PUBLIC ENEMY: THE ROLLING STONES OF THE RAP GAME
Stream: Public Enemy “Fight The Power” (12″ Mix)
Public Enemy rattled the apathy out of a nation of millions during the rottenest years of the Reagan-Bush transition and had enjoyed a surfeit of reality that reality shows eventually came calling. Founder Chuck D speaks before his performance at Coachella. This interview by Dan Collins.
In the desert this weekend, right near where Coachella is going to be, I saw a billboard that said ‘Legends of Hip-Hop: MC Hammer, Slick Rick, Coolio, and Tone Loc,’ coming this May to the San Miguel casino. Does that kind of thing make you feel like, ‘Wow, hip hop has come a long way, like Wayne Newton!’ Or does it make you kind of sad?
Chuck D: I think the same question was something a journalist might have asked thirty years ago. ‘Wow, rock and roll has finally made it! So and so on the Vegas Stage!’
Speaking of Vegas, I understand your opinion of Elvis has changed since you called him out in ‘Fight the Power.’
Naw, well, it’s always been that, of course—how can you not think Elvis is a part of the whole rock ‘n’ roll foundation? My point has been that I thought he had to share with other key founders. America always held him high above everybody else. It’s almost like how sometimes the hip-hop mainstream looks at Eminem as being a great contributor, but the media looks at him as being this novelty figure, which is going in a wrong direction.
You once said in an interview years ago that you love virtually all rap music, and even said nice things about Vanilla Ice. It’s like almost any flavor of hip hop, you were an advocate of.
There was a value in diversification. I think nowadays we’ve given into the corporate definition. And radio station conglomerations certainly have defined hip hop, and I think that’s kind of unfair, because at the end of the day… You know, we had Run DMC inaugurated into the rock ‘n’ roll hall of fame. And you had people like Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck and the E Street Band—they still carry relevance, and their magnitude is great because they understand the meanings and definitions from an artistic standpoint, and not just from a record company accountant standpoint. That’s the difference. Where nowadays we’ve let other situations define the music, and that’s kind of out of wack.
Who are the artists you do like, even if they’re not popular?
All the artists on my label, Slamjamz.com, and all the artists on my iPod. There’s over 10,000 songs on there.
I was looking at the 12” single for ‘8 Ball’ by N.W.A., and some of the guys on the cover are dressed like Public Enemy, wearing clocks and whatnot. Do you feel like you spurred on a genre of gangsta rap that didn’t go in the direction you would have liked the music to go?
My job was just to be able to make the music transcend all genres, and influence other genres as well. That was my job, and the Bomb Squad’s.
Particularly the Bomb Squad did an amazing job of using the sample as a way to structure a new song out of lots of elements. Do you think modern hip-hop has dropped the ball on that side of things?
Legal departments made it kind of difficult to use some of those techniques. I wouldn’t say hip-hop has dropped the ball, I would say it’s conditioned itself from fitting its square-ness into the round hole of the industry. I think that’s the problem. It’s shaped by what the mainstream media and the industry would bless. But hip-hop is across Myspace pages, and a person today can check out a Public Enemy video from 1990, or 1988, and it was kind of difficult to do that five years ago. Now it’s YouTube and Myspace and Facebook… a lot more material can be checked out and loved. And hated.
Didn’t you bring suit against the estate of Biggie Smalls in the nineties for sampling your voice?
Yeah, a songwriting dispute. It wasn’t that they used my voice. It was that my voice was on a crack record. It was more than an infringement. It was a defamation of character. I hate drugs and drug dealers and stories about it. You can’t go about bragging about it. Much respect, but if that’s going to be your angle…
I understand when you first started Public Enemy, you were told they wanted to sign you just by yourself, without Flavor Flav. But you insisted he be part of the group. Even now, he seems to represent something much different from you.
From day one, he was always something different.
On a friendship basis, do you still hang out? Or is it purely that you see each other on stage?
When you’ve lived with someone for 21 or 23 years, you pick up from where you left off. Of course it’s a friendly basis—it’s not like Sam and Dave, and those guys who never talked to each other. And Public Enemy, it’s not just us two. It’s a bunch of us, and we all live in different parts of the country, so we definitely pick up where we left off.
But when he got roasted on Comedy Central, you weren’t part of the roast.
Yeah, well—I really didn’t want to be around for that!
Do you feel like his being a television celebrity and being on all these reality shows has weakened the brand?
No—why would it? It’s not like he’s going on and being anything different than he’s ever been. I don’t think anything weakens the band, or the brand, unless I actually do something kind of crazy.
It might be considered crazy that you let Vanilla Ice cover ‘Fight the Power’ on his 2008 album!
Look. Without Vanilla Ice, there’s no Eminem. Without the Beastie Boys, there’s no Vanilla Ice. And you know, Vanilla Ice, his was a regional breakthrough. He broke through in the mid-south, in a southern area in Texas, in something that was kind of indigenous to that hip-hop culture down there. He just doesn’t get credit for it.
When I was a kid in the South, I realllllly loved it when you did ‘Bring the Noise’ with Anthrax. It blew my mind. It was such a great hybrid! And then came Ice-T’s Body Count, and the Judgment Night soundtrack. But around the mid-nineties, suddenly I saw terrible nu-metal bands with turntables on stage—like Limp Bizkit. Do you think you can draw a straight line between your rap-metal hybrid and the terrible music that came later?
Well, yeah. But I would say that Scott Ian and Charlie Benante, the whole figment of that imagination comes out of that, and probably they was influenced by the combination of rap-rock in Run DMC and the Beastie Boys.
It seemed like every rap album had a rock crossover song, like Sir Mix-a-Lot and Metal Church.
‘Iron Man.’ Did a good job!
You also contributed to Sonic Youth’s album, when you did ‘Kool Thing.’ How did that happen?
I was sharing the same studio in New York, and sharing the same venues. And then Kim and Thurston asked if I could check out their session. I’d always see them in the hallway. ‘Kool Thing’ was a real cool thing, and it was easy.
I heard you were recently on Henry Rollins’ radio show. Do you still chat with him?
Yeah, Rollins is somebody I always wanted to be when I grow up.
But you kind of are. You have a radio show on Air America. And I also saw you do the Wattstax commentary, where you talked about sampling bits from that performance.
Yeah, and a lot of those samples were basically voiceovers, you know what I’m saying? That was really important. From the Rufus Thomases to the Jesse Jacksons.
And the Bar-Kays’ speech before their set still knocks me out. Would you be willing to organize a concert of similar scope with new artists who are out today?
I don’t know. It just seems like the rock festivals have been done really well in the United States for the last ten, fifteen years. I just want to hope that there would be something possible to do from a black standpoint. I’ll see, you know? I’m so envious of the rock world, because they organize their infrastructure well. The rock infrastructure is really tight, and in rap music, the lack of infrastructure is really kind of bothering me. And whether it’s the media in print, television, or radio… I mean, look—in rock and roll, there’s such a thing as classic rock. Bruce Springsteen just performed at the Super Bowl. He’ll never go away. He’s up there. But even in the hip-hop community, there was a lot of silence, even with the induction of Run DMC, the greatest hip-hop situation of all time.
And it broke my heart to see Slick Rick on that billboard in the desert! It’s like, he’s such a lyrical pioneer, and he has such great style. Does he have to be on a showcase with all these other acts?
I mean, they’re rap, and they come from different angles. And the truth of the matter with MC Hammer is that they’ve toured before. With rap and hip-hop there wasn’t that separation.
You say you’re envious of rock and roll, but through the years, a lot of rock artists have tried to cross over and do hip-hop. Did you hear Dee Dee Ramone play hip hop? He said later that he couldn’t do it right.
I met this lady on the bus, and she asked what I do. And I said I publish songs. And she said, ‘What kind of songs?’ And I said, ‘Everything, from rap to country.’ And she said, ‘Well, that’s a flip!’ As if they’re two extremes. But they’re a lot more similar than different! The stories, and the way they come apart beyond the music itself. It’s all human communication.
On that same trip back from the desert this weekend, I saw the billboards for Coachella. And they all just said ‘Paul McCartney: Coachella,’ you know? It’s weird. He’s the headliner. A guy who did his best work before 1970. Is there a Beatles of hip hop? Maybe it’s you guys?
Run DMC was the Beatles of hip-hop.
If they’re the Beatles, what is Public Enemy?
The Stones. The Rolling Stones of the rap game! I don’t know if I’m Mick, or Flav is Mick and I’m Keith, but we’ve never quit, never broke up and never split up. It keeps going on.