As the front man for the legendary group Public Enemy Chuck D helped revolutionize the rap game by bringing political, social and cultural consciousness to the forefront of hip hop discussion. Following Public Enemy’s success a number of groups came forward with a foundation in Afrocentrism. The production team, The Bomb Squad consisting of Chuck D, Hank & Keith Shocklee, and Eric “Vietnam” Sadler, created a dense, ferocious rock infused sound unlike anything that came before them to outline PE’s scathing narratives. In addition to their lyrical content and sound, PE also pioneered a number of other hip hop movements including the first rap world tours, introduced the first hype man in Flavor Flav, and released the first albums on mp3.
We caught up with Chuck following his work on Ali Rap to discuss a number of topics. In a conversation that lasted roughly two hours we talked about the creation of P.E., his relationship with Flavor Flav, Ice Cube, politics and a lot in between.
Halftimeonline: Back in the days when you were apart of Spectrum City you said you were the emcee that did all the ugly duties like the designing the flyers and running the record pool. Could you talk about those days and how you ended up becoming the main emcee in the group?
Chuck D: Well, #1 I was a big fan of Spectrum and Hank Shocklee before there were records. Then when rap records became a reality we were playing those records along with other records. So when I first got a gig with Spectrum we were mobile DJs who were experts at moving the crowd and rocking the audience. I became an emcee in the truest sense of the form where I would not only be the Master of Ceremonies but I had to also move the crowd. I was really making sure that I navigated the music that was going down in a proper way to inform the crowd musically. We were the best at doing it because back then if you were and MC and didn’t have a voice you weren’t getting on the mic. You couldn’t just get up and scream something wack over the music and have people take it. It was easier for them to be like get that wack cat off the mic and let the music breathe. Nowadays cats think because they know a couple of slang words they can be on the mic, but their voices may not be cool enough to not get in the way of the music. They’re just in the way but they need to let the music breathe and rock the crowd right with skill. That skill comes from rocking hundreds of crowds and really feeling what the audience is feeling instead of just going off of what you think. I spent six or seven years refining those skills before I started making records.
Halftimeonline: I was reading an interview you did a while back and in it you said when you met Hank Shocklee he helped you get to a new level of emceeing. What were some of the things you would attribute to him that helped you get to that level?
Chuck D: When I met Hank Shocklee I approached it as I was a fan of his outfit and I wanted to tell him that I could help him with graphics, imaging and flyers to have people come to their gigs. Back in the day you had to have a good voice to cut through an inferior sound system. Spectrum was one of the few that had a real good system so a good voice would come through even better. Hank realized I had a good voice that was able to cut through and he taught me the importance of timing and not always having to rock the crowd except at the peak points and those nuances I keep to this day. It’s almost like Count Bassy when he was making his music. He did more music without making music, with spaces, than most cats did with music. It’s the same thing with emceeing. You can say volumes sometimes without saying anything or saying something at the right times. Those are some of the nuances of emceeing, not rapping because that’s a whole different thing. If you are emceeing a gig you can sometimes throw your rap button on and rock a portion of the crowd and turn it back off and go into emceeing. Not too many cats know the difference.
Halftimeonline: I find it interesting that even prior to your emcee career you were on the ground floor of trying to get hip hop on the radio, you had a video show, etc. but you were leery of getting a record deal. Obviously, you felt it was positive, but where did you see hip hop going at the time?
Chuck D: I was always a big sports fan, as well as all my guys. Sports are organized and you can’t just come on the team from nowhere. When you look at professional sports guys have to come from college, go through some kind of pecking order or meet some skill standards to get to wherever they wanted to take it. The industry was nonexistent at that time as far as rap and hip hop goes and I wanted to be able to understand it and bring some structure to it. We were always envious of the things the guys in the rock world were doing. They had logos, bands that always seemed to play, they released records and were respected internationally and local. At that time rap music seemed to be something that just happened. You had good cats that were skilled at doing it but the music largely resulted from young people trying to stay busy. I wanted to get involved with it and see if I could take it to another place. I graduated college at 24 or 25 and I’m thinking I’m gonna do something anyway so I’ll do this and it won’t have any bearing on my living. If it happens to overtake it then I’ll have to have a discussion to see what I want to do with the whole music thing.
Halftimeonline: After you guys officially formed it took a while before you put out a record. I heard you were trying to also do a syndicated radio show. Tell us a bit about that.
Chuck D: Well, I always wanted to get into broadcasting. I always thought that you could actually broadcast rap and hip hop in a way that could be informative. We already knew the music was already fly so all you had to be was informative. I thought that there could be better ways to go about doing hip hop on the radio other than what was thrown at people. Most of the New York guys like Chuck Chillout and Red Alert didn’t set the best example because they didn’t allow them to talk. They let Mr. Magic talk but other than that there were few radio shows that were able to explain the nuances of the music. That’s what I wanted to get into. That understanding came from me wanting to be in the sports casting world. Marv Albert was a hero of mine. He had a flow, a great voice, and could explain all of the street elements of basketball.
Halftimeonline: Was that why you were always known to rock Pirates gear because of your love of sports?
Chuck D: Roberto Clemente is a hero of mine. He is the epitome of an athlete that transcended into the world, both he and Muhammad Ali. The P in the Pirates gear also stood for Public Enemy. At one particular point I was selling more black Pirates hat than the Pirates themselves. After I wore one in my video I got a letter from Major League Baseball saying that they would not like me to wear a Pirates or St. Louis Cardinals hat. They said they would prefer that I not wear any major league baseball hats in my videos and that they were not condoning any use of their material. I was like hell I bought that as a consumer.
Halftimeonline: You guys were always ahead of your time and many people have talked about the thought that went into creating the image of Public Enemy. When you crafted that image how much of it was thought of prior and how much of it was just a result of the personalities in the group?
Chuck D: Well, the image of Public Enemy was crafted from the realities of who the individuals were. Flava is Flava 100% hands down and I’m pretty sure you have a better sense of who Flava is now after the TV show. Griff is Griff and everybody else is true to their makeup. My thing of encompassing what happened in my own home area is developing a morale that we had to what we are about and where we were from. We’re also children of the 60s so we could relate to a Civil Rights mentality. A Civil Rights mentality is simply thinking more about we than the individual. You notice you might be fighting for power but you’re not fighting for yourself. You’re fighting for a structure around you that has placed an investment in the legacy of where we come from. So therefore all the stuff that comes with PE was all ingrained because we all seriously believe in our background giving us an important direction in where we should go.
Halftimeonline: You mentioned Flav so I have to ask how did you two meet up and what made you say I want this guy down with my team?
Chuck D: Well, first of all when I met him I didn’t want this guy down with our team.
Chuck D: He came with Griff and them up to the studio. It was with some guy from the radio station and they brought him along. The first words out of my mouth to him were, ‘œDude you can’t smoke in here.’ He had a black mustache, black jerry curl, black jacket, black hat, a black pair of jeans and a black keyboard and I looked down and he had blacked out all the white on the keyboard. I said whatever you gonna do you can’t smoke up in here. He would keep coming up with a guy, who would later become Son of Bezerk, and he became a mainstay at the radio station. One thing led to another and sometimes I’d have to give him a ride home or pass by Adlephi University. The main thing at WBAU was a focus on hip hop in Long Island and also Queens. One day Mr. Bill gave Flav a radio show in ’83 or ’84 and it had a large listenership. That kinda defied logic because the guys who brought Flava along treated him like he was a stepchild. So I kinda took a liking to him and we decided to work together. My father had a company where he moved furniture and we drove trucks together. We built a bond moving furniture. If I wrote a script for a TV show it would probably be about Chuck and Flav before we started making records driving a truck in Manhattan. Believe it or not it was Flav driving sometimes.
Halftimeonline: The story has always been told that when Rick Rubin offered you the contract you told him that you wanted Flava on the team and that you wasn’t sure what he was gonna do but he needed to be down. Is that how that all came out?
Chuck D: Yea, Rick was like well what’s he gonna do? I was like I don’t know he just gotta be there. I remember saying you’ll see. I was never trying to get a record deal. I was offered a record deal after Rick called my house for a year. I just wouldn’t take his call. I had interviewed 85% of the artists up to that point and I was like I ain’t trying to be one of them. Haha. No thank you. We were trying to do syndicated radio in 84-85 and people were like syndicated rap radio shut up. We were trying to be ahead of our time but it was premature. We were jealous of the rock guys [because] they had concert series and all that. We were like just as many people are loving rap but all of the business was bad. So it’s like getting into a 60 meter dash but you’re in diapers so you have to go through 1st-12th grade. So with Flava it was a simple thing. When we added him I told him that we were going to split 2% to hank as a production fee and for our first album it was a split of 7 points. We saw a two year window to get into all of those other realms of the music business. That’s why we called the first album ‘œYo, Bumrush the Show.’ If you know anything about sneaking into a show where they aren’t trying to let you in you know you only need a toe and if you have fifteen people at your back you’re getting in there. That’s how we did the music business. They didn’t want us in the music business so we were like Chuck’s gonna get his toe into the door and we are gonna bum rush show business. We did that with all kinds of things, Dre and T-money on radio and television, Bill Steffany as executive, Harry Allen writing and Public Enemy as production. All the guys we came up with in the hip hop environment I found a crack in the door and we kicked it open. The first hype man in history is Flava. That came about because at the time Schooly D was making a record with Cold Money. Cold Money would open up the record like, ‘œHey Schooly tell them what you do, let them fucking know.’ Then Schooly would do his thing. Also, it was the combination of James Brown and Bobby Byrd. Me and Flav both have voices that can cut but we had two entirely different voices that [were good] when put together. Same with James Brown and Bobby Byrd when they’d be like, ‘œEverybody over there..Get on up.’ You could hear the difference when they were coming at you. That was me and Flav with the trade off especially on the first album. We accentuated that talent right there.
Halftimeonline: What are your thoughts on Flava of Love and how do you think it reflects on the Public Enemy legacy?
Chuck D: Well, first of all there are a lot of people who think they know PE but don’t know PE. Flava has been the same dude for 20-25 years. He was always the dude who would cut through to the audience that didn’t want to check anything out on the deep end. If Flava has his own show then Griff needs his own show on militancy but America will never let that happen. They are always going to take the easy and most comfortable way out and that’s someone of Flava’s ilk. But Flava ain’t ever changed. What shocks me is how the rest of black America has fallen off. If you go around the world people will be like, ‘œWhat happen to black folks? We thought you were all about the rights and the struggle and we turn on the TV and you are throwing money into the camera.’ So we’ve lost our international card. Civil Rights gave us our international card and aligned us with people’s struggles all over the world. Now that’s disappeared. That international card is gone!
It’s just like boxing. Black guys aren’t beating Russian guys because those Russians are coming from a real rough existence. I don’t care if you are from Baltimore, it ain’t rougher than Moscow or Lithuania. Those cats have nothing. The longest bus line I ever seen was in Moscow. There had to be 700 people waiting for the bus and it was 32 degrees in June. You hear me! Cats coming up to me like man Chuck its hard man. Put them up in Russia for a week, they’ll be back. Black America has gotten soft in a way so maybe it takes new measures to get it across. Flava is doing it and it’s up to the rest of Public Enemy to get more visibility in what we do.
Halftimeonline: When is Flava of Chuck coming?
Chuck D: I’m always on TV. You’ll see me in all of those avenues. I just finished up recording this ESPN Ali special for Muhammad Ali’s 65th birthday. I’m on ESPN, CNN, etc but you just won’t see me repetitively. If you don’t catch Flava of Love it’s on VH-1 so it will be on five times a day. I’m doing something with ESPN and you might see it a couple times but it’s not repetitive programming. Flava on TV is a two year phenomenon. I’m on radio, TV etc. Whenever hip hop has a problem you know they are gonna call my ass. I try to keep everything cool so it’s seamless but let me rob a gas station it would be everywhere. People would be like he’s jealous of Flav man he trying to keep up. It’s just like everything when it’s negative black news everyone knows about it. If it’s positive they like I don’t know what’s going on with it because there isn’t any drama. It’s smooth. If I went around smacking some chick’s ass then it’s like awww I never thought he’d smack some booty! Haha. Cats would be in the barbershop like I saw on TV Chuck D smacks some chick’s ass man. I don’t even know how to take that. I’m the cat to tell people nah, none of your business [and] get the camera out of my face. Flava is the cat who’s extroverted. He never changed. He’s the type of person to say my business is your business hope you like it. You know sometimes when we are doing shows all over the world it feels good playing the Scottie Pippen role. I know I have to dribble up court and do 80% of the job but its cool. It should be interesting. We’re going on our 56th tour so it should be real easy for me. With Flava Flav in the house Chuck D can do no wrong. With all the other dynamics the show we do is like one of a kind. I’m saying that not because I’m part of it but because it’s a new combination of a backing band with guitar, drum and turntablism that goes behind PE. It’s like Rage Against the Machine meets the Roots meets Run-DMC. You’re hearing classic joints, you’re hearing breakbeats, and you’re seeing Griff and the SW-1s in motion. One of the biggest things with Public Enemy is the minute we were able to get our passports in ‘˜87 we never stopped touring the world. Most Americans don’t even know. They ask when I’m coming out with something [and] I’m like Google me dog Google me. Go to Publicenemy.com. Youtube and Myspace have made it wonderful. Cats are checking out our old videos and our new videos. Then you look at a cat like L.A. Reid whose paranoid trying to sue Myspace because of Kingdom Come leaking. How stupid is that? You might as well yell at the clouds. The thing about it is I think Jay-Z is the greatest emcee of all time, you know why?
Halftimeonline: Why is that?
Chuck D: Because he is the embodiment of all of the emcees up to his point. Just like Jordan you have to admit he’s the best because he is the embodiment of all of the players up to his point. You had Doc, Elgin Baylor, the tenacity of Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and then he had to come through Isaiah and then you finally say Jordan. Same thing with Jay-Z you have Mele Mel the power, Kool Moe Dee the wit and execution, you have KRS-ONE who’s the most feared rapper of all time, and one of the most innovative rappers in Rakim. Jay is the epitome of all of those guys up to his point. The bottom line that told me he was the top dude is his performance. Once he played the Hard Knock Life tour in 97 and had to come on after DMX was putting it to his ass. That took a lot of courage and ability for him to get out there and he did it. From there I said this dude is messing with different levels. I think he carries the standard and he’s fearless in his stage show. When people try to debate me I’m usually like have you ever performed on a stage at a high level before? One of the biggest problems of rap music and hip hop are that the books written about it are rarely done by the cats who were on stage or behind the tables. Walt Frazier just put out a book called ‘˜The Game Behind The Game’ now I’m reading that book! Too many books about hip hop are written by cats who just liked it. It’s like do you understand what it is to be in a stadium and perform at a high level. I’m not necessarily saying one person’s grade is higher than another’s but I definitely know what I’m talking about. There’s gonna be people past Jay-Z but I think he has epitomized the standards of what it is to be the best.
Halftimeonline: A lot of people’s criticism of Jay-Z has always been that he chooses not to live up to his potential and dumbs down his music. He never makes a song as intricate as say Nas although we all know he could.
Chuck D: But Bill Russell blocked shots without blocking them. Jay-Z says something dynamic and intricate in his simplicity. Another thing is he is carrying a wit that a lot of other cats don’t have the maturity to carry. You can’t be young and have wit. You need some kind of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding to have a quick wit. You also have to have the skill to bring that across in a rhyme. He dumbed it down but it’s like a person like Kobe Bryant who could get 15 assists but decides to go to the hoop. Do you have problems fundamentally with that? Maybe but based on his abilities you know that he could. Same with Jay-Z he could easily be as deep as somebody else. I dig Talib and Mos Def and people ask me what’s the difference between a Mos Def and myself and I say I came with a team. We were like the ‘˜89 Detroit Pistons. I’ve never been an individual but if you talk about individual rhymers I’ve never cared too much about them anyway because an individual can only do so much. I think Jay-z, as an individual, pulled out all the stops on the Hard Knock Life Tour. He put out a little circus around him. It’s all about performance gentleman. Name your five favorite rappers and I’m gonna interject.
Marcus: Aiight, I’m gonna have to go with my man Nas
Chuck D: Have you seen him perform?
Marcus: Yea, I saw him perform.
Chuck D: Were you satisfied?
Marcus: I was 19 at the time and Illmatic was a big influence in my life so when I saw him I lost my mind.
Chuck D: Over the last five years Nas has broken out of that mold of not performing. The bottom line to me is a guy has to be able to perform and Nas broke out of that. Ok #2 you don’t even need to explain why you like Nas.
Marcus: Jay-Z definitely.
Chuck D: and you’ve seen him perform?
Marcus: once a long time ago but he can rap his ass off.
Chuck D: # 3
Marcus: I wouldn’t say he’s the best but he is one of my favorites and that’s Wise Intelligent.
Chuck D: Ok and have you ever seen him perform?
Chuck D: So you are just going off of records and videos.
Marcus: Haha, yea.
Chuck D: The reason I’m breaking this down is because when you talk to a rock and roll dude if that act can’t get down they wont even count them. They’d be like how can you just go off of a record that could be anything.
Marcus: I’d definitely have to say this guy who I just saw perform recently and it was one of the best shows and that’s Rakim.
Chuck D: So you only saw him perform one time? Without Eric B.
Marcus: Haha. I have an excuse for that when he was in his prime I wasn’t allowed to go to those shows because I would have gotten shot.
Chuck D: A lot of people have never seen rap artists perform. People say well that’s just how it is Chuck but how can you say its at its peak when you can’t compare it to other art forms. It still has room to grow but it has things to work on because cats are called performers and its called performance art. You don’t necessarily have to get down and battle but damn do your own song. Cats like Nas and Jay-Z found out to get to the next level they have to perform. So when we talk about rap and hip hop my standards are different but they aren’t complicated. Did he command the crowd? If he is an MC can he move the crowd? Uhh, all I know is when his record come on I like it. Then it’s like do you like It cuz you heard it a lot on the radio? Do you like his mixtape song and if so why? Oh because he just got wild and threatened this cat. So it’s like he is just using a bunch of threatening words and not using a lot of vocabulary so all that is left is wit. Jay-Z brings a lot of wit to the table and Nas brings wit but it has to come with maturity. Wise Intelligent is like a hall of famer because he comes from a classic period and he is part of a group. Hip hop is a wonderful thing man. I’ll tell you this, my personal favorite group of all-time is RUN-DMC. The greatest group of all time Outkast. Outkast is the first group to really be rewarded for every album being different but Public Enemy never created two albums alike because we wanted to make sure when we came out we would never ever repeat ourselves. That’s a rock and roll credo. Outkast came out the box like that but a new audience had to get it cuz like you said when you’re seven what do you know? But the point is cats have dropped off with performances and gotten lazy because of videos and the paychecks. Every other art form cats are sweating on stage trying to win the love one fan at a time. In rap, cats ain’t trying to win fans over, the audience is awe struck and if they are in awe of what he’s wearing, how many chicks he got or what he drove up in then that has nothing to do with the standard. Jay-Z got the hottest chick in the game and a single chain. He don’t have to do all that because it comes from within and a lot of cats have to learn that they can learn from that old dude.
Halftimeonline: Chuck, have you heard the Kingdom Come album?
Chuck D: I won’t get it till it’s out. I’ll go to the store like everyone else. There’s nowhere for Jay to go except to get smarter and wittier. You can dumb yourself down but you can’t get dumber because people don’t accept you getting dumber. He can’t go into one joint and then all of a sudden go back. You have to keep going forward and you have to be fearless and say I’m going forward and so what if I’m not going to get 3 million people buying something dumb. You don’t judge music by the quantity it’s the quality. You don’t compare fine cuisine in a fly restaurant to dog food. Dog food might go double platinum every two weeks. You don’t see owners of Alpo with diamond encrusted dog food cans around their neck. Quality is the issue and quality is king. Quality in the way you carry yourself, in your interviews, your ability to upgrade, your skill and your connection to the audience. If you lose some of them as you go up so what. They’ll catch up if you can hold your own. A lot of people were stunned seeing Flava Flav saying that doesn’t represent Public Enemy. I’m like you need to check Public Enemy’s first album with Flava Flav rapping on ‘˜NPE.’ He says he goes to the beach where the beach is so sandy that girls are on his jock like ants on candy. So Flava never changed. He the same Flava. I’m surprised at your ass!
Chuck D: You 36 years old going to work every morning talking about I can’t stop watching it!
Chuck D: Women talking about it on lunch break. You ain’t got nothing else better to do with your damn time? I ain’t surprised at Flav I’m surprised at your old ass talking about this wonderful topic in your life. You need something to do. Here’s another thing about rhyme philosophy. If it’s always about dumbing down then what stops a sixth grader from being the best rapper in the world? I ask ya’ll. They got access to beats.
Jbutters: For me I’d say I don’t really want to hear what a 6th grader has to talk about.
Marcus: I’d say experience.
Chuck D: Now here you go. Here’s Chuck D’s devil’s advocate. If your 28 year old ain’t saying nothing how can you tell a 6th grader he is saying much less? If the 28 year old ain’t experienced how can you blame a six year old dreaming about what the 28 year old ain’t do [but says he did]. The 6th grader is young, they can rhyme the same, and they have beats. That’s why knowledge, wisdom, understanding and wit are always the common denominator that separates the standard. The standard has to come with some experience. You don’t have any wit in the sixth grade. You ain’t seasoned. That’s why Jay-Z at 36 or 37 has the wit to cut across and he can talk about things and you believe him. He even sounds like a kid in a way. His tone cuts through. I know this sounds like the Jay-Z interview but I’m just giving you reasons.
Chuck D: He never really dumbed himself down [even though] he says he could come like Common but he dumbs himself down. He can’t come like Common. Common comes like Common and Jay-Z comes like Jay-Z with a certain tone and wit. I’d like to see more groups because you just don’t see groups in hip hop. That hurts. When’s the last time you’ve seen a group trade on lines. Maybe Jurrassic Five.
Halftimeonline: Smif n Wessun.
Chuck D: Now everybody in the group got their saved up rhymes and they step to the table without practicing or rehearsing and go for delf. That only worked for Wu-Tang and that barely worked for them. When was the last time you seen a female rapper?
Chuck D: Well, I got one on my label called Cool Grrl Orders. They’re good with it and they hold their own. They ain’t trying to be dudes. They are rappers and they rap. Their DJ is a drummer so when they come on stage she introduces them and starts playing a beat on the drums and they come out freestyling. Then before they go into the set she goes behind the tables and sparks it up. Guys don’t even want to come on nowhere near them. So if hip hop has so much going on with it why are there so many vacancies: groups, girl groups, female producers?
Halftimeonline: I think its interesting one of the key things you keep mentioning is the standard. I know you’ve mentioned RUN-DMC and I would assume LL Cool J, Rakim, KRS and others. What kind of things did you take from them to set your own standard of emceeing?
Chuck D: Well, #1 raise the speed limit. Only one emcee could mess with our speed limit and keep it moving onstage and that was the super emcee called Big Daddy Kane. Public Enemy usually messed around with 116, 109 or 112 beats per minute with power and speed. My standard was to rap harder and stronger and move on stage and have people [trying] to figure out how I did it even at an old age. It was almost like a punk rock level of speed. My standard was don’t get lazy in the beats per minute and rock it powerful, fast and to make sure it was very hard for anyone to try and repeat that. That was the standard I set for myself. Like you might be able to rap just as fast but you won’t be able to move side to side, running and jumping in the air and rapping at the same time. You’re either going to run out of breath, your voice is gonna crack or you might not say anything meaningful at that speed. I also understood my limitations so I had a team with me. I had Flava Flav, Terminator X, later on DJ Lord and Griff so I can give out doses at high speeds for short blasts of time. Public Enemy headlined not because we asked for it but because people were like I don’t know what the hell they are doing but we are gonna have to have them go on last.
Another thing with Public Enemy you can’t take a P.E. record and mix it in with a classic old school set. Only a few records or you’d have to have a Public Enemy megamix. You can’t take Biz Markie and then throw on Public Enemy because that will throw your whole thing off. Usually they can play everything at the same beats per minute but you can’t mix us in just like you can’t really mix in Beatles records. You gotta be like here is the Beatles hour. Same thing with Elvis. So that had a lot to do with our speed and varying tempos of our records. Big Daddy Kane and Marley Marl records could get close but they weren’t abrasive, they were just high tempo. Kane was the only dude that could deal with the tempo we dealt with, with power and speed. Instead of being very athletic on stage he got more into dance moves with Scoob and Scrap. He’s the most gifted rapper of all time. He can do it all. I thought it was kinda derogatory when they started calling Biggie the greatest rapper of all time. I’m like you’re wrong how can that be? That was just a whole bunch of NY hype. May he rest in peace but that’s an album and a half of material. I’ve seen Biggie get on stage and spank the hell out of a spot before I saw Nas or Jay-z but that was Puffy getting behind Big saying you get your big self out there and rock. Puffy hyped up Biggie and Big came out and stood in one spot dressed like a mack and was killing the crowd. If Big would have had four or five albums he’d be ranked very high but he didn’t get that shot to do it. Tupac to me was a brilliant cat. He was an all around dude, an actor. He was a real triple threat. But as a rapper he was one of the most fearless guys because he was able to touch on subjects that cats were afraid to do. Dear Mama, Brenda’s Got a Baby, and Keep Ya Head Up, those were the hardest records for anyone to do. Other rappers had that chance to do those types of songs but they felt it was soft. Pac took those chances and that’s why a lot of us remember Tupac.
Halftimeonline: I heard you had put out one list that had Shaq as one of your favorite rappers of all time. Is that true?
Chuck D: Nah, Shaq is the best athlete to ever rhyme because he did the most believable rhymes. He’s also the biggest B-boy I’ve ever seen. I didn’t put him in there as one of my all-time favorites. I had him as an underrated cat.
Halftimeonline: One question I’ve always wanted to ask you was what were your thoughts the first time you saw a white kid wearing a Fear of a Black Planet T-shirt. Did you feel that they were receiving the message or missing it and just following a fad in music?
Chuck D: I grew up in Long Island so it was an all black town surrounded by an all white town and I went to a predominantly white high school. I knew that white kids would do their damndest to search out something that wasn’t exposed to them. I knew the psychology of white folks and that you ain’t have to change your game up in order for people to follow you. You have to stand by your values and the deeper you go into your blackness you find out that people will follow you. The ones that might be scared or run away are the people who look just like you. If you know your people you expect that to happen but you keep it moving on the path. Our first tour was with the Beastie Boys and Murphy’s Law in 1987. By the time we got on the Def Jam tour and all of the black shows we already had a standing with the white kids that just said whoa! When we first came out we were very, very radical looking. It was Nation of Islam and Black Panthers. White kids didn’t know and black kids didn’t know it either by the middle of the 80s. I remember hanging up a flier and someone asking me, ‘œWho’s this Malcolm the 10th?’
Halftimeonline: Haha, that’s bad.
Chuck D: If a black kid is asking or it’s a white kid what’s the difference. We came out to tell everybody this is where we are. The white kids looking from the outside in were curious about it. Our goal was to take the chains off of people’s necks and hang an African medallion. We started seeing that the black kids were mad that white kids wanted to start to learn black history. I was like that means you have to step your game up. The minute somebody knows more about you than you do that’s opening yourself back up to new slavery. I wasn’t a kid making my first record gentleman. I was 26-27 years old so I was seasoned and I wasn’t looking for love in all the wrong places. I came from a background where I knew my family loved me so I wasn’t trying to impress nobody. This is what it is you can take it or leave it. One thing we’ve lost out on today is that people don’t necessarily have to accept what’s thrown at them. There’s also nothing wrong with telling people none of your business.
Halftimeonline: What are your thoughts on Michael Richards?
Chuck D: That was white guilt putting him all on TV parading him around. Why should we as black people be alarmed because a white dude was on stage in the middle of The Comedy Store with guys heckling him and he pulls out nigger, nigger, nigger? I’m not saying we shouldn’t be upset but why should we be amazed when Snoop and everybody goes around calling themselves niggers. It’s a word but it’s all this I can use the word but you can’t. That’s just stupid.
Chuck D: That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard that it’s exclusively our word. We didn’t even make up the word. The first time it was used was when some Cracker, meaning the person who cracked the whip, said, ‘œNigger get off that boat or I’m going to kill you.’ So when people say we flipped it and now we’re gonna use it as a word of love I’m like you don’t command no vocabulary so how are you gonna flip a word. First off your command of the language is low so now you’re going to flip a word that’s derogatory to everybody else and try to command the language in their life. That’s derogatory to the rappers who understood that vocabulary is their artillery. Now if he was black and saying it everybody is laughing, especially white people but since he’s white all the white people are like he crossed the line! Everybody needs to ask Paul Mooney what he thinks. It’s just a mass distraction making a whole whoop about nothing when clearly there are a lot of [other] issues that affect black people. They still yelling nigger to us without even saying it. All that Vote or Die and Bush got a second term like, ‘œWhat niggers? What!’ We just gotta watch ourselves because we are always gonna have cats in our lower dynamic. Black is the hardest thing to be in this country because you are always being pulled from both sides. A lot of times we as a people get comfortable based on white folks that have the legacy, the history, and the land therefore in America black folks think that we’re better than other black folks on the planet because our white folks are stronger. America got the most power in the world and we’re their niggers so we’re good. No. America is being dumassified to not understand that there is the rest of the planet. There’s a world out there but only 18% of Americans have a passport. That’s terrible for a country when the United Nations sits right here in N.Y. It’s damn near an obsolete building. But that’s enough politics for now.
Halftimeonline: I saw you were in the movie Anchorman with Will Ferrell. How did you get down with that and do you have any more roles coming up?
Chuck D: Nah, I don’t really act I just do scores and soundtracks. I [work with] four studios and our job is to license music. That’s what my Slam Jam label is for. When you license music you have to be a diverse artist to really cut across different genres initially. That’s what I like to do, be behind the scenes and add scores and soundtracks and stuff like that. That was offered to a certain extent by Will Ferrell and this guy Adam. They sat me down and we had a dinner meeting in California and they basically asked me if I could be in the film. Initially I said nah I don’t do film but they was like we’d really like to have you. To tell you the truth I was kinda like ‘œThat’s Will Ferrell!’ I didn’t know how big he was until I started checking him out more. So that was a cool experience. It ended up on the cutting floor and they felt kinda bad. They didn’t know how to tell me it didn’t make it in and I was like I’m glad. It was neither here nor there. I don’t do movies and I’m not trying to have an acting career. I guess I can act and I come from a theatrical background with my mom doing plays but I never took it seriously. I have too much respect for thespians. Just like Burn, Hollywood Burn, I threw that in because we had the score and the soundtrack. So if somebody wants me to use my celebrity and go into an acting zone that I don’t think is too crazy then whatever but that’s not my thing. I think as far as rappers doing movies I feel if the rapper ain’t 100% in it then they should leave it alone.
The only thing is I want rap music and hip hop to be structured and have more discipline to some degree. You look at all the cats who want to wild out and do whatever but when you do a movie you have to arrive on the set early, conform to the script and learn how to work with everybody else. Why is it so hard in music? Cats ain’t on time, they don’t give good interviews, and aren’t used to working with somebody but when they do movies they do all of that. Even the wildest dude has to do that. They have to be on time and have their stuff together. You have to learn how to work with people because nobody is doing a solo movie. None of this is young people’s fault. It’s because they took out the development passages in music, art and also in school. If young people don’t get developed how do you think they will all of a sudden be good? Development has gone out the window since R&B, Reagan and Bush. Young lives are fleeting quickly. We gotta develop our young people and everybody looks at it like it’s this big task. Grown people just have to carry themselves better. People say it’s about the parents but what do you say when you in the club with 36 year old fly grandmothers. You can’t say it’s about the parents when the parents don’t know anything. Is it the parent’s fault? Nah they went from 10 to 18, had a kid at 15 and got a job when the kid was three year’s old. Their parents are in their 30s and the kid is 16 and if it’s a girl they both can get in the club.
All I know is when we talk about music at least the older cats have to create a standard so the young cats know they can do it for a long time. That’s the beauty of our music. You can do it for a long time as long as you pay homage to the history of our music and skill. It’s about feeding others. If you feed others it will come back to you. Cats always want to come in and make a killing rather than make a living but if you’re killing how many cats can make a living? If one person makes a killing that means maybe 100 people can’t make a living. If that person is making a living at the top then maybe 99 people below them can make a living. If you’re in the fishing industry and you have an apparatus and boat to grab all of the fish in that particular vicinity that doesn’t mean you do that because the fish have to replenish. That’s what happening in the salmon industry. Certain companies are doing that and that’s why they are saying all eatable fish will be outta here by 2050.
Chuck D: You gonna have to really learn how to get into the soy thing. Salmon they say 2020.
Marcus: Man I’m a salmon freak. I’m gonna have to eat some gold fish or something.
Chuck D: Haha. Cats are competing so they are loading their boats up and 30%-40% of the catch won’t even be eaten. If fish ain’t kept right it’s through. You have the same thing here because you have culture strip miners. That’s what’s happening in hip hop. You have cats that go in and make a killing and then it’s useless for anyone else to come into the climate with anything healthy or prosperous. That’s why Talib or Mos can’t sell more than say The Game because the environment for something healthy is not conducive to that style of music to do those particular numbers. That’s alright because that doesn’t mean Mos Def, Talib, The Roots or Common don’t do what they do. Stop dealing with numbers that come from another time and deal with the numbers now until you can grow an audience. Jay-Z had other sources because the record company couldn’t promote him at the level they need for him to move product. He had to get Budweiser. Budweiser is going to have commercials anyway. They sell 55,000 cups of beer at every event. They aren’t trying to get a new audience. They are going to sell regardless they are just trying to keep product awareness.
Halftimeonline: I’m a big fan of Ice Cube and I know he came through and recorded Amerikkas Most Wanted.
Chuck D: Ice Cube is like a younger brother to me.
Halftimeonline: How did you guys hook up and how did you go about helping him create that project? It definitely seemed like meeting you was a turning point for him to where he went on and made Death Certificate and touched on topics that’d you’d be more likely to hear on a Public Enemy album.
Chuck D: Well people grow forward and upward but my thing is knowledge, wisdom and understanding don’t come in a microwave. People don’t generally get inherently dumber especially rappers because they are mental people and artistic people. In ‘˜87 or ‘˜88 Public Enemy were like ambassadors for rap music and we orchestrated the first tours putting on groups from other parts of the country instead of just relying on NY groups. We did the Bring the Noise tour in 1988. We put Hammer on the tour, Too Short ‘“ he used to keep his tour money in his sock and keep it moving. Matter of fact I brought Too Short to the Baltimore Arena and I said they might not understand you or like you but go through this one time and they will pick your vibe up later on and he bravely went and withstood the crowd. Same thing with N.W.A. to a certain degree. They opened up for us a couple times so we played together on some shows and I built a relationship with Ice Cube because I admired his work on Str8 Out of Compton. He reminded me of a lot of young cats that I was dealing with like Busta and LL. All of these guys were ten years younger than me so of course I was gonna be there to give them tips and they gravitated to my older brother wisdom so to speak. My thing was this is great. it’s like the sports league I never was in. So I tried to bring a sports mentality to the rhyme game.
Cube was having some problems in 1989-1990 where he was saying Eazy and Dre were getting money and Jerry Heller only gave Cube a plaque but that’s all he was getting. I would have a conversation with Cube like try to work it out with your guys. I didn’t want to get involved. I had just gone through the P.E. and Griff thing and the anti-Semitism thing that was going on so I knew the importance of trying to keep a group together. I advised Cube to work with the guys and try and mend that fence. Come to find out the guys weren’t trying to mend that fence because they didn’t have the power to do so with Jerry Heller in the middle of the mix. Jerry Heller had a relationship with Eazy and Dre alongside that so Cube, Ren and everybody else were the odd men out. Cube was their chief lyricist and increasingly he would come to me and say I’m kinda uncomfortable with this situation and I’m sizing up my solo career. He said he wanted to see if the Bomb Squad could do it. I looked at him like I kinda don’t want to get involved with you, Dre and Eazy. I’d rather we keep our distance and you figure it out. I tried to introduce Cube to other people like Sam Sever and other producers and he’d end up coming right back to us, him and his cousin Sir Jinx. One time he came to the Green Street sessions we were having when were putting together Fear of A Black Planet. Me and Kane had been talking over the years that we were going to do a record together. Finally Kane was in the vicinity and we were going to do Burn, Hollywood Burn. I planned it for myself and Big Daddy Kane to do it. So Cube happened to visit us because he was looking for a producer for his solo and I still didn’t want to get involved. So as Kane and I are going over the song Cube is sitting on the couch and says I want to be down with that. Me and Kane looked at him and were like ok come on. It was that simple. We gave Cube the middle part and after that session Cube said he wanted to get down. It was me, Hank Shocklee, Erik Sadler, Keith Shocklee and Sir Jinx. Cube was like Yo man I want to really get down and do this with ya’ll. He told us that he wanted to get Dre to do it but Dre told him he had to wait after Michele’ and like three other albums. Cube told them he’d have to get someone else to do it and Dre and Eazy told him that he ‘˜might’ go gold and rolled their eyes. That’s when he came out. So we were like ok we’ll do this record with you and we’ll knock it out in like 4 or 5 weeks.
Before we even started the project I wanted to give Cube some tips because he was a great lyricist. I said one thing you don’t want when you are doing a record, especially your first record, is to repeat yourself. Say things once as powerful as you can and move on to a different subject. Try to work with different textures, different speeds, try to make sure you can perform a good amount of these songs, don’t look back and try to be humble where you’re the good guy looking ahead. I told him not to direct any lyrics specifically at somebody [and] to try and be clever and indirect. I also told Cube before you write your lyrics take two dollars, go up into this CVS and buy yourself a notebook. He said a notebook? I said yep keep a notebook. He went in and got it and I told him this notebook is going to be the basis for you to come up with titles and work from your titles. Your titles will set the standard on what songs say what so you should say it all in your titles and your imagery. We did Amerikkas Most Wanted and Cube ain’t looked back. It all started from a $.89 notebook. Even to this day Cube still keeps his notebook whether he has movie ideas or whatever. He’s always been an interesting cat. He’s definitely one of the greatest emcees of all time if not the greatest representation from the west coast ever. I told Cube you have to go forward but not expect to change overnight. That’s why with Amerikka’s Most Wanted he might have wanted to go into a Public Enemy zone but I told him don’t try to go into that zone right away. Stay in your zone and grow into it. Kill at Will and Death Certificate were graduations. One thing that annoys me is when people say oh Ice Cube he’s the one who did the Are We There Yet? movies. I’m like yea well everybody has kids. You expect him to make a gangsta kids movie?
Halftimeonline: When you asked about our top five earlier Cube is definitely in my top 5 favorite emcees.
Chuck D: You know they say the same thing with Ice-T as far as he does this and that but he is the one guy I’ve seen who can put the audience in the palm of his hand. You can’t tell that by his records or videos. If he gets out there and performs you have no choice but to submit to his artistic talent. Some people have it and some people don’t. So when people judge rappers and leave out performance you don’t get the full dynamic of what that rapper can offer.
Halftimeonline: Have you seen his show on VH-1?
Chuck D: With the kids? Yea, we’re in the last episode. That was a wild night.
Halftimeonline: Oh yea that’s right. I know you co-signed it in the end but what did you think of that idea when he approached you with it? Your shows aren’t a joke so I’d think you’d take it a bit serious and not have inexperienced kids running around on stage.
Chuck D: Ice-T is my god brother man anything he wants. I’ll walk to California to do anything for Ice. You know another cat who gets disrespected that I always had a high regard for his intelligence and I don’t like the way he is being written out of history books is Eric B.
Chuck D: Yea man if there was a union leader in hip hop it would be Eric B. He always had a high level of integrity.
Halftimeonline: We did an interview with Rakim not too far back. In the history books it’s looked at like Eric B. didn’t really do anything and talking to Ra it kind of sounded like that.
Chuck D: Well, I don’t think Eric B. went out there and claimed that he made the beats or anything like that. He was just a strong presence that people respected for his ability to make Eric B. & Rakim work as a super group. I think Rakim was at such a young state and age that it couldn’t have worked without Eric B. Not at that time. It was a dynamic that happened to work. Eric B. never had to do anything complicated on the tables he just had to be there with his presence. Not to say that Rakim needed him because Rakim is the God. As far as phrasing is concerned Rakim and KRS are as important to hip hop as Luis Armstrong is to all music. When Luis Armstrong started making records he came with a vocal style and phrasing that is still used to this day. That’s why he is the greatest musician of all time because he introduced a vocal standard. Rakim is no different. Rakim did it with My Melody and KRS did it with South Bronx but we can’t remove Eric B. and Scott La Rock from that equation. Scott and Eric B. were homeboys and they thought alike. They were strong cats.
Halftimeonline: Public Enemy has been the catalyst for many things. You guys ushered in black nationalism and political stances in hip hop. What do you feel was or is the biggest influence you had?
Chuck D: It was always a big brother influence. Whenever something has to be ushered in and fought for Public Enemy went fearlessly into it. I happened to be at a right age because I was one of the rare cats who got respect from the Kool Hercs, Bams, and Flash as well as respect from the young guys. So I feel blessed that I can do something in my position. Not for myself but I have to do something to expand the game for them to make a living in. That’s a blessing to me. I look at a guy like a Nas or a Jay-Z and I’m very thankful because they widened the lane for us to put our vehicle on. They are making opportunities for cats who are able to be on the outside looking in. When I came in I had a better contract than Mele Mel and Kool Moe Dee so for a Common or Talib to come in and get a better deal than I had at Def Jam is in their best interest. The thing that made Public Enemy powerful forever is that the minute we were able to leave the country we did. We were able to plant seeds all over the world before people realized what the world was. Now we can go anywhere in the world and pick fruit and I am very thankful for that. That’s special. If I can get someone to thank me in the streets of Europe or Asia that’s worth more than rent.
Halftimeonline: Last question, I’m sure there were plenty but can you tell us about a moment during your career where you said to yourself wow what we’re doing right now is really making a difference in the world.
Chuck D: I’m gonna do one forward and one back. The first time I realized that was in 1987 in Philadelphia. We played the Def Jam Tour. We had Rebel Without a Pause come out over the summer and we had two visits to Philadelphia. One of the visits was part of Lady B’s show and I had everybody shake everyone’s hand around the building and we really embraced ourselves with the city of Philadelphia. When we came into the Spectrum and they raised the gigantic Public Enemy backdrop and cats were putting up the black fist saluting I was like well this is some other shit here boy. It was like the first time someone ever saluted a rap group. In ’88 when they knew we could perform and we came back with Run DMC and Eric B and Rakim and it was like this is something I truly believe in. Then just going around the world and everyday getting a thank you. You don’t necessarily have to thank a musician. Some cats come up to me like thank you for raising me. I’m like whoa. Thank god I didn’t take you into another direction! You have to take that and be humble and say that’s my job to service you as best as possible.
Public Enemy Albums:
How You Sell Soul To A Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul??? (2007)
Rebirth Of A Nation (2006)
New Whirl Odor (2005)
There’s A Poison Goin On…. (1999)
He Got Game (1998)
Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age (1994)
Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black (1991)
Fear Of A Black Planet (1990)
Yo! Bum Rush The Show (1987)
Autobiography of Mistachuck (1996)
I got a letter from the government
The other day
I opened and read it
It said they were suckers
They wanted me for their army or whatever
Picture me given’ a damn I said never
Here is a land that never gave a damn
About a brother like me and myself
Because they never did
I wasn’t wit’ it but just that very minute…
It occured to me
The suckers had authority
Cold sweatin’ as I dwell in my cell
How long has it been?
They got me sittin’ in the state pen
I gotta get out – but that thought was thought before
I contemplated a plan on the cell floor
I’m not a fugitive on the run
But a brother like me begun – to be another one
Public enemy servin’ time – they drew the line y’all
To criticize me some crime – never the less
They could not understand that I’m a Black man
And I could never be a veteran
On the strength, the situation’s unreal
I got a raw deal, so I’m goin’ for the steel