public enemy interview
(9th october 2007)
Public Enemy are playing at The Junction in Cambridge tonight. I can't decide whether or not to go.
I was never a wigga. I could’ve tried. But I’d have sounded and looked about as genuine as Westwood. I’ll ‘fess up to bustin’ the rhymes and the moves in front of the bedroom mirror. No tennis rackets needed, just two plates and a hairbrush. I’m Run, DMC and Jam Master Jay all rolled into one. Jim DMC. Not exactly Raising Hell. More quietly causing no disruption at all, honest Mum.
I couldn’t breakdance either. Not that I never tried. Or do popping or locking or shocking. No, I was always shocking. But the music did it for me – just ike it does for Westwood – and I never felt the need to imitate the rest. Thank God. The photos from that time are bad enough already.
Public Enemy was the first gig I ever went to. They supported Run DMC at the second gig I ever went to. They were awesome at both. I still measure gigs by their standard. The Beastie Boys at Brixton Academy were better, but that was years later and they’d honed their craft by then. No beer and caged ladies. PE were still young and fresh when we saw them. Energy shot out of them at all angles, Tron laser beams ricocheting off the walls and ceiling. Hyper and hyped-up.
Then after a couple of albums the music didn’t do it for me any more. Something got lost. The startling production and the incredible intensity of Yo! Bum Rush The Show and It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back started to fade and the album titles seemed to have been picked up from one of Noddy Holder’s old notebooks. (Now there’s an idea. Who’s going to mash up Bring the Noise and C’mon Feel The Noise? Send it here when you’ve done it.)
So it’s the best part of 20 years later. I’m even less of a wigga than I ever was and out of touch with the PE back-catalogue and wary of hip hop gigs after being let down by the all the laydeez in the house say ho! bullshit, crap-ass medleys, and lazy rappers rapping over their own records, not even instrumentals. But I still know all the words to You’re Gonna Get Yours. Never go back, they say, but Chuck D and Flavor Flav won’t let me down. Right?
Right. Just about. Energy? Check, but Chuck needs a sit down and a cup of tea half way through these days. Skills? Check. Hammerhead hard delivery on the bass side, crazyman creations on the treble .Stage presence? Check and indeed check. Chuck D could fill a supertanker with his aura. Flavor is still mad mental.
Sound? Bad news. There’s a band. A tight band, but still a band. Rebel Without A Pause should be the terrifying sound of a rampant gang of helldogs, intestines eviscerated, pouring out of a schism in the walls of hell intent on killing your mother. It sounded like funk. Good news. Chuck, Flavor and DJ Lord showed there’s no instruments needed, just two record players, a stage, a crowd and two rhyme sayers when the three of them paid their dues to the best rap groups ever, reverently covering Run DMC from back in the day. Also on the up side, Lord and Chuck D whipped up a storming rap/scratch version of Mi Uzi Weighs a Ton.
But you can’t bury class. And Public Enemy are class. Chuck D is class. The man is a walking legend, a walking icon, a walking lecture. He’s an unstoppable, unfathomable, all-encompassing, scattergun, uninterruptible interview.
Kids Love Rhymes, from Cambridge's community station 209radio, were honoured to get that interview. I was honoured to go on their show to listen to it and talk about it and we’re doubly honoured to have the thing right here in Robots for you now.
Kids Love Rhymes: Tell us about when you started out doing a show on WBAU. Do you have any tips for us, doing a hip hop show on our community radio station?
I got involved with WBAU college radio because that was my college, Adelphi University. I started going there in 1978 and I was always intrigued by the signal that stretched across my homeland which is part of Long Island.
I got involved with the mobile DJ outfit Spectrum City with Hank Shocklee and later Bill Stephney. Bill was a fellow student and also the programme director at WBAU. He was intrigued by my local standing within the top mobile DJ outfits at the time and he thought it was a no-brainer to combine the efforts of signal and what we did with our music. It was a situation where we made something out of nothing. The signal was there, the music was there, so let’s just give the music to the people en masse.
My tip for you is – how can you engage listeners to be part of what you’re doing? Instead of you delivering to them, how can you all get involved together? Back then, when a person heard their name on the radio it was almost like a lofty, godly-type .. wow.
KLR: Did you meet Flavor Flav at the radio station? Is that how Public Enemy started?
Public Enemy started with myself and Hank Schocklee and Bill Stephney. I met Flavor as a band member of the Townhouse 3, a group that later became known as Son of Berzerk. In 1983 he started coming up to the radio station and I told him that if he was coming in he’d got to have a job – answer the phones, get the message over to Bill. I was the taskmaster making sure people didn’t waste their time at the station, made themselves functional.
The station actually turned a situation of being a signal that no-one listened to into being something of lofty communicative status.
KLR: Did that experience help you with the business side of the music industry?
Unquestionably. You’ve gotta understand that when we covered hip hop we interviewed artists and sometimes I couldn’t understand why some of those artists would trip out. We were trying to help them out and play their stuff and we’re getting the head trip movement.
It’s one of the things that keeps you humble, knowing that your beginnings were on the other side. Even today when you look at a guy like Ludacris. He started out on the radio and he’s kept himself on an even keel because he understands how much of a task it is to interview somebody, to wake them up and have them curse you out.. You have to understand that nobody is in this industry alone and we all need each other.
Look at this, man. I started off my career being a DJ, a mobile DJ that’d got two rooms of records. Now, putting out a record when you’ve got two rooms of records, that don’t mean shit. That really humbles you – how big can you think you are when you’re filing away bands that’ve got 7 or 8 records, or albums. It makes you say “how big can we possibly be?” So that’s always humbled and rooted us.
KLR: As hip hop has grown into a multi-cultural thing, do you look at it as an art form or a culture?
Well it is an art form, and it’s a sub-culture coming out of, if you wanna go historically, it comes out of humble beginnings of the underclassed, disenfranchised people of New York City in the mid-1970s. Hip hop spawned out of NYC when the music education classes and the musical cultural opportunities were de-emphasised. And out of those ashes like a phoenix rose this idea of trying to take all of those things around you and form it into something that would keep you busy, i.e. entertainment.
KLR: Is it fair to say that you’re a political rapper?
It’s fair to say that but I tell people all the time that all politics means is that you understand what the hell you’re talking about. When people say to me “well, you’re political and this rapper’s street” I don’t understand that. We have to watch our terminology.
We can’t antillectualise and dumb-assify this and say hip hop means stupid, or hip hop means forget all your inhibitions and just freestyle your life away. Well it’s not disco. Disco did that because it was a release and a relief during rougher times. There’s some aspects of that in hip hop but the beauty about rap music and hip hop is that you’re able to look around you and you’re able to come up with some kind of direction where you’re able to go within the realms of the things you see going on.
To further explain – it’s that, yeah, it’s a sub-culture coming out of black folks who’ve been involved in musicicanship, i.e. turntablism, art expression, i.e. grafitti, you’ve got break dancing and dance expression going way back hundreds of years and you got the art of MC-ing which is vocalisation.
The vocal dexterity of somebody like Jay-Z, you can’t say it’s so far off the path of Billie Holiday singing about Strange Fruit. Often we get off into this realm thinking that hip hop starts with itself. It doesn’t. It spawns off the other things that embody it, that classify it as art and expression and culture before we even get to hip hop starting in the mid-70s.
Hip hop is a terminology for black culture since the middle of the 70s. Does it mean that it’s just that? No, culture is a thing that brings human beings together for our similarities and knocks aside the differences. So culture is a universal language and hip hop is just one of those languages that culturally brings people together.
The beauty of hip hop is that its the vocalisation on top of musics that have already been defined and used because it started as a record-centred environment. You started with records. To take Thin Lizzy and the Bar Kays and try to make them mix and match way before they called it mashing up is something the DJ had up in their head.
The skill and beauty of the DJ when they’re spinning MP3s now is not the system it’s the head of the DJ and what they now. It’s almost like an artist – they don’t draw with their hands, they draw with their head. The DJ DJs with their head, their mind, their knowledge of trying to keep that rhythm and that movement going. You’ve got to have a musician state of mind.
KLR: Can I ask about Terminator X?
Terminator X is retired. I’m in touch with him every once in a blue moon. He’s settled in North Carolina. Terminator X is not the only retired member of Public Enemy. James Norman, Brother James, Brother Roger, the two S1Ws. Y’know we’ve had a sizeable crew over the years. People who’ve enjoyed their tenure with Public Enemy and used it as a foundation and a fabric of their live and that’s what we try to prove to be about.
I’m really appreciative of what the music and the culture has given me. You gotta understand, y’know, I really rub it in with my girlfriend when I say I gotta go to London, I gotta go to France. She says it’s a blessing to be able to do what you love and travel the world to do it. I try to tell new artists this all the time. If you really take your time and slow it down and really evaluate your life it’s a blessing to go around the world and speak your mind to masses of people that’s listening to you. So put something into your mind.
You know, I think the whole art of freestyling is overrated unless you can do it really well. There’s so many cats that think freestyling is just making up words. I seriously think that anybody that speaks the English language they’re limited when it comes to rap now because there’s so many guys I know in different countries who can rap in 3 or 4 different languages.
In English there’s an arrogance in saying I ain’t gotta know another language. That limits you. You go to Senegal and you don’t speak a little French – how you gonna command the crowd? You flowing “everybody get up” or whatever and they’re looking at you going “speak a little French or bring a little patois or dialect here.” This is where English-speaking hip hop cats are arrogantly lazy in their own zone, thinking that rapping in English is going to do it for the world. And it ain’t.
KLR: Can you speak any other languages?
That’s the biggest regret in my life, of anything that I’ve done as a person, is not knowing another language. I don’t have an excuse. 20 years ago I said I was going to try to learn Dutch, but I just didn’t stay on it. I thought if I learned Dutch I’d pick up Italian and German and Spanish and then work on those. Then again, I think in the early 90s if I’d known another language as well I’d have been killed in some places, for real.
KLR: who are you listening to at the moment?
I’m listening to the artists on my Slam Jamz label. Go to slamjamz.com. We’re a digital and a physical label. We started out as a licencing company. We’re distributed worldwide and we try to develop acts.
Stones Throw and Def Jux have been models for me. Not really underground, more like mid-reach, a lot of diverse situations. Stones Throw is more like something we pattern ourselves on in the area of licencing.
Rapstation.com was the first site that we set up for the integration of a whole bunch of world artists. We’re turning that into a digital distribution, we’re going to be an aggregator of content.
Who am I listening to? Kendo the Almost Famous, Crew Grrl Order, the first woman crew in about 10 years in hip hop, The Heat Mob who are like a Wu-Tang style academy of disciplined rappers out of Kansas City. I would like to build a bridge of cultural exchange and maybe in due time find an act that fits out of the UK.
KLR: Do you think the internet has had a levelling effect, that the power balance has shifted?
Yeah of course. Now you’re got the myspace phenomenon and YouTube and people saying “hey, I can take my camcorder and shoot and learn how to copy and edit” and shoot their own mini-movies.
The key is not so much the making of content, the key is the delivery of content. That was the problem of people trying to get their music heard, get their video seen – they had to go through a middle aggregator to get to the public. Now it’s like they can say “hey, we got our music, we got our videos and now we can try to find people one-by-one.”
Everything in the music business, you should understand, it triggers on the fact of 1:1. You can’t get to a million people unless you deal with one first. So it’s more like this: I got you to check us out, and I got you to check us and I got you to check us out, but not this big one sweep and in one week we got 55,479 listeners. That kind of like blunts the rhyme and reason of what this thing is all about. Back in the day, word of mouth was a 1:1 kind of thing. The internet brings us back to that.
KLR: Have you heard much British hip hop since you’ve been over here?
In the last 20 years? I go back to like Hijack and Overlord X, Cookie Crew, She-Rockers. That’s the roots of UK hip hop. All the way up to guys like Sway and people like that.
It’s very important to encourage people that cultural exchange doesn’t mean come across and say “buy my record” but say “hey, my record allows me to introduce myself to you and support you wherever I can go or wherever we can go together with this.” Public Enemy have never told people to go out and buy our records.
I was part of the download and mobile revolution – wherever you get our music, get it whatever way you can. The thing that makes it more difficult to be free is our show. Security and promoters will make sure they put some kind of prevent on it. But a couple of years ago we were able to do a free gig in the London Dome, in the Millenium Dome, and it had about 100,000 people. The mayor of London threw that gig. We like doing free festivals.
KLR: I’m an English student and I get pissed off when teachers don’t give respect to rap as poetry.
So whether a person is reciting a sonnet, or freestyling or rapping a song in front of a crowd they gotta go directly to the audience and have this exchange of soul and energy, man.
So there ain’t none of this “we can’t learn from things before us.” You have to learn, because life didn’t start ten years ago, life didn’t start when you just got it. “Oh wow, I understand it so therefore the world starts now.” The world starts for YOU now, but you gotta recognise the minute it starts for you, the world’s been turning for millions of years, man.
That’s some of the arrogance of governments and civilisations – I’ve always felt that governments are the cancer of civilisations – the arrogance of Western civilisation in saying that it can own a mountain that’s a billion years old and the dude that makes the claim is 51. How ridiculous a concept it that. Not only am I going to take the river and own the river, I’m going to name the river after me and just beat it into everybody’s heads. Better yet, you don’t speak my language but I’m going to beat it into your head that you’ll speak my language and call me sir.
Once you start to understand that there’s a world before you and it didn’t start with you, it humbles you. You’ve still got a lot of people in hip hop today who think that it started with them.
KLR: 209 is about spreading awareness. We feel that ignorance can be a big enemy in the world.
Ignorance spreads because too many people are afraid to stop it, to cut it off at the pass. The smart person won’t stop the ignorant person because they’ll say the ignorant person will burn themselves out. How smart can you be if you get in the way of the ignorant person who’s just stupid and who’s going to be self-destructive?
What this lead to is the last 20 years of what I call the silencing of intelligence. Where the smartest kid in the room is afraid to raise their hand and show their intelligence because they want to prove that they’re with the people by being dumb because the powers that be say “the masses” should be “them asses.” They just moved the “m” over.
KLR: It is really back to love, we need love.
The Beatles said it best. The reverse of “love” is “evil.” The reverse of “live” is “evil.” You’ve got to re-reciprocate that. The reverse of “evil” is “live” and you’ll find “love” if you spell that in a hip hop way.
Well that could explain some of the album titles. Chuck D is totally class and we could listen to him reading out the racing results and still be transfixed. www.slamjamz.com
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