SpaceUp San Diego 2012 and the Ansir Innovation Center in Kearny Mesa
When I took the assignment to write a story on Public Enemy, I immediately reached into my crates for It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, arguably the best hip-hop album ever made.
My phonographic time machine quantum-leaped me back to the Golden Age of individualism, before it was industry protocol for all “Jiffy Pop” artists to do a Ja Rule remix-when hip-hop bumrushed the show with Yo!, before it had a Direct Effect. The controlled chaos of Chuck D's incendiary and prolific lyrics, Hank Shocklee's orchestrated din of sirens and distorted kicks, and Flavor Flav's hypeman shenanigans was the perfect formula for a much-needed Public Enemy (named after their first record, 1987's Public Enemy #1).
An altruistic Chuck D bequeathed unto me his philosophy of hip-hop from his raucous tour bus in Cleveland, Ohio, his unquely raspy voice exhibiting hints of exhaustion.
“When we came along and it was basically the adage of ‘us against the world' because we rebelled against everything, that route didn't even stand in your favor in the genre,” he says. “So your niche was your goal, and back then, 15 years ago, it was about how you were different from the next artist, not how similar you were to 'em.”
Public Enemy has road-mapped this 20-something genre from scapegoat to cash cow, and has endured, integrity intact, in a fickle artform.
“Our advantage started a long time ago, how we planted our seeds and based our roots. We became the first rap artists to expand our territory, so we looked at ourselves as saying, ‘We're world territory artists.' And we ventured across the world to plant the seeds of hip-hop, and it's grown to follow the fertile ground that we laid.”
Their credits include acclaimed albums Yo! Bumrush the Show, It Takes a Nation and Fear of a Black Planet. In 1999, their Internet-only release There's a Poison Goin' On was one of the first albums to be distributed exclusively in the MP3 format. P.E.'s newest opus, Revolverlution, is another groundbreaking effort that includes new songs, live performances and several classics remixed by fans via the internet.
Though the album has a new concept, lineup (Terminator X replaced by DJ Lord) and sound (a predominantly kinetic rock instrumentation), it's still trademark Public Enemy. Listen to “Son of a Bush,” and this is strikingly clear: “I ain't callin' for no assassination/I'm just sayin'/Who voted for that asshole of your nation/Deja Bush...”
Their video for “Gotta Give the Peeps What They Need”-a political afro-beat percussion piece laced with a snapping acoustic guitar lick-was rejected by MTV executives for “offensive” subject matter, including commentary on incarcerated deathrow martyr Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Whether or not pop culture has recognized it, P.E. has always been on the cusp of the genre. They introduced political activism and social consciousness and are now introducing technological advancement and audience involvement.
“Revolverlution is a return full-circle to the roots of Public Enemy,” says Chuck D, “but also it's like holding a revolver to the industry with technology and a new way of looking at things. The Internet provides me with television stations, radio and also print medium at my disposal. The involvement of the community of hundreds of people who actually want to listen to music and check out the groups and also do music themselves. I think it's a wonderful thing.”
Hip-hop is currently prevalent in all traditional media, but, unfortunately, record labels have turned their backs on all-natural artists in favor of the artificial alternative.
“When the record companies forfeited artist development for art development, they automatically threw an embryotic genre such as rap-which was not even 25 years old yet-into a tornado. Hurry up, everybody be similar, and if you're not on that similarity course, then you're gonna be out.”
All is not lost for Chuck D, though. Dedicated avante garde artists still have the capability capture the attention of industry authoritarians, providing some redemption from the homogeneous epicenter.
“I think hip-hop right now is headed into its second-tier jazz age,” he suggests. “You know the Ellingtons and the Armstrongs. And Public Enemy, Eric B. and Rakim, Boogie Down Productions might've represented the Parkers, the Lester Youngs and the Dizzie Gillespies. But now we're going into the era that's showing its Miles Davises, Coltranes, Art Blakeys and Chet Bakers. And that's coming out of guys like Dilated Peoples and Blackalicious.”
The secret then? Individuality. Patience. Development.
“McDonald's is good when it's hot I guess, but once it gets cold you can't reheat it-[it's]uncatalogueable,” he says of current rap's short shelf-life. “But a home-cooked meal, you can put it in the refrigerator for three days and reheat it again. Because it was hot once and it has the substance to be hot again and just as good as on the first day.
“Artist development is very important,” he concludes. “Have you ever had reheated McDonald's fries?”