Remixing The Industry, Part 4 11.06.09: Chuck D of Public Enemy
Yes. The rhythm, the rebel.
If anyone is familiar with the freedom granted to artists by the internet, it’s Public Enemy’s Chuck D. After the controversy he’s seen and the battles he’s fought, Chuck D has become the prime example of using the world wide web to forego the archaic system of the way things were done and furthering your career and message on your own power.
Still, in an exclusive 411 Music interview done for this feature, we couldn’t help but discuss some of the “old days”. In particular, the subject of VH1’s recent “Hip-Hop Honors” show spotlighting Chuck’s old stomping grounds, Def Jam records, came up. “It was cool,” said Chuck of being a part of the show. “Seeing Rick [Rubin] was really good. It’s funny – you see a lot of the guys that took that corporate money, and then you see the people that didn’t get the money all come together in a room. It’s real funny because guys the guys that run Def Jam have turned in to the same rich guys that we all rebelled against,” he chuckles.
As we talked, I remind Chuck that, along with Prince, he practically wrote the book on the new movement in Hip-Hop – and music in general – that’s been discussed here on this site this week. In turn, he reminds me that he’s always been a champion of artists’ rights. Touché.
As much of a mixed reaction as the move has caused, then, it makes perfect sense that Chuck would turn to a company like SellABand to not just promote, but be an instrument in letting the fans fund the next Public Enemy album. It has nothing to do with the group being strapped for cash or pulling a desperate publicity stunt, as many have accused them of. “I admired SellABand and what they were doing in Europe. In the United States, we’ve tried to emulate their message and the way we do things on a much smaller scale. At the same time, I wanted to take their system and see if it would work with something I already have – like Public Enemy. The difference with using SellABand for Public Enemy – we know we can make a record in our own studio on our own. We don’t need any financing. I think, if anything, each and every song on this next record will be a collaboration. I think those collaborations for the fans would be something they would not get if we were to do an album on our own. If we’re doing a SellABand record, we have to present something a little different than we would do on our own. I think that’s what SellABand makes possible.”
Chuck goes on to open up the possibilities wide. “Let’s say we do an album with 10 different collaborations with different artists. This way, the fans can add their input in and we can bring 10 different collaborators to the table and give the fans what they actually want. SellABand will work differently for Public Enemy than they would a smaller artist.”
To put things in their place in the “big picture,” Chuck sums up: “Under the traditional way, a record label would pay you to do a record, you know? Under this way, we can say, ‘you want to see us with this artist or that person?’ We’re looking at this project as being revolutionary and experimental. I think this is showing the music business that this is taking baby steps toward eventual sponsorship that well help an individual – or a big company or a small company – further their brand.”
As of November 2, the SellABand venture has raised $59,625 toward the fan-funded and fan-centric record that P.E. is putting together. Those baby steps are happening one foot in front of the other. For all the critics that have taken Chuck to task for this venture, the fact that Chuck is as revolutionary of a thinker as he ever was should have been at the forefront to begin with. Of course, those criticizing are probably playing right into the hands of the media and its perpetuation of “fast-food culture” by assuming there was no more to this than the band “being broke.” And, quite frankly, if they had known how Chuck carries himself as an artist and forward thinker for any length of time, they should have known better.
But then, this is far from the first time that Chuck and the rest of Public Enemy have been at the center of condemnation and disagreement. From the lyrics to “Welcome To The Terrordome” sparking protests about the name of Jesus Christ to videos depicting the FBI gunning down a black family in their own home and the assassination of the (fictional) Governor of Arizona, Chuck has weathered the war like few others have. Many in his boat would have tucked their tail between their legs and gave up, but Chuck still fights on in the name of Power To The People.
He can also see the bigger picture better than many his field can. In observing that image, he sees Hip-Hop as it is now in dire straits. “The genre of Hip-Hop that people say is so big has serious structural issues. More like a lack of structural issues. Like I said, I just came from the Hip-Hop Honors and a lot of the new artists buoyed by corporate money and saturated radio have undershot their integrity and dedication to the art form that they’re not even exciting the crowd that they do have. I have grave concerns over the buoyancy of Hip-Hop over the last 10 years. If it’s not financed, it ain’t stayin’ up, you know? The concerns are not just in the area of records and record companies, but the radio stations and BET have done such a terrible job—they’re limiting what the art form can do. They put it in a box. Therefore, the young demographic only follows what’s in that box that’s now being dictated from radio and television. At the end of the day, because of that, I have grave concerns over whether rap can hold itself up.”
Chuck touches on other artists coming up without using the old system, like Skratch Bastid, Apathy, and Lyrics Born. What’s needed for artists like that to get their due, Chuck says, is a system supported by fans of the genre – and music as a whole. “Every artist [like that] wants a support system that can take the cream of the crop and the artistry and magnify it. If you can magnify it and dignify it at the same time and build a structure to support whatever it becomes as long as they keep those two aspects in mind. Right now, you ask younger people and older people about what their attitude is toward what they’re seeing. It might not be ‘Hip-Hop is dead,’ but a lot of people say that what they see is uninspiring. If somebody like Public Enemy and The Roots are blowing somebody away on stage and somebody like a Rick Ross is not, there are grave concerns. The only way a lot of artists are big is through repeated radio play. Artists can go the independent route, but that has to be supported. If it can’t be supported on television and the radio that the masses of black people are watching and listening to still, then you tell me how it’s going to be supported.
“In rap music and Hip-Hop, the infrastructure has been lacking severely because, in the beginning, when rap music had no support system, it helped create its own. It’s own alternative was created because that was the only way to catch it. Now that there’s a limited view, you have a situation where other people dictate, what deserves to be heard and what doesn’t. Who makes those decisions over that pecking order has affected the music more than ever. That’s where it’s at. If what I just gave you seems complex and you see the mental level it takes to see where this business is at, of course they keep everybody infantile. Then you’ll never understand the problem. I just think the methodology involved in all of this is a little crazy and out of whack right now.”
Fortunately, the future of the art form isn’t a blank slate where the future of the genre should be. For every bland record and performance out there, there is still hope and promise that the music will not cease to exist. There are still explosive performers and scorching beats accompanied by incisive rhymes that harken back to the days when the art of Hip-Hop wasn’t so stagnant. Chuck D continues to put the people and fans first in letting them dictate what they want and to have those days back. Others have followed suit, abandoning the corporate power structure in favor of bringing a new life to Hip-Hop. A new inspiration and passion that others are catching on to.
If those “baby steps” of going through ventures like fan-funding and giving the people what they want instead of what they’re being force-fed continue, the movement will then begin to crawl. Then walk. Then finally run. All it takes to bring Hip-Hop back to another “Golden Age” – this time, to stay – is to stray outside the confines of the usual outlets and search for music that inspires rather than settles for being played in a nondescript background. As a man who has done this for over 20 years, Chuck is qualified to lead the way down the path that the other artists discussed this week are traveling as well. All we have to do, in turn, is follow them and discover a world outside of what’s forced on us. A world that we, the fans, will ultimately control.
Special thanks to Jolyn Matsumuro and Grimmy Acosta with their help in putting this feature together.