Interview by Mark Dowding, introduction by Scott Puckett
It’s easy to argue that Public Enemy changed the face of hip-hop
forever. Taking their cue from the conscious street rhymes of groups
like The Last Poets, PE and The Bomb Squad crafted albums that were
simply the best in hip-hop and among the best in any genre. Flavor
Flav’s comic antics offset Chuck’s politics, creating
records that made people dance as well as think. Terminator X’s
sampling and turntablist skills made everything sound like an air
raid siren; immediate, hectic, menacing. They appealed to hip-hop
heads and skate punks alike. They sampled Slayer, effectively created
rap-rock with Anthrax (Run DMC’s and The Beastie Boys’ contributions
notwithstanding) and made millions of parents nervous about their
children’s growing awareness of racial politics in America
at the end of the millennium. In short, Public Enemy is not only
a rap band, they are a rock and roll band in every way that matters.
In recent years, the band has expanded to online radio stations,
labels, and web sites (www.btn.com, www.slamjamz.com, www.rapstation.com,
and www.publicenemy.com), in addition to various side projects. Clamor
recently caught up with Chuck D to discuss Public Enemy’s new
record, “Revolverlution,” as well as other events in
the PE world.
Clamor: PE is renowned for albums which have a concept.
Is “Revolverlution” mostly a format and packaging concept
or is there a musical/lyrical concept too?
CHUCK D: Since 2000, I no longer believe in the purpose of albums,
at least those consisting of 12 or more new tracks. This belief is
based on the amount of available product in the marketplace, the
music industry basically promoting one song off an album at a very
high promotional and marketing cost, and the fact that more and more
people have the ability to assemble and compile their own albums
off the Net. Since PE has a worldwide fan base, I’ve complied
to this offline option by instituting “a trilogy within a trilogy” – three
blends of music at once. New tracks, live takes, and remixes of classic
cuts by producers across the earth via the Web will institute a new
way that rap artists with 10 years’ experience can still be
a part of the current field without this unnecessary pop pressure,
so the format of the record might be more revolutionary than the
What can we expect from “Revolverlution” with
regard to the production?
Perhaps the different feel on this record reflects the diversity
that’s overlooked when it comes to this genre. So many genres
like techno, trip, drum and bass, spoken word have been triggered
by hip-hop, thus it’s reflected in the works of the producers
at hand. The selection is always experimental. Whereas today’s
producers try to aim for what they think is a hit sound, I try to
encourage them to do as they feel. This is different from the overdone
go-for-hot approach. All the studios involved brought something to
the sonic table.
DJ Johnny Juice is working on a track for the album. For
those who don’t know, break down the role Juice has played
in past PE projects.
Juice is such a scholar of the music from all aspects. From the
very beginning, he was a part of the original PE Bomb Squad sound
as a turntablist. On “Rightstarter” on “Yo! Bum
Rush the Show,” his cuts, using a recorded bass kick, are the
whole backing track of the song. He provided much of the rhythm scratching
on “Yo” and “Millions,” all this as a teenager.
After that he went west to the Navy, but over the years he’s
gained a production philosophy that helps him today. I think his
approach can help many of these artists today, whereas I don’t
understand how these companies choose the same producers time and
time again with less than groundbreaking results.
You have 4 remixes by competition winners on the new album.
What was it about them that led to the final selections?
Each submission was judged by a then-virtual staff of about 15 heads
who would take the 462 submitted mixes and evaluate them. They were
judged by however that producer could make the new mix different
from the original but close to some semblance to the hip-hop genre.
It was very difficult because there were so many incredible, diverse
examples, but the virtual staff – which, by the way, is the
first of its kind – has made us confident.
I read a review recently of the new Cypress Hill album “Stoned
Raiders” and it was more concerned with their age, saying
they were too old to still be doing albums.
I think there’s unfair bias when it comes to rap artists on
the longevity tip. It could be racial as black folk are taught to
dis-acknowledge history, future, and give it a right-here-right-now
mentality, but as an artist you have little choice but to try different
approaches. Whoever said that about Cypress just doesn’t get
it, by limiting them to having to satisfy an infantile limited circumstance
by pop standards. This narrowed view will never grow artistry to
the respect level of Bob Dylan, Beatles, Stones, Miles, Cash, Franklin,
etc. With PE, the problem is one where PE just adds to catalogue
and presents something new, memorable and memorably new as in the
remixes. As with the Stones, show-wise the songs from the past are
the intro to some new ones. To compete with today’s current
crop is definitely not the idea ... we have two different goals.
For a group that has continuously stressed the importance
of the DJ, don’t you find it ironic that you have an MP3
label – a format which might eventually make it final for
I’ve always said technology giveth and taketh away. These
CD turntables such as the Pioneer DJ1000 are basically the same technique
and this will be the same with MP3s. The DJ can still orchestrate
all this. I’m not a loyalist to equipment and props; the 4
elements can still be upheld yet upgraded and music, objective, visuals,
and entertainment quality can still be maintained.
It seems that hip-hop is fanatical about artists remaining constant
to a message or to statements made on wax (take the last question
as example 1). The term contradictory is often leveled at artists
who grow within their music and change their viewpoint (KRS being
the prime example). Why do you think it is that rap fans/media can’t
accept that change?
As long the media outlets continue to make it commercially impulsive
and infantile, its older fans will drop off at a certain age and
make younger ones ignorant to its roots. Any company would love to
continue selling the same product but having a new audience accepting
it as the new thing under the sun. Thus, change is not accepted and
growth is not focused upon.
When you set up www.publicenemy.com did
you even imagine the amount of talent that would gravitate to the
enemy board? How does it feel to see how it has developed?
I knew that if we can build a giant communication connection, I
figured that the next discovery would be the talent across the planet
who are now able to record, mix, and distribute out of their own
homes without mass loot or the middleman involved on them shining.
You have said several times you always wanted to be the
man behind the scenes, do you think that is finally happening for
you? Or can it never really happen because of who you are?
It’s a little difficult because structures are built today
with a gang of corporate money, something that has been kept away
from me for various reasons. However, at heart, I am a behind the
scenes head and there’s not two of me and often I have to be
a front person to attract business. Sometimes I wish for three of
me or at least 500 days in a year. For example it took a whole day
to do this mandatory Internetview but for you it’s a pleasure
and I’m thankful.
Do you think that there is still the potential in hip-hop
for change; i.e., the sound, content, etc., in the way PE, Wu-Tang,
Rakim, Run DMC, and even Hammer changed it? Or has it run its course?
Change is always inevitable ... the biggest change in music in the
past three years however is not what but how they get it. It was
totally unexpected. Inside the music it’s harder to maximize
musical change because of the vast amounts of hip-hop artists, whereas
10 years and further ago, there were only a handful of groups out,
period, so change was recognized early in the rap game.
In your book, you made comments that the aim for rap should
be to get as big as U2 and rock with regards to the level of organization
and structure. Do you think that it is there yet or is there still
a long way to go?
Yes we have miles to go, for every record company staffing there
should be a management component that preserves yet builds upon the
Do you think the way hip-hop is represented by the media
is a very limited view? They seem determined to define what it
is and what we should and shouldn’t like and listen to.
Yes, acceptance can be stifling. In the past, the media considered
all rap as bad. Now it selects a certain stereotype and therefore
puts a stamp on it. This definition blurs the overall perception.
You have worked with the best MCs and producers in the game
and you have worked with people yet to make a name for themselves
in rap. Do you see it as an even playing field as far as the excitement
and challenge of working with each goes?
If this was sports, I would be a coach – even cats I coached
like Johnny Juice would be coaches now – but this is not exactly
sports, so therefore these qualities are not noticed, but there’s
no better joy than in mentoring and giving someone advice on the
rap game and hip-hop. Excitement in seeing cats get into the game
at ground level is rewarding where before I couldn’t offer
that platform. Understanding of this business is far and few, so
in our online ventures, these services reward us when peeps use them
Since the beginning you have been involved in bringing new
artists/talent to the rap game. Is that something you see as essential
to the survival of hip-hop, or is it more of a personal satisfaction
to see if someone else can achieve the things PE did?
It’s impossible to bring back the era, although cats can bring
back a certain sound, but that’s not enough so achieving the
things PE did is a bit much. New artists and talents always stretch
the art and that’s what I’m encouraging. Slam is doing
an alliance with the newly retooled Napster. Bringthenoise.com radio,
hopefully, will be alongside and within the XM satellite system,
and Rapstation.com will
be powered further with an alliance thru Artistdirect.com.
Each of these partnerships should bring a vast audience to the circle
of online music services we have. After all, our philosophy will
be based on getting people music instead of looking for consumers
first and pressuring them to buy. We would like to believe that if
we have an elaborate program that can land a song on one million
computer desktops, that will be the intro to an artistry that they
might be loyal to and invest in. This is the opposite of companies
today who develop the song instead of artist development. No wonder
today people would rather download a song ...
There are a number of rap’s founding fathers beginning
to make moves again in the industry (most recently Grandmaster
Flash). What do you think has sparked this interest in the roots
of the culture? Do you see a point in time where these legends
will finally see a financial reward that matches the groundbreaking
work that they have done for hip-hop?
We would hope so but strangely, those who’ve profited are
the same names closest to the top of the corporate circles. Those
names, Simmons, Cohen, Combs, La Reid, Harrell, Rhone, and Flex have
been granted positions from the Clives, Motollas, Iovines, Mayses,
as well as the radio corps, that have dictated how and what music
heads the streets. There’s so much finance at the top that
how much of it is trickling down after the lawyers and execs get
theirs can be considered minuscule. My answer to this one-sidedness
is my contribution in becoming a “Bin Laden” to that
structure, in hoping to undermine the corporate dominance and circle
in record industry, radio, retail, TV, and video outlets. It’s
my belief that this corporate lock has suffocated the growth of grassroots
business through hip-hop in the hood from where it’s taken
yet projected back into. The fact that LA and NY have these mega-businesses
suffocating all outside attempts that don’t go thru that circle
can be considered blasphemous; thus, my attitude in Web-blasting
this playing field flat.
Has the response to Slamjamz been encouraging so far?
Indeed. Now if I can get the final components to it finalized and
launch Remixplanet, then I’ll have a complete service world
to talk about. This will be my primary topic when talking about this
upcoming PE record.
Looking back on the last few years, it seems to me that
you have been building foundations and trying out ideas through
your various sites with the final goal being www.slamjamz.com,
for example, the MP3 section of Rapstation. How much was part of
The ability for anyone in the world to upload to Rapstation, and
have it submitted or checked out by a 50-person virtual A&R staff
and possibly released online, midline (mail order by demand), and
offline is a model prototype that the majors should look at. This
is unprecedented. When Remixplanet launches, almost any a cappella
will not be safe. Remixers will converge and a pipeline will be headed
back into these companies, possibly embarrassing a remix they might’ve
spent $100,000 on to some name who lazily couldn’t compare
to some hungry Hungarian cat who is yet to be discovered.
How is the book publishing project going? Are we looking
at another online project (e books) or offline?
Offda books is a small on-demand book imprint that will center around
hip-hop and I do believe there is a revolution in reading about the
music that is the heartbeat of the young world. Next is getting it
to the “headbeat” of the young world as well.
The whole idea of producing albums in the traditional sense
doesn’t appeal to you anymore, yet you managed to get in
a studio and do 10 tracks for the Fine Arts Militia album. Was
that a case of FAM being logistically easier to work on or a refreshing
change that got the creative juices flowing?
It was a combination of things that helped create that project.
Number one, Brian Hardgroove made it easy to do, giving me a skeleton
to work with. Number two, the studio is next door and three, since
I do 40 lectures a year, it was a concept where I would take my subjects
and titles of my lectures and break them down into songs. After I
wrote lyrics for three weeks, it was amazing to myself that I recorded
them all in a one-night session, almost how they did it in the 1950s
The Slamjamz name has been around for a while. I remember
reading that you wanted to develop artists in a similar way Motown
did. That was when it was a traditional label, now it is online.
It seems to be the case that part of the freedom the artists have
is the right to develop their careers how they feel is right and
to the level they are happy in achieving. Is that intentional or
just an unavoidable factor of being online and having a roster
of international artists?
I think that those original ideas fit the future of the record industry,
which in this case moves like the record biz of 30-50 years ago where
recording and releases were not far apart from each other.
As well as being business moves, are the things you have
done on the Web answers to some of the problems you have highlighted
within your lyrics; i.e., you have a problem with radio stations
so you set up BTN, similarly with record labels and Slamjamz?
Yes, of course. I also try to set a prototype in the process.
In-house production teams on labels like those of No Limit
and Bad Boy have become the norm in rap. You have gone more for
creating studios than a set team of producers. Does that allow
for a greater flexibility of who you work with and allow you to
record when ideas are still fresh?
Yes, it does plus allows for apprentices in the waiting and fresh
ideas are best to record immediately and released as soon as possible.
Treat the music as you would bread, keep it fresh. When it can’t
be released quickly then you have to add plenty of artificial preservatives – marketing
gimmicks, promotion – which can be bad for the overall health
of the project at hand.
Has it ever got to the point where you felt like you were
banging your head against a wall?
Quite often as it goes with pioneering things, but nothing compared
to Edison, Alexander Bell, George Carver, and other real inventors.
Have you ever thought “Bugger this, I have a family
to feed, I am just gonna get jiggy with it for a while and make
some money”? Or is the thought of wearing those shiny suits
what prevented you?
Quiet as it’s kept, my background is rocking the hell out
of parties. It’s the music we’ve built upon, so in a
way I do like the rhythms currently in the clubs; however, the adult
themes have no place in broadcasting to an under-18 audience for
the sole purpose of company bottom line padding consumption. As an
adult for over 24 years, I can handle anything but I wouldn’t
suggest that thing for kids. In the future, the idea is doing a vast
amount of recordings looking at myself as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong,
Miles Davis, Sly Stone, Isaac Hayes looked at music. I’m gonna
make a Mistachuck club extended 12” 5 cut album called Chuck
D rhymes 5 hip-hop dance joints about nothing! Also on MP3 on Slam,
probably in 2003. Also I wouldn’t be opposed to wearing mohair
suits in the case of performing with the Fine Arts Militia.