Public Enemy: Revolutionary rap
It was difficult to interview Chuck D. He wasn’t difficult to talk with, he likes to talk, but it was difficult to get a hold of him. After a couple of re-schedules and a few false starts I finally got to talk with Chuck, and it turns out he’s a busy man: “I’m in the blizzard of production, putting together two albums and at the same time; a radio show as well as co-ordinating eight production camps.”
Chuck D is the founder of Public Enemy, the rap and hip-hop revolutionaries who championed politically and social conscious rap in the 1980s, selling millions of records in the process. Over the past 25 years, after more than ten albums and 80 tours, Chuck D has explored other avenues to bring his point of view to the masses. He has lectured around the world, written books, and hosted radio-shows.
Chuck also tweets, a lot. Whether he’s discussing basketball, injustice in America, or questioning the target audience for Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Niggas in Paris, Chuck D knows how to start a conversation and, more importantly, he knows how to make people listen.
You’re coming out here for Groovin’ the Moo, a festival with a pretty diverse line-up. You’ve collaborated with artists like Black Flag and Sonic Youth before, what appeals to you about working in genres outside of hip-hop?
Yeah, Public Enemy always had precedent to say that we knew rap music came out of music itself so we’ve always been paying homage to the records and musicians. So when we actually play throughout our whole 25-years it was actually beyond just merely rap and hip-hop, y’know, we kept no limitations.
But we also kept the truth of the roots of the art form with the mastery on top of records, the playing and musicianship and also a point of view. Festivals are a great thing to balance out what’s playing after us, what’s playing before us and get a taste of a lot of different things; it’s almost how the Grateful Dead did it [laughs], in a hip-hop way.
The perception of hip-hop artists today is interesting as it’s one of decadence, cars, yachts, and women. Is that image counter-productive to the genre, because when Public Enemy came out that wasn’t what hip-hop was about at all?
Chuck Berry had sung about cars and women in 1956, old rock and roll, so I mean we just came with our point of view to say it’s more than that. So we’re not coming around and saying it doesn’t need to be that, ‘cause understand we were the revolutionary point of view to hip-hop and rap music along with KRS-One and people like that to say, “Yes, it can be more than just tastes”. It can say a lot more; it can do a lot more, and it’s not 5th grade music always.
The beautiful thing about it is that Australia’s hip-hop and rap scene is really catching on not just in Australia but also in other parts of the world.
Is mainstream rap becoming less intelligent?
Yeah, I think conscious might be the word. As opposed to being unconscious of the fact that if we had a conscious effort to actually say some things that we felt needed to be said musically and also verbally then why not, right?
So is the difference escapism in hip-hop versus confronting some sort of truth?
Some sort of truth?
Yeah, rapping with a conscience as opposed to escapist raps like in Watch the Throne.
Well I think people could talk about party-raps and it could be true and they’d be true to themselves. I think when it gets into other dynamics and people want to always live in a fantasy world for their individual selves I might – but, then again songs are a fantasy world in itself and videos are a fantasy world in itself. We [Public Enemy] just say it’s not the only thing and we feel that the imbalance of saying artists can only be that and not have a chance to say something to move the world like Bob Marley or Bob Dylan or Bobby Womack is limiting. And we think rap is expansive, it started expansively. Why not follow the path of what many musicians have already laid down that turned the DJ’s on in the first place?
I guess you’ve seen over the years, and I don’t know how old you are, but once upon a time making the trip to Australia from any of the other continents was a hike for many artists. Flights to Australia wasn’t easy. Public Enemy, we made our flights down to Australia as early as 1990. This will be our sixth time there and we felt that going down to Australia and making a statement about hip-hop and rap music and not just ourselves is something we felt proud of. It’s not just about us, I think the beautiful thing about it is that Australia’s hip-hop and rap scene is really catching on not just in Australia but also in other parts of the world. I can dig that.
At this point, 25-years after the release of your first record, are your surprised or dismayed by the fact that a lot of your lyrics from back then are still relevant in American society today?
No I’m not surprised because when I wrote those lyrics I was writing about a situation that was going down in the new world order of the 1980s which was just full of shit people [laughs]; Ronald Reagan, George Bush was his Vice President, Margaret Thatcher, Apartheid was in effect and Nelson Mandela was in prison, the Berlin Wall was still up. So, y’know, a lot of shit people and shit conditions.
It was enough to look at from a black person who wasn’t in the conversation about how the world was operating. It allowed me to say some things that people were probably saying with other music but never said in hip-hop and rap, which was looked down upon as being shit music.
So you saw rap as a way to get yourself into the conversation?
I grew up with other music but I wasn’t a musician and trust me I wasn’t trying to be a musician. But I did love emceeing and DJing. But who would have thought that it would become recorded music? I had no idea. So it wasn’t like “Okay let me get involved with this thing because now they’re making records” I thought it was exciting anyway. It wasn’t like I was gonna pick up a guitar any time soon.