Since 1987, Chuck D has been the political and polemical voice of Public Enemy, whose first four albums-starting with Yo! Bum Rush the Show-are indisputable rap classics. Chuck, along with partner Flava Flav (more recently famous for VH1's Flavor of Love), were rap's first international superstars. Rolling Stone ranked them the 44th greatest acts of all time, the highest-rated rap artists on the list.
But while many of Chuck D's peers have retired, he writes books, hosts a talk-radio show, runs a record label (Slam Jamz), speaks out on progressive issues across the country and continues to tour and make albums with Public Enemy. CityBeat caught up with him as he was driving to Boston's Berklee College of Music to give a lecture.
CityBeat: So, any thoughts on the midterm elections?
Chuck D: It was almost a situation where you'd have expected it to happen earlier. The downside is that the Democrats are now going to inherit a total mess that might take more than eight years to clean up.
Was it discouraging to hear that the Democrats weren't going to pursue impeachment proceedings against Bush?
The best impeachment [would have been] making sure he didn't get in there for a second term. Fuck impeachment! It won't do anything, except create more chaos and disorder.
More distractions from the real issues?
Yeah, weapons of mass distraction. Instead, just make this dude clean up his bullshit. Clean this shit up or get the fuck out.
OK, let's move on to music. I was listening to "Don't Believe the Hype," and it sounds like it was written last week. Do you think that's what separates your music, and good music in general, in that it never sounds dated?
I feel proud that I got some work out that signifies an era but still rings true today. I remember telling people that I wanted to make the "What's Going On" of hip-hop. Looking back, I think we were able to pull that off.
How do you look back on the early days of the group?
We were part of history, and being part of history is definitely something that falls in line with my belief structure.
Why do you think other places, like Europe, are more open to controversial talk when it comes to music?
The rest of the world follows politics like Americans follow ESPN, because you might border a country that might be up in the middle of your shit, and, therefore, like sports, you gotta keep score. America is a vast place, and any big place has to have a dominant control center. We arrogantly think of ourselves as above the rest of the world, especially in the last five years with Son of a Bush. It's that mentality that happens to be keeping the American public sucking on the umbilical cord of Uncle Sam. [Laughs.] Nasty thought, right?
What similarities do you see between the punk of the '70s and the rap of the early '80s?
We came out at the time when we were able to see clearly through the false offerings of the R&B years, the years of Reagan and [the first] Bush. Before, black folks clearly understood the civil-rights mentality of "we" instead of "I." The '80s and '90s helped create the fallacy of the "I" over the "we"-that you could beat these problems if you individually became wealthy. Hip-hop's like that. You start out raging against the machine and the elite only to end up becoming the same thing you rebelled against originally.
I hate what I've become to escape what I hated being.
Yeah, if someone in the '80s was prosperous, they would play it down. The biggest difference today is that artists strive to be similar.
Well, I've noticed a trend recently where there's at least a dwindling emphasis on uniformity.
There's never been a better time for independent artists that want to be able to do their thing. MySpace, which Universal sic'd a lawsuit on today [Universal Music, which owns Island Def Jam, filed a lawsuit accusing MySpace of copyright infringement for leaking Jay-Z's new album, Kingdom Come], and L.A. Reid [chairman of Island Def Jam], who comes from humble black beginnings, makes an arrogant statement like, "Well, we're definitely gonna sue." He's assuming the same position that rap music rebelled against in the beginning.
As far as the marketing of these artists, do you feel they're reinforcing ethnic stereotypes with the images and messages blasted on MTV and BET?
Yes, because what starts off as reflecting a certain aspect can blow up to being a dictation. They find out in the boardroom, just like a Petri dish, it works economically. They were able extract the financial DNA of reinforcing the negative stereotype, even if it's untrue.
Was it discouraging to you when Air America filed for bankruptcy?
Yeah, but in capitalism, people that think and do the wrong thing will probably survive longer than someone who's trying to do the right thing. That's just the way it is. You're the one Indian surrounded by cowboys. And corporate big business is behind the cowboys.
What's home life like for you?
I'm quick to tell people "none of your business," because I don't understand people having to televise their lives, and I know my partner [Flava Flav] is a big reality TV star....
Yeah, I've heard that.
[Laughs.] But I'm quick to say, "Get those cameras away from me." People talk about public obligation. Well, the public obligation is what I give 'em.
But as far as Flav's reality shows go, do you think it brought negative attention to the group?
The thing is that Flava Flav ain't never changed. [Laughs.] Flava Flav in '87 was sort of an anecdotal way of introducing Public Enemy to people who might not like what the rest of Public Enemy had to offer. With a further dumbed-down public, maybe it takes a Flava Flav to get across to them again.
We all know what he meant to you back in the day, but what does Elvis mean to you now? [On 1989's "Fight the Power," Chuck sparked controversy by rapping, "Elvis was a hero to most/ but he never meant shit to me/ Yes, he's straight-out racist."]
I always understood that Elvis was a detailed cat, but?.... [Pauses.] To talk about Elvis as being "The King," do you know how derogatory that is? That's the whole thing about Elvis-he was only one of the founders of rock 'n' roll. The fact that Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino and Bo Diddley are still doing gigs right now, the co-founders of rock 'n' roll, that shit is fucking amazing!
What was Public Enemy's message in 1989, and what is the message today?
Fight the power.
Public Enemy play with X-Clan and The Banned at House Of Blues on Tuesday, Dec. 5. Doors open at 8 p.m. $28-31. 619-299-BLUE. Chuck D. will also make an in-store appearance at M-Theory Music on Dec. 5. Call for time. 619-220-0485.