Public Enemy hit us with the truth
A pivotal force in the evolution of hip-hop, Public Enemy have imprinted their legacy deep into modern consciousness. After 25 years in the game, the self-proclaimed prophets of rage still haven’t given up the fight.
Back in ’79, Carlton Ridenhour ran with a Long Island-based mobile DJ crew called Spectrum City, acquiring himself an encyclopaedic knowledge of soul, disco, funk and the new hip-hop movement. While studying at Aldelphi University, Ridenhour worked as a DJ on WBAU radio alongside future Bomb Squad member Hank Shocklee, and the pair became linked with Def Jam founders Bill Stephney and Rick Rubin. With a thunderous voice, an adept understanding of the art of MCing and an enlightened mind, Ridenhour began to make a name for himself as Chuck D.
Chuck D was witnessing the brutal impact the economic polarisation caused by the Reagan administration was having on impoverished black communities. As an angry but focused MC, his mission was to encourage the emancipation of his peers and to revive the revolutionary spirit of the 60s civil rights movement among his audience. But if Chuck D was to spread his message through hip- hop, he needed to lighten up his act to keep the party vibe thriving. This is where Flavour Flav stepped in. Flav’s high-toned catchphrases and goofy ad libs provided the perfect contrast to Chuck D’s low end, righteous deliveries. And once the group enlisted DJ Terminator X and Professor Griff to assemble the S1W – a group of bodyguards/back up dancers – they became unstoppable.
Although Public Enemy’s debut album Yo! Bum Rush The Show documents an old school era, it wasn’t until around ’87 that PE were, as the phrase goes, in full effect. After touring a string of Def Jam-curated shows with the likes of Beastie Boys and LL Cool J, Public Enemy realised that it was their hardest beats that energised the crowd most. The Bomb Squad re-grouped and decided it was time to go full force. From now on, the BPM of Public Enemy tracks would be accelerated way beyond the average pace, and the group would mesh together a wild, diverse range of samples to create a wall of noise which continues to fuel adrenaline to this day. With Chuck D increasingly determined to raise consciousness and call bullshit on the institutional and cultural forces that propel oppressive action and prejudiced thought, Public Enemy unleashed their fury with a progressive mission in mind.
PE’s second album, It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, is a canonical rap classic jam-packed with quotables. The record sold around a million copies, and PE’s manifesto blasted across the airwaves through singles like Bring The Noise and Don’t Believe The Hype. Chuck D highlighted the devastating impact of the crack epidemic on Night of The Living Baseheads, took shots at the critics of sampling on Caught, Can We Get A Witness?, and shunned the institutional racism of the US military and judicial system in the prison break fantasy Black Steel in the Hour Of Chaos.
When film director Spike Lee was in search for a theme tune to accompany his 1989 masterpiece Do The Right Thing, Public Enemy’s overall aesthetic made them the only choice. PE were inspired by the task at hand, and the group produced one of their most anthemic hits, Fight The Power. The song soundtracks the movie’s iconic opening credits, and reoccurs as a motif from Radio Raheem’s boombox as racial tensions in the community build in the sweltering heat. Among the long list of Public Enemy’s controversy-stirring statements, Fight The Power’s third verse still glows with notoriety: “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me, you see / Straight up racist that sucker was simple and plain / Motherfuck him and John Wayne / Cause I’m black and I’m proud / I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped / Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps”. There’s probably a plethora of academic texts out there critiquing the marginalising forces of the dominant American hegemony, but Chuck D has a knack of distilling an entire thesis into a jaw dropping punch line. Fight The Power was included on Public Enemy’s 1990 album Fear of A Black Planet, arguably the group’s magnum opus. With the powers that be deeming these works to be cultural significant, both this and Do The Right Thing were archived in the US Library of Congress.
But unfortunately, it was when Public Enemy were seemingly reaching the height of their powers that their solidarity began to crumble. The group were making liberally-inclined critics uneasy by pledging their allegiance to the highly controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. These concerns reached boiling point when journalists began to report antisemitic remarks made by Professor Griff acting on behalf of Public Enemy in interviews. The comments resulted in Griff ’s ejection from the group, and necessitated Chuck D calling a press conference to firmly refute any antisemitic beliefs. By the time PE released their fourth album Apocalypse 91 … The Enemy Strikes Back, Flavour Flav’s substance abuse was causing his behaviour to become increasingly erratic, leading to numerous arrests and trips to rehab in the ensuing years. At various points during the 90s, Chuck D was forced to call a temporary hiatus to Public Enemy.
Yet in more recent years Public Enemy have functioned as a sturdy unit. After working once again with Spike Lee on his ’98 movie He Got Game, the group scored themselves another hit. Hip to the impending transitions of the music industry, Chuck D embraced the digital revolution and Public Enemy’s post-millennium albums have been distributed with a net savvy approach, free of the interference of shadowy major label execs. So what about Flav? Well sadly, his periods of near sobriety seem to be punctuated with relapses and run-ins with the law. You could point out that this behaviour starkly contradicts Chuck D’s teachings, but Flav’s role was always to be the clown prince, the guy who drew in a crowd and put on a show so that Chuck could give them a few ideas to take home. Chuck D is the watchful big brother figure, fully supportive of the stability that his iconic sidekick gains from being a reality TV star.
2012 in particular has been a good year for Public Enemy. They’ve released two albums independently and they’re touring an incredible live show to celebrate their 25th anniversary. 2007 track Harder Than You Think has been used as a theme song for the Paralympics; it reached #4 in the UK singles chart, and when they perform the song at the show following Crack’s interview, the sense of euphoria is mind blowing.
So when it’s confirmed that we’ve been granted 30 minutes with Chuck D before Public Enemy’s Bristol In:Motion show, we’re both anxious and excited to talk to rap’s most galvanising MC. As the conversation unfolds, we quickly realise that at the ripe old age of 52, Chuck D has lost none of his fire.
After a few years since your last record, why did Public Enemy choose to release two albums in 2012?
Because we started the first urban digital aggregation system called Spit Digital. It shows that the control of our distribution could be done in a way that’s different from the analogue years when you would wait for record store politics or record company politics to dictate the release itself. We also worked with the Sellaband project: some of that was actually fan raised, so we decided to give them another album too.
Harder Than You Think has been a huge success in the UK, largely due to the Paralympics campaign …
Solely due to being used as the Paralympics theme. The song has been a part of our show for the past five years. When it was chosen to be part of the Olympics, that took it into the stratosphere. Its strength was the YouTube video, which made it a theme song for these incredible athletes.
Was the Paralympics, and the Olympics in general, something which Public Enemy was particularly proud to support?
Of course. And we’re very clear about what we don’t support.
You’re celebrating 25 years of Public Enemy being in the game, so we’d like to ask about the early days. What was the Bomb Squad’s original vision?
We were born in the 60s so we had tons of music in our heads. When we began making music in the 80s, sampling became possible. We asked ourselves, what can we do to make future music out of this music of the past and the present time? When we got together to make one synonymous song, the sight, the sound, the message and the meaning all came together.
So how did you earn your reputation as an MC, were you battling with other guys?
Nah, I didn’t really compete with other MCs. I was a radio guy. But back in the early days you were judged by how you projected your voice. If you had a weak ass little voice, you wasn’t getting on the mic. It wasn’t just about how much flow you had or how many rhymes you had, because most of the sound systems were shitty. And I was a guy who everybody wanted to get on the mic, because I have a voice that cuts through bullshit. A cheap ass system from RadioShack? I’d get on the mic and make it sound like gold. Give it to some MCs and they can’t even cut through the music.
Why do think that certain pockets of society were perceiving Public Enemy as a threat?
The most dangerous rap group in America was Public Enemy because our weapon was the truth. And the truth will set you free. So that’s what makes it dangerous. If you’re just acting like a goddamn fool with no fucking direction, you’re only a danger to yourself. You ain’t truly a threat to nothing if you ain’t got your shit together. Bob Marley dealt with the truth, Bob Dylan always dealt with the truth, so a rap group can do the same – why not? And there’s people in the Western world who are afraid of any grouping of black men who are uniting together, that’s just period.
Any time that black people and black men get together in the western hemisphere, it presents a problem for the structure. So coming together in music is no different. That’s always been a problem, until someone figures out a way to control it.
How do you feel about the condition of mainstream hip-hop in 2012?
If someone tells you about hip-hop in 2012, they’ll tell you about what’s played on the radio or TV. That’s exactly where America wants it to be and it’s exactly how America wants to see black folks – dysfunctional and out of direction. Even when it makes a lot of quote-unquote white folks follow that direction.
Do you think that the portrayal of ‘gangster’ lifestyles are somehow sanitised for the mainstream?
Sanitised for what and for who? Sanitised means made safe and digestible. So it might be safe and digestible for anyone who lives outside a black neighbourhood. But many black communities in America are under a lot of pressure right now. There’s cities like Chicago, New York and parts of Baltimore that have been going through hell this past year with the murder rate among young people. Now I’m not gonna be the one who points to rap music as the cause of it. But when you don’t have sense or control of yourself, then anything can replace you.
Do you think there was a point in time where the demand for socially conscious hip-hop was at its peak?
People always need consciousness, so when people ask “does hip-hop have the ability to raise consciousness?” – of course it does. People always want to be able to ask “How can I think for myself? How can I make it? How can I survive?” The words can lead to some actions, keeping that away from the people is blasphemous. Younger people want to be able to move forward, they want to get older, they want to gravitate and there’s nothing wrong with giving them the tools. Separating black music from black culture is but a crime.
But I believe that hip-hop is a worldwide culture with many participants. And you see, it wouldn’t be so bad if the powers that be realised that hip- hop culture is for all cultures, but they don’t project it as so. And if you’re just showing black faces, you’re not actually projecting black thought, black sentiment, black history, accountability, you’re just throwing the black faces up there because it’s a part of business. That has hurt the art form terribly. I think it’s racist to not show its participants that are not quote-unquote black that have contributed to hip-hop. Like, ‘Yo, this black person who’s talking hood shit is more authentic than the white person doing it’. It should project us all, equally.
So why do you think that rap artists from less conventional backgrounds are ignored?
I think the record labels were lazy. If your ass was coming from Bristol, ain’t nobody coming out from London to sign you. If your ass was coming out of Scranton, Pennsylvania, ain’t nobody from LA or NY coming to sign your ass. I mean Eminem was Detroit, but he got hooked up with Dre’s camp in LA. So you had to get anointed in some other situation back in the day. You know, I actually think that South Africa and Africa has the best MCs. They’re more equipped in languages than most people who can just speak in a western tongue. So rapping, being rhythmic to a beat is just a no brainer to them. But they won’t be noticed because they don’t have an American flag on their shit. So that’s what I do on my radio show, I highlight MCs from different international movements.
We were watching footage of the London Invasion show in ’87, where you called out the crowd to jeer Margaret Thatcher. 25 years later, her legacy is being continued in the UK. Do you think your message is as relevant today?
How can it not be? If you see that this world got some issues, then how can you not talk about the issues? I think what these times of technology have allowed is for people to be reduced into their oneness and their individuality instead of a collective. And what you might not realise as an individual is that there’s a lot of issues out there in the world that could be corrected by collective movements. People come together differently than how they did in the past. But it’s easier for people to get locked up in their own world too. They might look at society as not having a problem at all without actually looking at it seriously enough. But you’ve got to look beyond yourself. In the 80s, people were bound together because you had limited media outlets, so therefore the opinions were more synonymous. But now, people are scattered all over the place in their own thought processes, locked into their mobile phones.
Lastly, we’d like to ask you about your views on Barack Obama’s re-election.
I feel like the first four years should have been a chance for many of us to get across ideas that we couldn’t during the Bush administration, and I feel that a lot of people wasted the four years. I also think that as the President of the United States, he spent a lot of time cleaning up a war and also trying to figure out how America can clear its trillions of deficit. He basically came into a dirty house with no vacuum cleaner, they gave him a straw and said, ‘Clean the fuckin rug!’ I think he’s a good man with a very bad, fucked up government. A good driver with a bad car. And I think it’s necessary for him to be president for another four years to be able to come through on even a twentieth of what he originally promised.