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A Quietus Interview

You're Not Gonna Get Yours: Chuck D Of Public Enemy Interviewed
Stevie Chick , October 26th, 2012 08:08

The Quietus' favourite hip hop group are back in the charts and their debut is now 25-years-old, so we sent Stevie Chick to get a Bakers Dozen from Chuck D. The power house rapper had other ideas however... Photo by Maria Jefferis of Shot2Bits

What bums me out most is that it played out so well when I 'creatively visualised' how the interview might go, a few hours beforehand. The commission was: interview Chuck D, find out his thirteen favourite albums. A simple enough task, albeit complicated by the fact that I'd have strictly 25 minutes with the Public Enemy frontman to discuss said thirteen albums. Chuck's crazy busy promoting – alongside new album Most Of My Heroes Still Don't Appear On No Stamp – a concert in Brighton to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of PE's debut album, Yo! Bum Rush The Show; indeed, when I call, he's driving on the road with eight hours behind the wheel and ten more interviews in front of him.

Not ideal circumstances under which to interview someone who's been an absolute godhead to you since your teens, but, y'know, lemons and lemonade, and so forth. So, in the aim of getting the most out of our 25 minutes, and remembering the advice of an old friend – who, before interviewing Madonna a number of years ago, had spent the hours preceding said confab 'creatively visualising' the best possible interview-type encounter with La Madge, which he said considerably eased his nerves before the actual meet-up – I spent an afternoon's drive back to London from Liverpool running the ideal interview in my head.

I'd open by saying our strict time limit meant I couldn't gush for ten minutes about how important his music had been to me, which I hoped conveyed the deep respect I hold for Chuck while also curtailing any instinct within me to wibble on embarrassingly inna fanboy style. Then I'd explain that, as we had only two minutes to discuss each album, I'd be using my trusty digital kitchen timer to mete out our thirteen segments. I'd then note that Chuck had much experience working with men sporting clocks; we'd both laugh at this wonderful joke. I'd listen, rapt, as Chuck spieled off his list of touchstone albums, desperate to know the selections of an artist whose own music was punctured with shards of deep soul, funk and jazz, shards I'd later go off and investigate, like so many before and after me, a scholar of pop whose knowledge and understanding was so completely nourished by Public Enemy's re-editing and re-contextualising of sonic history. Then, at the end of our allotted minutes, at the request of Quietus boss John Doran, I'd utter the words, “Say Chuck, don't you know what time it is?"

Only, well, it didn't go that way. I caught Chuck in his car, at the beginning of said eight hour drive. Despite his agent promising us that Chuck would be apprised of the format of the Baker's Dozen feature, he had no idea we'd be asking him for his thirteen favourite albums, and said that he wouldn't be able to choose thirteen albums, for reasons he explains further below. It was clear that, whatever my cajoling, Chuck wouldn't select a Top Thirteen albums for us. I'm bummed, because I'd give anything for a guided tour of the more beloved corners of Chuck D's iPod. But since the man who cut the awesome 'No' as his debut solo single is, in essence, both unstoppable force and immovable object, it made more sense to change tack, and chat with Chuck D about something he did want to talk about. Lemons, lemonade, so forth. Since Chuck and Public Enemy have been pioneers in the field of digital music technology since the beginning, presciently anticipating the iPod age and the post-web fracturing of the music on their underappreciated, sublime 1994 album Muse Sick N Hour Mess Age, it seemed that the technology that Chuck felt has rendered our Baker's Dozen feature passé would be a fine starting point for our chat.

Chuck D: I'm driving eight hours, I have ten interviews today, so I'm just trying to get into it.

I'm after your 13 favourite albums…

CD: 13 favourite albums? Mine? Oh, I couldn't name them just now, while I'm driving… I could say Raising Hell by Run DMC. I could say, There's A Riot Goin' On, by Sly & The Family Stone. I could say Revolver, by The Beatles…

Could you maybe talk to us a little about those records, and what they mean to you?

CD: I like Let It Be, by The Beatles. I think the 60s was a moment where so many things met at the right time, at the right place. All the music of the 60s was an accumulation of everything that was on a collision course from the 40s and 50s, and it's never been the same way since the mid-70s. In my opinion. So whether I'm talking about Brian Wilson or whether I'm talking about Maurice White of Earth Wind & Fire… I can't get that out of my blood. So talking about each specific album, I don't know. Go ahead, ask me a question. I got more than a thousand albums on my iPod, how do I rate them? It's a question that's not even relevant to today's times, when we can carry as many as 15,000 songs in the palm of our hands.

I do understand. It's just the format of the feature… It's called Baker's Dozen, and…

CD: It seems like the technology has outgrown the feature.

You could be right. But people still release albums, don't they? The format is still really popular…

CD: I'm not saying that albums are a thing of the past that's dead and gone. I'm saying technology has gone past your feature, where you're asking people to give you a Top Ten… How can anybody give you a Top Ten when they have 10,000 songs in their iPod? It's like they have a Top Ten Thousand, and they rotate that Top Ten every day. That's what I do. It's impossible for me to give you a Top Ten anymore, or a Top Thirteen, whatever.

Maybe we should talk about how your approach to music has changedsince the digital age… There was a voicemail from Harry Allen included on your 1994 album Muse Sick N Hour Mess Age, where PE's Media Assassin discussed a Musician magazine feature he'd written that anticipated the coming of the iPod and how technological and legal developments arising from the internet would affect the music industry.

CD: It's certainly changed the way we carry music with us. All the way up to that point, we relied on limited programming from ourselves, and maximised programming from something outside, like radio stations. But now it's got to the point where a person can programme their own listening sphere, 24 hours a day, without any outside programming interference. They are their own radio stations. This is why Pandora does what it does, or Spotify, all those subscription systems and all. It's hard to break into a person's space, their personal listening sphere, their own personal world, from an outside programming perspective. I think that's been a big change, since 1999.

You released your 1999 album There's A Poison Goin' On via the internet, an early example of your embrace of the web, and of the potential for interactivity with your fans it offered…

CD: Yeah. I couldn't see how things could work within the Major Label system. It was too bloated, too outdated, and the delivery was too slow, so sluggish. It was primitive.

You witnessed the major labels suffer as a result of their slow realisation of the threats and opportunities the internet offered. Why do you think they were so oblivious to the new technology? They could have made millions from it.

CD: It's because they were making so much money from the CD technology back in the 90s, and they wanted to keep that going. This new technology coming along was a threat to wipe out their whole system. They had quadrupled their profits in the CD era. So they viewed the internet as a total threat to that. But you know the stupidity of all that is, they introduced digital music when they introduced the CD, the death knell that opened up the Pandora's Box of music being digital. And all it needed was another digital technology to come along, and that was MP3. Look, the business people are not scientists. So when the scientists told them, look, this new technology could kill you off, the business people were willing to take that gamble. That's what did them in. A brilliant guy who I'm a big fan of, Jac Holzman, the founder of Elektra Records, he said that if the majors had embraced Napster, they would have found a fantastic way to distribute singles, because they never found a way to replace the 45. And if they'd embraced Napster and MP3 technology, they'd have found a great distribution system. The CD saved them. But it was also a long tail towards doing them in.

In the recent documentary Last Shop Standing, a number of independent record shop owners cited the arrival of CD as the end of a boom period for independent stores – that their core customers were alienated by the side-lining of vinyl in favour of CD. Is it just nostalgia, or do you think we're losing something in the course of all this progress?

CD: People still visit record stores, they're just virtual record stores, they don't visit physical record stores. New generations are growing up visiting something that exists in their own bedroom, on their computer. So we have to change the focus on what that 'visitation' experience is like. And I think the stores that will survive, great stores like Rough Trade, they adapt, they understand the marketplace, and they style themselves as a specialist boutique shop, instead of a store you visit out of necessity. I mean, it's not like going to the grocery store and buying food. Once you're able to get that into your head, you're able to adjust a lot easier. But you have to be realistic, with the way that technology goes. Music people don't study history enough. How would you like to be in the photography field? When photographs first came out, you had to have a professional take them. Then when Kodak came out with their Brownie box camera, that put photography in the hands of the average person. Follow that story all the way up to now, where people have cameras in their phones. The photography industry has always been hit by the development of technology, and yeah, Kodak took a hit. Now you don't have to go to photographic development stores to get your films developed no more.

So how about that industry?

CD: The history's all in the grooves, Stevie. All in the grooves...

What's the best record you've heard all year?

CD: There you go again with that question…

I just want to help you lead the people to the good stuff.

CD: [Laughs] Well, I have my own label,

It's the 25th Anniversary of Yo Bum Rush The Show. What are your memories of that era?

CD: My memories of that great time are of great competition and innovation and performance in hip hop. You couldn't just repeat what the last man did, you had to better them in your own name, your style. I had the best team in the world, and I still do to this day: Flav, Terminator, Griff, The S1-Ws… Even today, we have DJ Lord who replaced Terminator, Griff is still there – although he doesn't make international visits – but we have the S1s, and also the band, our travelling rhythm section. It's the best team in the world.

Public Enemy play Brighton Dome on Monday October 29