BALTIMORE -- The Baltimore Arena is abuzz with rap fans, most in their teens and early twenties, many of them sporting African medallions and Afrocentric fashions ranging from kente cloth scarves and kufi hats to Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela T-shirts. The rippling red-green-black rainbow of black nationalism is evident in a sea of work clothes and designer sportswear.

The fans have come for an all-star package that includes such pop-rap favorites as Heavy D and the Boys, Kid N'Play and Digital Underground. But the most powerful act, the one that has inspired much of the night's fashion and will provoke the most visceral response, is Public Enemy. (The show comes to Capital Centre tonight.)

In a sense, such racial pride is late-blooming payback for seeds sown when Chuck D, Public Enemy's chief writer, rapper and conceptualist, was 11-year-old Carlton Ridenhour, attending a Long Island summer camp organized by former members of the Black Panther Party in 1972. It was there that his sense of black history, culture, pride and empowerment were forged. Years later it would surface on "Yo! Bum Rush the Show," "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" and "Fear of a Black Planet," a trilogy of albums that established Public Enemy as the most radical, and politically charged, band in America, and Chuck D as the most critically acclaimed and (until Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew) controversial figure in rap.

"The game plan was to try to change the mentality of a young black America through the rap music that they liked," Chuck D, 29, explains. "We sowed our seeds in 1987 because we had to change the course of {events}. The type of rap music that was out at that time thrived on materialism and had an after-effect which countered what we were talking about. We basically had to attack that whole aura of 'I've got this, I've got that, I've got to get this, I've got to get that.'

"That was one of the things we wanted to chip away at -- try to make that 'lifestyle of the rich and famous' look taboo. So things that were wack in the mid-'80s are acceptable now, and things that were accepted in the mid-'80s now are for fools."

Along the way, Public Enemy constructed an agenda that stressed the importance of education, economic and social empowerment and self-determination, with the idea that black pride and power walk hand in hand, or as one song on the new album puts it, "Brothers gonna work it out." It was the beginning of a new wave of Afrocentric rappers that includes KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions, Queen Latifah, the Jungle Brothers, X-Clan, Poor Righteous Teachers -- and that infuses the work of many others as well.

"Now, a lot of artists are contributing, filling that avenue of communication up with information," Chuck D notes, proudly. "What's coming in the 1990s has spawned out of that development."

The last few years have also spawned ripples of controversy, specifically over Public Enemy's championing of Malcolm X and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and more generally over the uncompromising, contentious and confrontational approach that led to the group's being dubbed both the "Black Panthers of Rap" and the "Prophets of Rage."

A year ago the group nearly imploded after Professor Griff, the group's "minister of information," made several antisemitic comments in a Washington Times interview. There had never been antisemitic sentiments in the group's music, but protests from a number of Jewish organizations and intense media scrutiny put Chuck D in the position of denying or defending statements he had not made. The pressures led to a convoluted process in which Griff was fired and rehired in a nonspeaking position; Public Enemy briefly disbanded and then reformed. Situations were mishandled, while confusion and hostility reigned in and outside the group.

The flames were rekindled in December with the single "Welcome to the Terrordome," which some Jewish organizations claimed had antisemitic lines, particularly "apology made to whoever pleases. Still they got me like Jesus." Chuck D insisted the song, which covers many other topics, was simply his year-in-review appraisal, and said those lines expressed his feelings about his treatment by the media. "How could I not say something about it?"

He concedes that "last summer I was fighting, I was depressed, but I knew what I was doing and the group got bigger over handling the controversy. People talk about controversy making a group bigger; handling it makes it bigger. If you don't handle it, you're out of here. ... There will be no other situation like that."

Professor Griff is now out of Public Enemy, pursuing a career with his own group, the Last Asiatic Disciples.

Information Dispatchers When he talks, Chuck D is serious, reasoned and reasonable; like his art, he is not self-absorbed. On stage or on a recording, however Chuck D is an imposing presence, rapping in a booming baritone that shakes the rafters.

"I always wanted to be in sports, a statistician or a broadcaster," says the native of Hempstead, Long Island. "I got my voice number one by heredity -- from my Pops -- and number two, doing all my imitations of Marv Albert."

Until Chuck D went to Adelphi University in the early '80s, he says he "wasn't nowhere near music. I was into art and into design. I didn't foresee that I would ever be in records." Rap was still in its formative stages back then, street-bred and self-celebratory. What Chuck D brought to the table was vivid graphic imagery -- evident in martial garb and the group logo of a black man standing in a gun sight -- and a political sensibility inspired by an activist masquerading as a comedian.

Chuck D says he learned what KRS-One calls "edutainment" from activist-comedian Dick Gregory. "If it wasn't for him I don't think I could have come up with that combination. He came to Adelphi in 1981 and the beginning of his speech was 15 minutes of the funniest {material} I ever heard in my life. He caught our attention, everybody was cracking up and then suddenly he flipped it like this" -- Chuck D turns his open palm from up to down -- "and got real serious and to the point. I'd never seen anything like that in my life."

Certainly fans had never heard anything like Public Enemy, though in terms of social and political substance and ambition, there had been parallels in the music of Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley and Bob Dylan. Public Enemy, with producer Hank Shocklee at the controls, took rap to new places sonically, creating devastatingly funky dance grooves built on thick, pulsating layers of sound. The PE sound was as fierce as its beats were unrelenting.

"People put us in this {radical rap} pocket," Chuck D says, "but we come out and rock the house."

The group's impact, and Chuck D's stature, particularly among black youth, is evident as he strolls through his hotel lobby before the concert: Guests and workers come in a steady stream to shake his hand, to thank him, sometimes wordlessly. It's apparent that Chuck enjoys the attention, but he's also wary about being mistaken for what he's not.

"Once people start saying Chuck D is the leader, or KRS-One, what you're doing is ignoring the real leaders that are out there but don't do music," he says. "Once you take the responsibility of being a teacher, you overshoot your responsibilities.

"I call us dispatchers of information, and not more. I point to the leaders and speakers and teachers that have been studying social situations for 20 and 30 years; how am I going to come along in the form of song and teach people what they really need to know?

"Our job is to make the listener curious and begin to explore that information on their own. I think that's what rap music does -- it says check this out for yourself. It's no different than headline news: If you look at headline news, you're not going to get all the information; you have to expand upon it through your readings and others sources."

The 'Mind Revolution' Those sources are wide and varied, though critics tend to focus on the more controversial ones, from Malcolm X and Farrakhan to Frances Cress Welsing, a Washington psychiatrist whose theories on Eurocentric cultural domination, racism and white supremacy inform several songs -- and the very title of -- "Fear of a Black Planet."

"When we said 'too black, too strong' on 'Bring the Noise,' and people found out that was Malcolm X, they started getting into his speeches and trying to realize what Malcolm was saying," says Chuck D.

The same song had the lines "Farrakhan's a prophet and I think you ought to listen to what he can say to you." To Chuck D, the Nation of Islam is "an organization that has a lot of people liking it, respecting its leaders and its people and position. It's rebuilding the moral stature of the black man -- black men with strength -- and that's why that organization is feared."

Welsing's theories address such controversial concepts as whites' pigment envy, insistence on racial purity and fear of genetic annihilation. Chuck D says they're a surefire conversation starter. The album's title cut, for instance, points out the absurdity of racial classification through legal equations: "white man, white woman, white baby; black man, black woman, black baby; black man, white woman, black baby; white man, black woman, black baby."

"Then people begin to think about that for the first time and say 'Damn, that's true, I never thought about that,' " Chuck D says. "We're living in a reaction age; what Public Enemy tries to say is: Think before you talk, think before you do, think about it." (The song's chorus is "think, think, think.")

At a time when racial tensions and divisiveness seem to be on the rise -- from poor communities to elite campuses -- and when the advances of the '60s and '70s in education, health care, housing and family support seem to be imperiled by majority resentment and political indifference, some fear Malcolm X's suggestion that it may be "time to stop singing and start swinging."

"But there's other ways of swinging, without your fists," Chuck insists. "I've said from Day One our solution is a mind revolution, us becoming twice as intelligent. Not everything is a physical confrontation, and I think Malcolm was the first to say that. When ... your life is getting to the point where it's denied, then you've got to do whatever you have to do for survival, and that's obliterate whatever's directly in front of your face that's trying to deny you.

"But who are you gonna shoot if you don't know where your enemy is at, or what your enemy is? You could be shooting allies, and that's self-destruction.

"We're talking about fighting to win, using your brain to figure out which weapons to use in a particular fight. We're at war now, but it's a war of a different species and you have to learn how to fight in that particular war."

Will controversy wreck Public Enemy?

"It's my thing, I've been with it from Day One, I know what I'm doing and I know what's on the chessboard," says Chuck D. "I know what's behind me and I know what's in front of me. It's incumbent on me to keep my eyes on everything."