Graham Reid | | 5 min read
The man whose angry voice once sent shockwaves around the world answers his cellphone with a barely audible, “Hello”. Somewhere in the background a woman’s voice on a high-energy marketing rush is clearly audible talking about recouping costs, the outlay for advertising, and a settlement.
I ask if this is a convenient time to talk.
“Not really,” he says quietly. “I’m actually doing a lot of work.”
So when would be more convenient?
“I have no idea.”
The woman stops her prattle abruptly and I conclude it has been a television programme, and the man says call back in five minutes on his home number.
“I’ll be on the speakerphone,” he adds, from which I take it he needs his hands free to carry on with his business, as he proceeds to do sometimes during the following 20 minutes.
Business these days, he acknowledges, takes up more time than the music. Not that Chuck D -- the rapper and political mouthpiece of New York’s Public Enemy -- wants that to dominate this brief conversation.
“I don’t want to make it seem like I’m a business person coming into music,” he laughs after we have talked business for 10 minutes. “I’m a music guy who has to take care of business or I won’t be doing my music.
“I’m not trying to be like Rupert Murdoch or P Diddy, but I know that there have to be checks and balances or I won’t be able to do that.”
If business is in the forefront of the discussion it’s because he has reached the point where he always wanted to be. He has frequently said he loved Motown and Stax-Volt in the 60s for its musical innovation and how black business people like Motown’s Berry Gordy built an industry out of nothing but belief in talent.
He’s at that place with his label SlamJamz Records and working with a large roster of artists including acclaimed rapper Paris (whose current PE-collaboration Rebirth of a Nation album shouldn’t be confused with DJ Spooky’s recent audio-visual performance of the same name).
“I’m a big fan of Motown and Stax, but I think this period now is similar to those periods of musical innovation. In order to be the person who has this innovation from an artist you have to be on top of things. I have an artist base I’m trying to expose to the world, and we’re trying to line up the vision with what we’re trying to do as a world wide label.
“That takes a lot of my time to position things because you are going up against the monster corporations and the fact there is already a million artists out there. So we‘re trying to bring to the table something different.
“I’ve always wanted to get to this point, and I’ve had a locomotive called Public Enemy to get me here.”
Not that the ride has been smooth, in the first few years of PE’s explosive hip-hop career the train looked primed to be derailed at any time, often when the crew screwed up.
Formed on Long Island in '82 around Chuck D -- a graphic arts student and radio DJ with an open ear for music and an astute eye for marketing -- and Flavor Flav (who brought a Marx Brothers-on-meth humour to the mix), Public Enemy sought to do things differently.
Even today Chuck D’s conversation is peppered with references to rock culture (“Flav’s Mick and I’m Keith Richards”) as is evident when he talks about the band’s famous crosshairs logo.
“All the guys in metal and rock’n’roll had logos on buses and so on, and I looked at it with a bit of envy. I was thinking, ‘We’ve got a popular music too, why do we have be unorganised?’
“Rap groups always seemed to come and go. I wanted us to be around.”
With a militant attitude drawn from post-Black Panther sensibilities and music which pulled from sirens, screams, samples and powerful beats -- the music beds on PE albums sound like the street noise through an open window in a ghetto tenement block -- Public Enemy (with Terminator X on turntables and Professor Griff as “Minister of Information” and an occasional vocalist) stormed the barricades of controversy. Songs like Don’t Believe the Hype and Fight the Power were confrontational, funky as hell, and unforgettable. Their It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back from 1988 is an Essential Elsewhere album.
Then things unravelled. Professor Griff made anti-Semitic remarks in 89 and a year later was dumped, Flavor Flav spiralled downwards through drug addiction and assault charges, there were record company problems, and the mainstream media hit back.
Yet PE survived and if their Nineties albums weren’t as persuasive as their earlier work then at least they took their music global, and have survived to remain a flashpoint in hip-hop.
Last year Flavor Flav hooked up with PE again and they released the single Hell No We Ain’t All Right! aimed at the Bush government’s tardy response to Hurricane Katrina. Griff is back on board also and DVD footage which came with last year’s album New Whirl Odor -- with the terrific sample of Edwin Starr’s War driving the stunning message to DJs on Bring That Beat Back -- showed a live band as vital as ever.
“You can get by with the illusion of conviction in your music and videos because there is always someone going to deliver your work that way for you. But you have to prove the conviction and passion on the stage, and that’s the thing that separates U2, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder and Alicia Keys from processed and packaged bands.
“That’s a side of Public Enemy we get across. When you get on stage your job is not necessarily to convert your audience, but to convince them that you are convinced about what you believe.”
From the time PE announced themselves in the late 80s hip-hop spun out into mindless gangsta posing, East Coast V West Coast tribal wars, a consumerist obsession with bling‘n‘booty, and manufactured outrage. The hip-hop that Chuck D once likened to the CNN of the black urban experience became the Disney Channel. Up against this PE’s early work and New World Odor sound even more essential.
“The struggle remains the same. But you have to follow the struggle because if you don’t it can come down on a different part of you - and harder because it’s unexpected,” he laughs. “You got to keep abreast of all the changes.”
But the context has changed again. This month the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC launched a hip-hop collection and began collecting and curating the history of the movement (“That was just a matter of time”) and PE music is increasingly acknowledged as musically innovative by those who were once diverted by the militancy.
“All things come with time. You can say there was a brilliant execution by us, or you could you say there is a severe drop-off of bold and daring music in hip hop which makes it seems like what we were doing was more bold and daring.
“I don’t think anyone knows how to judge Public Enemy, just as a legendary something. Many people judge us without having seen us, but when they see us they get what it’s all about. Hip-hop is about a performance.
“When Public Enemy perform we try to be like the Rolling Stones and present it like an event.
“It’s a glorified hip-hop event.”