Interview: Chuck D of Public Enemy

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Many a suburban kid (myself included) learned about social injustice via Public Enemy back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The Long Island quintet galvanized hip-hop’s golden age with revolutionary rhymes, militant theatricality, the Bomb Squad’s groundbreaking dense production, and of course charismatically clownish hype man Flavor Flav.

While no longer packing arenas like their hey day, the group is more active than ever in multiple musical projects, political causes, and a touring schedule to rival Bob Dylan’s. Always innovators, the group is the first major artist to seek investors via Sellaband, which raises recording funds for musicians in exchange for shares in the finished album. On the 20th anniversary of their landmark album Fear of a Black Planet, we chatted with PE#1 Chuck D about timeless albums, the changing music industry, and of course politics in the age of Obama.*

DS: On Fear of a Black Planet, you explored many themes like black images in Hollywood. 20 years onward, how do you feel about the progress regarding these issues?

Chuck D: We set out to make records that stood the test of time, being inspired by What’s Going On and the great Beatles albums, you know, Abbey Road. We grew up in that period. It first started out in the rock world, then the soul world had great albums. Stevie Wonder, Isaac Hayes, and albums had themes and the themes, well, people would put their whole lives into the themes of albums. When we started recording the ‘80s, rap music had from a singles medium…and was thrust immediately into being this album medium only because the major record companies at that time only mainly operated from a profitable album standpoint.

We understood the magnitude of what an album was, so we set out to make something not only that epitomized the standard of an album, but would stand the test of time by being diverse with sounds and textures, and also being able to hone in on the aspect of peaks and valleys, so we set out to do that. And here we are, later on. The album was a statement because it actually took a college professor’s theory and turned it into a rap record, which was kind of over-the-top, but reflected where we were at, at that time and especially at that stage and our age, because we weren’t kids. I was a postgraduate college student. It wasn’t like I was 22 or 21. I was 30 years old.

DS: I was thinking about the title of the album, and I couldn’t help but think it’s more relevant than ever, what with the “birthers” and the reaction to the Obama administration.

Chuck D: Yeah, because all you have to do is take the “E T” off of it (laughing). It’s funny because E.T. was the extraterrestrial. You take off the “E T”, you have “Fear of a Black Plan” (laughing).

DS: That’s true. A lot of them are the same exact Bush plans, but for some reason…How would you rate Obama’s performance so far?

Chuck D: I think, number one, I tell people when I get tired I think about him and I get this energy, because I know he can really say that he’s tired. He reminds me of a kung-fu fighter who’s getting kicked at from 90 different angles, fending off kicks, and where does he get a chance to actually forward some of those promises? But obviously he knew what he was getting into better than most people. So he’s trying to figure out how to pace himself. I tell you this, he’s got the biggest broom in the history of mankind (laughing), cleaning up all that past shit.

DS: I definitely want to talk about the next album and the Sellaband model.

Chuck D: I not going to talk about Sellaband for more than two minutes, because it’s a 2011 record and the model was definitely influential as early as 2006 when I met Johan [Vosmeijer, co-founder] at an international music conference. It was a great model that worked in Europe. I would say, let’s see if we can work this in North America the same way, and finally I put my group up as an example that I was really putting my mouth wear my mouse was, as a believer. Really, it’s like, we can make albums in our own digital studios just like anybody can, but the thing that would make it different is somebody can invest in something that will be a uniquely different Public Enemy record, with each song brought to the table by a collaborator.

We had to present something different. We’re not going to raise some money and go back in our home studios and give you what we do for free anyway. It’s not like that. We’re trying to show that the system can work. Somebody can go, what does this mean, you guys are requesting $75,000. Well that’s just the cost of somebody investing in the 33% that’s available on the revenue end as being an investor. If somebody comes along with $15,000 after the fact, they can’t invest, so it has a cap on it. Somebody could come along with $3 million, but it’s not…it’s the process and the system that we’re trying to prove works.

DS: Well, it’s really inspiration what you guys are doing, and we’re definitely keeping track of that. You guys, especially you Chuck, are pioneers in digital music the past 15 years or so. Even longer, I think, because I remember the last track on [1994 album] Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age, where you’re talking to Harry Allen…

Chuck D: Yeah, I heard that track the other day for the first time in about 10 years (laughs).

DS: Yeah, it’s such a trip, huh?Chuck D: Yeah, it’s a trip.

DS: What do you think about the death of the music industry and all the things that are happening in our time? There are benefits, like the direct link between artists and fans, but also there’s a loss of revenue. Can I get your opinion on the state of the music industry, in general?

Chuck D: I think the state of the music industry…it’s always going to be somewhere. It’s always going to be morphing into someplace. I think the biggest issue is that some of the people who have been on one side – have they jumped to the other side or are they still raking in people to expend their dollars as being the pied pipers of the other side of the industry? (laughs) So, the music business is healthy; the record is not, because it’s still kind of holding on to old models.

But people like recordings. They might not collect albums like they used to. They might not even want an album. Today’s demographic may not think an album really has the same appeal, like sitting back in 1977 and having a pair of headphones and lounging back on your seat and envisioning what they possibly could not see unless at a concert or on an appearance on a variety show. But now, there’s so much sight to the sound that our definition of what we think is the main configuration is totally distorted by everybody’s point of view. So I think it’s an interesting time. I don’t think there’s any domination in this space of music except for maybe cell phones and maybe, in the near future even more so, Apple.

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DS: I see a lot of veteran acts hesitant to the times. Why do you think you have embraced all these changes?

Chuck D: I had no other choice. I was done with the major system, so I was thinking there’s got to be a way I can deliver art to the masses without having the people at my company stop my own music or my own art. I would shoot videos and at the same time here my company comes telling me I got to change a logo in my video, which is going to me $10,000 in order for MTV to possibly consider it.

DS: Which video was this?

Chuck D: It was any of them. You had to make adjustments. So many rap videos had to make adjustments in the mid’90s, it got stupid. It’s like I got to fade out this logo, because they don’t want me wearing this Cincinnati Reds logo because they think I’m promoting the Reds and they’re not getting a piece, and you guys, at my record companies just in cahoots with them, saying well, fuck it, if you don’t change they’re not going to play your video, so it’s going to cost you $10,000 more and we’re not going to put this video out until you make this change because we’ll be wasting our time and wasting our money sending it to a company that’s not going to play [the video]. So I got tired of all those dynamics. I was like, fuck that, I got to go straight to people. That was the thing that set fire under my ass.

DS: I can’t help but think of your classic “By the Time I Get to Arizona”. I’m sure a lot of people have been asking you about it recently. When you documented the struggle to get recognition for the Martin Luther King holiday in that state, did you see any parallels with what’s going on there today with Arizona SB 1070?

Chuck D: I wrote this song that’s going to be on my solo project coming out this month called “Tear Down That Wall”. I had talked about just the one-sided bias of that U.S.-Mexico border madness, not only in Arizona, but also in Texas, New Mexico and Southern California, that that whole policy was being funded into the billions and one of the sloppiest, misunderstand reasons in all the country. A lot of people didn’t know what went on. So when Arizona enacted this racist, racial profiling, Gestapo law, this song was already done. This had already been the sentiment along that borderline.

DS: Are you guys participating in any type of boycott?

Chuck D: Not that I know of. I’m participating in the boycott virtually. We don’t have anything scheduled in that area of Arizona. Maybe in October when we allow ourselves to do a West Coast run, we’ll see where we are. The seven legs are already set in stone for this Fear of a Black Planet tour.

DS: Are you going do the album in its entirety, like you did for It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back a few years back?

Chuck D: We were trying to, but I think there will be places where we’ll do it and places where we’ll not do it. Sp we’re doing like 70 or 60% and meshing it with Nations and some new cuts. It depends on where we’re at, because a lot of times there’s time restraints.

DS: Yeah, it’s a long album.

Chuck D: Yeah, it’s a long album. Fear of a Black Planet comes into play in the area of medley and other stuff, so we rip through the first 40 minutes of it, then we drift off and come back to it, so… Nations is an up-tempo record, so it works from beginning to end, the way it comes at you. Fear has peaks and valleys, for a great album’s listening sake, but live you have to position it…or act really well within it.

DS: Many fans, including me, are wondering you’re ever going to tour again with only the turntable accompaniment. I know you guys have had the live band setup for years now.

Chuck D: Maybe if I do it by myself, like a solo rendition with DJ Lord or DJ Johnny Juice. We have components that are able to do that. After a while I get bored of it. Back when we were doing it in the Terminator X days, the biggest that we have was skipping (laughing). We had so much movement on the stage that the record would jump, so it was like the most frustrating thing ever, man. I was like, we have to figure out a way to have prerecorded music with the turntables, and that was kind of what we latched onto. Prerecorded music, turntables and the band to give differences variances of sound. But if you do it the pure way, you just can’t have a lot of movement. Most rappers don’t have a lot of movement.

DS: So do you enjoy opportunities for improvisation?

Chuck D: Yeah, of course. Flavor’s good at it. I’m good at it. I enjoy it.

DS: It was exciting to have you appear at the Green Festival recently.

Chuck D: Oh yeah, I had a good time there.

DS: How long have you been working on environmental issues?

Chuck D: About three years. A group of mine I brought out there three years ago, Crew Grrl Order, who just completed a video for an album called Go Green which is apropos for what is happening in the Gulf. It’s on SlamJamz [Chuck D’s record label] and their video will debit in another week or two.

DS: What are you and other environmental activists suggesting that people like me do in response to  this terrible spill and its ongoing ramifications? People kind of feel helpless right now. What would you suggest?

Chuck D: I would just say keep spreading the word about what people can do to take care of their own environment. Maybe that’s the best balance. Look around you and try to do the best that you can. That’s my best advice.

*For more information on Chuck D and Public Enemy, please visit:www.publicenemy.comwww.slamjamz.comwww.hiphopgods.com

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