March 05, 1990 12:00 PM

Many rap stars build their careers on braggadocio; Public Enemy, by contrast, has become one of the most popular and influential rap groups in the country by writing politically charged songs about black pride and America’s racial problems. Since last May, however, the group has faced a prejudice problem of its own. It started when Public Enemy’s self-styled minister of information, Richard “Professor Griff” Griffin, 29, made wildly anti-Semitic remarks during an interview with a reporter from the Washington Times. A flurry of clarifications and apologies helped douse that fire, and the group, publicly chastened, went back to making music.

Or seemed to. Recently, Griff has gotten into trouble again, this time for allegedly calling a rival white rapper a “Jew bastard” during an altercation in the offices of the band’s record company. New York-based Def Jam Recordings. The outburst drove the label’s founder, Russell Simmons, to ban Griff from the premises. “I don’t like Professor Griff and I hate what he stands for,” said Simmons, who, like Griffin, is black. “Griff’s wildest imaginary Jewish conspiracy could not have done more damage to Public Enemy than Griff has himself.”

How Griff’s latest antics will affect the band—which last year contributed the incendiary anthem “Fight the Power” to the Spike Lee movie Do the Right Thing—remains to be seen. His position with Public Enemy is unusual but not insignificant; although he doesn’t sing with them, he performs quasi-military drills during their live shows and currently acts as the group’s designated liaison to the black community. So far, Carlton “Chuck D” Ridenhour, 29, Public Enemy’s lead rapper and guiding force, has not made himself available for questions about the Def Jam incident.

Perhaps Ridenhour is just tired of dealing with the problem, which has been building since last summer. That’s when Griff, an admirer of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, told the Washington Times that “Jews are wicked…[and responsible for] the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe.” In particular, he said that Jews financed the slave trade and were “responsible for what’s happening in South Africa” and wondered aloud whether it is “a coincidence that the Jews run the jewelry business and it’s named Jewelry?”

Readers, not surprisingly, went ballistic. Chuck D tried to control the damage by apologizing for Griff and issuing a statement declaring that Public Enemy was not anti-Semitic. Griff now says he spoke out of ignorance but also seems to stop short of a full apology. “I have friends I love who happen to be white and Jewish,” he says. “They sat me down and said, ‘Griff, you said this wrong, and this and this.’ They really spanked me. I thank them for it.”

The issue might have died there if Public Enemy hadn’t restoked the fires last December by releasing “Welcome to the Terrordome,” a single whose lyrics refer to the Washington Times debacle. Chuck D claimed that the song’s lines, which include the words “Crucifixion ain’t no fiction; so-called chosen, frozen,” weren’t meant to be offensive and are being misinterpreted by people who don’t understand rap language. Unpersuaded, Rabbi Abraham Cooper of Los Angeles, who spoke out against Griff the first time around, called the lyric “a slap in the face to every Jew.”

Not long afterward, Griff went center-stage once again, accepting an invitation from Columbia University’s Black Students Organization to give a talk. His Feb. 11 speech drew anti-Griff protesters as well as Griff supporters and filled a 400-seat hall. Although he didn’t discuss Jews, Griff did maintain that some leading universities “brainwash” blacks and that AIDS was a man-made disease that had been injected into black Africans.

The next day Def Jam issued a press release in response to the incident at the record company, which had occurred before the Columbia speech. Griff says he doesn’t remember calling the other rapper, Michael “MC Serch” Berrin, of the group 3rd Bass, a “Jew bastard,” but two eyewitnesses at Def Jam say that he did. The problem Public Enemy now faces was stated succinctly by Jonathan Skolnik, a Columbia senior. “I used to be a Public Enemy fan,” he says, “but now I think they’re laughable.”

—Steve Dougherty, J. D. Podolsky in New York City