Back in the game
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.
"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."
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.
"The He Got Game soundtrack was treated shabbily," Chuck says. "We're headed into a new contract option November 1, where they either gotta let us go, which would be a dream, or re-sign us. Plus, I think Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen have been the biggest detriment, and it keeps us from actually doing this tour full-force. We got catalog, but we're not getting any support. We're at two fucking extremes...It's intentional sabotage. I'm not going to even let anybody hear There's a Poison Goin On till our status is clear.
"I don't have a problem with PolyGram. I don't have a problem with Def Jam or its personnel. I just have a problem with two people, and that goes for myself and Flavor equally. You don't like to splash the business down to the public, because the public is pretty simple: You do music; I like the music; I'll buy the music."
After this tour, Chuck will take care of business, then return to the studio to record a second solo record with a full band, which he plans to take on the road. He will also finish writing his second book, tentatively titled either Anatomy of a Black Circus Within or Anatomy of a Rap Circus Within--either way, it's a day-to-day diary beginning with the release of Fight the Power, dealing with his disagreements with Simmons and Cohen, and continuing through the recording of He Got Game and the end of the Smokin' Grooves tour.
Indeed, when asked how he and Flav and the Bomb Squad got along during the recording of He Got Game, Chuck first laughs and says, "It's in the book."
Then he offers this: "At times, it was bananas. It was an...experience."
A pleasant one?
"Not all the time, no."
Was it a rewarding experience?
"Um..." He pauses. "You're always rewarded by learning certain things." And the next chapter begins.
Public Enemy headlines the Smokin' Grooves tour, which comes to Starplex Amphitheatre August 7. Also scheduled to appear are Cypress Hill, Wyclef Jean & The Refugee All-Stars featuring Canibus, Busta Rhymes, Gang Starr, Black Eyed Peas, Pras, and Mya.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.