Chuck D Interview (by A to the L)
Like an MTV FANatic about to meet Ja-Rule or Britney I approached the venue for the night’s Public Enemy gig with a wide grin spread all over my grill. I was gonna meet Chuck D. You know that cat, who’s lyrics I’d spent hours reciting in my bedroom, who influenced me to rock black wranglers (damn you Chuck) and a Pirates cap? Yeah, him. Public Enemy were about to make their first appearance in Belfast to promote their latest album “Revolverlution” , and I was about to interview Chuck D. Passing the band onstage carrying out their soundcheck, I approached the dressing room of the Queens University venue and was greeted by Brother Mike, S1W and tour manager. Mike ushered me into the dressing room, where, with the sounds of Chic’s ‘Good Times’ playing in the background, I was warmly greeted by Chuck and the other S1W’s – James Bomb, and Pop Diesel. During the interview, Professor Griff entered the room and also contributed to the discussions…
So how’s the tour going?
Chuck: The tour’s going great. We’re in a position now were we try to set up tours that last for around 20-21 days at most : I guess you can call us semi-retired! But whenever we come out, you know we’re still gonna come out hard and represent.
And the tour just covers the UK, right?
Chuck: Yeah : just the UK this time around.
How are sales of “Revolverlution” going?
Chuck: I really don’t know. I don’t check sales! Checking sales is like counting beans!
Since you moved from Def Jam have you had to make any changes to your work methods when you’re approaching a new album?
Chuck: We have a little bit more freedom – we have 3 or 4 studios that we work out of : and we can do anything. The biggest pleasure for me is that I can license my songs anywhere, you know. I don’t have to go through all the label bullshit – I can deal with all 5 of the majors, as a business person, on my own terms.
Several of the tracks on “Revolverlution” use rock breaks. At the same time Common, The Roots and Mos Def also have either several tracks or projects which have a lot of heavy guitar work. Why do you think the use of hard guitars is becoming popular again?
Chuck: Well guitar is the element of the blues. And the blues is the element of rhythm and blues, which is the element of rock’n’roll, which is the element of aspects of soul, which goes right back into black music. The guitar is a very important aspect of black music.
Don’t you ever feel that you may be upsetting fans with this approach though? Both the Roots and Common have taken a lot of flak from the “hiphop” crowd for such an experimental approach on their latest albums :
Chuck: Yeah, but you have to consider the source. If you really know the roots of rock’n’roll, you’ll know that its indigenous to black people in the Mississippi delta. See, if the Rolling Stones and the Beatles copied off the delta blues cats and got props for it, then why is it offensive for a black person in the millennium to turn to the guitar which was a Spanish Moors instrument anyway. When you’re dealing with criticism, you always have to consider the source. Why would I even pay attention to someone who’s ill equipped to comment on what I do? Personally I think the Common and Roots albums are fantastic. Curtis Mayfield : one of the most soulful cats of all time. Nile Rogers : who I was just playing : they all utilised the guitar, and I’m actually very upset that the element of the guitar has been absent. And that kind of absence only comes about through a detachment from history – people who choose not to do those things, don’t know enough of their history to know that they can.
Back when Cube came out with Death Certificate he described perfectly the racial divisions and the potential for major trouble in LA. Soon after of course came the riots and Cube seemed to use The Predator album as a way to say “I told you so.” With the way things are turning out in Baghdad aren’t you itching to get back in the studio to do an “I told you so” type record to follow up ‘Son Of A Bush’?
Chuck: No, not really. I think a lot of cats are missing the fact that on “Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age” in 1994, we predicted a lot of these things were going to happen. So to me, THAT’S our “I told you so record”, and its almost 10 years old now! I think the real fans got it, but the critics, those who thought Hiphop was just one type of thing going in one direction, they didn’t grasp it at all. And now to look back at that joint now, its almost laughing at that period of time. You know when we make records, we’re very careful of exactly what we’re making records for : we make records for WHAT as opposed to WHO : and sometimes end up making joints that jump the test of time.
You’ve done a lot of travelling in your time with PE, and I’m sure you’ve seen firsthand the effects of American foreign policy in some of the countries you’ve visited…
Chuck: 26 tours : and it’s a pleasure coming to Belfast. This is the first time here – we been to Dublin a few times, but never Belfast before now. Its not what I expected at all – its bigger… I kinda expected a smaller situation…
Are you aware of the history of the bullshit going on in Northern Ireland?
Chuck: Yeah… only as much as the general outline of things though. Maybe you can tell me a little bit more?
(CURVEBALL! I didn’t see this coming at all. Chuck flipped the script, and turned interviewer, and for the next 10 minutes I explained to him my own personal situation over here, how shit over here affected me in terms of religion as opposed to how he might find shit in the states more affected by race, how religion fucked up my family situation big style, and how my country cops a real bad press in the media, yet for those living IN it, they sometimes find it hard to see what the fuss is about etc etc. I’m sure you don’t really wanna hear my own mini episode of Dynasty… so lets pick up on Chuck’s reply)
Chuck: Governments have always used religion…. the FEW have always used religion to control and govern over the many. And as far as growing up and being raised in “trouble spots” as it were, sometimes actually being IN those spots it DOESN’T seem so bad. People are the same at home… “Oh my God, what is it like growing up in New York, with the muggings and robberies?” When you actually live in NY though, you realise that it ain’t all about that at all. I mean people said to me when I told them I was coming here, “Oh, watch out for the bombings and the terrorists.” Man, I’m coming from New York where the biggest terrorist event in history took place! Its the same in LA – people think when you go out to Los Angeles the whole place is gonna be like ‘Gangsta Gangsta’, and it ain’t like that at all.
You picked up a 2003 Rock The Nation Award at the Rock The Vote awards in Feb. How does it feel to be involved in this type of organization, and how do you fit it in with your PE work?
Chuck: It fits in real well. Its another opportunity for me to try and teach people to be aware of their surroundings, instead of being led by the media.
You were very vocal after the murders of 2pac and Biggie, and even more so after Jay’s death last year. When I spoke to Daddy-O recently about the Stop The Violence 2 movement, he said that PE were gonna be involved – what’s the latest on this project?
Chuck: Yeah, Daddy-O and a brother named Sean Boulden have gone forward with that. PE has been involved, and its moving at a good pace with recording probably scheduled for this summer.
Do you ever feel you’re fighting a losing battle? The only real big names who seem to want to put out thought-provoking conscious Hiphop on a consistent basis are you, Paris, and Dead Prez.
Chuck: Its never a losing battle – that’s like saying that although your lungs are moving and breathing, is it purposeful for your lungs to KEEP moving and breathing when it doesn’t look exciting for you in the future. Your lungs and your heart are STILL gonna be pumping, so you might as well live your live and go forward.
But what caused the change away from the days or PE, BDP, X-Clan, Lakim Shabazz etc?
Chuck: Its not about a change as such – the conditions of black people and the masses of the undervoiced and underprivileged are still the same – if not worse. We come from a different time period to a lot of the artists out now, so we represent in a different way that what people might be accustomed to.
Are you disappointed that so many artists nowadays seem to be manufacturing beef just to sell records?
It’s a world away from how it used to be when cats wanted to prove how dope they were lyrically – I feel that now its all about hype to make sales and little else. Do you agree?
Chuck: Well, if you run out of things to say, and are now covering topics that adults usually don’t talk about…
The whole room cracks up laughing…
…hell, if you infantile yourself to that point – you gonna turn towards each other. Because you gotta rap… you gotta rap words… you gotta say SOMETHING… and if you’ve run out of productive things to say, or never SAID them to begin with, its inevitable that you’re gonna turn on each other. The difference is, in the first 10-12 years of rap recordings, rappers rapped for the people, and they rapped against the elite establishment. In the last 10 or so years, rappers rap for their companies and their contracts, and they’re PART of the establishment now. Its two diametrically opposed ideas. So if you’re talking about somebody who’s part of the establishment because they flaunt their wealth or whatever, and they rap for their companies to keep their contracts, their topics are gonna be far and few. So they’ll cancel each other out by talking ABOUT each other. What else are they gonna talk about?
What’s your view on this whole Murder Inc / Death Row / Aftermath / Rap-a-lot stuff that’s going on? Don’t you feel that cats like Scarface and Dre who are older and should be wiser, should be working to sort the mess out rather than add to it with diss cuts of their own?
Chuck: To some people, God is the dollar. So their own principles are based around making money, while not answering questions or criticism on how they’re making it. So you could talk to them and try to instil some good values in em all you want, but their quest is to make the dollar by any means necessary. If that means being 30 years old, and reducing themselves to an infantile 16 year old state of mind, then they’re gonna do it. I heard a song not too long ago, and I swear that a 7th grade kid wrote it… and if thats gonna be the case then you might as well SIGN 6th and 7th graders, cos they’re young and cute, and they’re making beats, and they flow. So the difference between an adult and a child is supposed to be some kind of knowledge, wisdom and understanding… especially in maturity in art… but the adult had to be able to bring across, some of that knowledge, wisdom and understanding in their art and music, to have young people saying “I can gravitate towards that.” That’s not being done. You got an industry now more focused on how people LOOK rather than how they sound – cats are being signed cos they possess that certain 38-24-38 look that the labels are looking for, and they’re trying to make these people a singing star. That’s something you should never do with music.
You’ve made no secret of the importance of the internet to both PE and the music biz as a whole. Don’t you feel a little smug now that the music industry is starting to see what file sharing can do to help artists? e.g you now have Metallica coming out saying they acted too hastily in sueing Napster, and their tour is now SPONSORED by a record label’s file sharing project.
Chuck: We always try to do things that are ahead of the curve, as opposed to being on the curve. I wouldn’t say we feel smug, or “I told you so”, but its nice to see other artists now starting to realise the benefits of the internet as a promotional tool for their music, and as a way to get their voice directly to the fans, without label bullshit.
How long are PE gonna keep going? Do you ever get the feeling that it may be time to do a Michael Jordan and retire from the game?
Chuck: Well you know we’re musicians – we play music. And blues and jazz musicians keep playing until they croak and fall over… same thing with some rock’n’roll artists… Mick Jagger and Bono and all those cats. So why should rap be any different? Because its “now” and its black? There’s a whole bunch of people 30 years old and over that wanna hear their particular style of rap – they ain’t gonna be checking for Lil Bow Wow, and Jadakiss, and Camron and all that other stuff. They trying to get some of that PE, BDP, Run DMC, Eric B & Rakim… they’ll tolerate a couple of new joints and new artists, but they’re more about listening to artists who tie into their (as they get older) increasing variety and selection of music. So, we’ll continue to innovate, and we’ll continue to be high energy… I can’t really see doing this without that energy. I mean, it might look like we tired now… but you gotta understand what’s gonna come later on! The records is one thing, but the PE live show is the thing that everything else grows off… that’s the thing that makes you believe in the records. Performance art is very important – you can’t BE a performer if you don’t perform! And we’re always watching all types of media to see how other artists do things – Sly & The Family Stone, George Clinton, Led Zeppelin, Otis Redding, James Brown, Prince, The Rolling Stones, and the Beatles – its not just a Hiphop thing – its music thing. At the beginning of our career we were watching cats like Whodini, Doug E Fresh, Run, LL’s show, Stetsasonic… and designed our own show that would be different from there’s.
For those already haven’t copped it – why should they pick up “Revolverlution”?
Chuck: “Revolverlution” is another introduction to where we come from, what we’re about, and a step into the future with Public Enemy.
Thanks again to Chuck (and the S1Ws) for taking part, and for Sarah at Blag and Brother Mike for helping to set this up.