"It's a craft, an art. We are not scavengers. Take it to the top..."
Every once in a while, you have a surreal moment in life. One you'll never forget. I recently had one of those moments, being blessed with the opportunity to interview the legendary Chuck D of Public Enemy, a man who truly needs no introduction. Hear Chuck give us his perspective on the state of music and the industry today, reflect upon his past achievements, and describe the two Public Enemy albums that will be dropping this summer. Yeah, you read that right. Click "read more" to check our exclusive interview with the legend himself.
If you were describing yourself to a complete stranger, what would you say?
Well, I would say that I’m 51 years old, and that I’m grown. Been grown for a very long time.
Can you describe the influence that the Beastie Boys had upon the development of Public Enemy? They were part of the theme, as far as the emcee. Guys like them, Whodini, etc. Their influence brought forth the concept of being comfortable in their own skin, not trying to be like anyone else and just rapping what they thought from their perspective. When Public Enemy came out we were the extreme, we were the antithesis of the Beastie Boys. We got on their License to Ill Tour for the first time, and I learned what to do and what not to do. Not saying that what they were doing was bad, that’s not what I’m saying at all. But I’m saying that we knew we had to have a different style.
You have described your music as “from the people, not above the people.” Who, if anyone, do you feel is carrying on the legacy of music “for the people” today?
Yasiin Bey, when he came out with Niggas is Poorest… he hit it right in the solar plexus. I will say that I like Jay-Z and Kanye West as rappers, and I am very entertainted with their rapping. You’ve heard the saying, hate the player hate the game. That game is very, very hatable. A lot of younger kids don’t understand. I have a 24-year old and 19-year old. They say “aw you hatin’ on me.” But, being real, some things deserve to be hated on. People think you have to confront an issue to get out. Yea, I’m hatin, now what? Get out of the issue. Fix it. It’s very easy to hate something that doesn’t love you back. And the statement is like granite, yes it’s hatred. You don’t hate people. Human beings are different.
I don’t expect Jay & Kanye to change their games. But I don’t have to like it. Matter of fact, I can hate it. Just like drug dealing, I hate the drug game. Some shit that’s wipin’ mothafuckas out, how can you not hate it? And I can wish someone all the best. Let’s be real. You gotta be with the people. The best qualities in this life are people, places, and things. Corporations want you to worship things. It should be people first, then places, and finally things. That’s the beauty of hip-hop. In its finer sense, it dealt with many people, it travels to many places. It also brought things to the table, but it didn’t worship them. And this is how hip-hop works around the world. It’s a beautiful thing man, even when folks are watchin’ the throne.
When you first started out emceeing, you were still delivering furniture for your father’s business. Did you ever even imagine that your music would be as impactful for hip-hop as hit has become?
I had started delivering stuff, working. I was driving a u-haul truck. But I already was a skilled emcee. I had been working hard for 8 years before my first record. The beautiful thing about hip-hop is that you did it without trying to count the results. You weren’t counting. That’s the beginning of the end, if you want to count then become an accountant. Not an artist. Because art, you gotta be able to do it, and you gotta dig it.
How would you guide new artists as they plan their career path?
Let’s say an independent artist comes out, you need to be your own label, but don’t start getting into the mindset where you have to hustle people. And get to a million. Go one person at a time and then in you can “hustle” the gamer. Hustle is the terminology of a scavenger. This is an art, it’s a craft. What you make should add to the listener’s life. It should build them. That mentality can make someone happy, even if they sell 18 records. Don’t do too much counting. Quality first. You can’t get into the game of trying to count Jay-Z’s money. Universal has hundreds of offices man. Hundreds of offices of old ladies counting money, making purchases, moving Watch the Throne. It’s a corporation. They’re in a world of counting en masse, thousands at a time. But when people get into an independent mindset, it means that they are now attached to everything they do. It’s a good thing having a million artists out there.
An Oklahoma jersey won’t make you a fuckin’ player on the Thunder, so I think it’s good that there are a million artists out there. There are tools out there. It gives everybody an opportunity to start somewhere. Back when I was starting off, you absolutely had to be in New York to get a deal. Now, anyone can go in their room, record, and release to the world. I feel it’s wonderful to see a lot of people put their hearts out through music. If you’re rhymin’ and rappin’ about the same thing other cats are rappin’ about, maybe you need to do a little more listening. Maybe try and flip a country song, something totally off the wall. A lot of time I tell rappers to listen to a lot of voices. I think there should be more groups out there, because that adds a whole new dynamic to the creative process. As an artist, you should make it very difficult for someone in the crowd to step up on the stage. If someone comes and they think they can get you, then what the fuck? Why would they pay? And that’s what happened. Not to say that cats are wack, but the bar has to be raised. I mean you can go to an NFL game, you can talk all you want but won’t get on the field. You might try, and then you’ll get down there and realize how big those cats are.
How do you feel about the state of the mainstream music outlets today, such as radio stations and BET?
They are a total cancer to the art form and the black legacy. If they were black-owned they wouldn’t be so destructive. It’s always some old heads tryin’ to cake themselves up, like “yo man…” So you ain’t gonna tell this young cat how to do the game right? You know that what they want to do is not going to work. You’re not going to give them any navigation whatsoever. Too many older cats didn’t step up their responsibility. There are too many clowns.
How much of this perceived decline in quality can be attributed to generational differences, as opposed to actual decline?
There’s a thin line between style, substance, and stupid. At first, you had a process of substance honing into style, but when style turns into stupid… c’mon man. You see 40 year old men with sagging, skinny ass jeans. Hip-Hop does not allow you the right to redefine it, because you’re in a different generation. So many radio stations are the “home of hip-hop and R&B” and don’t know what it is. Plus we’re in a recession. Kids these days haven’t seen a great show before, they’re just happy because they’re out. They take the enthusiasm of a young person and manipulate it. An artist can just show up and do anything. But what did the artist do? They’ll try and spin out of the conversation and switch the subject. At least back then, you know if someone was performing they were gonna tear shit down. Now people are just paying for whatever. It’s got to be better than iight. Like my 19 year old daughter. The one time she said something was great, she saw Beyonce. All artists should be that high standard!
Whenever the performance doesn’t match the video and the song, you have to work harder. Before the record industry, all you could advertise was the act itself. The act was supposed to be excellent. There was nothing beyond the performance. It blew your fuckin’ head off, because you knew you couldn’t be better than that yourself, there was no way. The standards kept getting higher and higher. You wanted to get your head blown. Sometimes the drugs are the only way to get your head blown these days. That ain’t the performance that’s getting you high, that’s the fucking drugs. Some dudes in the 60’s and 70’s, they were better than alcohol. When you left you were like….what the fuck was that?! James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone. Acts like that. That’s what we can draw from. Nicki Minaj can’t just say,” I can do some robot shit and y’all can go home.” It might be easier to entertain an audience now, than in the 1950’s. Artists today need to match their performances with their records.
As you mentioned in interviews with Billboard and Rolling Stone, Public Enemy is putting out not one, but two albums this summer - "Most of My Heroes Still Don't Appear on No Stamp" during the summer and "The Evil Empire of Everything." How long have these albums been in the works?
Probably a year and change, maybe a year and a half. Collaborations galore, it was very different. Fourteen different producers and places. Everyone knew the agenda coming in. . I’m gonna release the song next week “I Shall Not Be Moved.” I usually don’t talk about records, but I will tell you this, if you had to measure a standard of a rap song by hard it hits with passion and conviction, beats, arrangement, and point of view, it’ll smack your face off. And I’ve only been able to do that 4 times in 25 years. I think we got lucky. Also, there’s a song that I’m putting out in a few weeks, that I don’t really care what happens with it. I really don’t give a fuck about what people say about it. It’s beyond me right now.
What can we expect from these new works in terms of style?
We never made two albums alike. We went to 81 countries over 25 years. That’s a lot of ground to cover. I’ve never repeated. The rock and roll creed is “never repeat yourself twice.” And as soon as you can say “oh wow,” we’ve already left to another thing. We don’t make records so that you like them. We make them to impede upon your personality, to test you. A lot of artists make music so they can be liked, loved, bought. We’re like Metallica, because when they come on stage they don’t give a fuck if you like ‘em. They’ll chase you out the arena if you don’t like loud shit. And they might beat your ass on the way out. That’s kind of like why I like Wu Tang because they never made records for you to like ‘em. I always wanted Wu Tang to score more. They have a lot of different personalities. The same chaos they presented probably prevented them from being together a lot. We’ll do this, and it is what it is. And you might not like it, but someone will. So that’s what it is. There are things on this album that are good, some might be great. But that’s not up to me. I can’t plan that. We have collaborations with Nas, Brother Ali, Ziggy Marley, Gerald Albright. Bumpy Knuckles, Cormega, Large Professor, I gotta say this about Nas, too -I can definitely appreciate his direction. When a dude can actually make a song like Daughers, it really says something. I’m a father. I have daughters. I can relate to it. Nas has stepped into the realm of top 5 emcees of all time with that one song. And he was already in my top 20. But he’s stepped above and beyond right now. Hall of famer in my book, easy.
Do you ever feel that newer artists have mistakenly interpreted your music as encouraging them to say whatever they want?
Everyone can make their own interpretations. We need more people like you who can interview. We need more blogs, more magazines, and more online shows that can support artistry. When you watch ESPN the whole time, are you watching players? Or are you watching players and analysts? You need the analysts. You need the Magic Johnsons. You need the same thing in hip-hop. Young people will always interpret things if they’re not told. Now you can give your opinion of it, not your interpretation. I can’t go out and tell people the Miami Heat are already on the way to a championship because they say so. Nope. They have to actually do it. A lot of times when people interpret hip-hop, it can be a bad thing for artists to follow, in terms of what to do for their career path. Artists need to get a good road map.
A manifesto is a declaration of intents and principles. What is your Artistic Manifesto?
At the age I am now, if I can’t teach, I shouldn’t even open my mouth to speak. Hip-hop and rap, I provide service. I’m like a military serviceman. You want to get into it, come see me on the first floor before you go into the penthouse. If you’re able to do this shit, do it for a long time and it will reward you. It’s a craft, not an art. We are not scavengers. Take it to the top with the highest standard of quality that you can possibly achieve.