June 19, 2012
If Run DMC are The Beatles of the rap world, then Public Enemy are The Rolling Stones. Hell, they’re The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and the Sex Pistols all rolled into one unstoppable rhythmic megaforce. Few bands have left a cultural footprint as massive as Public Enemy, who began their recording career twenty-five years ago with a sound that paired the funk of James Brown with the snarl of punk rock. That these New York-based rappers have lasted a quarter century, selling millions of albums and touring over eighty countries speaks to the universal, gut-level appeal of their uncompromising lyrical attack.
To celebrate twenty-five years of making music, Public Enemy (Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Professor Griff, DJ Lord and The S1W) are releasing not one but two full-length albums in the latter half of the year. The first, Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp, drops in July and its bookend, The Evil Empire of Everything, comes out in September. Where the music industry has gravitated away from albums toward a more singles-oriented model, for a band to release two full-length features in a matter of months is both a stunning and defiant gesture. Of course, where Public Enemy is concerned, conventions are best left shattered.
Founder Chuck D has transcended his rap artistry over the years, taking turns as an author, music industry commentator and social activist, as well as appearing in a number of films, documentaries and television shows. He has produced music for others and collaborated with a wide range of artists from genres a far-flung as electronica and heavy metal. We recently had a chance to chat with Chuck about his twenty-five years in Public Enemy, their forthcoming albums and the state of the music industry.
Twenty-five years ago, did you ever envision what your career might look like a quarter century down the road?
Yeah, because I was already grown. When you go through college, you know what it is to make a plan for how you should look forward in your life. So I wasn’t a surprised kid, some teenager that was bitten by the rap bug, I was fortunate to be grown, and therefore I saw myself twenty-five years later.
Pretty much. You have things that happen in your life and you have things that happen to you artistically that define your direction, but you gotta lay the groundwork for the building that you’re about to build. So my groundwork was very solid in the foundation and formation of what I set out to do.
Was it rooted in an artistic vision or was there a financial component as well?
Well, the financial component was different. If I’m gonna stop working and give up my job, then there’s got to be a little bit more. It’s got to be able to serve me well, but understand this—the art independently had to be able to have its own answers. I had to be able to write songs that stood the test of time and really put passion behind this performance art, which is a great part of what I think hip hop is about. So yeah, you pray to God for the blessings of health and along the way, if you stick to these blueprints, you can open some minds and ears and eyes to what you’re doing.
A lot of artists stick to one blueprint, but you haven’t. You’ve branched out into a lot of different directions and you’ve done a lot of different things…
We learned that from the rock guys. Never repeat yourself and expand your territory in the world into as many places as you can get to. Those were not really hip hop traits.
Is there an example of a particular band that you looked to who did that?
A lot of the rock guys. Look, Metallica started out five years before us and they came across as a group that didn’t give a fuck what you thought about them. (laughs) Most people in rap music and hip hop come from black neighborhoods and black communities and you want to be loved; you want to be respected, but you want to be loved and ask people to support your art. You wanna do all those things. It takes a lot of nerve and a lot of guts to say, “Well this is what it is, whether the fuck you like it or not.” But it’s principled and it’s passionate. It’s very opinionated. They didn’t just rebel for the sake of rebelling–it’s very focused. And I think that’s the attitude of where we were coming from.
Because you’ve been so vocal in your own rebellion, you’ve been a very polarizing figure in music. At the same time you’ve played in over 80 countries over twenty-five years and sold millions of records. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. I’m not an accountant. All I know is that if I was reduced to a person who could not leave the United States very early in my career, or decided not to, and if I started out younger and was never taught by my parents the history of who I was and the definition of who I was based on my family’s on vantage point, it might have been a whole different story. I think the fact is that I came out in a team, and a team is very humbling because you can’t be a star with your team (laughs) and you can’t be a star with your family. So fame comes at you and dissipates a little differently; it breaks down. Public Enemy is faced with understanding the struggles of wherever we go, and to also understand the fact that it’s people, places and things that make the world go round, not things, then places—if you’re stuck in one place—and then people third. These are basic principles.
You’ve managed to connect with people from far beyond your community and the culture in which you were raised. Is there one quality of your music that you think resonates most across the planet?
Well, humility is one and also being willing to speak up for somebody that’s been silenced, you know? And we’ll be quite noisy about that. That’s the whole attitude about “Bring the Noise.”
And you’re not hardly done. You’ve got two albums coming out this year. Can you tell me about those?
Yeah, Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp and The Evil Empire of Everything, are two albums, fraternal twins. They’re related to each other, they speak to each other, and you’re invited to listen in. Also we’ve set up our own aggregation company, Spit Digital, which we plan to give a million artists out there label tools to be their own label, if need be. We’ll be like a digital distributor and these two Public Enemy albums will be the first of our big digital adventure, and hopefully inspire artistry where we want to take hip hop and rap music. As far as the albums are concerned, they sound similar—Evil Empire is a little more eclectic than Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp—pretty much very aggressively straightforward. The first song you’ll hear on the albums is really the first song I think I’ve done—I’ve done a song like this four, maybe five times in the twenty-five years that I’ve been doing this—called “I Shall Not Be Moved.” “I Shall Not Be Moved” is a slogan from the civil rights days and it’s a strong-ass rap song that really doesn’t care what people think about it (laughs). There’s no measurement for it. There’s no expectations of it. It is what it is. It’s a creature that came out of me. It’s its own living self and it doesn’t care what anybody thinks about it. So even when people say, “Oh my God, what the fuck is this?” it’s still its own animal, which is the way it should be. So “I Shall Not Be Moved” measures up as a song that I’ve done only a few times in my career. “Rebel Without a Pause” is one, “Welcome to the Terrordome” is another, and maybe “No,” from my solo project, Autobiography of Mistachuck, in 1996, “Harder Than You Think” and this song. So for the fifth time I’m a part of something that I think is really crazy. And you don’t plan it. It has to just happen. I totally got lucky. Look, you can have the right beat and go into the right performance, but sometimes you come up with something that came from some fucking place else itself. (laughs) I can’t explain it all the way.
You see a shift now where a lot of artists are dialing back albums and putting out singles and EPs instead. But you’re doing the opposite—you’re putting out two full albums. Is that because you had a shitload of material, or was there an artistic statement running through the concept of bookending separate albums?
It’s an artistic statement and a delivery statement because retail record companies, warehousing, shipping, accounting…all that impacts the delivery of the art and the recording of the art. These areas of the industry shape the way records are released and delivered, so within the digital realm, this is us making a statement. I believe that we’ve been in a singles marketplace for twelve years, but I’ll be damned if we’re going to have the record companies dictate what kind of marketplace it is. So the audacity of releasing not just one album but two albums is a statement on the times that we live in and the delivery of the releases. I love making one song at a time, but I also have to bear in mind that there are Public Enemy people everywhere that still come from another time and they believe in the album process. I kind of rebelled against it in 2008 and 2009, and 2010 and I saw that, but I said we’ll do one album, then two albums, just to feel different. So then we do the big wind-up and come up with another album, and a guy like you or somebody else reviewing it is listening for a fucking half an hour and shit, and my thing is that I’m gonna slow the fucking process. I’m like “Yo, you know what? You’re gonna listen to one, and then you’re gonna listen to the other.” (laughs) And if you spend an hour at that, then at least I’ve staggered the listening time.
So even though they’re released at either end of the summer, should they be taken together as one joint listening experience?
Yeah, but that ain’t up to me. I don’t care what people do with it. One’s coming out in July and the other’s coming out Labor Day. My only job is making sure I can perform the songs. Then my job is done. My job ain’t to sell it. Right?
But that’s a rare thing that you’re saying, because a lot of artists want to control how their art is perceived once it leaves their hands. They want to shape people’s understanding of their art by telling them how it was created.
Yeah, but you know what? That’s because maybe their principles aren’t intact enough. My principles are very clear. I don’t stutter.
You talk about how in the past twelve years, it’s gone to a singles marketplace. Do you think the music industry is broken, or do you think it’s self-correcting and that it’s working just fine?
I think the industry is trying to adapt and fix itself. They’re trying to control every aspect, and that’s what corporations do. I think what independent artists need to understand is that they can’t go with a corporate mentality, thinking that they’re gonna master their recording career with the same thought process; meaning this: Spit Digital will provide artists with label tools but at the same time, your whole idea and attitude towards accounting needs to be different. I tell people all the time that “hustle” is the language of a scavenger. This is a craft, not a hustle. Now independently, you have to keep in mind that it’s a craft, like you’re selling a painting. You don’t make thirty paintings so you can say, “Yo, we’re gonna sell thirty in this big bundled batch.” No, you hope to have a conversation that will enable you to sell one painting at a time. Same thing with music or albums. One-by-one, you make one album or one song at a time and if your job is to sell it, go one at a time. Can’t get to a million before you pass one, and that therefore will sort of nullify this need to always look at this other person and what they’re making and what they flew in with or how I’m watching the throne and that shit. Instead you’re saying “I sold eighteen copies in the last two months. At least I sold one to every family member and I went one-by-one, but I had a conversation behind each one that I sold.” That’s just reality. And as both an artist of a craft and as a business person, don’t spend more than you make. If you ain’t making nothing, you better figure out how to create that that shit for little or nothing, and then you gotta figure out what your back end process is like. You gotta treat all your contributors fairly. So figure those things out. Once you start counting, that’s the beginning of the end. My own thing is this, you know, Jay-Z and Kanye West—I like them as rappers. I respect their rap game but I don’t respect the game. I think they actually came up with the idea of “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.” I don’t hate the player; I hate the fuck out of the game.
What do you hate about it?
It’s not the industry, it’s the game—the drug game, the hustle game. I hate the fuck out of that, and I’m allowed to, you know? Jay-Z and Kanye have the right to rap about what they’re rapping about. I’m not telling them to stop, but I H-A-T-E, all caps, hate the game. Drug game, hustle game, street corner game…hate it. I’m man enough to say it.
When you were at the Roll Hall of Fame, you suggested that communities have failed in their obligation to support local artists, and that’s why the artists move to Los Angeles or New York. This is the first time I’ve heard anyone suggest that the community bears the responsibility of nurturing homegrown talent so that it stays home.
Yeah, that’s one of the reasons that led to the corruption of black music. Black music got corrupted when it tried to go elsewhere to look for love. If the community does not support the art, how can you expect the art to support or be able to protect the community. If it’s not there then people are going to flow to the drug game and go to the things that they’re familiar with, like hustling and that bullshit, you know? It’s not the young people’s fault; the community’s gotta be there for the young people. I ain’t gonna be bragging about fucking prison. You got (rappers) saying, “Well that’s what I know.” The community’s obligation is to try to open as many opportunities for artists as possible. The community supports sports in the local high school. How come they don’t support music? How come they don’t support the arts as much as sports?
What’s on tap after the two albums are out?
Well that’s enough. (laughs)
You gonna hit the road?
I’m always on the road. We don’t support a record with the tour, the tour supports us.
If a sixteen year-old kid came up to you and asked you, “What are the three albums I need to listen to in order to understand modern music,” what would you tell him?
“Modern music,” meaning what?
I want to say “rock,” but I’m really talking about music that came after blues, and that includes rap and other genres.
Hmmm…Raising Hell, by Run DMC is number one, because it’s the album that signifies that rap music could be album-oriented music. There’s so many other albums. Some people might say Sgt. Pepper, by the Beatles, although Sgt. Pepper wasn’t my favorite, but you gotta throw The Beatles in there, and James Brown, Revolution of the Mind: Live at the Apollo, Volume III.
Chuck, thanks a million for your time.