For nearly three decades Chuck D has consistently expanded the boundaries of how Hip-Hop music is perceived, created, sold, and heard. A true visionary and champion for Hip-Hop, the founder of Public Enemy continues to add on to his legacy and to the culture with his latest solo album, The Black in Man.
The ten-track release finds Chuck rhyming harder than ever over rock, soul, funk, and blues influenced tracks. The Black in Man features appearances by Mavis Staples, Jasiri X, Kyle “Ice” Jason, and Jahi of PE 2.0. The album is produced by DJ Johnny Juice, Confrontation Camp, C-Doc, Hardgroove, Sammy Sam, and Divided Souls.
The Real Hip-Hop spoke to the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer about the Bomb Squad’s impact on rap music, taking part in the 2013 Kings of the Mic tour, and his new album, The Black in Man.
TRHH: Explain the title of the new album, ‘The Black in Man’.
Chuck D: Well Johnny Cash was the man in black and I respect his point of view and he was able to come out with the truth and honest music, so I’m the black in man. The black in me is irremovable so that’s where that came from.
TRHH: How did ‘Give We the Pride ’ with Mavis Staples come about?
Chuck D: We actually got involved in doing a Stax reunion more than ten years ago. I told Ms. Mavis about another song and she recorded the vocals. Divided Souls who are actually located out of Baton Rouge, Atlanta, and Madison, Wisconsin are one of my top production teams. They were able to take the vocals and make a new composition. We tried to get it to Mavis to put on one of her new records, but she had just finished wrapping up her album with Jeff Tweedy. It was just kind of there so I put a vocal on it and they produced it and I was like, “Wow, okay, now what do we do?” I decided to build an album around it and that’s how The Black in Man was formed.
Also through our SPITdigital distribution and record company we were getting ready to test the market place with new approaches to albums – shorter albums, building an album around one song, and being able to have video be your main statement. Filler on an album nowadays is songs that you don’t do videos for. We wanted to be able to create a new template that classic Hip-Hop could follow and do well for themselves. The Black in Man came out and everything was ready. When you have a known commodity or known name you’ve got to lessen the period when you have the big wind up going to let everybody know, “Here’s the album.” I think those days are over. I think the first minute that you’re able to announce something or have a video or a song everything should be ready to go. Especially when you’re independent. Independent today means a whole lot more than what it used to mean.
TRHH: Why were there 18 years between The Autobiography of MistaChuck and The Black in Man?
Chuck D: It actually wasn’t 18 years. It was 14 years when I released Don’t Rhyme for the Sake of Riddlin’ in 2010. The problem in 2010 was the masses weren’t open to the configuration chain as of yet. The configuration got flipped around in recent years because everybody got acclimated on the same page just recently. 2011-2012-2013 was when smartphones, iPad’s, and tablets were the main vehicles for downloading music and that’s all new. In 2007-2008 downloading music meant downloading it on your own computer and making a blank disc out of it. 2010 was the beginning of phones being the biggest device to download music. In 2014 it’s understood. It wasn’t understood 4-5 years ago. Four or five years ago I released Don’t Rhyme for the Sake of Riddlin’ and it wasn’t an understood format – now it is. It’s not that people aren’t going to support another format, it’s just that they’re going to make a priority on what is going to be the thing they’re going to flock to first.
TRHH: I’m not familiar with that project and I bought everything Public Enemy has ever put out.
Chuck D: Yeah, it was only online. Social networks weren’t solid in promotions. What we were able to discover in 2012 and 2013 is that social media is our biggest way of promoting things that we have online. We’re going to re-release Don’t Rhyme for the Sake of Riddlin’ again in something like March or April.
TRHH: How are Chuck D albums different from PE albums?
Chuck D: Maybe the choices of music. Maybe the points of view are a little bit wider. With Public Enemy it’s like a one team notion and at the end of that particular notion you’re able to describe an attitude for more than one head. If it turns out to be a record like ‘Harder Than You Think’ it’s got to be something that everybody feels in step with. You don’t want to feel uneasy about a point of view that I might want to deal with individually while performing in the name of the group. A Chuck D record is still going to take some of the songwriting elements and I’m going to vocally record and take on some of the things that might not fit. My point of view is going to come through but the creation of songs might be different.
TRHH: I spoke to Edo.G and he was really bigging up SPITdigital. What differentiates SPITdigital from a TuneCore?
Chuck D: TuneCore is all over the place. I was one of the cats in the beginning that helped Jeff Price with TuneCore. I was one of the guys that helped Richard Gottehrer lending what I thought might appeal to the Orchard in 2004. TuneCore is now a major part of Universal because it’s been vested by big business. They’ve got a big infrastructure to bring in a lot of artists at a particular time. You know, big structures can sometimes turn into MySpace where you’re aggregated but you move from one sphere into the next and to the next. How do you get known? How do you get your stuff out there? I’m not saying that we’re known to get anything out there but we can be more personal, our accounting can be clearer, and until we build these other parts – a way to market and promote artists better – that’s what’s going to make us different. When you get aggregated it’s not a guarantee that that’s going to sell your product from the store. These are the next rounds of what people are realizing when they go to any of these stores, be it iTunes, Amazon, or Spotify you’ve got to be able to alert people. Hip-Hop is taking the easy way out with alerting people because it’s using drama and gossip and hype as the main thing to get a Hip-Hop artist known to the younger demographic. That’s been a fuckin’ problem.
TRHH: What do you think is a better way?
Chuck D: It’s not a better way, I think it’s a more patient way. You get a fan one at a time. One person at a time. I think this whole “we gotta get these numbers” is something a corporation would say when they have a staff and sales department. When you’re in an independent boutique situation you gotta celebrate one number, and one fan at a time. When you have that understanding that’s what makes it better. You gotta have an understanding of who you are, who you are not, what you can do, and what you can’t. I think the lowest hanging fruit is when somebody gets caught up with the law with their pants down and it becomes a big story and then all of a sudden everybody is talking about that person. I just think that’s a bullshit way. It’s comes from that adage that there is no such thing as bad news. That’s bullshit! Because as a grown man I don’t want people to know certain things about me. It ain’t none of their business. When does the way I shit on the bowl become part of my marketing plan? That’s bullshit [laughs].
TRHH: Is that society or is that Hip-Hop?
Chuck D: Well Hip-Hop is a part of society. Society is like that and Hip-Hop comes out of that just like a thumb out of the hand. Hip-Hop is culture and culture is a reflection of how certain things are, even if the culture is secure. This is something I think Hip-Hop can reach out to fix. I’m not even dissing but what makes Kim Kardashian “Kim Kardashian”? Nobody knows really. But we know how she ended up. That’s not enough for the average person to look upon and say it’s going to work for them. You’ve got to be clear about your craft and clear about your art and explain what it is. That’s important.
TRHH: I want to go back to Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. Was there any extra pressure to deliver on that record that was different from a PE album by it being Cube’s first solo record?
Chuck D: Yeah, of course. It was the pressure to be able to deliver something that we’re going to deliver from our camp that’s going to make somebody in the west think we can’t do that. We had to make Dre and Eazy say, “Damn, okay. That shit is good.” We wasn’t playing around with our reputation and we really had to deal with Ice Cube’s reputation going back to his guys. We didn’t want N.W.A. to break up either. We thought Ice Cube could make this record and go back to N.W.A. but it wasn’t to be. The only reason Ice Cube came to us was because he said Dre and Eazy didn’t have enough time for his solo record. The only reason that Ice Cube felt that he had to get it out in a hurry was because he felt he wasn’t being compensated in N.W.A. like Dre and Eazy who had some ownership in it. He had the permission from Priority and Bryan Turner to be able to record and do his own solo album. He just needed somebody to help him so he could actually get paid too. That’s how that happened. He ain’t ever really looked back because he puts together movies with the same detail, vigor and aplomb that he puts together his music.
TRHH: When people talk about the greatest Hip-Hop producers you always hear the names Dr. Dre, DJ Premier, and Pete Rock. What is the Bomb Squad’s place in Hip-Hop history? There were a lot of records like stuff from Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh that the Bomb Squad produced that people don’t know about.
Chuck D: The big difference with Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad was we dared to make records that people would hate. We would twist it until they ended up loving it. We never really looked to see if anybody would love our shit. We ain’t never make a move for popular things — at least that’s the Public Enemy program. Even Ice Cube took a page for himself as a persona by making the record “The Nigga You Love to Hate”. I remember Eric Sadler saying, “How is somebody going to talk about how much they’re hated?” [Laughs] But that’s all people talk about nowadays. Not how much they’re loved, but how much people hate ‘em. Nobody hates you. Nobody knows you enough to hate you!
TRHH: That’s true. How did the Bomb Squad’s production change when the Biz Markie thing happened and sampling laws changed?
Chuck D: It changed it a bit because people looked closer. They built departments at record companies that would reject certain sounds they thought they heard. But we were good at disguising and we got by with whatever, it’s just we couldn’t be obvious in any particular part of a production. The Bomb Squad sound started to change when boards became automated. Because that allowed one person to go in there and deal with an engineer with automation. Before that it would be five of us on a board making a mix. It’s easy to say that we made records with noise but the noise had to be sonically mixed and correct or you lose the record. Hank made all those mixes. That was an important aspect of Hank Shocklee’s production – not just hearing it in the beginning, but really hearing it in the end. Hearing it in the end is all you got. You gotta make sense of all that mess. We all would come up and say, “This is an arrangement but it’s gotta come out like glass in the end.”
TRHH: It’s impossible to have a favorite Public Enemy song. You guys are like The Beatles, there are so many great songs. But gun to my head I’d say ‘Can’t Truss It’. The video was incredible too. I remember seeing you guys on that tour and you lynched the Klansman….
Chuck D: I’ll tell you the story about the lynching of the Klansman. We wanted to do that in 1988 with Run-DMC. It was us, Run-DMC, EPMD, Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, and J.J. Fad. I remember being at the Philly Spectrum and it wasn’t a heated discussion it was more of a philosophical difference. I wanted to hang the Klan in our set and Jam Master Jay was like, “Nah, y’all can’t do it.” I was like, “But yo, this is our set,” and he said, “But this is our tour.” [Laughs] Jay is my man. He was really a dude in charge and I love him to death, man. It really straightened me out ‘cause Jay said, “Y’all do it on your tour!” which was two years later. I wanted to hang ‘em in 1988 and Jay’s explanation was, “We’re going to be going to places like Albany, Georgia where you have people who are in the Klan. They could be people that work in the arena or with the crew and they could just not really hang a light right and a light stanchion will come down on your head. You gotta be weary of that and we don’t want to be part of being a part of a casualty. At the end of the day we got assigned to this. This is the Run’s House tour, make no mistake about it.” I was like, “Yeah you’re right, I guess,” [laughs]. If anything we miss Jam Master Jay for his leadership and humility more than anything, man.
TRHH: That was the tour for the second album. It’s the one tour I didn’t see you guys on. I had a buddy who went and he said that you guys stole the show.
Chuck D: The whole key of performing that we learned from Run-DMC was it’s not about the individual act. It’s about how people came in the beginning and how they went out at the end. We were one show – one show! We weren’t five shows in one, we were one show. Everybody supported each other. They had another rap tour going on at the same time and none of the rappers got along with each other. Our tour was wonderful. A tour that I couldn’t check out a year before because we were on tour with LL was Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys. When people ask me what do I think about Hip-Hop today versus back then, the thing I miss the most is very cohesive touring where you came in the door and left more excited than when you came in. I don’t think today’s acts leave that because I don’t think that’s emphasized. I know when you came into a Hip-Hop tour in the late 80s you left better than you came in as a fan.
TRHH: I can say that I’ve experienced that and I was very young at the time. The only time I didn’t experience that was the N.W.A./Too $hort tour. That was not a good feeling.
Chuck D: Yeah, things spiraled out of hand when you started going into the area of harder-core. My philosophy was you had to mix it up. If you don’t mix it up you just got something without sugar in it. If it’s green tea without sugar in it you can drink it because you know it’s good for you. But that shit was whiskey [laughs]. It’ll get you high for a second and it might get you in a fight, but that shit was whiskey. You gotta mix up the packages. When Public Enemy went out in 1990 it was us, Heavy D, Kid N’ Play, Digital Underground, and then there was a hardcore group here and there. We had to roll with the mixed packages. When I played harder-core packages with Sisters of Mercy or later on with Anthrax then we’d let people know that this is the real deal, we’re playing hardcore shit now.
TRHH: Speaking of touring, a couple years ago you did the Kings of the Mic tour with you guys, LL, Ice Cube, and De La…
Chuck D: Oh the tour that everybody wished would go away and never would have happened? That tour hard zero coverage by BET and zero coverage by urban radio. It kind of wished that it never happened and we wanted to make a statement. LL, Ice Cube, and De La Soul are about the best that you will ever see. We wanted to roll out with a deep package and make a statement. I’m telling you from beginning to end LL was smashing them every night and they just tried to pretend that he wasn’t. What I mean by the media is your Hip-Hop blogs and your Hip-Hop conversations. I don’t think there was a better tour. LL was so despondent after because he didn’t get that he accomplished something great by the areas that are supposed to take care of Hip-Hop. He felt that they overlooked him and I thought that they did too.
What LL Cool J presented to the table, I’ve never seen a rapper command equally those aspects of Hip-Hop and Rap music where he has a large contingent of women getting a real rap song, not one with an R&B singer, and then being able to come back with a song that dudes will nod their head to, and do it for an hour and be ready for more! Who is keeping score here? Who got the scorecard, man [laughs]? It’s like, “I ain’t heard from L in a while,” You ain’t hear nothing? And you ain’t gotta hear 5 cuts, all you gotta do is hear 1 at a time. He’s got a song now that’s on our charts. It’s LL Cool J so he’s going to give you an hour or two of great entertainment. Z-Trip was incredible. To me it was like going to camp in the summer. It was like going to a barbecue. I drove half that tour. I would take the bus sometimes, I’d rent a car and drive through Michigan – I had a ball. Public Enemy just completed our 100th tour which was a date in Sao Paulo, Brazil in front of 50,000 people in a park. I’ve been on 100 of ‘em man and I’ll tell you, that tour was special.
Purchase: Chuck D – The Black in Man