A Conversation with Chuck D (Part 2)

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Photo courtesy of Piero F Giunti

Photo courtesy of Piero F Giunti

In part 1 of The Real Hip-Hop’s conversation with Chuck D, the P.E. front man discussed the group’s seminal album, It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and his digital distribution company SPITdigital. In part 2 of A Conversation with Chuck D he details his relationship with filmmaker Spike Lee, the group’s separation from Def Jam Records, and their induction into the 2013 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

TRHH: On Nation of Millions you mentioned Minister Louis Farrakhan on two occasions. It always intrigued me that Public Enemy had so many white and Jewish fans, when a lot of white people didn’t love the Minister and still don’t. Did anyone ever approach you and ask you why you said those rhymes about Minister Farrakhan? It wasn’t just a casual thing; you really big-upped the Minister.

Chuck D: Yep. In the middle of R&B which was Reagan and Bush, which was crack, guns, and drugs in the black community, Minister Farrakhan was making very sharp statements about how we look at preventing some of this. So when it came down to naming heroes and naming people who were speaking for us but were not illuminated I just thought it was necessary to do so. I was a follower of Minister Farrakhan for six or seven years prior to that. I remember being in the basement of Hank Shocklee’s mom’s house, we had Spectrum which was our mobile DJ unit, and Hank came down to the basement with Minister Farrakhan’s album. He actually made a statement at Jack the Rapper in 1979 and those are the same vocal excerpts that we used on ‘Terminator X to the Edge of Panic’. It came from that record. It was a no-brainer to go in that direction because we already had members of the group that were in the Nation. At the time the Nation was actually going through a second renaissance and I also felt that in the direction that the Nation was going at that time to counter against all the stuff that was all of a sudden accepted in the black neighborhood what Minister Farrakhan was actually breaking down was prophetic. Especially at the time after Minister Farrakhan offered his protection of Rev. Jackson when Rev. Jackson called New York “hymie town”. That thing spread into, “These Muslims don’t really feel good about Jewish people,” and it went into an ugly place that was fueled by media. The media was less responsible than they should have been. They should have been a liberal and well-rounded voice instead of guilt by association.

In ‘Don’t Believe the Hype’ and ‘Bring the Noise’ I name-checked Minister Farrakhan in a rhyme. My plans were, okay because of the media you say this person is this or that and you say you dig Hip-Hop and they say we’re the next best thing which coincidently we are signed by Rick Rubin, our publicist is Bill Adler, and our management is Lyor Cohen, it would be really interesting for you to try to edit this out when you try to kick the lyrics to your favorite song [laughs]. It was really interesting seeing young Jewish kids into that after “How low can you go, death row, what a brother know/Farrakhan’s a prophet and I think you ought to listen to…” It sounded great to them. It was like “Wow, do I really want to say this guy’s name?” It was a good challenge as a writer and also it was a good challenge as a Hip-Hop head to see if you want to complete the rhyme in the verse and you think it sounds good, this should be interesting. Especially in ‘Don’t Believe the Hype’ “The follower of Farrakhan..” Even people that might not believe, they found it difficult to edit it out on their own. They didn’t have the ability of casual Hip-Hop listeners today to fill in the blanks and compensate for what’s not there with some trickery. And lord, don’t have an eight and seven-year-old screaming it in the household. ‘Bring the Noise’ covers a lot of bases in the third verse because Yoko Ono and Anthrax [are mentioned], my good buddy Scott Ian, he’s Jewish as well. We just wanted to knock down some of these barriers and the hype that was out there.

TRHH: I asked Scoop Jackson a few years ago why fewer mainstream rappers speak on social issues today and he said it was because leaders like Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are older and not in the forefront like they used to be. What’s your opinion on that?

Chuck D: You raise good points, bro. You ask some good questions. I dealt with thousands of writers, literally. I’ve always thought that to be out in the forefront right now with the Minister who is 79, and Rev. Jackson who is in his seventies and Rev. Sharpton who is in his sixties, who is really the young buck out of everybody, there comes a time that they do so much front work that you have to say who is following up with the new leadership? Is the new leadership on the front-line? Where are they at? Because we as artists didn’t dictate the movement, the movement was already there dictating itself into the accountability of us having to write those songs.

Just like James Brown, the movement of “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud” didn’t start with James Brown just coming off the top of his head. The movement at the time put pressures on a lot of situations so there had to be dialogue by the music so to speak. It’s the same thing with what we did at that time, there was a movement that we reflected and we dug into it. I think there are a lot of movements across the world but I think the United States artists are so propped up by the corporations that are sending them into so many different areas that their grass roots approach is nonexistent. And the disdain for leadership is evident. But they have a disdain for leadership but a love for money which is unprecedented [laughs]. Artists from my day, yeah of course people wanted to get paid but they didn’t give up their art to get paid. Today in order to get paid people give up their art. That’s kind of alarming.

TRHH: Why did this change? I know it’s leadership but it’s also in the music.

Chuck D: Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. I thought it was harmful because it allowed radio stations to not be independent, own their own playlists and all that. You can no longer negotiate with a local radio station to support a label be it a independent or a major. And all the stations get bought up by three or four different ownerships therefore the record company continued their relationship doing whatever it took to keep those records on the radio. And it seems like those records that were quote, unquote positive, those artists gave their white bosses the hardest time. Not meaning that they intentionally went to their white bosses and said “I’m going to make these records and you’re going to sell actually them,” I think it was one of those things where “We are going to actually make these records and if you don’t come right with us we’re going to go up in the office and straighten you out.”

They didn’t really get so much of that from the gangsta rappers because they kind of thought that the gangsta rappers had beef with each other. And also brought that beef on wax with each other and then later on brought that beef into real lives after wax with each other. The casualty usually was going to be those guys that were squabbling like that. They had to deal with an X-Clan telling them, “No, this videographer is not going to fit the theme of the song. We are not dealing with him.” They were less impressed and really put a lot of pressure on white executives at the time. White executives came to the table with a real quiet ghetto pass [laughs]. They had permission to only do the right thing and then leave it alone and don’t touch it. The one-sided aspect of Hip-Hop is they can get bought out a lot easier. They get pacified a lot easier. They don’t have to be accountable to anybody but the people they were getting the money from.

TRHH: I wanted to ask you about Spike Lee. You have a history with him. Obviously ‘Fight the Power’ and you were supposed to do something with Malcolm X…

Chuck D: That’s right, sure enough we were supposed to do something with Malcolm X. I remember being on the corner with Spike and Dr. Khalid and Spike would not show the film to Dr. Khalid Muhammad who was coming to view the film for the Nation. Spike held his ground and said, “I can’t let you in and watch the film.” I had to go in there, watch the film for placement and I felt really uneasy. Khalid would give that look and he had his head bald and gleaming into the sun, it was hot, and he had a suit on. Spike had his Knicks shorts on and it was a classic moment. I was like, “Oh boy, I’m just going to opt out of this movie because I don’t know what kind of political statement to make here.” It was just a classic moment. 

TRHH: You went on and did the He Got Game soundtrack…

Chuck D: Which got me out of my Def Jam contract. 

TRHH: Was that the purpose of that album?

Chuck D: Well the purpose to get me motivated to finish it, yeah. Deliver this record and go! I delivered the record and very soon we were in a digital space releasing a MP4 of ‘Swindler’s Lust’. 

TRHH: It was fast. It was like 98-99, right?

Chuck D: It was like the summer of ’98. We delivered the first digital single. The early summer of ‘98 was He Got Game. Def Jam had just been going through a welcoming committee to a lot of music and a lot of labels so it was very easy to be the one group to get lost in the sauce. It was a very enjoyable project doing He Got Game as far as where the music can go, it was a joy to do like Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes on a Denzel Washington acting flick. I think I did my best writing on that album, ever. I’m into sports and I think I wrote some metaphors and verses that no one else has been able to come close to, blending basketball and Rap across an album. I really put my foot into that album.

TRHH: I thought it was great. It was another one of those things that they really didn’t support. Did it have one video or two?

Chuck D: It had one video. It was ideas for a second video but you know I never got mad at Def Jam for not supporting it. I was very realistic, Sherron. They got 50 other acts; it’s reminding me of a big cruise ship with a lot of people on deck. I was asked at that time to do the Smokin’ Grooves tour and Public Enemy was asked by promoters at that time can we lead a whole all-Rap package to go across the United States. Up to that point in 1993 we had went through the genre of supporting everybody else and toured and toured. After we played with The Sisters of Mercy and especially U2 we had to take our touring to another level but Rap music and Hip-Hop needed somebody who was accountable and responsible to get in all those other buildings from East to West. That was the need of the headliner. The headliner dictated what insurance would actually be paid. The headliner also dictated how many people were going to be in the seats and what promoters were going to be involved. We just knew that once we got on it buildings would open up so we played on Smokin’ Grooves in ‘98 on all-Rap package. The next year it opened up for the Hard Knock Life tour and then Eminem, whatever that next tour was.

TRHH: Up in Smoke.

Chuck D: Yeah, Up in Smoke. Something had to come through to open those buildings. That’s why they asked me if I could do it because Public Enemy had some tenure and we had an accountability record with buildings in populations and they wanted to be able to trust that. It’s a funny thing because when you talk about this business and you talk about what actually is promoted and projected across this business and then you want to also talk about buildings with insurance rates those are two different stories. They’re not taking somebody who is unproven to come in their building so that headliner has to be really pristine on that tip.

TRHH: I remember going to that Smokin’ Grooves tour and Black Eyed Peas was the opening act. Look at how far they’ve come.

Chuck D: Yep, they sure were.

TRHH: Gang Starr, Busta, Cypress, and Wyclef, that was a heavy tour.

Chuck D: Yeah and I’m glad that we brought it around. We’re very fortunate that we can be involved in that. We shot our video with my man Chris Adams in Chicago at that time, ‘Do You Wanna Go Our Way’, that was the last video Terminator was in. I think we played at the Amphitheater.

TRHH: Yeah, it was the Amphitheater. It’s gone now

Chuck D: Yeah, well it was on its last legs then.

TRHH: [Laughs] Yeah it was old, man. The sound was bad.

Chuck D: Yeah, I’m pretty sure Howlin’ Wolf was in the back somewhere in the dressing room talking about, “Y’all goin’ on yet?” I was shaking my head when we were there. It was my first time in that stadium. I would always hear about it and it looked like a gigantic chicken coup [laughs]. Somebody said, “Oh yeah, animals used to come through here and they used to have the zoo here,” I was like, wow.

TRHH: Yeah, that’s the old Amphitheater. They used to have wrestling and boxing there. I think Ali fought there.

Chuck D: Wow.

TRHH: What does it mean to you to be inducted in the 2013 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?

Chuck D: Well I’m a sports fan so I look at Hall of Fame’s a little different than somebody that might be cavalier about it. We never got a Grammy, we never got awards and stuff like that probably because when we started out the category never existed. We were always on the outside of mainstream or whatever that’s worth. So when the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame came around I said the only way that Public Enemy can make it is we can’t be that group that broke up. We put together 25 straight years. We never broke up. People may have thought we broke up. They say “I don’t ever hear you on the radio,” but you ain’t never really heard us on the radio [laughs]. If I robbed a gas station then you’d hear about me all day. In the millennium Flavor had his TV show and that’s all you’d see. You ain’t going to see the rest of us on his TV show. I do lectures and you ain’t going to see Flavor actually lecturing anywhere. Everybody is a sum of parts that was scattered all over the place. So we always kept the mission of when we come together we will pick up where we left off.

I kind of look at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a situation that had to recognize our tenure and although I agreed with Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five getting in in 2007 after their first year and Run-DMC in 2009, and the Beastie Boys which I was personally asked by Adam Yauch to deliver their presentation, I was honored this year by the amount of people I’ve met along the way. My wife is good at letting me know that there are people that sacrificed and died before they could get their reward. We just lost Mr. Bobby Rogers from The Miracles who was also being honored last year. My wife is very sharp. She’s like, “The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, there are so many people that are not in and there are so many people who are so gracious when they’re recognized that you have to honor that.” It’s a great way of putting it.

TRHH: What does Chuck D and Public Enemy have coming up for 2013?

Chuck D: I think one of the biggest things that I’m going to try to do like I did with the Hip Hop Gods tour is trying to provide the opportunity to our peers and our structure for classic Rap music and Hip-Hop, to structure some organization and the longevity that we’ve enjoyed, trying to see the same things across the board for many of our peers.

TRHH: I interviewed Willie D from The Geto Boys…

Chuck D: Aw, my man Will!

TRHH: Yeah, he’s entertaining. I told him this so I have to tell you, my formative years were during the golden era of Hip-Hop. I’m 12, 13, and 14 years old and KRS-One, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Geto Boys, Ice Cube, and you kind of raised me. Just by listening to your music it shaped me into the man that I am today. You had a very positive influence on my life that goes beyond entertainment and I just wanted to say, thank you.

Chuck D: I appreciate it and I’d like to say thank you. When you named those aforementioned names I feel the same about those people that you named. It’s like for somebody that’s into Rock & Roll naming Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis. You know Elvis is one of those guys. He’s not thee guy. He’s not the king and nobody else counted. Rock & Roll is Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash–all those people are legends. I feel like when you named Rakim, KRS-One, Ice Cube, it’s like, wow. That’s an awesome array of giants that I’m happy to call my peers or they call me a peer. It’s like, yo man, it’s unbelievable. I don’t know how to feel sometimes. I’m really a fan, so often I feel like I’m on the outside looking in at something else.

TRHH: Well, you’re amongst the giants. Congratulations on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. It makes me proud as a Hip-Hop fan.

Chuck D: Well I’m happy that you’re proud.

TRHH: Thank you for your time, Chuck.

Chuck D: I appreciate you, bro. Thank you.

Purchase: Public Enemy – Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear On No Stamp

Purchase: Public Enemy – The Evil Empire of Everything

About Sherron Shabazz

Sherron Shabazz is a freelance writer with an intense passion for Hip-Hop culture. Sherron is your quintessential Hip-Hop snob, seeking to advance the future of the culture while fondly remembering its past.
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