Q&A With Chuck D of Public Enemy
Public Enemy's Chuck D is among the greatest innovators in hip-hop, and unlike so many of his peers, who’ve either disappeared from the scene or have transitioned into other sectors of the entertainment universe, such as acting or reality TV, he’s still spitting rhymes with something approximating his original fury. How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who’ve Sold Their Soul???, the latest CD by his band, is an up-and-down affair, but its best moments serve as reminders of PE’s power and influence.
The following Q&A, inspired by a Public Enemy appearance previewed in the October 25 edition of Westword, covers plenty of ground, beginning with Chuck D’s comments about the twenty years that have passed since PE’s groundbreaking debut album, 1987’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show. He shares his thoughts about the meaning of this anniversary to him; the importance of live performances, which are frequently given short shrift in hip-hop; the way symbols and visuals can enhance a listener’s musical experience; the long-ago departure from the group of the since-returned Professor Griff (the subject of a 1993 Westword article resurrected here); the slow destruction of the major-label system; a defense of file sharing; some of his guerilla marketing efforts, including his decision to personally hand out vouchers for the new album in Manhattan earlier this year; ringtone rap, which he sees is nothing new; specifics about several Soulless People tracks, including an “Eve of Destruction” cover, “The Long and Whining Road,” which is built upon Bob Dylan quotes, and “Sex, Drugs and Violence,” an attack on hip-hop-lifestyle excesses; Flavor Flav, whose ridiculous VH1 show, Flavor of Love, has drawn criticism from many longtime PE fans; and Air America, the left-tilting radio network with which he’s been associated for several years.
Clearly, Chuck D is still tuned in.
Westword (Michael Roberts): Your first album came out in 1987, so the new album marks your twentieth anniversary. Is that an achievement you take particular pride in? Especially since you’ve been under attack for so much of that time?
Chuck D: I don’t pay attention to the attacks. I’d just say that when I first started off, they didn’t call rap music “music.” They didn’t give it a legitimate title. And they said it didn’t have any long-lasting power. So twenty years is definitely an achievement, because we’ve been able to do it in sound and fury, just like the Sex Pistols. We’ve been able to do it with some important standards when it comes to audio recordings. We’ve been able to make some important video statements over the years. And we’ve been able to set the standard on stage. You always have to have something to shoot for, to improve, and that’s why I felt what we’ve covered over the past twenty years. So yeah, it’s something you look forward to, because I was always able to look at myself and make parallels to other genres. That was something I always used as a benchmark.
WW: It’s interesting that you put such an emphasis on live performances, since a lot of hip-hop artists don’t seem to put much of a focus on the concert setting, and Public Enemy always did. Why has that been so important to you throughout the band’s career?
CD: Because I realized it was performance art. And also, being a collector of records myself – myself and Hank Shocklee – we always realized that the music that came out of other genres, recording fruits weren’t guaranteed. So artists had to really cut it on stage. Now, we didn’t have much of a template to follow, although there was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Run D.M.C. and Whodini. They did make a template for us as far as how we could make a blend between rap and rock and other sonic outbursts, and make it formidable on stage, with energy, passion and effort. But in ’87, ’88, we definitely had to look at other genres. We had to look at it as, when somebody comes into a concert, their number one priority is to see and then to hear. I think a lot of people probably looked at the other way, thinking that when they come into a concert, they want to hear you first and then see you. But in a sense, we said, that’s a golden rule that we could base our performance ability on – that we’ll come up with some good sight and sound that will carry us a long way.
WW: Visuals have always been important to you. I remember you talking way back in the day about how you wanted the Public Enemy logo to have the same kind of impact that the Rolling Stone lips-and-tongue logos or other famous rock logos had. Is that something you thought about from early on? That the sound was important, but the visuals could enhance that sound?
CD: Yeah. We learned from the rock and roll guys, especially in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s – guys like Iron Maiden and Slayer. They had logos, they had a different sound that signified their identity. Anthrax, too. We knew that what they were doing in their particular genre was trendsetting, but there was a lot of them, and there weren’t a lot of us. If you’re a rock band and you’re doing thrash metal, you’ve got a logo, you’ve got your tour: Okay, that’s commonplace. But being a rap group, a logo was rare. Being able to come up with a different beat-per-minute that was different from everybody else was rare. We were able to carve our own niche, and we knew that immediately, even if they just didn’t get it, there’d be a long term effect. We’d be able to hang that on the wall.
WW: You mentioned at the outset that, in many ways, you didn’t pay much attention to the attacks. But the series of events that led to Professor Griff leaving the group for a time seemed pretty unprecedented at the time, at least to me. I had the opportunity to interview him back in 1993 when he wasn’t part of the group and he was traveling the college circuit. Do you think he grew as a result of what happened? Or do you think he would have grown anyhow even if none of those things had happened?
CD: I think maybe all of it was necessary, and also, we all grew. But you can’t blame Griff and myself and others for being angry black men who saw a lot of hypocrisy. And I think from Griff’s standpoint, traveling around the world, he saw a lot of hypocrisy. That conversation is still a hot topic today. I remember how it started. It was borne out of a conversation in the U.K. talking about Israel and Palestine. Talk about a hot potato. People still can’t handle that conversation today. How the hell is a music journalist going to handle something a political journalist can’t handle? But we had the audacity as black men to talk about a lot of things we weren’t supposed to talk about. I’m not saying we were right. But to grow up black and to see hypocrisy brings anger. It doesn’t mean you can do anything about it.
WW: You railed against the corporations that ruled the music business long before it became fashionable. At this point, do you get any satisfaction out of what appears to be the slow death of that entire system?
WW: (Laughs) Can you elaborate on that?
CD: I’m eating a Quizno’s sandwich, so hold on. (A few chews later.) I’m a beneficiary of the system when it worked. I just thought the system was too exclusive. It didn’t allow my artistry to spread on its own terms. The system that bore me, that created us, also created a dependency. And it also favored that the artists distanced themselves from the public as much as possible. So it was a long time coming before the public eventually found a format that it found that was ready made for their uses, and the industry didn’t come up with it. But me, being an artist, I’m always going to be on the side of the public. I’m not going to be on the side of the industry at all. That’s just the way it is. I was playing Rock the Bells this past summer, and one of the journalists said, “These are artists past their selling peak.” And I said, “That’s a stupid statement,” because every single artist aside from maybe Justin Timberlake is past their record selling peak. Every artist. That goes from Bruce Springsteen on down. It goes from Britney Spears on down. It goes from the Pussycat Dolls on down. It’s just that records aren’t sold and they don’t have the emphasis they once did. But that doesn’t mean musicians and artists don’t have an emphasis that’s important to do. I think it’s important for artists to understand that this is performance, and an effort of love and understanding has to be made to push art out there.
WW: Your comment about everyone being past their selling peak is very prescient. If the whole release-date competition between Kanye West and 50 Cent had taken place back in, say, 2003 instead of a few weeks ago, they would have probably sold two or three million copies apiece instead of less than one million apiece.
CD: Plus, the whole entire business was just looking at those two. They were relying on those two. Before the business used to rely on maybe fifty to sixty different acts. And now it’s relying on ten. That tells you how scary that is – for them to have to put all their chips on rap (laughs). I think that all comes down to Universal.
WW: You alluded earlier to being on the side of the people, which brings to mind your comments in favor of file sharing. A lot of artists seem to feel that file sharing is taking their livelihood away, but you seem to feel that getting the message out there is more important than collecting every last dollar you possibly can. Am I on the right track?
CD: Number one, the dollar can’t be your god. Number two, any file that goes out there with your name on it is an incredible business card. And so I think the bottom line to performance art is performing. So any file out there, be in audio or visual, should only bring you right back to the artist, and the artist should do his best to become an act. And when an artist becomes an act, it takes us right back to the beginning of what this thing is all about – people getting a chance to feel and believe and touch an artist. The live performance area is bigger than ever and festivals are growing, and people have their favorites. So I look at downloading a song no different than people checking out videos from ten or fifteen years ago on YouTube, or somebody going to a MySpace page and interacting with a blog. I think those are necessary components for artists in the years to come.
WW: You’ve used a lot of different methods to get your music out there, and I came across a press release that you’d made a deal with a company called Intent Media to allow downloading tracks for free on peer-to-peer networks as long as people watched brief ads beforehand. Did that happen? And if so, how did it happen?
CD: Yeah, I guess I’m working, and I’m pleased with that.
WW: Have you gotten any numbers about how many people have taken advantage of that opportunity?
CD: No, numbers get to be too much for me. Ever since 1986, I’ve never counted. I only make them. My head is packed with a matrix of words, and facts and figures from somewhere else – I can’t even begin to get into counting and tracing album sales and all that. It’s too much for me. My thing is creating. I don’t count.
WW: Do you fear that if you got too wrapped up in the counting part of it that it would impinge on your creativity?
WW: I understand that in July, you actually went to Union Square in Manhattan and handed out free vouchers for the CD. What was that experience like?
CD: It was fine. I’m a man of the people, so I never look at being out in the public as being this rare day.
WW: Were people surprised to see you in that setting? I can’t imagine many other people of your stature in the history of popular music being out there like that.
CD: I don’t know. I don’t pay attention to my stature like that.
WW: What kind of reaction did you get? Did people freak out to see you like that?
CD: There’s usually always surprise. But I’ve been doing that for twenty years, so it’s not anything new to me. I ride the trains. It’s the best way for me to get into the city, so I’m definitely going to ride the trains and get out there quicker.
WW: Let’s talk about the new album. The word “soul” in the title translates to a lot of the music. There’s definitely a soulful feel to the title track and some of the others. Does that reflect what you’ve been listening to these days.
CD: I think soul isn’t just something you hear, it’s something you feel. And it’s something that can harken back to your original feelings about how you want to think about life and music. For example, the answer to the album’s question, how can you sell soul to a soulless people who sold their soul – the answer is that you don’t. My thing is, I have a firm belief that we have to give soul away in order for people to recognize it. Like a taster test. You don’t sell soul. You give it away, and then they’ll recognize soul.
WW: That ties into what we were talking about with file sharing.
CD: Exactly. I’m not part of the business equation of how the record gets sold. I’m part of the equation of how I make it, and how to make it embracing. That’s my job. My job is how to make somebody like it. My job is not to try to sell it to them. I’m usually a difficult business partner, so to speak.
WW: Because you’re looking at the effect you want to achieve, not necessarily the bottom line?
CD: Exactly. It’s about the effect. And I’m not concerned about spending. I’m just not concerned about the money aspect at all. I’ve got kids in college, so it’d be great if things worked out a certain way. But I’m not into the spending aspect, and I’m not into figuring out how we can have a windfall. If it happens, I’m thankful and I’m blessed. I’ll tell you one thing: I’m never into spending a lot and thinking that money grows money. That’s beyond my thoughts. If I did that, I’d be into stocks or some other kind of investment type of business other than songwriting.
WW: Some people will be quite surprised by the cover of “Eve of Destruction” and all the Dylan references in “The Long and Whining Road.”
CD: If they’re surprised, I don’t know if they really follow music (laughs). If anybody’s checked Public Enemy out through the years, they know we were DJs who come with a thorough sense of musicology. But I do kind of know why they’d react that way. They just think, Public Enemy – rap. 50 Cent – the same. And in many ways, it is the same, because we’re black men in America. But in many ways, we’re not, because we’re twenty years apart in age.
WW: You’ve talked about from the beginning your understanding of other genres – and your understanding that hip-hop is connected to that, even if it doesn’t always follow the exact same musical patterns.
CD: Right. And I think being a wordsmith, you have to make an effort to make things interesting not just to yourself, but to people who are listening, other than what they just hear initially. My thing is, it’s not what you hear all the time. Sometimes it’s what you hear and what you can go into thinking about, so that you can go, “Whoa, that’s clever.” I think a lot of the wit and the ability to be clever with the words had left the music for the sake of the quick, easy route to a youth audience. And I think it’s cool for some. But I think if you’re rapping, you can use the vocabulary and the words to be creative. So I just wanted to tell the story of Public Enemy referencing Dylan titles, almost like an Easter egg discovery type of thing. And also, you know, Dylan was a spokesperson of a generation as I guess people have said I was, and I thought it would be interesting. Now, somebody came up to me and said, “You came up with ‘Long and Whining Road.’ Isn’t that a Beatles record?” And well, the Beatles didn’t start making a little bit of a conscious effort in their music until they got weeded up with Dylan (laughs). I think what’s missing is that a lot of the songs being written today don’t have a story that goes beyond their lyrics. As a fan of music, I’m just as interested in the story about the artist and the song as the songs themselves. So it isn’t always about just hearing the song. It’s hearing beyond the song.
WW: Right now, there’s a term out there I know you’ve heard: ringtone hip-hop. The idea is, people are simplifying things to a huge degree because they know it’ll only be heard for fifteen seconds out of the speaker of a phone…
CD: That happened with the advent of the CD. Because the CD allowed you to go to a track immediately, and if you didn’t like it, you were only giving it ten or fifteen seconds anyway. So the ringtone mentality or sensibility started happening when the CD started becoming popular. You couldn’t really do it with a cassette. And with a record, it was tedious to pick up the needle and find the track. But CDs made it really convenient and easy, and it made the listener kind of lazy. So I tell producers this all the time: I tell them, sometimes a good song doesn’t get great until the middle of it. What happened to that? What happened to crescendo build-ups? What happened to the great endings? If we’ve got a ringtone culture, you’re not going to get past fifteen seconds to even discover that. What would be the use of even making albums them? Which are questionable to today’s masses. You’re a reviewer, so once upon a time, you had umpteen amount of CDs. Did you ever have the listening time to listen to a CD more than twice? Probably not. And did CDs make it easier for you to go track the track quickly?
CD: Right. But if you’d been doing your job for twenty or thirty years, you’d get a recording, you’d get a record, and very few people were really making albums compared to 45s – and then you had cassettes come to your desk, and you were kind of forced to listen through a lot of stuff whether you liked it or not. But the digital era has made a lot of people lazy, made them kind of quick-triggered on the opinions as well as the manufacturing.
WW: Pop music has always been cyclical. Do you see the album concept coming back around? Or, because of the technology, are we seeing the last days of 80 minute statements?
CD: I think we’re in 1963, 1962, where the single is the god. Record companies never want to admit to that, and still probably don’t admit to it. I think Internet radio and satellite radio is like AM radio was. FM radio is too stale, and people are leaving that by droves. I think Internet radio and satellite radio are on the increase, because they’re niche oriented. And I think as far as the album statement is concerned, it reflects the amount of time people can record. In the middle of the ‘60s, you had garage bands who could make a recording and immediately getting it pressed up on a 45. I think the availability of recording today and the digital set-ups for recording makes it easier for people to make albums. So I don’t think the album as a format will disappear. But the collection of songs will take place: iTunes isn’t the second largest retailer of music in the country for nothing. I’ve been saying since the turn of the century that digital means it’s a singles medium. I think also that the Viacom networks, they’re swallowing their own blood. The facts that so many clips can be done on YouTube by artists and fans alike is a beautiful thing. Why would a person wait for a television to play them something when they can access it themselves? So I think the video has a place to stand now better than ever.
WW: So you don’t feel like Justin Timberlake, who said on the MTV Video Music Awards, “Play more videos.” You understand that they’re not going to – but there are plenty of other places for people to see more videos already.
CD: Justin Timberlake is an artist. He’s no different than a ballplayer who only knows how to hit the ball out of the park and not hit pop-ups. He doesn’t know the mechanics. He just does this thing and gets a check, and I know he loves the music. But he’s an artist, and the industry wants artists to remain artists. Technology usually rules the roost. It’s not usually up to what we think anyway.
WW: Also on the album is the song “Sex, Drugs and Violence,” which is very critical of the current hip-hop lifestyle. Does it surprise you that there are so few songs like that? Or does it make perfect sense that artists don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them.
CD: KRS-One is a god, and he’s going to play his position – and I’m proud to play in the position with him. I’m not a peer of a twenty or thirty year old who’s trying to make friends. You’ve got to understand: Younger people want older people to stand their ground. They might not want to listen to them, but they want them to stand their ground. Simple as that. They don’t want older people to capitulate and all of a sudden try to be their best friend. They want older people to stand their ground, and older people shouldn’t expect younger people to automatically flock to them, and to what they deliver. So it just had to be said. The producers, Amani K. Smith and Gary G-Wiz, were excellent in translating that.
WW: Hearing you refer to yourself as an older person seems bizarre to me…
CD: I always was an older person from day one (laughs). I was ten years older than LL Cool J on my first record, so how does that make me feel?
WW: It’s like professional sports. You’re forty and you’re ancient.
CD: I can roll with that. B.B. King is 88 or something like that and he’s still doing gigs strong. I’m old in a young music, which is great.
WW: I haven’t seen you make many comments about the Flavor of Love show on VH-1. What do you make of it?
CD: Flavor’s always been a superstar. He’s the most visual person I know, and he’s tailor-made for anything they have ready for him on TV, because you can’t take your eyes off him, and he’s always been the same guy. When I attack Viacom, I’m attacking the fact that they don’t diversify and they don’t really give ownership easily. So I’ll always attack them, because I’m never a person who’s begging for TV. I’ve got Flavor Flav in the band. He’s to me the most tremendous asset, and he’s the greatest hype man ever, because he invented the mold. And he’s a great musician, too. Come into Boulder and he’s right there doing his thing, man, it makes it very easy on me.
WW: I wanted to ask you a little bit about your participation in Air America. When you were first approached about the project, how was it described to you?
CD: The fly in the buttermilk. The one liberal voice that makes some sense against a sea of cheese-steak eating rightists (laughs). I’m still there. I do a Sunday night show from eleven to one. And it’s enjoyable doing it once a week.
WW: Why do you think it hasn’t caught on more? You look at the polls, and every one seems to show that a majority of Americans are no longer in love with the Bush administration. Why hasn’t it gotten a better foothold?
CD: Liberals are more diverse, and they go to different aspects of entertaining themselves. They’re involved in different things other than just sitting by a radio.
WW: What do you think is the best way to make that format work?
CD: I don’t know, but there’s definitely a need for it heading into 2008. Because most Americans are clueless about who’s going to be the next president. If anybody needs it, they need it more than ever.
WW: Are you ready to give your endorsement yet?
CD: I’m totally clueless, too (laughs). I’d like to see somebody like Barack Obama and [John] Edwards be on the same ticket. But the Democrats have got to put their egos aside and strategize. And I’m also upset that this country doesn’t have more than two parties. That’s a sour note.