What more can you say about Chuck D, the front man for Public Enemy? Really, what can you say? So much ink, video reels, and audio tapes have been devoted to Chuck D and his musical brilliance that this intro is probably one of the most difficult that I have had to write in all my time of writing interview intros. I could write about Chuck D’s rise to prominence with the groundbreaking force that was Public Enemy, the group that brought the noise, and said Elvis didn’t mean s**t to them. I could also write about his days at Adelphi University where he rocked parties with the Bomb Squad and first met the Media Assassin Harry Allen. I could write about his early embrace of the internet and digital music, which is now manifested through his digital record label, SlamJamz. I could tell you that it was Chuck D who first identified Hip Hop as a form of CNN, and it has been Chuck D who has remained one of its top reporters and authorities. His commanding voice and equally charged lyrics have made Chuck D one of Hip Hop’s greatest emcees, and his love of music and the art form have served as inspiration for countless individuals, myself included…
I had the chance to chop it up with Chuck D last week when he came to the Windy City for the Pitchfork Music Festival, where his Public Enemy performed their classic LP, It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back. Prior to the performance, Chuck participated in a panel discussion with his fellow Bomb Squad members, dissecting the album, it’s use of sampling, and the creation of Public Enemy. After the panel, Chuck and I spoke about the Def Jam days, Hip Hop’s relationship with technology, the responsibilities of its curators, and the divide that needlessly exists between artists such as Soulja Boy and Dilated Peoples. Check it out to see “What Goes On!”
RubyHornet: I was in New York last week, and I said to people, ‘I really want to see Bob Dylan’s New York City. Can you show me the New York City that Paul Simon sings about as this magical place?’ When I listen to Public Enemy, it brings up this magical place in my mind with you and the Beastie Boys and Def Jam…Does that place exist anymore?
Chuck D: No. Not in the same way. Living conditions in New York have upgraded. Affordability has damn near degraded. A lot of those elements, and a lot of the atmosphere back then man, the only thing to come out of there is ideas, curiosity, and creativity. That Def Jam period, and that area of SoHo was going through a big transition at that time. The area where we were from was going through a transition coming out of R&B, that’s Regan and Bush. The 80’s were kind of rough on Roosevelt.
RubyHornet: SoHo is ridiculously different now.
Chuck D: Oh yeah. It’s upscale, people can walk the street. We don’t really see drugs as prevalent on the outside. The interior has a different scene of course. Before, the drug scene was on the exterior. I mean crackheads in abundance. Crack really wreck shotted New York from the period of ‘85-‘90.
RubyHornet: Something interesting that I heard Harry say is that he came up to you about the cartoon, and you said, ‘I didn’t know anyone was reading it.’ In terms of Public Enemy, did you think people would be listening? And if so, does that change your approach or what you put out?
Chuck D: We knew people were listening to Def Jam, and we knew what not to make and what to make that would actually be a stone’s throw into the future for people to say, ‘hmmmm. This is new and different, let’s listen to this.’ We knew what chances to take into the aura of absurdity. That was brilliant for us to be able to take that approach. Once you’re confident like that because you’re a big fan of Hip Hop and rap music to the bone, so it’s almost like you don’t really care who’s listening to you or not, and then you’re going to find people like yourself. I think it was easier for us to figure that out because there weren’t a lot of people bottle-necking the traffic of rap music and Hip Hop, as far as album making artists. It afforded us a little bit of clarity.
RubyHornet: Hank earlier said that you guys respected musicians, but it seemed the musicians didn’t respect you in turn. Do you feel that now you’ve earned their respect? Did it stop mattering at a point?
Chuck D: There was a schism between the DJs and the musicians, but I think it took something like a Public Enemy to usher in the respect of, not us. All of this is not about us. If we have to say that we had any brilliance, it’s because we were all fans. We give ourselves credit for being big fans, fans of the musicians, fans of the DJs. I just think that when it came down to respecting the musicians and the musicians respecting where we were from, Hip Hop got a big nod from the musicians once they saw that we were really dedicated to getting as much brilliance out as they did. A lot of musicians were obscure, and we as the DJs wanted to expose them as much as possible and talk about them and brag about them.
RubyHornet: I saw you speak when I was in college. You came to Indiana University in 2000 or 20001.
Chuck D: Oh yeah. I got fined that day. They said I was late…I flew into Cincinnati and I took this road and I just didn’t get there in time. I thought it was a great lecture, great speech, and then I found out later they docked me. I was like, ‘ain’t this a b**ch!’
RubyHornet: I remember that speech. And I remember you brought up Ken Burns and his documentaries. Do you see your music as almost a documentary, as you’re going to take something and put it in a capsule in a sense?
Chuck D: I love Ken Burns’ documentary on Jazz. A lot of the pundits and the critics really criticized that, and I don’t think that they’re looking at it in the proper perspective of how it can enlighten and educate people, and then allow you to go in there and make your own decision based on the amount of material that you happen to witness and hear and feel. I think we could be around the corner-or, there was already a five part series done on Hip Hop by Bill Adler and Nelson George, that covered it pretty nice.
RubyHornet: Do you think the Hip Hop community honors and treasures its artists that are older and that the younger kids honor and learn from the elders?
Chuck D: It’s evolving. I think, as with any art form, it’s only as good as the people that curate it and protect it. There’s nothing wrong if an artist sometimes dumbs themselves down. Art is art, and it’s objective. I think when you have journalists or the people that archive, the people that do the documentaries, that are in the peripheral areas of servicing the music and art form, when they don’t step up to their responsibilities…sometimes the worst thing is seeing a DJ who really doesn’t spend their time to break new ground with new records, and at the same time does not expound upon detailing the total plethora of artistry across the board. It’s like, ‘I waited til I got this music from Interscope, or G-Unit, but I’m never going to people’s Myspace page.’ Or, ‘I ain’t checking anything out on Youtube that I can’t recognize.’
RubyHornet: With that, I know you have SlamJamz, which is digital…Also, with Serato, it takes away the act of actually going to the record store and digging…
Chuck D: I don’t think it takes away. I think there’s a different type of digging taking place. Thumbing your fingers through covers…diggers never were never allowed to play those particular records anyway. But at least now it’s almost like a digital thing where you can hear samples of songs on an album that’s on Amazon or whatever. You have digging kind of expanded into another zone.
RubyHornet: In the last few years we’ve seen a large rise in blogs, and the power they have. What do you think of that kind of change and its impact?
Chuck D: It’s the best interaction we’ve had with the music in a long time. As far as magazines and journalism’s concerned, you’d love to see rap music and Hip Hop have a magazine get closer to what’s been done at Wax Poetics. But Wax Poetics is almost a Hip Hop magazine as it reverts to the origin and the root.
RubyHornet: In just keeping with that, do you feel there are any responsibilities for an older artist to pass down certain things, or grab an emcee and say, ‘wait I think you’re making some mistakes and I don’t want you to make those.’
Chuck D: Yes. I get it all the time…I’m a big sports fan. I’m a fan of everything that happens in sports and what that could help to happen in Hip Hop and rap music. I’m a fan of sports whether it’s the baseball hall of fame, the All-Star game happening for the last time at Yankee Stadium, the banners hanging at the Boston Garden, anytime they talk about the future of the NBA they always bring up the past.
RubyHornet: I wanted to talk about Hip Hop Congress.
Chuck D: Hip Hop Congress is a wonderful option and wonderful site. It gives the purists and the intellectuals the opportunity to never dip their whole skill set, and dip their level. That’s why I dig it.
RubyHornet: I thank you for that. I’ve been with HHC over eight years. One thing where we kind of get to a block is after we introduce it we hear, ‘oh yeah, I’m down. I’m down.’ And we get all these artists that want to work with us, but it’s very hard to get the artist or other people to get involved…Where is that disconnect that we’re missing?
Chuck D: I think there’s a bit of a turbulence as far as the people who know what they have to do for the legitimacy and the longevity and just the standard of rap music and Hip Hop and the schism of those still lingering around that feel all hopes are lost cause it doesn’t make money for them. The record companies do not have the power in their hands. And those who are “independent” sometimes get mixed up and confused thinking that independent means that you are going around and hocking your CDs and somehow you’re going to keep the CD alive and well. The CD will always be alive. But I think that a lot of independent companies or artists are still slow to embrace the web, as crazy as it sounds. DJs aren’t slow to embrace the web when they actually got Serato in place, but it seems like a lot of the independent state of mind has not embraced the web. Hip Hop has always driven and thrived on being ahead of the game technologically.
That being the case and point, and this is all in my humble opinion, I think that the grounds of the journalists, the DJs, the “radio jocks” and I consider everything radio whether you do a webcast, you’re on the station, or you do mixtapes, it’s all radio, if you’re doing your thing as far as just being able to distribute music, having a site like the Wonder Twins…I think the job is to have everybody not dip their level. There’s nothing wrong with taking an intellectual approach and effort to trying to figure out how to preserve certain aspects of the art form that get torn down by lack of effort and just dumb s**t. Dumb s**t has a place, but I don’t think it overshadows somebody that wants to come with a thoughtful approach to their music. Everybody’s in the club whether they’re a dancer or not. Some people are in the club so they can sit by their drink and hear the sounds. I think that applies too. Somebody might come in the club not trying to feel Soulja Boy as much as Guru. I think it’s all the same party, man. Also, I think that what Hip Hop Congress can stand to do, and I also had this same conversation with the owners of The Source… I think one of the failings is that somebody that came in with an intellectual background would go in, they love Hip Hop and when they finally write, or do something with Hip Hop their first thing is to capitulate and give in to it instead of coming into it with an upwards approach. Sometimes Hip Hop can stand to be uppity in some areas. Meaning it needs to stand on its own two feet and not always try to duck down and be accepted. That’s where I think we have that schism where Soulja Boy doesn’t get accepted and people think sometimes that the approach by Dilated Peoples may be too Hip Hop purist or complex. I’m saying it’s all in the same ball of wax to me.
RubyHornet: I read an interview with you that talked about the Pitchfork Festival. You said there’s a difference between performing a song, and still believing it. I’m wondering just from the perspective of an artist who has done work in their 20’s and is now a full adult and in a different stage of life, what happens when you look back at this album or the early works? Are there any songs where you say, ‘you know what, I think differently now’?
Chuck D: Of course. I did “Sophisticated Bitch” on my first album. I knew I was telling a story, and I knew I was telling a different story than whatever had been said up to that point. But in the retrospect of everything that’s happened since then, I don’t think that my interpretation would go over well without a lot of conversation before I do it, so there will be confusion because the level of how we handle words is just not sophisticated. You can see that by just looking at Nas’ record.
RubyHornet: I was going to ask you about that.
Chuck D: We have to treat Nas with the same amount of creative curiosity and journalistic and lyrical respect that we would look at Dick Gregory. But if you’re argument doesn’t come higher than an 8th grade level, we’re going to take things at face value and say, ‘oh, that’s f**ked up.’ And I think sometimes we have to grow to greater heights, man, to look at and evaluate art. You don’t have to evaluate art right all the time, but does that mean it doesn’t get put in a position to be judged and looked at?
RubyHornet: I know the last Public Enemy album is called How Do You Sell Soul–
Chuck D: To A Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul? The answer to that is that you don’t.
RubyHornet: Are they looking to have it? Does a soulless person want soul at all?
Chuck D: You got to introduce them to soul before they think they can go and buy it. A lot of times people will be like, ‘Yo Chuck, you should get into this to sell records…’ In ’98 when I left Def Jam, I was the first artist to walk away from a million dollar record deal. That’s really blinging if you can walk away from one, but I just made up my mind. I just felt, not to say I’m not in the business to make a living, and yes there are areas of Public Enemy that require other states of mind. They pay big money for us to do an event. Number one, they have to cause we’re in 8 different parts of the country, so for us to go around the world, the promoters have to pay. But also they get what they pay for, matter of fact they get more than they bargain for. Since ’98 my whole thing has been, ‘all they got to do is get the record anyway they can. Get the song anyway you can.’ Public Enemy licenses music. How do you approach people in your 20th year, or your 15th year, or your 10th year, ‘Yo, go and buy my s**t!’? I just thought that was just crazy. I knew that if people were going to go to a “P” section and see Public Enemy, if they supported me once, it’d be kind of ridiculous to say, ‘yo, support me again.’ So I only asked once, and that was maybe in ’87 or ’88, and I just can’t ask people again to go buy my album to support me. If they want to go buy it, fine, but I just can’t ask that question.
RubyHornet: Have you had any talks in terms of a Public Enemy and Live Nation type of deal? What do you think of that change in the music industry?
Chuck D: Well they got Jay-Z, so they’re looking for somebody who epitomizes rap today. They got Jay-Z as their rap component. Jay-Z has finally honed himself into being a good, and sometimes great performer. It takes time, and you can’t just dream or wish it. You can’t even train for it. You just got to go through that period where you got to understand and go through it and Jay-Z is now giving people performances. If I had a knock against him before, if I had a Hard Knock Life against him before, it was that I thought he was just a recording guy, skilled, and not taking that energy to the stage. I gave him a lot of props in ’98 after they did the Hard Knock Life Tour and DMX was just taking it to his head every chance like whoa. And all DMX had was the stage, a bucket of water, and a chain around his neck, and was just murdering anything before and after him. That’s how you get good, you got to get beat down first then you develop yourself.
RubyHornet: When you guys made “Fight The Power” America was in a different time, but the same things happen now in a different shape. It seems like the faces are changing. With Barack Obama perhaps becoming president, do you feel that it’s the same fight vs. the same power?
Chuck D: Things always shift. So you can’t just break it down and say it’s the same power and the same fight. We can repeat some of the tactics. We can repeat some of the fight. Can’t repeat the time. ’88 you had the Berlin Wall up, you had Regan and Bush, you had Thatcher, Nelson Mandella was in prison. It was a whole different world then. Now there’s a bunch of other things going on and there’s a lot of similar things, yet also different. I would close this by saying that 20 years is a long time in the music business, but in the time of life it’s not long at all. That’s what we have to realize. Time is God, but we hold everything in proper perspective, and you move forward right.