I DID this interview with Chuck D in August 1999, ahead of the release of Public Enemy’s seventh album, There’s A Poison Goin’ On. Can you tell that I didn’t really know what I was talking about when it came to all the downloading e-webnet business?
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THE bar and grill of the Regent’s Park Hilton is perhaps not the most obvious place to meet a musical urban guerilla of the stature of Public Enemy rapper and chief propagandist Chuck D. But sure enough, walk through the swing doors held open for you by a liveried concierge and there he is.
He’s easy enough to spot. Aside from his manager Walter, busy taking care of business on the other side of the room, Chuck is the only black man in the place. Alone at a table between interviews he seems at home, comfortable even, among his well heeled fellow guests, using the free time to jot down notes in the ever present notebook.
Despite the baseball cap and the head-to-toe black Adidas, Chuck doesn’t look like a successful hip hop artist supposedly should. With body adornment limited to a simple silver chain around his neck, a not particularly ostentatious watch on one wrist and of all things, a copper rheumatism band on the other, he exudes an understated style a world away from the fat gold chains of LL Cool J and the Rolex-cool of Jay-Z.
But we wouldn’t expect anything less. Public Enemy have always eschewed the dubious delights of hip hop’s love of conspicuous consumption – choosing instead to concentrate on harsh realities which affect us all rather than the exclusive pleasures of the lucky few.
PE adopted a genuinely revolutionary stance, at once uncompromising, unforgiving and, it should be said, pretty uncomplicated. They were tightly focussed, structured like a military unit, distrusting of outsiders and seemingly unperturbed that their radical, pro-black mesage was often percieved as being anti-white.
They called their third album Fear Of A Black Planet. Assuaging the fears of white liberals and rednecks alike wasn’t – still isn’t – high on their list of priorities.
“We do songs, we play our music and we hope that we make some of those songs come alive in performance,” explains Chuck. “We hope we make some people think about the things we talk about. It’s as simple as that.”
Of course, there’s much more to it than that.
These days, in part, in reaction to their experiences of the often white-owned and run music business, they feel embittered and cheated. They are aggrieved that, as they see it, their hard work has made other people rich, people such as Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, who were behind their old label Def Jam.
What started out as a label run by enthusiasts and friends turned into just another corporate concern, “the abyss” as Chuck succinctly puts it.
But rather than getting mad .. actually, as well as getting mad, Public Enemy are getting even.
Once upon a time, the British Phonographic Industry sponsored a campaign telling us that Home Taping Was Killing Music. It was a rather clumsy manifestation of the paranoia felt by the industry in the face of rising sales of blank tapes. Most people took little notice and carried on taping. However, over the last five years, a more concrete threat has emerged in the form of mp3.
Capitalising on the burgeoning online empire which is built around the band’s website, which has seen no less than 10million hits since it was set up three years ago, Public Enemy have become leaders in the field of internet music access, where their songs are compressed into mp3 files which the public can freely access and download onto their own computers.
Established methods of distribution, via traditional record companies, with all their top-heavy bureaucracy and costly overheads, are by-passed completely, giving the public a level of access to artists that was previously unheard of, at a cheaper price than usual, while also giving artists direct access to the public at the same time.
The rapper believes that the internet will account for perhaps 30 per cent of the band’s music sales within five years, although he falls shy of forecasting the end of the music industry, just yet.
“We can get a track out there quick, rather than waiting for the traditional systems to catch up,” he says, shifting in his seat, smoothly moving into propaganda mode. “We can bypass the three Rs of Radio, Retail and Record companies. We don’t have to deal with the politics of all that. Our thing is that we’re continuing to make art for the people and if we can cut out the middle man, and the politics of the middle man, then why not?”
You don’t think that the internet will destroy the music industry then, I ask, a little disappointed.
“No, it’ll make it adapt. The whole thing of downloadable music will give everyone an opportunity to share the market place. It allows small producers to get their music out there to the public without having to go through a third party. It’s that thing about, Come One, Come All, Come to the Download Ball! Heheheheh.”
He says that it’s not unusual for one person to have the technology to burn music downloaded from the internet into writeable CDs and to make copies for 20 of their friends.
“So I can’t speak for other genres, but as far as hip hop and rap goes, the internet has the potential to be a big service area.”
But when you buy a record, isn’t part of what you’re buying the cover and the lyrics and the sleeve? Aren’t people buying artefacts as much as anything else?
“People will have that option,” he says, picking up a copy of the new album, There’s A Poison Goin’ On. “That’s the beautiful thing about a supersite – everything is there, the sleeve, the lyrics, the whole package. There’s a lot more stuff than you could ever buy in a store.”
He waves the full-colour sleeve around.
“I got a printer on my computer where I could get all this and then some. People could download my book, which is maybe 50 pages on the web, off the same site..”
And that’s something that no record company would ever consider doing.
“Right, anything’s possible.”
Chuck forsees a time when up to 50 alternate mixes of songs from the album would be available over the internet, which again, no traditional record company would ever consider releasing. He’s enthusiastic about internet radio, which can broadcast music all over the world simultaneously, and in particular, an ongoing project, Rapstation, which will act as a resource database linking every rap and hip hop-related site on the internet. He is nothing if not ambitious.
“People see the internet as a threat to the market place, I just think it forces the market place to expand, people are forced to share information. Major and independent record labels who sell their product through traditional outlets have to understand that the more they attack the internet, the more it will bite them. If they pet it, who knows? It may turn out to be a dog that actually watches their bottom line.”
And much of the time, that’s what it’s all about: the bottom line. Although he places himself and his band firmly in the category of artists, the rapper is aware that art isn’t enough. Money plays a part too.
The last song on the album, Swindler’s Lust, is dedicated to the generations of black artists – from Billie Holliday in the Thirties to Eric B & Rakim in the Eighties – who were cheated out of their earnings by music biz shysters.
He’s determined that Public Enemy don’t become the latest in a long line of ripped-off artists. So how does selling music over the internet affect his all-important bottom line?
“See, when you deal with normal record companies, you deal with 10 or 12 per cent of the net. I’d rather be more of a joint venture partner. If a CD goes for $2, I know at least that I’ll get a dollar.”
He looks at my blank, uncomprehending expression and tries to simplify things a little.
“It’s almost like I got an apple stand. Let’s say, they go for a pound an apple – I know it’s an expensive-ass apple, okay, a dollar an apple, whatever. Somebody comes up with 76 cents. Do you make that deal or do you not make that deal?
“You can’t make that decision if someone else is running your business. You have to say, buddy, you have to come up with 24 cents, maybe more with taxes. If that shit is yours, you make that deal. Now, we was able to give away 10million singles [the music biz-baiting Swindler’s Lust which was, appropriately-enough, only available as a download].
“I know that we give away three, people are gonna want to come back and buy seven. It’s a new way of doing business. As long as the public can get to it, I don’t care what I get out of it, as long as my percentage stays the same.”
Relaxed to the point where I began to think that he must be jetlagged, Chuck D is, at last, a man clearly at ease with himself and his career.
The last time we met, after a fractious lecture on the tour he undertook following the publication of his book, Fight The Power: Rap, Race & Reality, he was bad-tempered and irritable. Today he’s all sweetness and light.
“I know one thing, I definitely sound free on this record,” he growls, getting back to the point of the conversation.
It sounds like you were having fun.
“Sure, when you know you’re doing it on your own terms, yeah, of course,” he says expansively. “Like, I feel that in 1987 I started up a locomotive. In 1991 the locomotive was going at full speed, but I’m still engineering it.
“All of a sudden, you find you have no breaks and the locomotive is running you. 1994, 1995, it was time to stop the locomotive and regroup. Now, regroup doesn’t mean change my group so much as change where my group is at. I made sure nothing came out until that freedom was there.”
Public Enemy’s origins can be found at Adelphi University, Long Island, New York City in 1982, where two young hip hop DJs, Hank Shocklee and one Carlton Douglas Ridenhour got the chance to present the Super Special Mix Show for the college radio station WBAU.
Producer Shocklee, who always remained in the background despite staying with the band for almost a decade, and Ridenhour, now operating under the nom de guerre of Chuck D, were eventually joined by Flavor Flav aka William Drayton, who had previously worked alongside Chuck for his father’s U-Haul company in Long Island. He got the Bomb Squad gig by the tactic of incessently ringing the station until they gave him a job.
Signing to Def Jam in 1987, they recruited ‘Minister of Information’ Professor Griff, the Security of the First World, a four-man dance/martial arts back-up team and DJ Terminator X, releasing their incendiary debut album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show the same year. It was rapturously received and was quickly followed by their second album It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, which was when the band really began to set out their stall politically.
On tracks like Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos and, later, 911 Is A Joke (which questioned the amount of time it took the emergency services to respond to calls from black neighbourhoods), the band began to sharpen themselves up, never backing down from controversy, insisting upon their right to articulate the hopes, fears and aspirations of the people left high and dry by the American dream. They were fantastically successful.
After airing some virulently anti-Semitic statements, which he still insists were misquoted, Griff either left or was ejected from the band, depending on who you talk to (although he makes a particularly effective appearance on the last track of the new album).
Fear Of A Black Planet followed in 1990, before Apolalypse 91: The Enemy Strikes Black and 1994’s Muse Sick N Hour Mess Age. A gruelling worldwide tour and promotional schedule, which has lead to Chuck getting through two passports already, pushed the band to the very limit. But everything seems very different now.
One of the most affecting songs on There’s A Poison Goin’ On, perhaps the most effective in the entire 13 song collection, is I, a tale from the very bottom of the pile, where the rapper steps into the ill-fitting shoes of a homeless man as he slowly walks through the city.
Musing on the fact that the benefits of living in the Land of Milk and Honey never seem to trickle down to the people who need them the most, Chuck sees him ignored, villified, persecuted and mocked by everyone he meets, “the invisible man times three – black, down-and-out, standing on a corner,” according to the rapper.
Telling it’s sad, all-too-familiar story with genuine compassion and humanity, I is also a searing indictment of homelessness, unflinchingly detailling the disenfranchisement, the fear, ill-health, and always – always – the endless walking which make up the lot of homeless people the world over.
It contains the kinds of insights that most members of ‘normal’ society rarely get, the kind of ideas that you only appreciate when you regularly come into close contact with homelss people. It turns out the rapper’s mother worked at a homeless shelter in Long Island during his youth, before he himself spent time working in a different shelter in the same district in the late Seventies.
Although it seems to be getting more fashionable for pop stars to trumpet their concern about the problem, most wouldn’t touch the subject with a bargepole, and when they do the standard of understanding usually leaves a lot to be desired – as in Phil Collins’ trite, inane and patronising Another Day In Paradise.
“A lot of times, in modern day black music, and hip hop and rap in particular, we’re embedded in this fantasy where everything is so fantastic. It may be, if you’re 20, but how come so many people who are 40 or 50 have got hell on their hands? Look at life through their eyes – who’s representing them?
“Everybody wants to talk about the jiggy side, driving around in big cars, having some shit on their wrist – it’s a fantasy. Everyone wishes that they had the pool party and the fine women and the big cars, platinum watches and jewellery, but what about someone who’s 42, 43, 44? All that jigginess has to lead to something.
“Some people don’t have options. I is looking through their eyes. I is a fucked-up walk through the hood – there’s no way a person can get through to the other side than to walk through it. I’m saying, it’s there, that’s the situation.”
Perhaps inevitably, the song ends in meaningless violence and death, where people who have nothing brutalise someone who has even less.
“He didn’t think he had shit and now he hasn’t even got his life,” says the rapper, chuckling at his own gallow’s humour. “He went from bad to worse. So, a homeless person gets killed, but does anyone give a fuck, really?”
As well as the serious treatment of serious subjects we’ve come to expect from PE, they also know how to make party music which competes with anything from old school heroes like De La Soul and newer heads like Jurassic 5. Much of this is down to Chuck’s partner in rhyme, the effervescent human canonball Flavor Flav, who’s finest moment on the new album comes on the archytypal Flavor joint, What What.
Flavor has just celebrated his fortieth birthday. Is he calming down?
“He is calming down a little,” chuckles Chuck, “but it’s Flavor – it’s still twice as much as any normal human I know, heheheheh. The music kinda preserves us all good, you know. He does what he wants to do and there’s space for him to do it.”
Chuck seems at once almost fatherly, protective and when discussing his partner’s forthcoming solo album, proud. Flavor’s always seen as a lovable joker, as a bit of a lightweight compared to you, hasn’t he? Chuck seems oddly hurt by the question.
“It’s unfair to compare us – there’s a little bit of Flavour in me and a little bit of Chuck in Flavor. What people get in Public Enemy is aspects of our personalities, they don’t get the whole person, that’s ridiculous. In interviews I’m going to say the right things to answer my questions, I’m going to be straightforward because it’s an opportunity to talk what I know about.
“I’m a joker, I’m a clown, but am I going to have it for sale? I don’t know,” he says, suddenly sounding every inch the New Yorker. “But Flavor’s serious a lot – is that going to be publically for sale? I doubt that. Flavor’s gonna have his persona on, I’m going to have my persona on, same with Griff, same with Terminator. There’s aspects of our personalities in the band, maybe they predominate, but they’re not all of us.”
Throughout the new album, the subject of the approaching millenium crops up constantly, not as some final curtain call for the human race, but as a landmark in time, a watershed where humanity has to make some harsh decisions about where it wants to go and how it wants to get there. I tell him I’m surprised he thinks an arbitary date is so important.
“Well, it is a barrier, it’s a barrier between the old way and the new way,” he replies. “If you don’t adapt to the new way, you’re going to be controlled by it. My whole thing is that we want to get people thinking for themselves rather than having other people think for them.
“That’s what the whole album’s about.”
You could say that’s what your whole career’s been about.
“Exactly,” he agrees with a smile.
“Shit! Love me or hate me or whatever, but at least let me know your own opinion rather than what someone’s told you to think. Maybe Don’t Believe The Hype was a simple statement of all that, you know, don’t let hype dictate the way you think.
“It’s about becoming smarter, simple as that.”
[This interview first appeared in the Big Issue in the North in August, 1999]