"If you're making a record you can't perform, there's going to be a problem."
— Chuck D
If it were up to me, you would have been reading this a week or so before Public Enemy's show at Covington's Madison Theatre in early March. But Chuck D, founding member and self-proclaimed "rhyme animal," is a busy man. Between the group's long-awaited national tour commemorating their 20th year in the business, keynote addresses and the day-to-day struggle to breathe intelligent life back into Hip Hop (remember, Hip Hop is dead), I was able to catch Chuck via cell phone while he was en route to Toronto following the group's House of Blues set in Chicago the night before.
Weeks earlier, I had prepared a dozen or so questions about issues familiar to most "conscious" MCs: the stranglehold that corporations have on the Hip Hop industry, the lack of positive messages in music and videos and the systematic way that Hip Hop music rooted in political activism has been excluded from popular culture.
Instead, the interview turned into an informal dialogue about Public Enemy's secrets to longevity in an industry that has little respect for Hip Hop's pioneers — particularly those who bring the noise with unapologetically culturally relevant music.
And I reluctantly went there: I asked the obligatory Flavor Flav question that I imagine Chuck faces with each interview he grants. More on that later.
It was immediately apparent that Chuck D is more than simply a Hip Hop MC. Rather, he comes across as a lifetime student of music who happens to use Hip Hop as a means to communicate PE's messages of self-knowledge and activism. Chuck invokes the names of Blues, Soul and Rock icons as often, if not more, than present-day Hip Hop artists.
"People say, 'This is Public Enemy's 20th year!' How does that compare to BB King? That was drop in the bucket for him, and also for the Isley Brothers and the O'Jays," Chuck explains. "What moves did The Who make when they entered their 20th year? How has the Beatles' legacy held up? If you don't know other forms of music or you're just caught up in Hip Hop, you're not giving yourself a chance to define yourself."
Chuck's intense knowledge of the musical traditions that form the foundation of Hip Hop also shines through in the group's legendary stage performances.
"We learned early on if you want to be anywhere outside of the United States, you're following a legacy of great Soul and Blues and Rock & Roll artists," Chuck says. "They won't tolerate anything less than 190, 200 percent. You had better do those songs, or they're going to do you. When people come to a concert, they come to see first — they want to see something different, and everything else falls in line."
In reality, Public Enemy is the only currently active Hip Hop group with the longevity and fan base approaching that of, say, The Rolling Stones or U2. Yet, the often lukewarm support that PE receives from some within the African-American community serves as another example of how Hip Hop's pioneers continue to struggle for relevance.
"The saving grace for Public Enemy is that we knew this would happen, so in order to be a 20-year group, we expanded to other countries," Chuck says. "When we go down to Brazil, they'll tell you in a minute — Public Enemy planted the seed for all of Hip Hop in Brazil today. And that's 80 million black folks! The problem with America is that sometimes we think the buck starts and stops here, just because it's America. And that's some arrogant bullshit."
Yet in our own backyards, our children still face a relentless stream of negative imagery in the form of mainstream, popular music. Chuck suggests that the corporate hijacking of Hip Hop has contributed to its demise in recent years.
"I think that the corporations took the DNA of what's the most interesting factor about the Black community and reduced it to just that, without the diversity of what our community has to offer," he says. "If 90 percent of the messages are going to reflect death in some sort of way, then Nas' Hip Hop is Dead is correct."
Considering Hip Hop's ever-increasing marketability, Chuck laughs and adds, "But it could be the night of the living dead."
And speaking of those corporations, I asked Chuck about the criticism launched at Flavor Flav and his reality TV antics. Some fans have suggested that Flav's Flavor of Love persona could dismantle the legacy that Public Enemy has spent the last 20 years building.
"We were trying to get something for him before (VH1's Strange Love and Flavor of Love) to be on TV — something totally different," says Chuck. "We recognized his ability, but the powers that be were like, 'What is he? Who is he?' "
That initial skepticism was apparently short-lived, and before long Flav's shows were given the green light.
"We weren't surprised to the response, (but) he's one guy out of 14," Chuck says. "People don't count Professor Griff, who's writing books and doing lectures on media saturation. So it is what it is, and we understand that."
For the record, Chuck reminded me that Flavor of Love is shot over a 10-day period.
"Flav still has 355 days where he does his job, which is being the greatest hype-man in history."
In the end, Public Enemy's legacy is larger than both Chuck D and Flavor Flav. Though Blues, Soul and Rock are part of the fabric that comprise the Public Enemy sound collage, Chuck D remains vigilant about the more immediate issues that face consumers of music — particularly our youths.
"I think a lot of young people are searching beyond Hip Hop, so I don't think it's just a Hip Hop discussion," Chuck says. "They could be weary of music — no matter what genre it comes out of — not leaving them with a good, healthy state of mind. And that's what music is for — to free your mind and let you find peace with yourself." ©