Chuck D (March 2010) | Interview By:
Jonathan Hay & DJ Atlas Jenkins|
“If you don’t know your past, then you don’t know your future.” For any reason at all,
if you don’t know much about Chuck D and Public Enemy, then you are truly missing out.
Without question, Public Enemy has some of the most important, groundbreaking and
critically acclaimed releases in all of music history. Chuck D is also a national
best-selling author, speaker and public figure who is respected all across the world
for his challenging and powerful messages. Point blank, Chuck D is an icon.
We pick up right where we left off with Part Two of “Chuck D: The Intellectual Vietnam”
series by Jonathan Hay and DJ Atlas Jenkins. An interview series exclusive to the one and
As ever, be sure to leave your feedback in our forums or email them to
Dubcnn Exclusive – Chuck D
Intellectual Vietnam (Part Two)
By: Jonathan Hay
[Continued from Part One…]
“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.”
Dubcnn: Amen, Chuck!
It’s true…I think the disappearance of groups [in hip-hop] have made it hard for
people to be awestruck now. One person can only do so much, so you have to come with
something that makes the average person say, ‘damn, I don’t even want to try that.’
Dubcnn: Going back to the Public Enemy albums, when you listen to “Yo! Bum Rush
The Show” and then “It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” there
is such a change and expansion in the production sound, so much more is happening
musically and the albums were released only one year apart. My question is, did you all
have a lot more of a recording budget on the second album to create such a layered,
intricate and more sonically detailed album then your debut?
We wanted to make every record different but you don’t figure that distinction out
until five records down the line. We never wanted to make the same record twice. When
we made “It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” we had a tendency to
experiment and say, ‘Wow that works…’ We almost had a Jazz band approach, where
it never repeats itself twice. After that album, everybody was screaming for us to make
another one like it, but we threw a curveball and made “Fear of A Black Planet.”
We then went a totally different way with “Apocalypse [91 – The Enemy Strikes Black].
” That’s been the Public Enemy motto all throughout: we don’t care what you like,
as a matter of fact, you can hate it (laughs). But when we get on stage to do it, our job
is to make you say, “Damn.” I think people got it when they saw us live. Our goal as a
rap group was to work very hard and not to give in to conformity.
I’m not saying everybody should have that approach. Look at EPMD, they remind me of
a fastball pitcher that constantly throws a 100 mile-an-hour pitch, without throwing any
curveballs, and you still can’t hit it (laughs). To me, EPMD is one of the most underrated
and classic rap groups of all time. They really don’t get the props and the respect that
they really deserve. I’m kind of ticked off about that, too.
Dubcnn: We’d love to do something with EPMD.
You should…you really need to. I got nothing but love for Erick and Parrish.
Dubcnn: In the beginning at Def Jam, you were involved with Rick Rubin, as he was
the co-founder of the label. When he left, was there much of a change within the Def
Well, Def Jam was always crazy and it never really got its crap together. So when
Rick left, I always made sure that if I had to deliver masters or set up singles and
all that, I went straight to Sony. I had a relationship with Sony – with Angela Thomas
and Donny Ienner and the product managers there. Def Jam just collected the money. My
job was to not fully trust Def Jam until they built a department. When Public Enemy was
rolling through our prime, a lot of those areas [of business] weren’t developed. So we
had to really color by numbers and develop along side construction. Back then, you had
to do a lot of micro focusing on your own. We always knew we were going to be out manned
by a structure that was already here before you were born.
Dubcnn: It’s crazy to think where Def Jam would be today without Public Enemy?
Our goal was not to be recording artists; our goal was to make promos that sounded
like records, if not better. At first, we didn’t want to be artists, but radio jocks.
I was never supposed to be the upfront guy…I was always supposed to be behind the scenes.
I then took that one chance into that environment [of a recording artist].
Dubcnn: When you went into that environment, it exploded so fast for you and everything
Well, as part of The Bomb Squad as Carl Ridenhour, and then also as Chuck D
[the front man], we had to have the different themes I’ve talked about. We had
to spread the love and also spread our credibility…
Dubcnn: You always had such a strong and positive leadership aura about you. Everything
always seemed so serious to you…and I say that in a good and appreciative way.
I wasn’t a kid when I came into the rap game. I came from wanting to [have a
career] playing sports. That’s where the no drinking and no smoking came about,
because I knew the best athletes didn’t do that. When I got into music -- which
is totally opposite because cats in music actually think they do better when they
get blunted -- my thing was we were going to be accountable for this craft as much
as possible. It wasn’t that we were corny or stuck-up or rigid or anything. Bottom
line was, I’m a grown man and I’m not trying to waste my time.
Dubcnn: At what point in your life did you start to look at music as a career?
I graduated high school in 1978. If somebody told me when I was in 11th or 12th
grade that I was going to be a recording artist I would have been like, ‘what the hell
am I going to do?’ Rap records were inconceivable during my senior year. Then, it was
a party thing, but how the hell are you going to put it on a record? You never know
what might come or what the future holds.
Dubcnn: Sorry, Chuck, that was a case of me being caught in a time warp, because I
have no way of conceiving of what it was like for you back then. There was no
template…there was no hip-hop. It was just at its birthplace.
I was blown away by it all. When I saw guys like Eddie Cheeba and DJ Hollywood,
Lovebug Starski and Melle Mel – he’s another one. People have no conception of the
magnitude of a guy like Melle Mel. I remember it quite clearly the first time I
heard Melle Mel. It was no question this dude was the best, it was like comparing
Wilt Chamberlain to Muggsy Bogues. I didn’t know you could twist words like that.
It was unconceivable. It was like watching the guy who made the first dunk. People
get in trouble trying to compare cats from different eras, especially when they’ve
Dubcnn: Was it his presence, Chuck, or what was it?
It is like trying to explain the big bang theory. It was his presence. It was his
voice, because back then you couldn’t have a weak voice on a microphone because of all
the inferior [sound] systems. If your voice couldn’t cut it, they’d sit your ass down.
Nowadays, rappers can have a pip-squeak voice but in the studio, they can make it sound
like the voice of God. When you get in front of that audience, you had better make it
Dubcnn: It’s amazing to be right there in the middle of that!
I think no one had any plans for this. Like I said, it was like the big bang theory
Dubcnn: What did you think even back then, when people said rap was a fad and it would
Rap was a vocal execution. The music had already been around, but the vocals were
different because they rode the rhythms. You can only do about so many vocals across
music, and on the spectrum between talking and singing, you have rap in the middle. It
was impossible for it to disappear because it was a vocal application.
Dubcnn: With Public Enemy, you guys brought out those vocal samples, it was galvanizing.
Whose idea was it to take some of those historical leader’s speeches and put them over beats?
It was so powerful!
That was my job as a lyric writer and a conceptual songwriter. It was my job to tie
in what was already said [historical speeches] and what I was writing at the time. Hank
[Shocklee] and I had the overall structure of how we wanted it to sound. [Flavor] Flav
and everybody had a great knowledge of records, we just needed to know, which [sample]
to use, how to use it, then execute it. It was a definite team in making the records,
almost like an assembly line. Professor Griff also helped come up with the vocal samples
we used. Bottom line was, you can’t just have me rapping over a whole album – you had to
have other voices to break up the monotony. I don’t care how good a voice sounds, you have
to break the monotony to keep people interested and listening, especially on a longer album.
Flavor and I were blessed with two different distinctive voices – and with the ability of
our production techniques and just being at the right place at the right time, we were
able to expound on these qualities.
Dubcnn: Did you all ever have any sample clearance issues from having all these voices
of famous historian leaders like Malcolm X, or any of the many different samples you used?
There were no samples in 1987, 1988 and 1989. The issue [with sampling] came after
we really helped create the technique. Some people took samples and they were a little
more sloppier than others (laughs). Then the industry got involved and it became an
issue. We knew that would happen because once you do something good, everyone follows.
We were real detailed with our samples, the way we looped it and stretched it. It wasn’t
written in stone; but if someone comes along and takes a whole composition, it’s somewhat
hard to tell them it’s different (laughs).
Dubcnn: Chuck, I’ve always wondered this so I just have to ask…how did you feel when you
watched “The Flavor of Love” show?
I’ve been telling people, I’ve been privy of watching the Flavor show for over 25 years
(laughs). Every family has one (laughs)…Jimmy Carter and his brother Billy. Anyway, Flavor
is that one dude in Public Enemy that people count as the exception opposed to the rule. When
he’s on TV, you can’t take your eyes or ears off him, and we always knew that. When he first
told me about the show he said, ‘Yo, Chuck, I’m going to get involved with this show called
Blackelor.’ I was like what? He said, ‘No, it’s like The Bachelor, but I’m the black star
-- the Blackelor.’ I said, ‘Oh that will work.’ (laughs) No matter what, he’s going to make
you stare at him. I think a lot of people never knew, or forgot, that Flav was Flavor Flav
for a reason. He is always going to stand out; you could have a group with Denzel
[Washington], President Obama and Paul McCartney and Flav will always stand out and be heard
and known (laughs). My thing in the beginning was to be able to take Flavor Flav and mold
him within the context. You know, I always thought on the show, [Flavor of Love] that he
was the one that made the most sense in his world. I never thought that I’d see the day
when 12 or 15 women are crying because they don’t get his clock (laughs). Flavor Flav has
been a star for a long time now. People were surprised with his fame on his first decade,
just like people were surprised again with him on TV.
Stay tuned for more from Chuck D and “The Intellectual Vietnam Series”…