy objects in the collection here.