Back in the game

At 38, Public Enemy's Chuck D goes 'where no age has gone before'

Chuck D began his 1997 book Fight the Power by revisiting the past, lamenting the present, and dreaming of the future. He opens his autobiography by setting the scene in New York's Soul Cafe in February 1997. He and Flavor Flav (exiled from Public Enemy for his drug use and arrests, then welcomed back with half-open arms) and Professor Griff (once cast out for antisemitic comments, then let in when all was forgiven and forgotten) are speaking to the media before a radio-sponsored History of Hip-Hop Concert that would feature such vets as PE, Run-DMC, and KRS-One. Sitting behind a table, taking questions, Chuck scanned the rap landscape and found before him a wasteland. He saw dead rappers, no radio play, canceled tours, forgotten rap icons left to wither out in the desert. He contemplated a world that had been corrupted and destroyed by the "corporate pimps of soul"; he wondered where he fit in, if he fit in.

"Personally, I felt rejuvenated after a four-year challenge-filled hiatus," the former Carlton Ridenhour wrote in his autobiography, like a man speaking in monotone voice-over while the world swallowed itself whole around him. "My challenges were trying to sustain my art within a crumbling art form and trying to resuscitate that art form. It's damn near like scaling a slick mountain with roller skates...I felt the career toll of controversial scars on my mind, body, and soul had healed a bit for future wars in store."

Of course Chuck D would refer to his art as a battle; the Rhyme Animal (or the Messenger of Prophecy, or the Lyrical Assassin, or the Game Commissioner--take your pick), once surrounded on stage by toy soldiers wielding plastic Uzis, can do nothing but. He's been in the trenches, screamed about the end of the world like a crazy man over crazy beats and risked his life every time he took the stage--such is the price of being a revolutionary in a status-quo society. Chuck set out to "teach the bourgeois and rock the boulevard" by writing about the death of black radio, the teachings of Louis Farrakhan and Elijah Muhammad, white racism and black-on-black violence, 40-ounce suicide, and Hollywood's black-face fetishism. And behind him, Terminator X and the Bomb Squad made some of the most brutal white (and black) noise ever recorded by a band of any sort; even a decade after its release, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back still sounds so tomorrow, its siren-scream intensity still as sharp, as incisive as ever. Public Enemy proved that a rap band could be a rock band could be a punk band; no wonder white kids loved PE--they made more noise than Metallica.

But in the end, Chuck's band blew up around him: Griff went to The Washington Times and spat on the Hebrew devils ("Jews are wicked"); Flavor Flav landed in jail on myriad drug and weapons charges; Terminator X went solo, and it was a no-go. Chuck would release his own solo record, 1996's Autobiography of Mistachuck, which didn't even top the bottom of the charts. No one much wanted a part of a record made by a man who insisted, over and over again, "shit iz jus fucked up."

So 11 years after the release of Yo! Bum Rush the Show, Chuck's the soldier returned from battle only to find that the cause he fought for never even existed. Like the Vietnam vet back in Kansas with Charlie's blood on his hands, he discovered no one wanted to claim as a hero someone who risked everything and changed nothing.

Public Enemy's return, four years after the release of the underrated Muse Sick N Hour Mess Age, has hardly been treated like the event it is. Hell, it's like the Beatles getting back together, Chuck D and Flavor Flav and Terminator X and the Bomb Squad back in action one more time; but instead, the world groans and treats it like another Ringo Starr record. Perhaps that's because the reunion, He Got Game, is a soundtrack album to a Spike Lee movie that closed before it opened; perhaps that's because He Got Game mutes the sonic scream that made It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back the greatest album released during the past 10 years.

Or maybe it's just that the rap world, which releases and forgets more product than Nashville every week, has no room for a 38-year-old who has spent the past few years running Rappers Educating All Curriculum Through Hip-Hop (REACH), a program Chuck writes is about "changing the direction that Rap is going and challenge the image that has been attached to it." Run-DMC, Chuck's heroes and the reason he signed to Def Jam in 1986, are already considered an oldies act, playing the small, out-of-the-way clubs and doing Gap ads for extra scratch. And forget about Kurtis Blow--that man's so ancient he's collecting Social Security, isn't he? That leaves Chuck D as the grumpy old man of rap, still trying to change the world 110 beats per minute at a time. Maybe the prophet can only preach for so long before the world turns its back on him and walks away, leaving him to scream into the vacuum.

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