Interview: Chuck D, Public Enemy
On this tour, you’ll be performing your 1988 album It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back in full. What made you decide to return to it?
Well, it’s the twenty year anniversary, but I think this happens to be more of a promoter’s dream, to commemorate the album. So therefore it’s a challenge, because from Minute One, this album showed the world that hip hop was global. The minute the album opens up, you hear Dave Pearce talking about London. It was really rap’s first live album, as well as being all those other things that people call it.
It has also found its way into quite a few of those “Best Album of All Time” lists that magazines like to compile. Why has it had such a lasting impact?
I think it was the first album that really signified that rap music was an album-oriented format. Run DMC and Whodini and the Beastie Boys had successful albums as well, but they had built their following with singles, and Public Enemy was really like the first rap group to come out with album concepts. We looked upon making the album as being like a sonic explanation of what we were all about, and where we came from, and what this genre was all about, and how could it actually persevere.
It is strange to see such a challenging, radical, and at times threatening album sitting in lists of typical middle-aged favourites such as The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen and Elton John. Is that an inevitable consequence of the passing of time, which tends to neutralise everything?
No, I don’t think it’s strange at all. When the Rolling Stones first came out, it was like, what is this? Then as time goes on, those genres mature. I think that rap has matured, but also there’s still a sense of being unstructured and undisciplined, which holds us back. So we want people to look at Three Feet High And Rising by De La Soul, or Illmatic by Nas, or at anything by KRS-One, as strong pieces of art and culture. It’s like how you’d look at Jim Morrison and The Doors.
That album was supposed to represent an energy at the time. We made the album faster, we made it stronger, and we made it almost like a rollercoaster ride. We got you on the edge of your seat. I mean, that was our sonic standout from the rest of the pack. The only way we could exist is that we had to stand out, by being stronger, faster, more.
There was a defining moment for a lot of us here in Nottingham, when you played that legendary gig at Rock City in late 1987.
It was where we debuted Bring The Noise. I remember it very clearly, almost like yesterday. We’ve played there since, but that first time we were just kind of feeling it out.
Although you were bottom of the bill [to LL Cool J and Eric B & Rakim], you also created the biggest impact.
We looked at it differently. We looked at it as being the top of the bill. Opening up was almost like an opportunity to go and seize our audience, like being in the boxing ring and taking the first shot.
The show was promoted jointly as a hip hop/house music event. I think you came on straight after a house DJ, which just seems weird in retrospect.
Yeah, but also I remember that the whistles were ringing by the time we got up, so it was something to look forward to.
In terms of what was happening with hip hop at that stage, we saw two different directions that day. LL Cool J had just had a hit with I Need Love, but he had dropped it from the tour as he was getting a bad reaction.
It wasn’t LL’s fault, because that had a tremendous reaction in the United States. One revealing thing about that tour was that we were entirely in a different place, with a different sense of what hip hop was. It was the first time that internationality had figured in. After LL and Eric B & Rakim had played in front of tens of thousands in the United States, it was like: well, how are we going to treat this area, where you’re not going to have the same luxuries of home. We didn’t have any luxuries in our first year, and that was our first time out, so we had nothing to lose. We just let it all hang out.
We didn’t see it coming at all in 1987, but hip hop has gone on to be possibly the dominant musical genre on the planet, in terms of commercial success. But maybe there has been a price to pay for that success. Has something been lost along the way?
Hip hop is at a point that maybe it’s been for the last two to five years, in that people are kinda waiting for something to pop up. And I don’t know what to tell you. I would like it to happen, but it has to happen on its own terms. And it will fix itself along the line, in one way or another.
It’s good that you have faith that it will.
Well, I mean, bottom line is that it’s a great genre. You can put a lot of words in. And the more that we’re going into a crossroads of the world, where uncertainty is high and people are trying to figure out how to hold onto their heads as well as their pockets, then people want to go out and be entertained.
There’s being entertained, and there’s being educated.
Yeah, and there’s ways that you can do both. Even if you’re being entertained the wrong way, you’re getting an education. (Laughs)
We’ve also reached the stage where US hip hop artists can headline the main stage at Glastonbury, which is still seen as our leading outdoor rock festival.
Who’s headlining, Kanye West or somebody?
You’d think! But they’ve gone with Jay-Z. Do you think he’s a good choice?
I think Jay-Z can handle it now. He was a slow learner, as far as being a performer is concerned, but I think now he’s really starting to like it, and to get it under his belt.
There’s been a lot of debate about whether it’s going to work or not. There’s only one way to find out.
We’ll see. Kanye West to me, he’s the Elton John of rap. (Laughs)
Kanye West would have made perfect sense for that particular crowd.
I don’t know, I think I’ll rep for Jay-Z. But I’ve always had a problem seeing one person anyway. Or maybe I’m spoiled by people like LL and Big Daddy Kane.
Another thing I remember about that 87 show was the mixed, multi-racial audience. Did your audience ever change in that respect over the years?
It’s mixed. It varies from place to place, but I’ve always thought that most of the UK was white anyway. You’ve got to understand the culture shock, coming from the United States and playing in front of 15,000 predominantly black kids, to like a half-and-half crowd of 5000 or whatever. It told me that the UK was still predominantly white.
Yeah, but we also have a strong multi-cultural musical heritage over here, which we take some pride in.
Yeah, but when you ask me about crowd make-up, the make-up is dependent on the mix of the people that you’re visiting.
Have any British acts caught your attention recently?
I don’t really listen to the radio, but I always read about people like Dizzee Rascal in magazines. Of course we’ve got all the Amy Winehouse news. Her crew [The Dap Kings] is a Brooklyn band.
I remember buying You’re Gonna Get Yours on import; it was the only way to hear Rebel Without A Pause, which was on the B-side. As a club DJ at the time, I’m sorry to say that I didn’t dare play Rebel Without A Pause. It sounded so extreme, and I didn’t think my crowd were going to take it. How did you come up with the idea of looping that screeching JB’s sample all the way through? Did it feel like you were taking a risk?
It wasn’t looping; we actually played it. Some things were looped, but it was an orchestrated record that built on aspects of what we did with the so-called “loop that will blow your head off”. We just wanted to bring the noise. We wanted to be as irritating as possible. We knew that the ones who weren’t irritated, that was our crowd. And the ones that were, we were like, f**k ‘em.
There’s a section in the middle of Caught, Can We Get A Witness where you all ask each other “Do you think we’re gonna sell out?”, and then you promise that you won’t. Did that promise come true?
Yes. I think there are stages where people might consider us capitulating here and there. But I guess that’s life, right? For example, people might consider it a sell-out if you’re not touring all the time. They’ll say, oh man, you don’t need to be with your family, you need to tour! (Laughs) You don’t need to raise your kids, you need to be on hand and respect your fans. So you’ve got to beware of anyone laying things on you.
I think your fans have got to learn some boundaries at some stage! (Laughter)