A nation of millions didn’t even come close to holding them back. Public Enemy are a force of nature – a channelled whirlwind of visceral energy that tore through every skewed reality entrenched within social, cultural and political spectrum’s. As the gains made in the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960’s began to slip back into the status quo of flagrant injustice, and the collective consciousness burnt into the soul of that era began to fragment, Public Enemy stepped up to the barriers and made some fucking noise. Education with serious attitude ripped a new voice through the streets as rebellion and an explosive militancy of purpose primed the charges of fightback and took on institutional repression at its core. But it was never just their scorching intensity or the raw power they radiated that carved their place in history. As the shards of divide and conquer rained down on black communities, Public Enemy not only blew a hole in white America’s comfort zone, but forged a new generation of black pride. A new spirit of black identity built not only on outrage, but history, unity, community and an overwhelming sense of positive self realisation. Ferocious lyrical flows crystallised profound concepts against a pulsating wall of sonic assault that has now been etched into legend.
And with all the steel edged theatre and hard as nails realities of Professor Griff and the S1W’s – enter Flavour Flav to balance out the yin yang dynamics into a torrid flow of perpetual motion – breathtaking for its sheer volatility. Nearly 25 years on, Public Enemy are still pushing boundaries and keeping the original spirit alive. Evolving through decades of experience and the changing face if not the changing essence of the issues, they have recently released 2 slamming albums – The Evil Empire of Everything and Most of My Heroes Don’t Appear On No Stamp. Artistically, they are as innovative and pure as ever, and their convictions burn dazzlingly bright amongst the corrupt morass of lucre fuelled commercial hip hop. Despite the terror of middle class white America when these loud, proud, educated and fucking angry black folks opened up a direct line of communication to their children, those children helped vote a black man in as President. Somewhere deep in the circuitry, pumping rapids through the currents was Chuck D’s unique voice opening their eyes to the injustices they wanted no part of. Public Enemy were never just about being black – but about being human. Their legacy opened white eyes, fought for black identity from US streets to apartheid South Africa and helped shape the self knowledge of a post Civil Rights generation. And all the while setting new musical standards and staying true to the primal idea of art actually being about something. Still wrestling with the original themes of Public Enemy, Chuck D has gone on to throw down to the corporate hijack of the world around us and pioneer independent spaces in a shape shifting digital reality. We caught up with him, not to rehash a 25 year old history that has been so superbly told elsewhere, but to try and get a picture of Public Enemy right now and discuss some of the issues in the mix today.
Black identity to WHO?
To African Americans themselves. To their wider role in US culture. And in terms of opportunity
Well, a lot of self confidence is certainly there. The recognition of opportunity has lessened a bit, but that’s a conflict issue. To be honest – there are complexities to that question that could have us here all week, so I can only really scratch the surface right here, right now. Black identity in terms of who you think you are hasn’t really changed at all – but who you know you are may have changed. You have to remember that the obscuring of black history has impacted today’s social realities by blurring the link between our past, the possibilities of our present and the hope for the future, so instantly there is a disconnect there that makes it a conflicted question. Black people have always recognised ourselves for what we want to be – it’s just that wider awareness has increased and the rest of society knows more about black culture than they ever did in 1988. But that comes with inherent dangers in itself. It’s always deeply problematic when external forces claim to know more about you, analyse more about you, and conclude more about you than you do yourself, and I think we have started to see that pattern emerging.
You were instrumental in forging an intensely strong voice for a new generation of young black people who had missed the awakenings and the struggles of Civil Rights, and woke up a generation of white kids who had previously been oblivious to black realities. Near enough a quarter of a century on, that profound voice that hip hop smashed down barriers with has turned to bitches, money and jets – at least in the US. Do you think that the commercialisation of hip hop stripped it of its power in a way repression and censorship never could have done.
Stripped it of its power in those circles, yes. But hip hop is always expanding, teaching and touching new heights as a worldwide, untamed force. So when you say commercial – you’re talking about major record labels, radio outlets, TV stations and the mainstream press. But that is, always was and always will be the same old bullshit. Corporations may as well be the government, so whatever hip hop is portrayed as or sold as on those levels has absolutely nothing to do with its true essence as a grass roots movement. So to be honest, instead of buying into it or railing against it, the best thing anyone can do is not to give any of that manufactured shit any kind of credibility at all and just straight ignore it. I don’t know if that’s detaching yourself from reality, but that’s how I feel.
Did you go through a period of frustration seeing what you and others had built turning into this tacky, meaningless sideshow before reaching that point where you could just say – fuck it – I’m going to focus purely on the positive aspects of what’s going on elsewhere
Yes of course – but you have to hit that point. Look…it’s just such a ridiculous premise that because someone is signed to a major, that makes them somehow better than a serious artist with musicality and something to say . All that being signed to a major means is that the corporation in question feel they can profit from who they’ve chosen to sign. It’s got so, so bad in that sphere at this point, and I see so many people doing great things with the art form that it’s almost a joke to pay any attention to what some corporation says is ‘best’. I say almost – because there’s nothing funny about it. So I wouldn’t say it’s frustrating here and now – but if I were to limit myself to corporate output and to that world – then it most certainly would be.
So this new digital reality we’re in. On the one hand it’s allowed people to sidestep the corporate stranglehold and release music independently far easier than ever before. But has that democratisation of public access also made it more difficult to get heard as the internet saturates with new artists?
I think the fact that technology has allowed artistry in whatever form to be seen or heard by more than one person is a wonderful thing. Look at the world of sports. A lot of people get a chance to put on trainers and shorts and be like their heroes, but that doesn’t mean that they get the chance to play for Manchester United. But they can dress the part. Well people can get a drum machine or a guitar and play at being musicians too, but that doesn’t necessarily have to hold back the truly talented. I believe that genuine artistry will always find a way through. The thing with sports though is that talent always has a great chance of recognition by a solid infrastructure built to evaluate and maximise talent no matter where it comes from. We don’t have an infrastructure in place to judge, navigate and process all the dynamism and forward thinking in the arts right now. Very few people want to do the elbow work of finding artists wherever they may be and giving them a chance to push themselves further.
And that is a key difference between the two worlds. That level of infrastructure is something professional music has yet to reach. Just look at what you guys are doing with the magazine. How many people are actually out there doing that? We need a thousand times that number to be able to cover everything that’s going on out there artistically. I think there should be at least a thousand podcast style shows a week to help get new artists and new projects out there. But the reality is that there’s only a handful of people who are able to do a radio show correctly, so it stays limited…..but that doesn’t change the fact that the artists continue to metastasise. Something needs to cover art. To look at it from the outside and uphold it or maybe critique it. To weigh it against the art of the past, help generate the momentum of the future and bring it to a wider focus. The laziness of record companies have always led them to either jump an existing – be it London, New York or Los Angeles.
And occasionally you get something that pops out of Chicago…or out of Liverpool…. Who would ever have thought of looking for a band in Liverpool in the early 60’s? So this is something that the internet has really achieved. It is a fantastic vehicle for proper research into what raises the bar and what has the potential to set new standards in a corporation free landscape. The negative element is that the new dynamics have thrown people’s realities out of order. When you sit down to create a piece of art and then want to move it to the retail stage – to try and sell it, it is critical to think one sale at a time and never to think bulk. That’s how companies think. They have a mass of people working for them and enough of a marketing budget to convince people their product has value – however illusory. Everything they do is guided by mass sales. Once independent artists start to think beyond the one by one approach to their market, they’re full of themselves. I don’t care who you are.
Is that something that we’ve lost as a wider culture. The idea that art is about a personal connection with a listener or a viewer. About an experience shared between the artist and that person rather than anything that can be quantified into units. The individualism of artistic experience
Yes – thinking in terms of sales is a conversation independent artists should never have…especially with themselves. The day you create 20 paintings with a view to selling them all, you’re thinking like a corporation. Art is about the experience, and while of course there is nothing wrong with selling your art to make a living off of it, it should never, ever become an assembly line. Does thinking that way fundamentally corrupt you as an artist Yes it does. It doesn’t corrupt you as a person as ultimately you are just trying to make a living – but as an artist…. in my opinion…yes. It’s the first step into saying or doing anything just to meet a number. It becomes very difficult – no matter how successful you are to say NO. The ability to say no is the strongest weapon an artist has. It’s the mark of an artist who wants to create genuine art for a lifetime. You have, HAVE to be able to say no. That’s interesting, because despite the incredibly strong identity Public Enemy have always had – there you all were as young guys riding an extraordinarily heady wave. Even with all the social struggles that defined you and all the force and the fight within you, you were having millions of dollars hurled at you and golden whispers in your ears without the benefit of the kind of experience you now have.
Fame is always a slippery one. But I was in a group, and the group neutralises the fame, any sign of ego and reinforces itself internally against those kinds of influences. You aren’t famous to your group and you aren’t famous to your family. I think that the group dynamic really helped strengthen us all to deal with all that shit. And while we never set out to be rich or famous, we did set out to be exposed and if you are going to aim for that – you have to be able to process everything that comes with it. You have to take it tongue in cheek. You have to take it day by day, month by month, year by year and you just keep each other in check and focused on why we were all doing this in the first place.
So sat here in 2013, how do you feel that both your music and the messages within it have evolved over the years.
Well every time I write a song – it’s meant to stand the test of time. Equally I write songs that don’t care what people think about them. They’re born of principle and thought. I am a little defensive about some of the things I’ve done, but I think that for the most part, the songs speak for themselves, define themselves and protect themselves. And I can live with that. You don’t want art that’s frozen in time, but the messages, themes and the agendas are always omnipresent even if they change superficially or the names and faces representing the issues come and go. If Public Enemy had never been able to leave the United States on a more than regular basis, I would have been far more subject to the radiation of America. Because we always have travelled so much, I can just throw my middle finger at the USA and leave, but you always come back to it wanting to make it a better place.
How long does that optimism of trying to make it a better place last when you get back before you end up demoralised again
You can’t get demoralised in a fight. You’re only demoralised if you stop fighting. And I never really saw myself as an individual in that fight either – I always tried to incorporate team spirit into everything we’ve done and everything we do. We always shared similar beliefs – not exactly the same beliefs, but tight enough to take everything on as a team – and that’s always been fundamental to who Public Enemy are.
Speaking of beliefs..and fights… a lot of the stuff that Public Enemy did was perceived by middle class America, the mainstream media and the authorities as very extreme. But do you need extremes in a fight – do someone need to push those barriers really fucking hard before the ground is level enough to start thinking about long term solutions and compromise
In America – we were born extreme. It only seems shocking to middle class America because their definition of extreme was a product of a privileged, safe environment. And extreme 25 years ago is not extreme now. But we were just saying the things that were totally normal to us as black folks. And you know – black people were the extreme for white America, especially in the 1960’s. That’s where we were coming from – that was our starting point. We were born extreme.
Yes….absolutely….. Now you have two albums out this year – and we’ve heard you refer to them as fraternal. How does the interplay between them work
Well The Evil Empire of Everything talks about some of the serious issues coming at people today while Most of My Heroes Don’t Appear On No Stamp deals with the agenda that we’ve always been about as Public Enemy. And they will be talking to each other. Evil Empire is a little bit more eclectic and takes chances while Heroes is straightforward banging. But you know – there’s a song out right now……….and I’ve only done a handful of these songs in my career that almost seemed to appear by divine intervention. It’s probably one of the hardest hitting songs I’ve ever done and it’s called I Shall Not Be Moved, which happens to be a defining phrase of the Civil Rights movement
Know it so so well….. We Shall Not Be Moved – it doesn’t run any deeper or more symbolic than that
Absolutely. Myself and Gary G-Wiz who produced it have only really accomplished this kind of record maybe no more than 4 or 5 times over the years.
It totally wrote itself. But you got to be lucky and you have to come into it with some skill. But the skill is there to harness the inspiration – by itself it’s dry – those kinds of records are all about being lucky. Of course as a songwriter you plan, you design, you shape, you mould and you really enjoy the process of creating something that makes people stand back and go ‘Wow’. But sometimes you have that record that you really can’t explain – and you really shouldn’t explain or even try to. And you know that if you die tomorrow, this will stand on its own – with or without you.
Isn’t that art at its purest – can’t explain – shouldn’t explain
Pretty much. And you know – some people don’t get it at all. I’ll give you an example… Rebel Without a Pause was that record for me……….Bring the Noise wasn’t. Welcome to the Terrordome was. No on my 1996 solo project was. Harder Than You Think was…but in a different mode. So probably 5 times in my career it’s happened like that. Special, special moments.
A lot of hip hop is neighbourhood based – a lot of heart and soul – and deals with direct experience with huge honesty and passion – but the issues kind of stop at the frontier of that neighbourhood. Government stops at the police, race stops at local discrimination – and it’s very much a microcosmic world. From the start, Public Enemy was taking on huge issues that dug deep into history, wider themes of race and universal social threads. How important was it to think global from the start.
I certainly wanted to talk about something more rounded than my neighbourhood. I’m from Roosevelt, Long Island, but I’m read. So you look at lines like ‘South African government wrecker’ from Timebomb – and back in 87 I knew that and wanted to be taking it on. But it comes down to 3 key elements…… People, Places and Things. In that order. Things are a far distant third, but talking directly to people about their issues – their lives and their histories in the places you happen to go. And so much of what seems like a local issue is in fact much bigger than that – it’s just felt most directly in the place that a person is experiencing it in. So you take that order – People, Places and Things. The problem our society is permanently dealing with is the reversal of that order, where Things have been pushed to the forefront. Places if you happen to be stuck in one area – and way down at the bottom – People. From the very start – Think Globally and Act Locally was the theme. To be able to still think globally and act locally, think locally and act globally as well as think globally and act globally is the epitome of how art should develop as far as I’m concerned.
Artists have the opportunity to travel almost as a modern day nomad, and learning and changing and evolving through the people you meet and the places you go is what it’s all about – it’s never about being on tour and isolating yourself in your comfort zone with all the trappings of familiarity. This is why I don’t buy so much of the hip hop rhetoric around today. It sounds childish. After you’re 16 and you’re hitting 26, you have to be able to say something that reflects where you are at that point in your life and to have moved on from where you were at 16. Some of your defining beliefs and attitudes to life may have been shaped at 16 – that’s natural – but they need to have developed, refined and opened up to 10 years worth of experience. And if you find yourself at 36 giving up songwriting altogether, then you’ve really got to check your soul and your shallowness, because it’s all about that ongoing relationship with people, places and things that makes you a better songwriter.
I do a lot of songs that cover a lot of terrain and a lot of influences – which is the way it should be, but when I do a real straight hip hop song like I Shall Not Be Moved, it’s real simple. It has a breakbeat. Not a good one – a great one. It has a great arrangement, a great topic, a great voice to it, but it has passion and it has conviction. Now I’m not saying that there isn’t passion and conviction in my other songs, but that combination in a hip hop manner is something that really doesn’t look for opinions or plaudits or even a result – except if that result is to smack your face half off.
Isn’t that what hip hop was always about at core and where it’s gone wrong – at least in the circles that claim to represent hip hop today through their label’s marketing budget.
As soon as you start to count your results – that’s when you’ve lost. My opinion and criticism might not be at Jay-Z and Kanye as rappers – I think they’re great rappers. It comes down to don’t hate the player – hate the game. And I hate every aspect of that fucking game. I hate that game of what they think is great. I respect their rap ability, but I can’t respect where they’re coming from. I don’t expect them to change – why should they?? But I ain’t changing either.
Doesn’t that run through pretty much everything? People love to put a face on a problem and project all their dissatisfaction onto an individual. George Bush for example. Isn’t it always systems rather than individuals however rich or powerful that individual might be
Of course it is. But you know – systems will always have a face and you should at least enjoy the option of smacking the face off that system. Set it up like a piñata and smack fuck out of it.
They wait for a new generation. If you don’t have the older generation directly connected to the new one coming through and teaching them what to look out for, you end up with a fresh batch of gullible consumers in every 15 / 20 year cycle. It’s not young people’s fault. It’s that older generation who detach and individualise themselves and therefore pass none of that knowledge back down. So you’re 15 and the media is your world. What chance do you have? This is what corporations rely on – and who the hell wants to educate a consumer. Educate a consumer and he’ll turn round and say ‘Well why the f**k am I supporting you?’ They need people to be naive and gullible and unless the community steps in – who is ever going to help them see past the glitz.
How optimistic are you about raw young talent taking ownership of their lives and their art outside the mainstream. How much great stuff are you seeing.
There’s a lot of serious talent out there, though a lot of the skill is un-nurtured and misdirected. Hip hop is still performance art. The bottom line is real simple – people want to go out and lead their regular lives and be entertained. They don’t want to feel that they’re better than the entertainment they are paying huge sums of money for. They want a certain escapism. But you can tempt human beings into supporting you even while you’re taking from them – that is the nature of the complex forms of mind control out there. But even without getting too deep into the matter – as far as practical solutions go, myself and my partner have started an aggregation group called Spit Digital where we take care of getting stuff into retail outlets like iTunes and by helping artists with distribution, we can encourage them to start their own labels. And that independence, that self reliance outside the corporate stranglehold is what it’s all about.