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The Comedy of Errors

Interview: Public Enemy's Chuck D

29 December 08 interview: Al Needham
illustrations: Lewis Heriz

"The Nottingham crowd went bonkers. And we was like, oh, shit!"

The mighty Public Enemy came to town to reprise one of the best gigs ever seen at Rock City, and crank out the seminal It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back – one of the greatest albums ever – in its entirety. Chuck D, Public Enemy #1 himself, saw our tape recorder and he grabbed it. And we let him...

Do you remember the first time you played Nottingham in 1987?
Rock City? It was the night we were wondering what we were going to put in the set, and we decided to play this acetate of a jam we made for the first time. We didn’t know whether to play it or not, but a girlfriend in America told me over the phone that it was on a soundtrack album back there, and selling well. And we were like, that record? Because we didn’t think too much of it. So we decided to play it first, because we knew the crowd were gonna be hype regardless, so you know you can’t lose anyway. And the name of the song was Bring The Noise. And the Nottingham crowd went bonkers. And we was like, oh, shit!

That tour was amazing. Wasn’t it the one where LL Cool J humped a sofa during I Need Love, and he got booed off in Brixton?
Yeah. Well, it worked for him in the United States, because that was a big record there. His audience in America was those teenage black girls; when we did the tour in America, out of 15,000 people, 10,000 of them would be screaming at LL, and we’d seen him do that thing with the couch all summer long. As a matter of fact, it was the peak moment of the whole show. But in Britain, there was a completely different dynamic. Two different crowds, you’d say... [laughs]

As the most fiercely pro-black group in Rap, were you surprised at how many white kids were in the audience at Rock City?
No. I knew I was coming to Britain, and I knew that after playing to 20,000 black kids in America, the UK wasn’t going to give us that kind of numbers.  When we first played Britain, I didn’t expect anything, and got what I kind of expected.

So, Nation of Millions. Why do you think it stands up so well after twenty years, while other LPs of the era have dated?
Because we delved into different things on Nation. Speed was the main thing; we tempoed hip-hop up. You can never really go wrong with a fast tempo. And the topics we covered are as relevant today as they were then – only some of the names have changed. It was a benchmark album because of the arrangements put together by Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad. What we did then was almost like the Beatles with Sergeant Pepper, I guess.

How did it feel when you sat back and heard the playback of Rebel Without A Pause for the first time?
What I can really remember about that is trying to get the vocals right. The first day I recorded the vocals, I felt that I didn’t cut it right. I had to go in the next day, and tried a different breathing technique, and really hammered at it. And when I heard it back, I knew we had something.

You helped pioneer the link between hip-hop and rock more than anyone else. Which of the two gives you more respect?
The rock world is definitely more organised. Definitely.  The hip-hop world is more scatterbrained, and really doesn’t take care of itself as much as it should. And that’s problematic. People think hip-hop is bigger than ever, but we can’t name any female rap groups anymore. I remember a time when you had the She-Rockers, the Wee Papa Girl Rappers, and now that doesn’t exist. We don’t even have any female producers. So I’m like saying that’s a terrible drop-off. There’s a lot of things in rap music and hip-hop that need to step up - the organisation, the administration…it just needs to get away from that bubblegum mentality.

You used to say that hip hop was the black CNN. Do you think it’s become the black QVC?
I wouldn’t say that. What’s happened is the record companies have all but crumbled. Now there’s a whole bunch of independent situations that are getting ready to make their mark now.

But there seems to be less message and more reeling off of labels these days.
…but other areas of other music have the same problem. I mean, Kurt Cobain had a lot of things to say, but when he passed away a lot of rock groups went in another direction. So the rock arena isn’t really strong on message at the moment either. What it is strong on is live performance, while the hip-hop arena is so weak on that front at the moment.

You were one of the few hip-hop crews who actually made an effort with the stage show back in the day…
Yeah. Well, the speed of our records dictated that fact. You had to be in top shape to do those tunes. A lot of work went into the show because we knew our music wasn’t going to be accepted at first by fans and foes alike, so we had to come up with a stage show that was totally off the charts, so to speak.

What do you think is gonna happen with Barack Obama?
He’s gonna get a good run at it. But we should be realistic; whoever is the next President of the United States won’t serve poor people and black people first. And whoever is President next time is really gonna be tested on their foreign policy. Most Americans are poor on Geography and History, so with that lack of knowledge it’s gonna be really difficult for anyone to make significant changes overnight.

Why did we hear so little from all the Muslim and Five Percent Nation-affiliated rappers after 9/11?
Because it was pretty much a mid-80s, New York thing. Five Percenters didn’t really exist in other parts of the United States as much. And when other parts of the US developed rap styles, people from the next generation in New York followed them and emphasised it less.

Do you still believe in Separatism?
I’ve always believed in separate development, because if you don’t know yourself and who you are and how you’re looked at not only in the country but in the world, you can’t develop a defence to fight off attacks that scrutinise you based on your character.

How do you see the race issue in Britain, compared to America?
Well, the UK is an island. And it’s a small island. So when you see a large influx of black folks moving in from the Caribbean, you’re gonna see some tensions based on social classification. The UK has these rules and laws to keep people from filling up the island, so the majority is always gonna be white.

What did you think when Flavor Flav started his reality show binge?
I just thought, y’know… that’s Flavor. If he was doing college lectures, people wouldn’t take him serious. He does what he does, you know. I expected craziness out of him – I just didn’t expect that people would flock to him like they did – corporations, producers and such. I’ve always said to him “Hey, whatever you’re doing, do it well, and work at it.” And he has.

But did your hands slide down your face when you saw it at any point?
Well, I only really catch it here and there on VH1. You can’t really miss it here. You’re bound to catch it one way or another. But I don’t really care for his producers too much.

You’re one of the few rappers from back in the day who is still busting it in their 40s. Did you expect to still have a career in 2008?
Well, if I was doing this on my own, I wouldn’t be doing it now. The thing that makes it worth the while is having Public Enemy as a team. When Terminator X was replaced by DJ Lord, I think we morphed into a different performance act, and added a band element to the set-up. When we do this tour, I think we’re gonna strip it right down to the bare elements and revisit what we used to do. The band we use gives us great flexibility, but this time it’s gonna be a throwback – in good and bad ways.

Alright, talk to me about the future of Public Enemy…
Well, we’re the Rolling Stones of the rap game. And I think the most significant thing about when we played Nottingham in ’87 was that it was the beginning of the reversal of the British Invasion, which happened in ’64. The beautiful thing about Public Enemy is that it’s a good prototype for anybody starting in the rap game to follow. But you’ve gotta be original. And, y’know, musicians never stop making music. We’ll continue to make music and tour, but at a pace that is more part-time than full-time.

Have you anything else you want to say to LeftLion readers?
Yeah, big shout to my man Joshfam – he’s been our main guy on the board for so long, and one of our strongest friends, and he’s from Nottingham. And to the people of Nottingham, I wanna tell them that we’re gonna try to turn back the clock when we get there…

Thanks for your time, Chuck. Much appreciated.
That’s OK, man. Cheers, as you say over there. Peace.

Public Enemy played Rock City on Wednesday May 28 2008.

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