Interview: Public Enemy’s Chuck D

by Terence Leung

Public Enemy - Photo:John Nikolai
Photo: John Nikolai (C) 2002

Undeniably, Public Enemy, Chuck D, Flavor Flav (and yes, his bloody clock necklace) and company are the founding pillars of rap and thusly, a founding pillar of modern pop-music. Under a very conservative music and political society in the late 80’s, Public Enemy jarred listeners with activism-fuelled songs such as “Bring the Noise” and “Fight the Power”, changing the scene of music and its pigeonholed point of view of African-American musicians.

In an online interview arranged by their new label Koch International two weeks ago along with a panel of journalists, we chatted with Chuck D about Public Enemy’s new album Revolverlution, hip-hop’s future, record labels and Michael Jackson.

Here is the transcript, which has been edited for size:

Question: Do you think that you will still be able to get people’s attention and make them listen to what you have to say?

Chuck D: Welcome to technology first of all… Yes, I mean hip hop is big music around the planet, Public Enemy is a big name around the planet and to say PE is not relevant is like saying black people are not relevant. I think for the first time Koch is a record company and distributor that looks at the world the same way we’ve looked at the world and TV radio and print and of course internet users, those areas will always be watched.

Question: How do you feel about the state of hip hop and rap music today as opposed to when you first came out?

Chuck D: When I first came out artists were developed to be different to support the art for. Today… artists are signed to be similar in the same vein that works to keep their contract…and support the company that they are signed to… bottom line…

Question: Apart from Public Enemy, it seems like there isn’t any militant hip-hop or hip-hop with a strong political message put out there anymore, as opposed to say the early 90’s. Hip Hop nowadays seems more focused on escapism than on realism. What are your thoughts on that?

Chuck D: From a major record label standpoint that is very true but I counter that on we have 17000 songs and more than 10000 artists who… come in various shapes forms and ideals, there are whole bunch of opinions, diverse opinions on the Internet.

Question: In what way can hip hop turn the back the clock, free itself from the middle-class mainstream and half-assed ‘soul’ and become the most rebellious, progressive and “under the radar”-music it was for so many years?

Chuck D: It’s under the radar already on the Internet…its rebellious and progressive if you include how the world is contributing to rap music and hip-hop. It’s very different than plainly staying American..

Question: As you grew older have your ideals that you had during the Public Enemy period of Yo! Bum Rush The Show and It Takes A Nation changed? Have they softened?

Chuck D: No if anything they have gotten more focused and more sharp…the more you learn the more you don’t know…

Question: You have a lot of projects besides making music. Can you explain why you’re still making music? Is that because it’s in you and need to get out or because you want to be heard?

Chuck D: I am a musician. I do music… and write words because it’s my enjoyment, I don’t count records… I don’t count web hits; I don’t judge records I write… I am creative and technology has allowed me the opportunity to be creative to the world, why not do it?

Question: How did PE come up with the idea to do the new record?

Chuck D: Going back to the last question, I have a strong voice, a real strong voice… We do records as an extension on what we are trying to establish, like, where we also are dealing with a bunch of artist to introduce to the world… PE is the viaduct for their exposure as well… I saw that the 15th year anniversary of PE is a prime time to present something that’s groundbreaking… and to answer the earlier question… the first 4 PE records were essential but the rest of PE albums I try to make groundbreaking… from He Got Game, which is the first full soundtrack by a rap artist…There’s a Poison Going On, the first downloadable album… Revolverlution, which was the first interactive participation album of its kind

Question: Question 2: Can you comment on your thoughts on the current hip-hop scene? What do you think of new producers like The Neptunes who provide underground beats for pop stars like Britney Spears.

Chuck D: I think the Neptunes are good.. I think Hip Hop today is mainstream pop enough for hip-hop producers to make music… I don’t think you stop at recognizing producers without researching other hip hop producers around the world .I think most hip hop producers are not as diverse as they should be for underground beats… means what after a while?

Question: What do you think of Michael Jackson’s latest complaint that the music-industry in the States works discriminating towards black artists (cf. ‘who picked Wilson’s pocket)

Chuck D: Well… racism has always been in the record industry. Michael Jackson has created his own race, so I guess it is racism. But it’s about time that Michael addressed it, in his case its racism at very high stakes.

Question: After your Lowlands 1999 performance, a lot of people called Public Enemy sellouts. How do you deal with comments like that?

Chuck D: A performance is a performance no matter where it’s at. When I talk about freeing Mumia, if a person can’t understand how deep that is, what’s the basis of their comment??? I’m confused by comments like that because I don’t understand where they come from, what their grounds are…

Question: Hip hop in The Netherlands nowadays is mostly overproduced and styled, while Public Enemy is still raw as ever. How has Revolverlution been received in a hip-hop climate where the most important ‘issues’ are luxury problems like cars, jewelry and women?

Chuck D: It’s received as from another era, like it should… but every era has cars, jewelry and women, its how you treat them and where you place them in your life you know… In the 50’s there was cars, jewelry and women too… in the 70’s there jewelry and women too, but coming from NYC there wasn’t a need for a car. I think cars, jewelry and women are much better topics than “gangsta” which I don’t really care for at all…

Question: Chuck, you’re working at so many levels: music, speeches on rap / race / reality, books? I think you could beat Will Smith in becoming America’s first black president. Would you ever consider going into politics?

Chuck D: No. I like moving around the world too much… don’t want to be in one place too long.. But I think the politicians of the future continue to use new technology and mass media to both inform the people, just as some will use it to control the people. Will Smith is a real possibility to become America’s first black president… myself… I’m the famous AND infamous…the blessing AND the curse, the villain AND the hero… the yin AND the yang.

Question: Public Enemy has been an inspiration for so many (hip hop) artists over the last decade and a half. What is your opinion on hip-hop music nowadays, and who do you see as the most possible successors, to follow up Public Enemy?

Chuck D: Since we have carved out own niche it’s hard to name new successors, and they shouldn’t be looked upon as such, but I dig Outkast. Dead Prez for their focus… and The Roots. Especially the Roots for their willingness to travel the earth and play hip hop music

Question: What is the biggest difference between P.E. 15 years ago and now?

Chuck D: Older… Longer shows, more records… Less memory (Laugh)

Question: What are Chuck D.’s expectations and hopes about the new album in terms of people being affected by the lyrics, beats record sales, opinions of the fans and press… did the response reflect those expectations

Chuck D: I have not expectations other than maybe the structure of the album being able to be copied and followed by hip hop acts… and the realization that technology can actually expose more to hip hop online. As well as bringing structure to the art form as with sports…And it’s “rites of passage” philosophy

Question: Revolverlution has new tracks, live tracks and remixes by fans. Why did you choose for this mix?

Chuck D: As opposed to doing a new album, live album, remix album… I thought the combination would be presentable by an “old-school” group in today’s marketplace… I believe that today’s marketplace has too many albums.. I believe albums over eight or ten songs are too long… retail demands that artists deliver 12 songs… and today the “burn” generation creates their own albums, and I created this album like someone one burn a cd. Chuck D: As to say in the same manner or way someone would burn a CD

Question: I think the album is your best since Fear of a Black Planet. It has fresh inspiration. What is the reason for that? Does it have to do with the political climate since the election of President Bush, 9/11, the war in Afghanistan and a possible war in Iraq? Or something else?

Chuck D: Bush, the Internet…the present questions that have been unanswered..the technology, being able to create music… Revolverlution means holding a revolver to the head of the industry with technology.

Question: What actually happened when Public Enemy decided to become a self-contained entity? What was wrong with your previous recording deal? Do you ever think, “Oh my God, we shot ourselves in the foot!”?

Chuck D: Why? It’s a Worldwide branded name, the sky’s the limit… why continue to have a job when you can enhance a business… Koch, by far, gives PE a worldwide vision that the previous deal did not supply.

Question: What should the masses do to educate themselves? How do you bring political and social awareness to a mainstream, blue-collar populous?

Chuck D: If gigantic changes don’t happen in school systems to prepare young people truly for society, then catastrophic events will happen force to seek this information. Pressure should be put on these captive areas of learning… To learn for self…

Question: What was the idea behind having the public remix some of your classic tracks? Whose idea was it?

Chuck D: It was our idea. It was based on gigantic online communities we had formed since 1998… technology has allowed producers to evolve from all over the planet. This is a great way to involve this talent. Public Enemy is a good attention grabber… to attract producers who want to get into music, or closed hip hop circles outside of NY. LA. and London.

Question: A lot of those remixes have a mostly electronic (techno) feel to them. Did you expect such an outcome? How do you feel about music crossbreeding – especially techno with hip-hop?

Chuck D: I think it’s great. In 462 mixes that came back and were evaluated by a 50 person virtual A&R staff at SlamJamz, which is groundbreaking in itself… all kinds of mixes came back, it was history….

Question: Rap is dead, Hip-Hop is dying – how would you answer this statement?

Chuck D: Number 1, if hip hop was dying and rap was dead… you wouldn’t sent such beautiful and elaborate newsletters around the earth about the art form… seriously… people have to understand that the World is Hip Hop is on the outside of their skull, not just inside their heads, barely beyond their noses. Yeah, more people sought to be different as opposed to similar, you can’t have 26 Jay-Z’s out there… the quality of hip-hop 10 years ago and the uses of sample sounds, took the extreme utmost musicianship of the 60’s and 70’s and formatted irreplaceable music that’s easier for voices to simply ride and flow on… and still… it gives the impression of a complete recording. The musicians from the 60’s and 70’s were probably some of the greatest of all time causes of the collision of the acceptance of all music’s leading up to that point. Therefore those recordings never had the same person playing drums, guitar, and bass at the same time.

CORRECTION: greatest of all time because of the collision… (not causes) And also…. since music is sampled from those records 10 years ago or 12 years ago, and used in hip hop…as opposed to someone with limited musician skills, trying to recreate those sounds, that has led to the less than impressive diversity and quality.

Question: What are the biggest cons to releasing material via the Internet?

Chuck D: You have to accept that it will be all over the earth, you have to reconfigure your business model…Myself.. I don’t mind, I think it’s great… High priority is to GET people music, I don’t fall into the equation of SELLING people music… record companies have abandoned artist development in place of song development and you can download the art but you can’t download the artist… I believe if you believe in the artist, the business model will form around the artist.

  • Interview: Public Enemy’s Chuck D
  • by Terence Leung
  • Published on September 1st, 2002

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