Chuck D Said It Before And He’ll Say It Again: Fight The Power.   08/11

Chuck D is a rapper, author, producer, activist, and leader of the musically and politically revolutionary group Public Enemy. In 2009 he launched, whose tagline is “where classic rap lives on.” We spoke on the phone from his house north of Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, Gaye Theresa Johnson, an assistant professor of Black Studies at UC Santa Barbara, and their newborn baby.

Q: You’re among the first generation of hip hop artists to move into midlife. Is the rap world a happy place for older artists?

A: Well, I came in as an older person. On my first record I was 27 years old, and at that particular time if you were over 18, 19, I mean, I came in ancient, and I’m the fifth oldest in the group. Flav is a year older than me. He was born in 1959. And me and Griff were born on the same day. We always say the fact is you’ve just got to be yourself. We grew up fans of Stevie Wonder and Teddy Pendergrass, Marvin Gaye, the Tempations, all these people that were older than us, but we didn’t know how old they were. All we knew was they put out good music. People like the Jackson Five and the Sylvers, groups that they designed for kids, they were the exception, they weren’t the rule.

Q: What about now? Is rap still a young person’s game?

A: It depends. If you look at major record labels as being the beginning and end of it all, with the bottom line saying who is what, yeah. But in the Internet age it’s an impossible thing to call, because artists of all ages are doing things across the board, and it’s no different in hip hop. The genre is 30 years old as recorded music. Does somebody who liked hip hop at 25 have to automatically graduate to jazz? Rock and roll is a 50-some-odd-year documented genre. Somebody who was 12 in 1956 with Little Richard is close to 70. Does that take them out of rock and roll? The thing that makes this different from any other time in the past is an eight-year-old has access to the archives of history. So you see a young kid with a shirt that says “The Beatles.” What is that about?

Q: It’s about access, like you said. Speaking of which, a couple of years ago you started a website, What are you hoping to do there?

A: I was influenced growing up in the ’70s by classic rock radio. It put a little attention and focus to the beginnings of what they considered rock and roll. They had the Beatles, they had Chuck Berry, Led Zeppelin, Traffic. And while the mainstream in the mid-’70s dealt with the Aersomiths and the Bostons and Meatloafs and the Framptons, classic rock radio found a niche. So I wanted to do the same thing for rap and hip hop, ’cause I know there’s artists still cutting music, still making videos. They have their own structures. They might not be signed to a major record label. Putting your art with a major record label today is like buying your family tickets on the Hindenburg. So these artists, they’re performing, they’re recording, but they’re kind of in an isolated abyss so I wanted to put together an infrastructure online that corralled all these efforts and put the focus on where they’re at as artists and not on competing. It’s almost like golf. You never see Jack Nicklaus play with Tiger Woods. So it’s like the senior circuit. And it happens to be a bigger industry than the mainstream, ’cause the mainstream has to spend millions and millions and millions on branding artists. Artists qualify for Hip Hop Gods if they have 15 years of experience in the marketplace, and that means your career had to start in 1996 to be eligible. Tenure is a very important part of what we consider to be the craft of hip hop.

Q: How has your approach to craft changed over the years?

A: Technology has allowed us to be different. People say, “Oh, you’re in the studio now?” and they’re thinking, like, eight people are in there. But you’ve got the studio on your phone. I have a studio in my laptop. You can be in Siberia and still be in the same session with someone in East St. Louis and someone in San Francisco, passing around vocals. When the music went from analog to digital it created a new space, a new idea of what the studio is. Albums are from another period. Radio stations have metastasized across the web, word gets around on people’s Facebook pages, on Twitter. You can a song in an instant and get it out there really quick. You can look at something and make a song about it and have everybody hear it the next day. The immediacy is different. What you’re making and the type of music that you’re doing has a different context than it did 15 or 20 years ago. It’s a lot better for those that understand and people that don’t understand, they don’t have a context to put it in. When I came in to the studio in order for us to make some of those mixes, you had to have four people pushing up faders on the 24-track or 48-track. Today you can make a lot of those things on your laptop.

Q: Is that all good? Is there a downside?

A: The downside is when you’re lazy, and you can’t make comparisons of eras and you don’t have perspective. Music goes forward but you’ve got to have a sense of the historical timeline that allows you to do what you do in the first place. When I go into a session sometimes I’m thinking about Fats Domino going into the studio with one mic. How was he thinking? Or when the Beatles were in the studio experimenting, you’ve got to know what the experiment was. What worked? What didn’t work? You’ve got to know the environment, the history, the technology, the genres. At the end of the day music is music and it’s all about one track, but the sum of all parts is what’s missing today, ’cause people are so caught up in the end result and what it’s going to bring. You’ve got to take the sum of all parts into consideration.

Q: Let me ask you about the sum of the parts of your band. Public Enemy has been together for a quarter century –

A: 24 years going on 25.

Q: What are the challenges to staying intact, let alone fresh? How do you do it?

A: You’ve got to provide opportunities across the board. We have extended membership, we have people who’ve retired, people move in, move out. I’ve kept an open door policy for 25 years. You have to consider people’s contributions, and you have to lead and be open to everybody’s wants, needs, and grievances. We live in eight different parts of the country. I think if Public Enemy was never a group that went across 77 countries over 24 years, if we were contained like most hip hop artists are and were just a United States thing, we wouldn’t have lasted long. Because we were able to use the entire world as our palette, it kept us working, and we were able to plan out our pace. You’ve got to move at your pace. You can’t move at someone else’s pace, be it a company or an industry. The recording industry collapsed because it always seemed to be in a perpetual race against itself. We set our own pace. We all have our families, our businesses, we’re not going to get in a situation where we’re going to be away from our homes for two months. We set limits a long time ago. We define what a tour is for us. Internationally it’s no more than 14 or 15 days and domestically no more than 20 days to make sure that you can bounce back and pick up where you left off kind of easily.

Q: You’re married. I think you just had a baby. Congratulations.

A: Thank you. I have a 23-year-old in grad school and an 18-year-old senior in high school and trust me, you have to have accountability and responsibility to those things first. Then your career and music come after that. Sometimes it’s a hard fit. But you got to set it in order.

Q: Has it been hard for you?

A: Yeah, of course. But life as an adult and as a parent is going to be challenging regardless, whether you’re in one place all the time or not. My time with family is really more than the average person working the monstrous hours of seven in the morning to seven at night and being exhausted on the weekend. You’ve got to arrange and organize your time.

Q: The responsibilities of adult life are in many ways at odds with the life of an artist.

A: Yeah, there are so many crutches given to young people that we’ve avoided as a group, and I’ve avoided as a human being. For example, I never drank or smoked as a thing of habit. Maybe a couple of glasses of champagne when I turned 40. They tell you you’ve got back-to-back dates so you’re going to be tired. A late night doesn’t work with an early morning, but you’ve got to be able to withstand that rigor. You’ve got to figure out how to do it naturally and you’ve got to understand that health is your first priority. We’ve always been on a fitness and health regimen. People say, “Chuck, your voice is getting stronger. You guys are doing longer and more powerful shows than ever.” As a vocalist you can’t be drinking and smoking and expect your voice will be the same. Over a 30-year period something’s going to give. And rest is important. You’ve got to cut out a large chunk of extra-curricular activity when you’re touring. When you start to take things to make you be up, be down, that’s the long road to being fucked up. Excuse my language. That’s what’s worked for us. I mean, you can’t find too many groups. The Roots, who started professionally in the ’90s. Beastie Boys are doing their thing. You can’t find too many.

Q: You guys must have prioritized personal relationships, too. I think that’s another thing that blows groups up, the egos and the infighting.

A: Well, we don’t make a lot of money ’cause the money goes a lot of different ways. It’s like the equivalent of the Duke Ellington Band. What I tell people is what you do get, you better take care of it. If we play Vegas and you make $1,000 and you spend $500 at the tables, when you get home you’re going to be minus $500. That’s simple math.

Q: Not everybody does the math.

A: Yeah, and then you have people frustrated about what they’re getting and not getting. You have bickering. With a big group you’ve got cliques of people that hang out with each other and get along and you’ve got people who have difficulty getting along. So you’ve got to have a leader who pays attention to the relationships.  I have a great relationship with everybody but sometimes everybody doesn’t have the greatest relationship with each other. At the top of the group you’ve got to be open to that and listening and figure out ways to fix it, be it salary, be it obligation, be it something else they have on their minds. I tell people if you don’t feel right you might want to take off. This isn’t something you’ve got to do.

Q: Let me ask you about words. Sadly, there’s no shortage of source material.

A: There’s no shortage of source material, which is a troubling thing in rap music and hip-hop. All you got to do is open up the newspaper. That’s what Phil Ochs said. Just open up the newspaper. You’ve got to ask yourself the question, “Who the hell am I talking to?” The problem is a lot of times rap artists a) don’t listen to each other, b) they get locked into their own era, and c) they bring a whole lot of baggage that they didn’t invent in the first place and they think they’ve got to do it that particular way in order to relate. I’m thinking, OK, here’s a person, you’ve got grandkids, and now you’re gonna make a song that relates to the streets? And major record labels are the only ones that get on the radio so you feel like you can’t say what you really feel, deep inside. That’s a problem cause you’re not being 100 percent of the artist you’re free to be.

Q: That’s an issue across the board, I think, with artists feeling the need to jump through hoops to make it and to be in the mainstream and so they put out what they think the kids want to hear.

A: Kids want to hear what they’re exposed to, and what they’re exposed to is what other kids are talking about in their high school classes and middle school classes. I tell people unless you’re saying the right thing that reflects what you really believe and how you really think, which reflects the wisdom you gain as you grow older, seriously, you don’t want to be a 35-year-old artist with a whole bunch of 14-year-olds following you for something you might deem as dysfunctional. You don’t want that dysfunctionality up in your house, so why do you want that dysfunctionality up in their house? So just be you. That’s what DMC says. He said I want to be an artist that reflects my 35 years or my 40- or my 43-year-old self. And I salute that because there’s plenty of things you can say as a 40-year-old artist that makes more sense now than ever. You’re 42 years old and you want to talk about drugs up the block? The 14-year-old is able to say that. The advantage an older rapper has is some knowledge, wisdom, and understanding on what not to do. Spend your time writing on something that they can’t write.

Q: Do you think about your own mortality? Do you feel a sense of urgency to get things said or done?

A: I don’t feel a sense of urgency. I was lucky to start out, when I started out, knowing that a lot of these things would still be relevant today. I didn’t spend time talking about things I didn’t think were relevant. I set out to write songs that would stand the test of time, whether I was here or not. But you’re always thinking about mortality, you know. If I disappear tomorrow what would be my final word? I said it. Fight the Power. I might have said everything I needed to say my first three years, but we built aspects out that reflected on what we witnessed in the world. It’s a catalog that’s very expressive of what we feel and how we felt.

Q: Hip hop is in its own midlife. Has the genre evolved the way you hoped or imagined it would? Has rap grown up?

A: No. It hasn’t grown up. That’s one of the reasons we built Hip Hop Gods, so there’s a place where people can grow up and not feel they have to capitulate to the values of a recording company trying to figure out how make money selling rap music to an ever-increasing younger demographic that might be into something else.

: You’re fighting a good fight.

A: Like I said, we had a good blueprint in rock and roll. We’re the Rolling Stones of the rap game. I don’t know if Flav is Mick and I’m Keith or I’m Mick and Flav is Keith. I was five years old when they did “Satisfaction” and they didn’t make that song for me, but you know what? I grew up to that song and when I see the Rolling Stones in concert I want to see that song being played. I want to see “Brown Sugar.” I want to see “Start it Up.” You know? And we’re the same. We’re finding out in many countries around the world there’s a 13-year-old kid with a Public Enemy shirt. We started 12 years before he was born and they know the lyrics to the song and they relate. And they have access. That’s what’s different. They can check out every video on YouTube where 15 years ago a young Public Enemy fan would never see these videos unless it was on a DVD or videocassette sold to them, or MTV or BET had to play it. When Kanye West and Jay-Z does “Otis” people can go look at Otis Redding live on “American Bandstand.” The young today have tools to get into an artist from the past.

Q: That’s right. So even though the gatekeepers and the companies have little interest in them, there are in certain ways more opportunities now for older artists to be heard.

A: When you see a young person walk around with The Who on their shirt it’s not just an Old Navy thing. A lot of these kids are big fans. This person rolled up to me the other day, couldn’t have been older than 21, they were a total Roy Orbison fan. How do you explain it? Access to the visual-audio. Today we live in a visual-audio age, not an audio-visual age. When I was coming up and we first came out it was about the sound. The visual came afterwards, as a reminder. For the last 20 years it’s been about visual first and sonic second. Young people usually comment about what they’ve seen, not what they’ve heard.

Q: But isn’t that a disadvantage for older people? Don’t we by and large want to look at young, beautiful people?

A: I don’t know. That depends. Look at a guy like Rick Ross. Rick Ross looks like he’s 50 years old. It doesn’t matter. He’s exposed. When I was growing up there was a whole bunch. Ray Charles was 50-something years old. It didn’t matter.

Q: I feel like it’s different now, that the culture and the marketplace is skewing younger and younger.

A: That’s the laziness of companies thinking they can’t convince young people any other way.

Q: Right. They’re scared. And young and hot is a sure bet.

A: Of course. When a person goes to their Facebook page the number one star to them is themselves. So the music industry says we want to be a mirror, to have people reflect themselves, but “You’ve got to look this way,” “You’ve got to be this way,” that’s gonna hit a dead end, a wall, boom. It already is a dead end. Everything they do, it’s not profitable.

Q: Do you have a to-do list? Is there anything you’d like to accomplish that you haven’t yet done?

A: Yeah, I’d like to have rap music and hip-hop as strong as rock and roll.

Q: What do you mean by strong?

A: Its own infrastructure. Its own rules and standards. The ability to make the person checking it out say that’s the greatest show on earth. The ability to reflect and also make change. The ability to make people say, “I want to be a rap recording artist,” and have people stop looking at it as a quick hustle. Any time you look at anything as a quick hustle and a quick way to make a buck it’s sure to have a diminishing return. I want people to look at it as a long, elaborate career.


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