Chuck D of Public Enemy: An Urban Cusp Special Interview

Public-Enemy-Photo-by-Robert-Downs

This summer, legendary rap group Public Enemy kicked off their 77th World Tour in Leipzig, Germany to a crowd of over 30,000 fans. Spanning three months and twelve countries, the tour brought “Bring The Noize,” their groundbreaking collaboration with Anthrax, back to fans after its initial release twenty years ago. The tour proved to the world that after 25 years, the pioneering group remains cohesive and timeless, which is rare in an era in which Hip-Hop is plagued by invidividualism and fleeting trends.

Last month, group member Chuck D brought some noise of his own when he released what was described as “a mashup of his own lyrics to ‘Notice Know This’ and Otis Redding’s ‘Chain Gang.'” The song’s video was released shortly after Jay-Z and Kanye West’s single “Otis,” which Chuck D credited for inspiration, along with “the media frenzy over Soulja Boy’s purported $55 million purchase and renovation of a jet.” Controversy arose soon thereafter over whether or not the Hip-Hop pioneer was “calling out” fellow artists. Challenging artists to rise to higher ground, Chuck D spoke of socioeconomic hardships faced by tens of thousands Americans who would find it hard to relate to the tales of Black opulence being told by many popular rappers.

We know that Chuck D’s timely and critical message has already, unfortunately, gone into the black hole of media and public consciousness. But as America seeks to gather herself together in the aftermath of Troy Davis’ controversial execution, Chuck D’s message is perhaps more relevant now than ever before, as people continue to ask why so many influential rap artists remained silent at such a pivotal moment in American history.

Urban Cusp recently had the opportunity to chat with the Hip-Hop living legend about what he’s learned from nearly 30 years in the industry, artist coalition-building, female rappers, Watch the Throne, Black Power, and so much more. You will quickly understand why speaking with Mr. Chuck D became a real-life “Brown Sugar” moment. While he schooled me to a lot in relation to the musical form, he more importantly embodied a love for the people that solidified my commitment to the Hip-Hop generation.

Urban Cusp: Twenty-five years later and Public Enemy is still together. In a world where rap groups are almost extinct – what has kept you all together all these years and what has kept your music timeless? Also what do you believe defines the difference between a strictly American artist or group and ones that can have the global reach that PE has had?

Chuck D: Public Enemy has been timeless because it has remained together. We are a group who understands who we are and we can then take that out into the world when we travel. It’s not about having a New York or Compton state of mind, but a universal state of mind. People and places are the most important thing. The music is global but if the people aren’t global, then you’re not going to understand. We went global at the same time as our music. All music is is seeds; you have to be able to nurture the seeds of song. You have to be able to relate to people. Big ups to all the journalists who were able to interpret our music for their demographic. You have to do it and do it with a humble spirit.

UC: Looking at the HipHopgods site, it seems that Public Enemy is committed to building a coalition of rap artists. What greater power and influence would Hip-Hop have if the artists were more unified?

CD: Hip-Hop started out of a coalition. MCs were never soloists; they had to work within coalitions. It was total acceptance of a community environment. Although you had soloists, you still had production teams. They understood it was more than themselves. The recording industry shifted that and it became about individuals.

UC: Based on the SheMovement site, it seems that PE is giving greater emphasis to cultivating female artists. Would you say that Hip-Hop is any more women-friendly than it was 25 years ago?

CD: They’re still recording and making music but it’s scattered across the terrain. A lot of these [female] artists are doing their thing and no one knows. Women feel that in order to get put on, they have to put out or go the Nicki Minaj route. We have to change the fact that a lot of women have been looking at males for acceptance. This did not take place in the 80s; they were competing with [men] back them. They did not wait for them to signify their existence. Then the 90s came with the recording industry: “In order for you to be hot, you gotta hike that skirt up.” Why shouldn’t they be on their own autonomous terms? If he’s telling a woman how to sell, he is in no way touching her soul.

UC: What ingredients made the members of PE the progressive, radical group it has always been and how does that get instilled in today’s generation of rappers?

CD: You have record companies in connection with record stations in connection with Viacom. Tell artists to be yourself. Don’t think about selling anything unless you know what you’re selling. How far is that from selling yourself? There’s no quick road to being a millionaire. They don’t have billions because they made it rain in the club.

UC: Let’s talk Hip-Hop and religion. How do you think faith is playing out in rap music?

CD: It’s Hislam and Histianity. Their version of Christianity with no Christ anywhere in there. They only know what they know. They’re trying to approach the masses and hold onto some sense of who they are but it’s a lot of confusion. But there are those who say I’m going to have a respect for a greater power than myself.

UC: Do you have a lot of faith in the future of Hip-Hop? If not, how might change come about?

CD: Real Hip-Hop has long ago been overseas. Graffiti, break-dancing, djing. It’s long been outside of the United States. We’re barely ranked. MCing – they have artists that spit in 4 or 5 languages. How you gonna get better than that? You barely know your own language.

Black America is in a depression. When America goes in a depression, Black folks go into desperation. The U.S. fell off. They’re dancing and partying on the deck of the Titanic. I’m 51 years old; I did this when this wasn’t even popular. When there was no such thing as Hip-Hop. I studied rap music and Hip-Hop as a fan. This is what I do.

It has to start in middle school ages. They have to become literate to what is coming at them. Before young people used to worry about peer pressure. That’s nothing like corporate pressure. It’s not their fault that they haven’t been taught. The more you separate Black men from Black boys – the more problems we have in our community. Fathers are scattered, individualized. Kids always outnumber the fathers now. And women are being barraged with a lot of sights, sounds and images. “Get it” is the thought of the scavenger, but what happened to working slow? If the old don’t teach the young that, then we’re gonna reinvent the wheel over and over again. We were broke as a people but we were never broken. There’s a difference! It’s not the youth’s fault; it’s a bunch of dysfunctional adults 25-40 years old.

UC: Some said Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne album was a reflection of Black elitism as the new Black Power Movement. What kind of Black Power Movement are you, Chuck D, trying to inspire with songs like “Notice Know This”?

CD: Jay-Z and Kanye are on top of the game. With great power comes responsibility. You don’t have to check the streets; check your family. No one is seeing Maybachs. Are you saying people can really achieve this? America is in a recession. In the Black community, black males graduate at 55% in major cities. If Black business is the new Black elite, how many jobs we giving away? Truth is truth is no matter what I think. Jay-Z and Kanye are the Elton John and Davie Bowie of rap.

Black elite means what? No such thing as being a Black elite in America; we don’t own anything. Africa is getting decapitated and it’s being called a hair cut. The streets were full of people who didn’t have money but had themselves. Even drug dealers said, “Go to school; don’t be like me.” You can’t always share your money, but you can share your thoughts and wisdom. Greed and individualism have brought the Black race down. Capitalism is a system that totally doesn’t work for Black America. Again, with great power comes great responsibility.

I’m looking for a way that we don’t give up on the masses of our people but I will tell you the numbers in prison are up, value of dollar down, family divided, more houses being foreclosed than ever. Food will become harder to get. Gas prices going up to $5. If we as Black people don’t figure out how to deal with this… we broke now and broken. Designer gear on the outside and no frills on the inside. We talk about our designers but whose designing your inside?

Public Enemy is security while you’re in the party. If you’re at a party and then there is no security at the door, how safe are you gonna feel? There’s always a Public Enemy, but now the party is outside the door. If anything goes wrong, how good is the party going to be? Now, the ruckus has become the party.

 

Rahiel Tesfamariam is a public theologian, social activist, writer and speaker. She is also a former columnist for The Washington Post and founder/ publisher of UrbanCusp.com, a cutting-edge online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Visit Rahiel.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @RahielT.