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A Quietus Interview

On Leaders And Leadership - A Conversation With Chuck D
Angus Batey , October 12th, 2020 08:26

As they release their first album on the Def Jam label for 22 years, Public Enemy's Chuck D discusses the past, the present and the possible future with Angus Batey

There's never a bad time to catch up with Chuck D - but there's never a particularly good time, either. The founder of Public Enemy always has something to say, and there are always new tales to tell about the most storied of hip hop bands; but that means you have to take your time-restricted place in an ever-lengthening queue, especially when there's a new record out and the publicity machine cranks in to high gear.

Right now there's arguably more at stake - and more to discuss - than usual: from the band's return to the Def Jam label that launched them on their singular career path three and a half decades ago; a widely reported and still somewhat impenetrable spat earlier this year that saw Chuck's friend and on-stage foil, Flavor Flav, briefly kicked out of the group before being reinstated amid a flurry of press releases that claimed the whole thing was a publicity stunt; and on to, of course, the impending US presidential election taking place amid racial tensions Chuck and his music have never shied away from highlighting, critiquing and attempting to both explain and end.

Chuck's a one-off. An incisive lyricist and gifted polemicist, possessed of an unmistakable baritone that age has deepened and enriched (though never mellowed), he's often been painted as a firebrand - yet the public persona and the private person are poles apart. Never afraid to espouse controversial causes or adopt provocative positions, in person (or via videoconference software) over the years, your correspondent has never found him anything other than warm, friendly, open and engaged.

Unusually among pop stars - which is something he certainly has been, much though he'll decry the connotations - he's both acutely aware of his public and press profile, yet willing to say what he thinks, and to think about what he says. Answers to questions are discursive, meandering, a distinctive blend of insight and metaphor and opinion and allusion, a kind of poetry peppered with slogans and aphorisms, always ending up at an interesting destination even if it's not where you'd expected you'd be going when the sentence left the station. If the ideal interview is one that proceeds like a conversation, then Chuck's the ideal interviewee.

"It's a blizzard of interviews - 121 in 70 days," he says, the stats reeled off with the trainspottery punctiliousness of the die-hard sports obsessive. "People are like, 'How do you carve through it all?' You've gotta have conversations, each one. It's gotta be conversations: it can't be interviews. Because if they're interviews it'll burn your fuckin' medulla out. It gives me intellectual life."

And so here we are, on Friday 2 October, 2020, hours after the 45th president announced his positive COVID-19 test, and a couple of weeks after What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down? returned PE to the label that helped turn them into the world's most important band, and which the band helped turn into hip hop's most vital imprint. He tells tQ he's happy to have a bit more time to talk with us than had originally been allocated, following the cancellation of an appearance on Chris Cuomo's show on CNN. Happy because it's given a bit of breathing space in a packed promotional schedule, or happy because those kind of appearances aren't ones he looks forward to? Neither, exactly.

"I feel that I'm a little over-exposed," he says. "I like to be heard, but not seen. I feel the technology in this whole Zoom shit is like... I think people right now, because of gadgetry and all that, they listen a bit too much with their eyes. I mean, that's how Trump got over, you know? A New York City sharkster, gangster, hustler, half-baked celebrity doin' a three-card monte trick on the rest of America.

"Chris Cuomo grew up a fan, a friend; son of the former governor, brother of the current governor - cool dude, right? I was on his show already. I come and operate from a cultural point of view and standpoint, so that's a little different - coming in, adding my two cents. He wanted to talk about the record. I'm like, 'I kinda talked to you already twice, Chris!' I'm feelin' grateful for it, but, looking from the outside in, it's like: 'We got Chuck D again'? Already CNN gets a dressing down by talking to too many, you know, celebrities and stuff like that. And they know they have to, because this is television news. CNN has taken a step down in news because they have to get with the times. Nothing's gonna be faster than social media. Back in the day we knew that we could get the head start."

For the second time in three minutes, Chuck's phone rings. This time he picks up: it's his mum. He tells her he'll call her back.

"What was my point?" he asks, rhetorically but pretty much unnecessarily, as he's instantly back on track. "Social media just jumps out. You know as a journalist, I know as a musician; TV and radio news people knew. Before, you could lead the narrative and get a head start on it. Webcasting, on the WWW, social media, means that everybody got their opinion and they can get it out there instantaneous. Meaning, what do you do? You can't fight it, so you've gotta kinda like straddle it, surround it, embrace it, get around it. 'Fight The Power' in 1989 led and predicted a narrative; 'Fight The Power' in 2020 rode alongside a movement. You know?"

PE were never followers - from the group's emergence at the height of hip hop's late 1980s golden age, the group were way ahead of both peers and fans, not just musically and lyrically but conceptually, socially and politically. But there's a difference between catalysing change and being a leader. Although he's been touted as the latter, you sense Chuck has always felt more like the former - and perhaps never more so than now, in his 61st year.

"Say your child is riding a bike on training wheels," he offers. "You're following, but you're kinda like, 'Oh, she's slippin' far here'" and he mimes reaching out.

"It's one of these moments right now where I'm ordained to do that," he continues, "and as much as I'm ordained to do that I'm rejecting that position of leadership. My energy was a different energy to do that. Now y'all got to do that. And if you challenge me on my role, then I say: 'Well, match the 30-year-old me and keep it movin'; come back to me for some advice or counselling. Sorry'."

It's an echo of a theme Chuck's been riffing on for most of this century. He's not setting himself up as a leader, but as someone trying to inspire and to help give direction. As he said in 'Rebirth', from 1991, this is something he got from his pops.

"Consigliere, man," he agrees, with one of his frequent - and there's no better word, so you'll have to forgive the accidental pun - chuckles. "I'm here. I am that uncle. My dad was brilliant at saying five words that made me go, 'Sorry I asked.' He was flawless at untwistin' me in the span of less than 60 seconds. I hope I could be half the man my dad was as far as untwisting people that come at me."

So of course What You Gonna Do comments on the current political landscape, with 'State Of The Union (STFU)' lambasting the liar-in-chief, and has a singular concept threaded through its running order (the title track is far from the only one that argues our increasing reliance on information technology is hollowing out our culture and society). But the record is at its strongest when it places Chuck and PE in their historical and musicological context, and both investigates and celebrates those different but allied histories.

At the centre of the record is 'Fight The Power 2020', where Nas and the Roots' Black Thought contribute new verses while Chuck revisits his original lines - Elvis, John Wayne and all. But 'Rest In Beats' takes looking back to somewhere different, the first verse's litany of fallen rap comrades giving way to an inventory of cultural and musical institutions that the internet age has diminished or demolished, from "brick-and mortar record stores" to "the art of everyone being in the same studio".

Best of all, in Chuck's view, is 'Public Enemy Number Won', a remake of the group's first single, with guest spots from Run, DMC, an opening featuring the two surviving Beastie Boys, Mike D and Adrock, and a closing cameo from Original Concept's Dr Dre. The guests were not chosen randomly: each played a role in 'Public Enemy #1' being released in 1987 - a song Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin heard as a demo, after being turned on to it by the Beasties, and then spent months persuading Chuck to let him release.

"To me, as a listener, it's the most glorious moment on the album," he says. "That song is the reason I'm here. I rejected Rick Rubin for two years on that song. He even brought Original Concept in and wanted me rapping on it - that's why Dre caps it off at the end. I passed the tape over Jam Master Jay's lap that Dre played as a [college radio station] WBAU promo. The story of the song is this big," he says, stretching his arms out beyond his webcam's field of view. "The story of the song is bigger than the song, and the song gains speed and momentum as a sentimental piece without being cheesy."

Assembling the remake's cast list took some doing.

"Me and DMC always worked together - me on his projects, he on mine," he explains. "I called up Run, and Run was, like, enthusiastically over the top about doing it, but he was unsure about himself. I said to him, 'Yo, just be Run, man! Let's stay in '83!' He was really over the top, saying I gave him the confidence in my conversation to make him feel free.

"With Mike and Adam it was little bit different," he continues. "I do things back and forth outside of recording with Mike and Adam, but they have a pact, with Yauch [the late MCA] being moved on in transition, that they're not gonna be doing Beastie Boy records or spitting verses and stuff like that. We finagled back and forth, and I said, 'Well, you know, the song opens up with a routine - [we could do a] switcharound.' And they were like, 'Cool, we'll probably come up with something.' That was a 60th birthday present to me, paying homage to them, to put the electricity in Def Jam. Because that's the song they put in front of Rick: they dragged that song - specifically Jay and Yauch, who are no longer here. So the story of the song is even more important than the song itself."

And, while on the subject of those who have, as Chuck prefers to say, transitioned, the conversation can't end without remembering Dele Fadele. A mutual friend, Dele wrote some of the earliest and most incisive pieces about PE: in his first book, Chuck listed him as one of his favourite journalists.

"I shadowboxed with him the first year," Chuck says. "That made it enjoyable - back then especially. Part of our performance was our interviews: we wasn't talkin' about high-school shit or anything else - it was really challenging on both ends. Somebody tryin' to peel your brain, and you tryin' to peel their layer too."

Dele had the musical vocabulary to do justice to Public Enemy, too: he was as well equipped to discuss The Clash and Sonic Youth as he was Run-DMC or BDP. He and Chuck must have shared more common ground than would often have been the case.

"Yeah, share it - and then also you would wrestle each other a little differently," he smiles. "You've gotta know the arena that you're boxin' in, right?"

Public Enemy by Eitan Miskevich

There's an inescapable irony that this warm and inclusive embrace of a shared history, and the record's pervasive arguments around the dangers of reliance on digital technology, are finding their expression on PE's first release for Def Jam since 1998. The group left the label after it refused their then unprecedented wish to release a remix project as free MP3 downloads, and the move to an independent set-up seems to have suited Chuck well enough over the years. But, as the non-leader is quick to point out, the band isn't just a vehicle for him: and decisions about the group's future are taken democratically, not despotically. The interest from the label materialised at a point where Chuck's happiness with commercial independence was butting up against his friend and co-founder Flavor Flav's desire to receive the kind of marketing and promotional push that a major label can still deliver, even in these very different times for the music business.

"They couldn't do what we could do, and they couldn't do what we asked them to do," Chuck says of the split with the label in 1999. "It wasn't their fault. It's like you're asking someone who's five years old to drive the truck and pull it into the driveway. So we moved into that digital world and never looked back - but then again, the world followed.

"But there's another guy there, named Flavor," he continues. "I was happy that he was able to do a 20-year venture with me. But he said, 'You know how it is: I kinda wanna be bigger.' Me, I like to be independent, and record all the time, with my SpitSLAM artists and all of that; but Flavor, he's a one-track guy. I already do tons of things without Flavor, without Def Jam - and at the end of the day, the fire gets lit on maybe two cylinders. Then when you do something together and with Def Jam, it's on 20 cylinders. So, Def Jam is right, and Flavor's right, right now."

The story of the pair's supposedly staged falling-out earlier this year is reasonably well known. Flav apparently took exception to Chuck playing a gig in support of then presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, Chuck fired him from the group, then, two days later, said the whole thing had been a ruse to see how a drama-obsessed media could be manipulated by a band many outlets hadn't considered newsworthy in decades. The truth, it turns out, lies somewhere between those two poles.

"I didn't kick Flavor out. I was just like - I need 25% from him," Chuck says. "He can't give me 10% effort anymore. He's gotta give me 25%. I gotta do the 75%. And when I end up doing 92% of the work, and he's 50%..."

The maths complications mounting, he goes back to the relationship. Turns out there was more truth to the alleged firing than the subsequent explanations allowed.

"I had to tell his team: I said, 'I've gotta answer to you in the press, the way you guys put me in the press. But, you know, you can come back in after two days.' And that's what happened. I had to lay down a serious gauntlet.

"It wasn't Flavor: it was a lawyer of his that got over-zealous at something, and put something in the marketplace," he adds. "So all of a sudden I find out that, you know, I'm splattered all over the press because of this over-zealous lawyer that Flavor ends up gettin' rid of - but I got the stains in my pocket. It's like I still had to pay a price for their stupidity, because I had to answer to that. 'Is Flavor out of the group, is he fired, or what?' I'm like, 'When was the last time you listened to anything by Flavor?' And then [Flavor] got mad because I said he don't know the difference between Colonel Sanders and Bernie Sanders."

The Sanders element appears incidental: this was about an unequal sharing of the load. It's something the incident appears to have resolved.

"Flavor's 50% of Public Enemy - it's not Public Enemy without Flavor," Chuck says. "I could drive a vehicle without Public Enemy perfectly fine and cool. I love gettin' down with Flavor, but he's got to get down. Can't dream about gettin' down, you know?"

The present moment of pandemic-enforced in-person down time has come as something of a relief - "I don't wanna be the guy who gloats about this time," Chuck smiles, "but I was able to get a big body of sleep I couldn't get for 20 fuckin' years" - but, like everyone, he has been forced to reassess.

"It's just about being prepared," he says. "Stay ready, stay active, keep doing things. And as far as life and socio-politically, just really seriously try to get everybody on the page, and not to panic, but just stay steady at the wheel. That's where we at right now."

What does he think is going to happen in that wider socio-political context? If you look across that grid the new LP imagines us doing without, the prospects for America next month range from a Biden landslide at one end of the optimism scale to a civil war at the other.

"People don't want war," he says. "You could talk war, but war is like when Public Enemy talked to people that was comin' out of Kosovo to the gig in Zagreb, when us and Ice-T was playing. Civil war was talkin' to refugees walkin' from Liberia through Cote d'Ivoire to get to Ghana, who walked from craziness with 10-year-olds with machine guns. Civil war was seein' an eight-mile line walk out of Damascus to a lecture I was doing at the University of Beirut and tellin' me they had to pick through rubble for food. So it's easy for people in the UK and the United States to talk civil war, but you don't want that.

"All I will tell you is this much: that voting is simple - it's primitive and simplistic in the United States. You're either this or that, which is kinda crazy. But I break it down even more simpler: it's the side that we're on, versus the side that hates us. And the reason I say 'hate', which is a strong word, is that when they say your lives don't matter, or don't matter as much, they're spreadin' hatred. It's really not a time to pontificate over the semantics or the micro-differences in the detail - it's either that, or this. So that's the mathematics. With Trump in there again it's really what you call impending fascism. Fascism in the 21st century comes to you in a shiny face with a red hat - or maybe a red dress - but it smells the same.

"The biggest difference between today and 1989/1990, 'Fight The Power' and Fear Of A Black Planet? The biggest difference is people," he says. "People have been born, and people have died. That's the biggest change. Somebody said, 'I thought we been through this before,' right? No. There are people up there who weren't even born: they've never been through this before. It's why we wanna eradicate and and destroy and answer to and back the fuck up the systemic ills - racism, sexism, fascism, all those isms that ain't positive. And it's time to repair."

Despite it all, is he optimistic? There's just the fraction of a pause - the timing of the great actor, the great comedian and the most effective political operative - and the makings of a smile.

"Always!" he says. "Got to be. I make music."