Back in the game

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

Chuck prefers instead the likes of DJ Shadow and the Chemical Brothers and even Prodigy, the cut-and-paste Young Turks who ingest the history of pop music and then vomit it out in these huge, glorious chunks of technicolor hip-hop. They're the bastard sons of the Bomb Squad--Eric "Vietnam" Sadler, Hank and Keith Shocklee, and Carl Ryder--who sampled pop music history to life and death long before the lawyers got involved and demanded millions for split-second samples (Chuck says it would be impossible now to make It Takes a Nation of Millions).

The only difference is, where Shadow and the Chemicals and Fatboy Slim and their ilk dig their pleasures on the surface side, PE was all about the blood-and-guts viscera--the music and the lyrics. When he speaks of Public Enemy's forthcoming There's a Poison Goin On--which may or may not be released this year, pending a contract dispute with PolyGram and Def Jam--he compares it to a "combination of Redman meets Chemical Brothers meets Pink Floyd meets Rage Against the Machine."

"Those are guys that deviated their style from some of the things we have done," Chuck says. "The only thing we come to the table with that they don't is, we can add a relevant lyric to it. That's a very difficult job sometimes--to seize a topic, to add a lyric to it, to make it sound good, make it fit, and make it stand strong. Those combinations of things stand the test of time. I mean, you can do incredible instrumental things, but if you can add a lyric to it, that kicks it in the ass. And if you're strong with the vocals, that makes it a rockable listen, and you've got something there. It's John Lennon's words with Paul McCartney's music--that's the shit you remember, the combination of things.

"One thing that's kind of good about being out of the main spotlight is when you're in the main spotlight, it brings everybody's attention down on you. Someone like Puffy, he can't make a move left or right, because everybody's trying to get a piece of him. Once upon a time, that was Public Enemy. But being sort of like on the other side of the eclipse, now it gives you some leverage to sneak some shit in. By the time Fear of a Black Planet came out, people were watching our every move. Every word and every sound was scrutinized. We've been sued more than anybody. You can't make It Takes a Nation of Millions in the same way. We never tried to duplicate that anyway."

In the end, Chuck says, He Got Game--perhaps the most different-sounding of all PE records, with its Who and Buffalo Springfield samples paying homage to Chuck's '60s upbringing and Boho connection--is the record he has always wanted to make, one about basketball. Before he became a DJ during his days at Adelphi University, he long dreamed of becoming a sportscaster, and Spike Lee's decision to team up with his old pals PE was "like a free base on balls," Chuck says--a gimme. It's at once a critique of the economics of sport and a love letter to the game, an attack on the "sneaker pimps" and "super agents" who sell their prized athletes like slaves on the "auction block" and a tribute to the "human highlight flicks" who grace Chuck's TV every Sunday afternoon during the winter.

Those expecting the sonic boom of earlier PE records surely felt disappointed by He Got Game's mellow mood; the music never attacks you as it did on the earlier records, never threatens and promises all at once. But that was intentional, Chuck says: It's "a word album," he explains, with the music stuck in the background, where it wouldn't get in the way of Lee's script.

"This was for a film," he says of the album. "What I tried to do was read the script and extract the soul from the characters and also identify with the texture of the film and come up with something that would also metaphorically work with balls, society, and urban youth. With those combinations, He Got Game is specifically a suit to fit, all the way from the cover on down. And I think that's good. The key to Public Enemy has always been to do each record differently, to never present yourself the same way twice. My whole thing is to try to persevere."

Which hasn't been so easy for Chuck D or Public Enemy. Earlier this year, PolyGram Chronicles, the label's reissue arm, was supposed to release Bring the Noise 2000, a remix greatest-hits. But the album was pulled from the schedule, Chuck says, by Def Jam owners Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen. Chuck has long been at odds with Simmons in particular: In 1994, during an interview with the Dallas Observer, Chuck took him to task for signing a bunch of gangsta groups just to cash in on a cheap trend. Now, Chuck insists Simmons and Cohen are trying to sabotage PE's career from within.

Chuck says that both men refused to release a second video from He Got Game, and that they have refused to give PE substantial tour support, which is one reason the band is on Smokin' Grooves even after insisting last month they wouldn't headline the House of Blues-sponsored road show. And indeed, neither PolyGram nor Def Jam is handling the band's publicity for this tour; Chuck, ever the would-be businessman, set up all his own interviews.

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