Chuck D (February 2010) | Interview By:
Jonathan Hay & DJ Atlas Jenkins|
“Welcome to the Terrordome.” To our readers who constantly seek the truth in this
prevailing and widespread art form of hip-hop culture, it is with great honor that
we get to pause, reflect and spend some valuable time with Public Enemy’s very own,
Chuck D, in this Dubcnn exclusive interview.
As you know, Public Enemy is without question, one of the greatest and most influential
groups of all time, and not even a nation of millions could hold them back. They were
apoplectic, controversial and would strategically fight the power and forces with their
revolutionary music, artistic vision and thought-provoking messages. Public Enemy will
always be here, standing strong, as they are an immortal pillar in the landscape of
“The problem in hip-hop now is there is lack of leadership, which is neglectful to the
art form. I wouldn’t blame the rapper, because they don’t know better if they haven’t
seen the leadership.” – Chuck D to Dubcnn
Get ready to take note of the many words of wisdom laced throughout this entire interview
because Chuck D’s unapologetic words should help revolutionize, transform and change this
global hip-hop community we live in. This interview is Part One of a Dubcnn exclusive
series we’re calling “Chuck D: Intellectual Vietnam” by Jonathan Hay and DJ Atlas Jenkins.
We give you Chuck D: Intellectual Vietnam (Part One)…
As ever, be sure to leave your feedback in our forums or email them to
Jonathan Hay and DJ Atlas Jenkins
Dubcnn Exclusive – Chuck D
Intellectual Vietnam (Part One)
By: Jonathan Hay
Dubcnn: We got Chuck D here. Wow, what an honor and a privilege it is to be talking
to you, Chuck.
It is me that is honored, thank you.
Dubcnn: With so many things to talk about, we will start with a vague question:
what do you think of hip-hop today?
I think all artists are trying to carve their niche, but I think the infrastructure
has been sloppy. A lot of urban radio has failed to expose the art form. I think the
DJs who have gotten their jobs with the radio stations -- whether they are making their
mixtapes off to the side, or doing their radio show in the middle of the day, or on the
weekend -- the DJs have to seriously work harder on making it fantastic!
The NBA is fantastic because all the parts add up and you are a fan of it forever. The
broadcasters and sportscasters are very important because they give you the play by play
and the analysis…and that is what you guys are doing too. We need more of that, and more
of that brought to the forefront. You guys [Dubcnn] are letting people know what this is
Dubcnn: I want to ask you about a song from Fear of A Black Planet.
You can ask questions all damn night, as right now I’m driving from Boston to New York
(laughs). I’ve already talked to my wife, so we can talk until you’ve had enough, or we
lose a signal. (laughs)
Dubcnn: This question is specifically in reference to a song on Fear of A Black Planet
called “Burn Hollywood Burn” with you, Ice Cube and Big Daddy Kane. When you go back to
that song and the whole concept behind it and compare it to where Ice Cube is now, a
Hollywood actor starring in movies of all genres, even family movies, how does that make
Well, number one, without struggle there is no progress. Cube had all these ideas
beyond just making records. When I actually first sat down with Cube, it wasn’t about
going to the studio. The first place myself and Cube went to was a CVS or Ralphs
[Grocery Store] out on the West Coast and the first thing he wanted to get was a notebook
-- not for rhymes, but so he could get all [our] conceptual ideas down and he wanted to
talk about the philosophy of the record before we went it to actually do the record. With
that in mind, Cube actually took the seed of that and turned it into a forest. Of course,
you could tell Cube’s ideas went well beyond the page. It was so visual. It went well
beyond a video, so really movies were the next best thing. Moreover, in a prophetic move,
Ice Cube saying “Burn Hollywood Burn”…he burned it down and he burned down the whole idea
of what Hollywood used to be.
Dubcnn: Let’s go back before "Fear of A Black Planet", "It Takes A Nation [of Millions to Hold Us Back]"
and "Yo! Bum Rush The Show"
the Show and really get to the genesis of Public Enemy. Let’s talk about the logo, which
is such a monument in hip-hop. How did the PE logo come about?
I graduated from college 25 years ago and I was immersed in the art department at
Adelphi University, before people started doing graphics on computers, when we had to
do it by hand. I was kind of like Dean’s List and the best of my graduating class;
really, I was one of the best that ever came through as far as a black design student.
When I got involved with Hank Shocklee, Spectrum, WBAU and all of that, I wanted to be
able to present graphics that were equivalent to what the rock guys were doing in Long
Island and also what the Rock groups were doing at the professional level like Iron
Maiden and The Rolling Stones with their tongue [design].
I noticed every band had a logo, so we had groups that had incredible names and I was the
one who was doing logos for them. But they didn’t have people yet, so our next thing was
to recruit within the framework of the group. The PE logo actually belonged to another
fictional group called Funky Frank and The Street Force and what I did was take an old
Right On Magazine that had E Love who was hanging out with LL Cool J and I [used] an
X-Acto knife [and cut] them out of the magazine, blacked it in with a marker, made it
silhouette, took it to a copier, put a scope over it and put “Look out for the Homeboys
on Target – Funky Frank and The Street Force”.
We never found people to fill up Funky Frank, so we came up with Public Enemy from the
theme that Hank came up with from the demo Public Enemy #1. At that point, it was a
no-brainer and just went hand to hand. The logo was to my left, the stenciled letters to
Public Enemy was to my right, so I put it together, and there it was. So when I had the
logo and letters in stencil, it was like a match made in heaven.
Dubcnn: So do you remember which one you had blacked in for the PE logo, was it E
Love or LL Cool J?
It was E Love…that’s the PE logo.
Dubcnn: Wow! That’s amazing. First of all, we find it so fascinating to even get to
talk to you. Can you talk about the process of how you got all the guys together and
basically changed the global concept of music? In addition, did you have any idea that
you would cause such an effect on the world?
Well everything starts from an idea. All these ideas were around on paper and in
notebooks. It was a matter of “can we fulfill it?” We were facilitators and we were
an infrastructure. I came from a comic book background. [We] wanted to create
something that had a bunch of characters and we had the ability to identify the
characters working around us to develop their particular role and develop their
character by bringing their characteristic out front. It was a slow process, but
later on, I’d say six or seven years later, Wu Tang was the epitome of taking emcees
and branching them out for them to be damn near the superheroes of the hood [laughs].
So to answer your question, did we have an idea -- yeah, because we had the idea. But
for people to take your ideas and make your dreams a reality, that is the thing that
you really can’t predict. However, you can predict the idea and you can kind of predict
the outcome, you just can’t predict the journey.
Dubcnn: So you got the guys together and you developed the concept for each role and
each man started to take his role; the Flavor Flav, Professor Griff, S1W’s, Terminator X
and Chuck D. Now, I’m assuming you were the driving force for that creative concept,
so how do you make everyone buy into the concept, and then maintain and cultivate their
own role within that concept, without egos becoming too much a part of it?
Now I’m giving you the 21 year story of Public Enemy, which in hindsight, if you
look in retrospect...we've already been there and done that, however, I'm not saying
we are a parody of ourselves. What I'm saying is, the wheel has already been set a
long time ago. But our initial first five-year stage, Hank and I always looked at it
from a big sports fanatic perspective.
Back then, you didn’t find a lot of people in music who were big fans of sports. I
looked at Public Enemy like a team with both offense and defense. The offense team
was actually the record making group, The Bomb Squad in the studio, different line
up with Hank Shocklee the quarterback, Keith Shocklee, Eric “Vietnam” Sadler, Bill Stephney
and I. Flavor, Terminator – that was one part. The next squad was going
out on the road, which was an entirely different squad. Myself, Flav, Terminator X,
Professor Griff, The S1Ws – those were jobs that were distinctly different. The Bomb
Squad who would make those sonic records, and then the other squad, the performing crew
would go out and perform them.
I was a player on both squads. I had to play the offense and defense (laughs). So when
these roles came out, we had to go beyond the records and make sure the performing team
was better than the recording. A lot of people talk about [Public Enemy’s live show],
but many have never seen one. If they had ever seen a Public Enemy [show] and I would
dare to say that in [the groups] prime, or even just a little while back at Coachella,
everybody knows their [individual] function and we are not really in each other’s
way…everybody is doing their particular thing. It’s almost like when you go to a Football
formation and everybody is in motion and doing their thing.
It’s always been easy to me. Even when people had their own department all blown up and
swollen up with ego, it didn’t matter because it didn’t interfere with you. So ego is
pretty good as long as it’s kept in its department right? (laughs)
Dubcnn: Right…well put, Chuck.
In essence, Public Enemy, with all those other parts that didn’t have a
definition, was actually designed around from when we took stage. So I was
doing the majority of the lyrics, but there was no definition for a Flavor Flav.
Before there was the term “hype man”, they didn’t know what to say it was.
Dubcnn: That’s the thing about Public Enemy, the live show was such an incredible
experience. You don’t really get something like that anymore with hip-hop. As a rap
fan, when you go to a show, most of the time, it’s so disappointing. It’s almost like
watching a Karaoke show or something…
It’s doesn’t have to be…the reason it is that way is because the 90’s corporate
situation scrapped away the fundamentals and removed the DNA that does work. This
is all performance art. You got to bust your record in the ass! You can’t just go
up on stage and say, “oh this is my record,” you got to get on stage and embarrass
that record. You better embarrass your video. If you have an incredible record or
an incredible video that means you got to work three times as hard, that you are the
act above the recording. Once the recording is above the act, you just canceled out
all the reasons for people to see you and support you.
Dubcnn: Switching gears, Chuck, both of us [Jonathan Hay and DJ Atlas Jenkins] are
in our mid-thirties from Louisville, Kentucky and we remember going to the recording
studio back in the day and nobody had home recording studios. There was one studio
downtown that we and everyone else went to. With that said, do you think that people
having such easy access to studio equipment -- with just one click of a mouse, and they
can set up a whole studio in their bedroom -- has hurt the state of recorded music?
Oh yeah, man, I remember Louisville. We are coming back to Louisville Gardens
(laughs). Back then, it seemed there wasn’t much of a market in Louisville radio
to expose a Public Enemy, but I remember very clearly some great times in Louisville.
It’s a great city and it’s like Cincinnati, right in the middle of the North, South,
East and West. Anyway, back to the question, back in the day, when you went into a
recording studio that was big news. Now people have a studio on the left side of
their bed. Recording now is no big deal. Back then, recording was an unbelievable
and granted privilege.
Dubcnn: For us, MTV Raps! was such a huge and influential medium for us because I
don’t know how we would have been exposed to hip-hop in any other way. I think we only
had one urban station in Louisville at the time, and it was on AM, so when we heard you
guys -- or Run-DMC -- it was almost like hearing music from another planet or something.
Here you were from New York, the Mecca of hip-hop, and you were starting to filter out
to other parts of the country like Kentucky, who were listening to every lyric, savoring
every beat and word… how it’s grown is just beautiful.
You had to have a different set of Public Relations back then to understand Run DMC,
The Beastie Boys and LL Cool J, who I think is just phenomenal. LL Cool J is in his
25th year, people! You cannot have 25 years of doing the rap thing and just be looked
down upon, as if it does not mean anything.
[Referring to Jonathan Hay and DJ Atlas Jenkins] Anyway, I talked to Dr Dre from Yo MTV
Raps who would love to do an interview with you guys. There are very few people like
yourselves who can actually break down music and give great interviews like you all do
and that’s what people need. You guys are very important to hip-hop.
Dubcnn: Speaking of Louisville, Kentucky, I remember being at a Public Show back
in the day, way back in the day. I was just a young teenager and I don’t know how I
convinced my parents to let me go to a rap show (laughs), but Digital Underground
was one of your many opening acts and I think 2Pac was one of the dancers during
this show if I’m not mistaken?
Yeah, 1990. It was around Christmas time I think. He was a back-up dancer on
tour; there were many dancers back then. You know, before we even had The Roots,
Tommy Boy actually had conceptually thought of the hip-hop band. One band from the
East was called Stetosonic, the other band from the West was called Digital Underground.
I felt very strongly about them, so we put Digital Underground on their first national
tour. 2Pac was a roadie and also a backup dancer, then he ended up getting on the mic.
Shock [G] was very, very influential about getting 2Pac into the hip-hop world. 2Pac
was a rookie; he was carrying their bags and everything. Also, Queen Latifah was on
that tour. We were also introduced to another rookie, too. I remember hearing,
“Chuck, I want you to meet one of our young guys we are trying to bring out,
his name is Treacherous.”
Treacherous, better known as Treach from Naughty By Nature. So Treach was a roadie
for Queen Latifah and 2Pac was a roadie for Digital Underground for that tour. That
infrastructure was very important. It was like you had to basically earn your right
for passage. Pac came in as a rookie and had to earn his chops. Treach came in and
did the same thing, he earned his chops. And by the next year in ‘91, it was all
about Naughty by Nature. In ‘92 and ‘93 after Pac’s first record, he became a forcible
artist of his own.
Dubcnn: How did you feel about the amazing reception from those tours that transcended
the States, and went global? Were you ever surprised by the success of Public Enemy?
The Beastie Boys had already set that precedent, so therefore, I had expectations
that we should be able to accomplish a lot of those fanatical goals. I wouldn’t say I
was surprised by the results, as our whole thing was setting a plan, then going, and
executing it. If anything, I was surprised that it happened so fast because we didn’t
have goals to be the number one rap group. Our whole thing was to play the middle, build
the middle, and support the infrastructure of rap and hip-hop.
The thing about Public Enemy, and a lot of people will tell you today, is that Public Enemy
held the cohesiveness of all those tours together, and we’ve been on 65 tours in 21 years
together. In the beginning, we had a massive meeting; everybody introduced themselves and
laid down some rules that were basic -- that we were all in this together and we were here
to protect each other. I think that was the leadership that we provided. If you have that
power and you are put in that position, then you have to lead, and to lead, you have to show
by example. The problem in hip-hop now is there is lack of leadership, which is neglectful
to the art form. I wouldn’t blame the rapper, because they don’t know better if they haven’t
seen the leadership…
Dubcnn: Right after that time, there was a definite drop and decline in conscious hip-hop.
I wouldn’t say it stopped, but it felt like there was a confiscation for consciousness in
I’m sorry to cut you off, but I think a lot of people are too lazy. I remember when
Disco first came out and Gamble and Huff with the O’Jays, who were such a phenomenal thing
and Gamble and Huff were such phenomenal writers and the most incredible arrangers. They
made the first disco record. The disco records were so detailed, and it wasn’t disco, but
soulful at a different timing -- soulful at a different beat-per-minute, with a different
drum pattern. People called it disco because it made them dance. Okay, well now people can
put a term on it and call it disco. By the end of the seventies, everybody took this same
synonymous beat and everybody started getting on the same beat. The Rolling Stones did
“Miss You” and really everybody just toyed with the music so much, that anybody and
everybody could make disco and it became corny.
Anybody can make a recording that is similar [to what is current]. Who can’t get it down now?
You have so many different ways to practice and create it, that you can get the recording to be
almost perfect. Who the hell wants perfect records? The bottom line is, can you make that
record come to life, by coming to my town, performing it live and make me say,
“this is the greatest thing ever?” Once you take the performance out of the art and it
doesn’t become performance art, then you really got a problem because then, you don’t separate
the person sitting in the stands with the person on stage.
(To be Continued…)