Born in Queens, New York City and raised in Roosevelt, Long Island, both of his parents were political activists. Ridenhour was a highly intelligent student, turning down an architecture scholarship to study graphic design at Adelphi University. While in school, he made promotional flyers for hip hop events and went on to co-host a hip hop radio show on the campus radio station with two future Public Enemy associates, Bill Stephney and Hank Shocklee. Under the name Chuckie D, he rapped on Shocklee's demo track, "Public Enemy No. 1", which caught the attention of Rick Rubin at Def Jam Recordings. Ridenhour changed his stage name to Chuck D and assembled Public Enemy.
The group debuted in 1987 with Yo! Bum Rush the Show and released their second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the following year. Fear of a Black Planet in 1990 and Apocalypse 91... The Enemy Strikes Back in 1991 consolidated Public Enemy's position as one of the most influential hip hop groups. Their politically-charged lyrics and messages created controversy but established Ridenhour as one of the most intelligent and articulate spokesmen for the African-American community. He became an in-demand speaker on the college lecture circuit and was frequently invited to provide interviews on television news programs.
1994's Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age was not as successful or as impactful as Public Enemy's previous albums, and the group was put on hiatus. In 1996, he released his debut solo album, Autobiography of Mistachuck, and published the book version of his autobiography the following year. Public Enemy was reformed in 1998 and left Def Jam one year later over the label's refusal to allow him to distribute Public Enemy's music free over the Internet. He became an outspoken advocate of MP3 technology, and Public Enemy was the first major musical act to release a full-length album using the Internet with 1999's There's a Poison Goin' On.
Chuck D is known for his powerful rapping voice and is often acclaimed as one of the most distinct and impressive in hip hop. He continues to present lectures and continues to tour with Public Enemy.