Chuck D of Public Enemy: ‘The presidency aged Obama – what will it do to Biden?’
On October 6 1989, Public Enemy arrived for a concert at the North Carolina A&T State University, in Greensboro. With the group’s platinum-rated second album – the resplendently defiant It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back – having reached the summit of the US Billboard Top Black Albums chart, the hip hop collective from Long Island, New York, were one of the hottest acts in the world, and certainly its most dangerous.
Others seemed to agree. Backstage, lead rapper Carlton Douglas Ridenhour – Chuck D to me and you – learned that members of the Ku Klux Klan were en route to force their way into the show. The symbolism was ideal; in 1960, A&T State became the locus of the nascent civil rights movement in the American South, after four of its students staged a sit-in at the all-white lunch counter of Woolworth’s. There was only one problem: Public Enemy weren’t afraid of a visit from a racist contingent from the Tar Heel state.
“The venue had, like, 10,000 black kids in it, and also some white kids,” Chuck D tells me over the phone. “Now the Ku Klux Klan doesn’t have the same number of people, you know. They’re gonna have, what, 25 or 30 Klansmen? What are they going to do? We were a group, so it was hard to focus on who was who anyway. We were just a group of black men with noise coming out of it. And there’s an arena full of… black kids watching us. So what are you gonna do?”
As it goes, “a group of black men with noise coming out of it” is an unbeatable description of the look and sound of Public Enemy. Once described as “a piercing blare of unidentifiable sound”, the group’s enduring sense of urgency is helmed by the resonant basso profondo of Chuck D, a man with a voice that resonates like those of James Earl Jones or Orson Welles.
Fifty years after Welles unwittingly convinced those Americans tuned to a CBS radio broadcast of War of the Worlds that Martians had landed on US soil, in 1988 Chuck D convinced them that a different kind of reckoning was nigh. “What are you gonna do? Rap is not afraid of you,” he asked on the deathless Bring the Noise, which did just that. “Black is back, all in, we’re gonna win, check it out” – that was the mission statement.
More than 30 years on, he’s still at it. Last month saw the release of State of the Union (STFU), the first new track from Public Enemy in three years. A pitchfork at the doors of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – DJ Trump is not mentioned by name – the group paint a bracing picture of a “Nazi cult” led by an “orange-hair… comb-over” that will leave the American republic “gutted out, dried up [and] broke”. In other words, “sorry a-- m-----f-----, stay away from me”.
“We’re done with him,” says Chuck D of his nation’s commander-in-chief. “Everybody hates you. You can’t be president of the United States – your time is over, man. F--- November, f--- it man – you’ve got to go now. This is making me sick. This guy is ill and he’s got to go.”
In the hottest week of the year, Chuck D is speaking from California. Outside, Los Angeles is “like Wales” while London is like LA. In 2020, the 59-year-old is a rapper, a writer, a public speaker, and a presenter on the internet radio station Rapstation. As well as this, he’s one of the foremost voices on matters of race in America. Hoping not to sound naïve, I ask what good-faith actors might deduce from the international uproar of the past six weeks. His answer arrives in a voice that sounds like the horn of the QE2.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I think that one of the problems that white America faces, and I’m not gonna talk about the rest of the world, is that they refuse to sit down and be taught by a black person about anything. In anything. At least in culture, you have Mick Jagger or Keith Richards saying how they got taught by Muddy Waters, you know? If for once in your life you could get taught by a black person, that’s one way we could start off having better relations.”
Inevitably, interviews with Chuck D centre on Big Issues, a tendency that serves to obscure his group’s prevalent but somewhat unacknowledged sense of fun. A union like no other, Public Enemy arrived on the scene like paramilitary shock-troops. Their line-up featured a Minister of Information (Professor Griff), a “media assassin” (Harry Allen), and Flavor Flav, an iconic sideman who wore a clock on a chain around his neck. The group’s sonic delirium was somehow harnessed by a five-man production team known as The Bomb Squad.
Many wondered why the group’s early albums sounded as they did when, really, they ought to have been asking how. At rock’s top table, advancements in studio technology heralded the arrival of multi-platinum albums such as Graceland by Paul Simon, and Def Leppard’s Hysteria. But as part of a Def Jam Recordings stable that included LL Cool J and The Beastie Boys, Public Enemy utilised these innovations to fashion music that was at least as revolutionary as the political message it espoused.
In search of cacophonous overkill, the group reversed the sound of a siren from a fire engine, blended human voices with a trumpet solo by Miles Davis, amplified the scream of an air-raid siren, blared car horns and much more. They sampled everyone from Buffalo Springfield to Slayer. For the pivotal Fight The Power, they requested three solos in differing styles from the American jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis. “Which one are you gonna use?” he asked Hank Shocklee of The Bomb Squad. “All three of those m-----f-----s,” came the reply.
Public Enemy arrived as representatives of their race – the “cream of the earth” who were “here first” – and took seriously their roles as hip-hop ambassadors. With sentiments such as “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant s--- to me / you see straight-up racist, the sucker was simple and plain,” the group recognised its power to deliver urgent and apparently unpalatable messages. It’s difficult to overstate the impact on a society that seemed most comfortable with black public figures in the guise of pop singers, sports stars or comic actors.
“There was complacency in the 1970s, after the civil rights victories of the 1960s,” Chuck D told Melody Maker in 1987. “There was propaganda by the state to make it seem like things had changed – a policy of tokenism elevating a few blacks to positions of public prominence, on TV shows and stuff, while the rest was held down. Blacks couldn’t understand how they’d suddenly got these advantages… so they got lazy.”
Public Enemy reversed this trend with results that were sometimes problematic. The untameable Professor Griff told the NME that “if the Palestinians took up arms, went to Israel and killed all the Jews, it’d be alright”. Speaking to David Mills of the Washington Times, he went further, saying that “the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe” was the fault of “Jews”. In the face of ensuing controversy, the group announced that its Minister of Information had been “suspended” from its ranks.
“I’m like a mediator in all this,” is how Chuck D defined the role he reluctantly embraced. “Flavor [Flav] is what America would like to see in a black man – sad to say, but true – whereas Griff is what America would very much not like to see.”
But if sections of Public Enemy’s press file have aged badly, the music has not. It is decades since the group first rapped about issues such as cultural exploitation (Who Stole the Soul?), penal injustice (Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos), financial appropriation (Shut ’Em Down), and misrepresentation in the arts (Burn Hollywood Burn). But to revisit songs from a time when Donald Trump was a New York real-estate hustler is to tune back into a debate that seems to rage without end.
“Twenty or 30 years is a short time in real life,” Chuck D offers. “You have to work at breaking the stronghold of systemic racism, and 30 years is not a long time to do that… Now in the music business and the culture business, 30 years is a long time. But that’s two different measurements of time. You can’t just eradicate those problems… although culture can help you change the perception, because you’re dealing with [the emergence] of new young people who are hungry for information.
“And that’s the people who were in the street [protests] saying that injustice is wrong, police brutality is wrong, government authority is wrong, and greed and corruption are foul,” he says. “It wasn’t just a black movement. But it was born of the black movement because we’re the easiest and the quickest to be disenfranchised.”
But while the youth marched in the streets of Minneapolis and Manhattan, it’s the gerontocracy that will continue to operate the levers of power in the White House. Regardless of who wins the electoral college vote in November, the man seated in the Oval Office will be well into his eighth decade. “You know the system is broken when everyone running for the presidency is in their mid-to-late-70s,” Chuck D says. “President Obama is younger than me, and the presidency aged him. What do you think it’s going to do to a 77-year-old?
“I really think that a vote for Joe Biden should [be in] recognition of whom he chooses for vice-president. His direction will be determined by him choosing a woman,” he continues. “And not just any woman – not someone like Hillary Clinton – but a hard-working and dedicated woman. And if he doesn’t make that choice, the Democratic Party can be forgotten forever.”
In 1991, Public Enemy issued a music video that depicted elected officials eating poisoned chocolates and being to blown to flinders by a car bomb. Twenty-nine years later, the group’s de facto leader is telling a perfect stranger in London that he’s willing to countenance handing the nuclear codes to a septuagenarian who on Civvy Street might not be trusted with the remote control for the TV.
“Listen, we’re just trying to get Trump out of there now,” he says.
A glance at the clock tells me that my allotted time with Chuck D is almost up. When I arrived on the line, my cheery hello inadvertently punctured the closing moments of the preceding interview; a similar fate awaits me in 60 seconds’ time. With journalists stacked up like samples on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, it’s time to move fast.
So let’s finish with this. Chuck D once remarked that hip hop was like “CNN for black people”, a roster of roving reporters on which his own group occupied the position of war correspondents. The music made by Public Enemy was, and is, many things: provocative, explosive, illuminating, hyperbolic, unrepentant and more. But unlike some rap, it is unconcerned with materialistic pleasures. Which makes me wonder – were PE paid what they were worth?
“Never,” is the answer. “But we got what we got at a particular time. If anything, in Public Enemy I undervalued us in order to create [our own] road. But it was what we got at a particular time. And in a group you have to go through a bunch of particular splits and stuff like that, and it would never go well if I got all the money and no one else got anything.
“It was a gigantic operation. But there’s nothing in hindsight that makes me think, ‘Woe is me.’ I don’t look at it that way.” Nonetheless, he adds: “Plenty of people got rich at our expense because that’s what they wanted to do. But my job is to write songs, to think about what I write, to be a little bit clairvoyant… and live a life where I’m able to say some thing that I believe that will help mankind move forward.”
Chuck D contemplates his answer and, after only a beat, adds a full stop. “Or womankind,” he says.
State of the Union (STFU) by Public Enemy is available now