Back in the game

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

"It's new terrain," Chuck says of being an "old man" in the rap game. Speaking over the phone from his Long Island home, enjoying his lone day off from the Smokin' Grooves tour, he laughs. "It's almost like going to Mars. I mean, a rapper at 38? Shit, we're going where no age has gone before."

When Chuck talks about headlining the Smokin' Grooves tour with the likes of Wyclef Jean, Busta Rhymes, Black Eyed Peas, Pras, Mya, and Canibus, he says it's an "honor" to be included among their ranks. They treat him "with the utmost respect"--sounds almost like the way a child would a grandparent. Then again, Chuck has always been the old man of rap.

"When I came into the game, I was about eight years older than the current rappers," he says. "When I did my first record, I already was 10 years older than LL Cool J. Now, I'm about 20 years older than Canibus, and it's a tripped-out thing, because I work with various youth organizations around the country, and in Hartford, Connecticut, they met Canibus. Someone told him to meet Chuck's kids, and he said, 'Those are Chuck's kids. He must be old as a motherfucker.' They were all 19, 20 years old. But as long as you don't look old and act old, y'know."

He likes to point out that because he was born in 1960, the "turbulent decade" of his early childhood gave him an advantage when he began rapping. He was, after all, a child of the Black Panthers, the Vietnam War, Watergate, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr; his idea of pop culture is Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver autobiographies.

Modern hip-hop wants little to do with his politics, his polemics, his fight-the-power, bring-the-noise rant-and-rage. Public Enemy--children of the Nation of Islam and Run-DMC, fronted by a man who once dreamed of having Marv Albert's job and instead became a prophet of rage--stands alone now, just as it did back then. Scan the list of hip-hop artists topping the charts, and they seem to exist almost despite Public Enemy: Eightball, DMX, Master P, Noreaga, Cam'ron, the Big Punisher. And then there's Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs, the easiest, sleaziest of the platinum lot; he's Vanilla Ice with better clothes and worse taste in stolen riffs--better Queen than the Police. Only Sunz of Man, spun from Wu-Tang Clan gold, seem connected to the PE umbilical cord, waving loud and proud their Afrocentric flag for all to see; they're the children of Chuck, rebels without a pause.

"It's just a different time," Chuck says. "Different things are coming down on people. It makes an alarming topic a step away. Like in the '80s, we're coming off of fuckin' Reaganomics, and in the '80s, you're coming off a lot of curious white kids into this hip-hop music and still being scrutinized for it. We exposed a lot of people to the turbulence, and the curiosity brought an understanding and a togetherness. And here, in the 1990s, racial issues with kids 25 and under aren't really that far-fetched.

"I think it's a synonymous society. They all blend as one. I don't think they even call themselves black and white. They are, because that's the structure of America, but I think a lot of the barriers have been beat the fuck down, and I think if you take a survey of black kids and white kids 25 and under, hey, you're bound to find a lot of surprises. The thing that might be affecting them foremost might be the class system and other things like that we can choose as a topic to attack. There is a synonymous society across the board. Hip-hop has basically turned into a worldwide religion."

Even Chuck doesn't know what to make of 1990s rap. In his book, he lists his favorite all-time rap albums, and includes only one made by an artist who debuted during this decade: the late Tupac Shakur's Makaveli. The rest are by old-school vets (Run-DMC's Tougher than Leather and Raising Hell, the Beastie Boys' debut Licensed to Ill, Whodini's Escape, Stetsasonic's In Full Gear) and a few West Coast classics (Straight Outta Compton by N.W.A. and Death Certificate by Ice Cube, who turned in his microphone for a star turn in, gulp, Anaconda).

He has long been conflicted about the gangstas and the playas; he once penned the lines "everybody talkin' that drive-by shit / Talkin' that gangsta shit," but himself was connected to Ice Cube's 1990 solo debut AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, which he and the Bomb Squad produced with a marksman's precision.

"Our whole thing is to try to pump it back up with a reality," he explains. "It boils down to just being able to handle your phone bill, feed your kids, stuff like that. That might be miles away from you, but I tell you people all the time, the number one rule is to have a good time, the number two rule is to have a good time for a long time, and the number three rule is to figure out how to do number two."

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