In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked Public Enemy number forty-four on its list of the Immortals: 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Acclaimed Music ranks them the 29th most recommended musical act of all time and the highest hip-hop group. The group was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame in 2007.
Around 1986, Bill Stephney, the former Program Director at WBAU, was approached by Rubin and offered a position with the label. Stephney accepted, and his first assignment was to help Rubin sign Chuck D, whose song "Public Enemy Number One" he had heard from Andre "Doctor Dré" Brown. According to the book The History of Rap Music by Cookie Lommel, "Stephney thought it was time to mesh the hard-hitting style of Run DMC with politics that addressed black youth. Chuck recruited Spectrum City, which included Hank Shocklee, his brother Keith Shocklee, and Eric "Vietnam" Sadler, collectively known as the Bomb Squad, to be his production team and added another Spectrum City partner, Professor Griff, to become the group's Minister of Information. With the addition of Flavor Flav and another local mobile DJ named Terminator X, the group Public Enemy was born."
In 1990, the group released Fear of a Black Planet which continued the politically charged themes. It was also the most successful of any of its albums and, in 2005, was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress. It included the singles "911 (is a Joke)," which criticized emergency response units for taking longer to arrive at emergencies in the black community than those in the white community, and "Fight the Power" . The song is regarded among the most popular and influential in hip-hop history and was the theme song of Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing. It is ranked the 84th best song of all time by Acclaimedmusic.net. "Fight the Power" contains the classic lines "Elvis was a hero to most/But he never meant shit to me/You see, straight-up racist that sucker was simple and plain/Motherfuck him and John Wayne."
The group’s next release, Apocalypse '91...The Enemy Strikes Black, continued this trend, with songs like "Can't Truss It" and "# I Don't Wanna be Called Yo Nigga." The album included the controversial song and video "By the Time I Get to Arizona," which chronicled the black community's frustration that some states did not recognize the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. The video featured members of Public Enemy taking out their frustrations on politicians in the states not recognizing the holiday.
The controversy and apologies on behalf of Griff spurred Chuck D to reference the negative press they were receiving. In 1990 Public Enemy issued the single "Welcome to the Terrordome", which contains the lyrics: "Crucifixion ain't no fiction / So-called chosen frozen / Apologies made to whoever pleases / Still they got me like Jesus". These lyrics have been cited by some in the media as anti-Semitic, making supposed references to the Chosen People with the lyric "so-called chosen" and Jewish deicide with the last line.
Public Enemy have also been criticized for homophobia. The song "Meet The G That Killed Me", from their Fear of a Black Planet, contained lyrics that portray gay men as being the perpetrators of the spread of the 1980s AIDS epidemic: "Man to man / I don't know if they can / From what I know / The parts don't fit / Ahh shit / How he's sharin' a needle / With a drug addict / He don't believe he has it either / ...But the bag popped".
Public Enemy have also endorsed Nation of Islam Supreme Minister Louis Farrakhan, who has been controversial for his commentary which is often strongly perceived as racist, black nationalist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic.
Public Enemy was a pioneering group in many ways. Some of Terminator X's most innovative scratching tricks can be heard on the song "Rebel Without a Pause," and the Bomb Squad offered up a web of innovative samples and beats. Critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine declared that PE "brought in elements of free jazz, hard funk, even musique concrète, via [its] producing team the Bomb Squad, creating a dense, ferocious sound unlike anything that came before.
Public Enemy revolutionized the hip-hop world with its political, social and cultural consciousness, which infused itself into skilled and poetic rhymes with raucous sound collages as a foundation. Prior to PE, political hip-hop was confined to a few tracks by Ice-T, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and KRS-One, as well as prototypical artists such as Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets. PE was the first hip-hop act to base its entire image around a political stance. With the success of Public Enemy, hip-hop was suddenly flooded with new artists that celebrated Afrocentric themes, such as Kool Moe Dee, Gang Starr, X Clan, Eric B. & Rakim, Queen Latifah, the Jungle Brothers, and A Tribe Called Quest. In the 1991 movie Terminator 2: Judgment Day, John Connor (Edward Furlong) wears a Public Enemy t-shirt throughout the entire movie, exhibiting its influence even in mainstream venues.
Public Enemy was the first hip-hop group to make extended world tours, which led to huge popularity and influence in hip-hop communities in Europe and Asia. It also changed the Internet's music distribution capability by being one of the first groups to release MP3-only albums, a format virtually unknown at the time.
Public Enemy helped to create and define "Rap metal" by collaborating with New York Thrash metal outfit Anthrax in 1991. The single "Bring tha Noize" was a mix of semi-militant black power lyrics, grinding guitars, and sporadic humor. The two bands, cemented by a mutual respect and the personal friendship between Chuck D and his Anthrax counterpart Scott Ian, introduced a hitherto alien genre to rock fans, and the two seemingly disparate groups even toured together. Flavor Flav's pronouncement on stage that "They said this tour would never happen" (as heard on Anthrax's Live: The Island Years CD) has become something of a legend in both rock and hip-hop circles. Metal guitarists Vernon Reid (of Living Colour) contributed to Public Enemy's recordings, and PE sampled Slayer's "Angel of Death" half-time riff on "She Watch Channel Zero."
Members of the Bomb Squad produced or remixed works for other acts such as Bell Biv DeVoe, Ice Cube, Vanessa Williams, Sinéad O'Connor, Blue Magic, Peter Gabriel, L.L. Cool J, Paula Abdul, Jasmine Guy, Jody Watley, Eric B & Rakim, Third Bass, Big Daddy Kane, EPMD, and Chaka Khan. According to Chuck, "We had tight dealings with MCA Records and were talking about taking three guys that were left over from New Edition and coming up with an album for them. The three happened to be Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, and Ronnie DeVoe, later to become Bell Biv DeVoe. Ralph Tresvant had been slated to do a solo album for years, Bobby Brown had left New Edition and blew up in 1988, and Johnny Gill had just been recruited to come in, but [he] had come off a solo career and could always go back to that. At MCA, Hiram Hicks, who was their manager, and Louil Silas, who was running the show, were like, 'Yo, these kids were left out in the cold. Can y'all come up with something for them?' It was a task that Hank, Keith, Eric, and I took on to try to put some kind of hip-hop-flavored R&B shit down for them. Subsequently, what happened in the four weeks of December  was that the Bomb Squad knocked out a large piece of the production and arrangement on Bell Biv DeVoe's three-million selling album Poison. In January , they knocked out Fear of a Black Planet in four weeks, and PE knocked out Ice Cube's album AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted in four to five weeks in February. They have also produced local talent such as Son of Bazerk, Young Black Teenagers, Kings of Pressure, and True Mathematics—and gave producer Kip Collins his start in the business.
According to Chuck, The S1W, which stands for Security of the First World, "represents that the black man can be just as intelligent as he is strong. It stands for the fact that we're not third-world people, we're first-world people; we're the original people [of the earth].
On the track "Louder Than a Bomb" from It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Chuck D reveals that the D in his nickname stands for dangerous.
The following are a part of the Bomb Squad, the revolutionary production group that is closely associated with (sometimes considered a part of) Public Enemy:
Chuck D is often listed as a member of the Bomb Squad under the pseudonym Carl Ryder, a shortened form of his real name.
The S1W, which stands for Security of the First World, is sometimes considered a part of Public Enemy as well. The members constantly rotate and have included among others