Interview: Public Enemy
Keeping It Real
By Mikey Carr
Chuck D is not a man you could ever accuse of laziness. Fronting New York’s seminal hip hop crew Public Enemy since the group’s inception in the late 80s, and starting his own record label, SLAMJamz, while remaining an active political voice throughout his career, testifying before congress about file sharing, co-hosting Unfiltered on Air America Radio, and being heavily involved with various different conventions, publications and demonstrations, he’s not one for taking it easy.
While his Public Enemy partner and hype man Flava Flav has been known to occasionally fall by the wayside (read: reality TV), Chuck is one of the few bastions of integrity left in hip hop. Never stumbling into the pitfalls of fame, and working tirelessly in his efforts to preserve and nurture the genre, Chuck D and his crew have been a constant presence in hip hop for the past 23 years. With a soon-to-be-released box set, and an upcoming tour of Australia in celebration of Fear Of A Black Planet’s 20-year anniversary, Public Enemy don’t seem to be showing any signs of slowing down. “I don’t think there has ever been a ‘take it easy’ time, cos that’s not what we do,” Chuck tells me. “That’s one thing that’s hampered the art form for a long time now: laziness. This is performance art and a lot of people come to the table with the same skill set, so there has to be something that propels you beyond it – and it can only come through effort. In the case of Public Enemy people come up and tell us, ‘what a great show,’ and I just tell them look, we’ve got a motto, you know? Either look experienced and tight, or look old. And you can’t choose the latter, especially when you’re playing to an audience maybe half your age. You gotta make it happen.”
Terse and to the point, Chuck’s way of speaking is well-considered, devoid of superfluous waffle. A vocal critic of the direction that modern hip hop has taken, and an eloquent voice on where it should be going, he’s driven by a sense of obligation toward the genre; a desire to see it well preserved. “Music is better maintained in other genres,” he says. “I’m always trying to bring that back to hip hop, to bring back a passion about understanding what’s important to keep it long-running and relevant.”
He rejects the bling-laden image of hip hop as pointless, and the genre’s obsession with materialism and sexism as self-defeating. Where many hip hop enthusiasts feel any experimentation with the genre that takes it off the street is tantamount to blasphemy, Chuck is eager to see the genre lift itself out of the rut he’s seen it in for the past two decades. “I’ve always thought that hip hop has been done haphazardly and lazily, in a way that legitimises a ghetto mentality that’s counter-productive at times. People just think that because it’s something that comes out of the ghetto, it shouldn’t be tampered with. I ask people, ‘If you’re gonna lay down in a bed, do you want the bed to be full of bed bugs?’”
Of course, Chuck still has hope for hip hop, citing the cadre of artists signed to SLAMJamz, as well as artists like The Roots, as signposts along the path hip hop must take. The key issue, in his view, is that the genre is so limited and narrow-minded. “I think it should be an area that is very, very diverse,” he explains. “That’s what we should hope for: a very diverse hip hop scape. And I think it is. It’s the management of hip hop that’s been terrible, the handling of the radio shows that’s been terrible – it’s basically just throwing music at people, and you just can’t do that.”
Looking back across the history of popular music over the past 20 years, it seems strange that Public Enemy were ever allowed to be successful. Considering their highly political lyrics and refusal to compromise when it came to their fans, in today’s music industry an outfit like theirs would more than likely suffer in obscurity. Just look at Dead Prez. “Back when we started, everyone was trying to pave a road, a particular identity for themselves,” Chuck continues. “In the beginning you had to; it had to be different to everything else. Now today you could say the whole drive is to sound similar to the next person, because whatever company is behind you has a very tight formulaic way on how it should work to be able to make some money.”
With the media so pervasive in today’s world, and with the major labels so influential in the media, hip hop fans aren’t often given the chance to hear artists who push the genre. The issue then isn’t with hip hop; it’s with how hip hop is being delivered. “If I ask you, ‘how do you get your hip hop?’, would you say you wait for what floats to you?” he asks me. “That’s usually the case with most people – and if you wait until it floats to you like a piece of shit, it’s probably the problem. Cos most of the time, hip hop’s problems float to the top of the mainstream.” Luckily, we’ve still got Chuck D and Public Enemy bringing up sunken treasures from the depths.
Who: Public Enemy
With: Justice, Duck Sauce, Klaxons, Sleigh Bells, The Rapture, Tame Impala, Art Vs Science, Peaches, Erol Alkan & more
Where: Field Day 2011 @ The Domain
When: Saturday January 1, 2011