Public Enemy's 20 Years in the Game Bringing that beat back
By JESSICA KOSLOW
Wednesday, August 8, 2007 - 6:00 pm The Rolling Stones of hip-hop? “I always consider Run-DMC as the Beatles of rap,”
proclaims Chuck D, front man of one of rap’s most revered groups, Public Enemy. “We’re the Rolling Stones,” he declares, “meaning that if they heap praises on those guys as being the kings of rock & roll as far as their longevity is concerned, we like to think the same about us in the game of hip-hop.”
Public Enemy, consisting these days of founding members Chuck D, Flavor Flav and Professor Griff (as well as their ubiquitous security squad, the S-1Ws), pioneered hardcore political rap. Around the same time that Compton’s N.W.A (N*ggaz With Attitude) blasted onto the scene with their debut, Straight Outta Compton
, on the other side of the country this Long Island crew were dropping socially aware — and controversial — messages backed by the revolutionary machine-gun rhythms of their production team, the Bomb Squad.
This year marks 20 years since Public Enemy released its debut, Yo! Bum Rush the Show
. To celebrate, the group that was hailed by Rolling Stone as one of the 50 greatest artists of all time released How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul
on August 7.
The group has earned accolades from some of America’s most authoritative sources: The New York Times in 1999 declared It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
to be one of its “25 Most Significant Albums of the Last Century,” and the Library of Congress (the preservation wing of the American government that Chuck D so often decries), has filed Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet
in the National Recording Registry. Explain the meaning of your new album’s title. CHUCK D: How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul
is answered with a simple phrase: You don’t sell soul to a soulless people who sold their soul. You have to give it to them. And that’s how it boils down with me. I think the last 15, 20 years the music and the record business experienced a great deal of one-sided individualism and greed. In order to return it to some of its roots, artists and entertainers and songwriters have to reach down into themselves in order to reach down into the souls of folk. You and Flavor Flav have very different personalities. How have you made it work for so long?
There’s a group of us, and the total jelling unit is the thing that’s able to signify that we’re the Rolling Stones of the rap game. The thing that makes it last is we figure as Black families go, everyone is accepted as family. Flav has created a position that’s been imitated but never duplicated: He’s the greatest hype man in the history of the art form. Do you feel like Flavor Flav’s antics dilute the impact of Public Enemy’s message?
The answer is yes and no. Yes, if the media always wants to pay less attention to the other figures in the group besides myself. Flav has never changed and has always been the exception to the P.E. rule. The group is not a duo. But then again, media tends to endorse whippings of mass distraction. P.E. is like any group/family coming from the Black community. We tend as a people to include and love the extremes in the same house with the same love regardless. Every Black family seems to have one, and even some white ones such as . . . remember Billy Carter? Many hip-hop artists have struggled to produce energy in live performance. What’s your philosophy on translating your music for a crowd?
My thing is trying to organize something that’ll get people’s attention for an hour or so. It’s my job. What I’m going through now is, I’m learning the new song, “Harder Than You Think,” and maybe another song called “Black Is Back.” I should know these songs by the time I get to California and put it in our set. And the reason that you have to get to know them well is they have to be able to match the intensity of some of the classics. “Black Is Back” and “Harder Than You Think,” they have a classic resonance to them. KRS-One is on this album. You’ve called him the most feared and greatest MC of all time.
Calling him the greatest MC doesn’t do him justice. I call Jay-Z the greatest MC because he’s the embodiment for MCs all the way up to this point. But that’s not a title that’s even good enough for KRS-One. He is the only rapper I’ve ever seen that changes the atmosphere of the room he steps in. He’s as imposing as Howlin’ Wolf was to blues. You have an online label, Slamjamz. What have you been working on?
To make a long story short, when people say that hip-hop is gigantic and big and it has all this growth, I say one thing we’re missing is the involvement of women like it was 20 years ago. We have a group on our label called Crew Grrl Order. Crew Grrl Order, along with Northern State, another all-female group from Long Island, did a collaboration. They’re the only two female rap groups in the world — damn near — and that’s a problem. How big can hip-hop be if you can’t name an all-female rap squad? They’re trying to be the epitome of a lot of things that are empowering for women inside of hip-hop and rap. The biggest thing the label is working on is a tribute to James Brown to be released in November. We chose 12 classic tracks from Mr. J.B., and our artists are knocking them out. Do you think Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton can win the presidency?
No. That doesn’t mean we don’t try. I just think the American democratic system is full of hypocrisy. And it’s primitive. It’s a two-party system that if it doesn’t change, you’re going to have the same mathematics work against people. And the mathematics say not only has a white male always been president, but a white male has always lost to the president. That dynamic has to be changed with some type of different strategy and planning — preferably by another party other than Republican. I always thought Barack Obama or whoever is the next president of the United States has to clean up at least three years of bull****. Then, their first thing in office they’re going to be on the defensive, and I think that might be too much for Barack Obama. There’s a chance for Barack Obama in 2016. The mathematics that’s being played is going to eventually have Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton cancel each other out. How come Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton can’t come under a guy like Edwards? [H]ave Edwards clean up and then Obama work with that campaign and try to figure out how to clean up America without being a focal point and bearing the brunt? Same thing with Hillary Clinton. You look down into the crux of the problem. Even the Democratic Party is run on ego and the same old-boy network. Handshakes by the zipper. How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul is in stores now. Public Enemy will perform at the Rock the Bells Festival 2007 at the Hyundai Pavilion in San Bernardino on Sat., Aug. 11, and at House of Blues, Sunset Strip, in West Hollywood on Thurs., Aug. 16. For more information, visit www.publicenemy.com and www.slamjamz.com.