Chuck D by David Thorpe

BOMB 68 Summer 1999
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Chuck D. Photograph for BOMB by Farrel Duncan.

Chuck D and Public Enemy did not arrive quietly. Amidst a maelstrom of sonic bravura, ingenuity and politics, Public Enemy (PE) drove rap into the mainstream in the mid-80s and has ever since determined to keep the newest purely American musical form a province of unity, pride, creative and social expression. The driving force of PE is still about delivering a message— rhythm-spoken words and defiant cultural self-definition. The form and content of the message is ever evolving.

Rap, the hybrid fruit of Jamaican dub poetry, scat, and the appropriation, or sampling of preexisting sounds, songs and vocalizations (the ultimate lo-fi expression and cheaper than assembling a punk rock band) is today big, big business. The influence of hip-hop culture can be seen on the television and in the high street fashion of virtually every country in the world.

A self monikered “rebel without a pause,” it’s little surprise that Chuck D would be the first platinum-selling artist to embrace the possibility of the Internet, and in doing so, fundamentally challenge the traditional music industry. In May, Public Enemy released their new album, There’s a Poison Goin On , as a digital download from, the online pop culture mecca. Chuck D’s still fighting, but the battlefield has moved. Here hip hop—and the music industry at large—bears forth into the next stage of its worldwide populist dissemination.

David Thorpe In the past you’ve said, “Rap is black America’s CNN.” Do you think that still holds true?

Chuck D It’s more like rap music is the worldwide religion of people 25 and under, and we have to watch the King James version. We’re in a misinformation age, as well as being in the so-called information age. It comes at us from all angles now—Internet or television, music, the radio—in the disguise of a mirror of itself. People are quick to listen and relate to images that resemble themselves in appearance, sight, and sound—the theory of the vibe. And we pick upon all of it.

DT What about newspapers?

CD Newspapers even, but they’re a relic from the past. People are more apt to relate to these high-tech forms, which is not always a good thing.

DT You mean it’s a lot easier to disseminate misinformation on the Internet? Shouldn’t there be a check on that—on hate groups, for instance? Or is it better to let everybody say whatever they want?

CD Let everybody say whatever the hell they want to say. Usually the good will just outnumber the ruthlessly evil.

DT But, to quote you again, “What we need is awareness, we can’t get careless” [“Fight the Power”]. You’re making the case for education, for people to be informed. History becomes an important teacher in that respect. Talk needs context.

CD It does, but we’re going into a whole different realm right now. The more people talk, the more people there are to outweigh, outbalance the madness. It becomes a game of mathematics. If propaganda starts a hate group that multiplies from one million into ten million, then that would be a reason to be concerned.

DT Is the current state of education good enough to give us that awareness, to give us what we need to filter the misinformation?

CD Outdated, limited. It has never been as world-prepared as it should be, especially in the last 30 years. There are Americans who can’t tell you where Amsterdam is.

DT Geography and history seem particularly—

CD Terrible! Americans are terrible in international politics. Americans are probably the most clueless specimens on the planet. Americans are robots. That was some of my fear about a lot of people in the UK, that they were going back to being robotic, thinking that little piece of island was the zinc of the world.

DT But we were always told that was true.

CD For a place not much bigger than a corner of the United States, England’s influence is definitely overrated. But Americans have that same problem, being robots for the robot makers.

DT Is it true that you didn’t really want to get into the music business?

CD One of my goals with Public Enemy was to seize the advantages of taking hip-hop around the earth. Nobody wanted to do that before. When I first came into recording, I was already a mid-to-late-20s adult. I knew that it would shift my life, that I would have to do certain things and sacrifice certain things. I had wanted to build rap and hip-hop from behind the scenes; I resisted being in front. It didn’t have to do with not wanting to be in the business—I wanted to be in the business. But at first I wanted to be a graphic designer, or a writer for rap music and hip-hop. But wanting to do these things in 1981 and 1982 was so premature. I had to wait for hip-hop to grow up a little bit so I could fill in the things I wanted to do with it. I had to wait for the rest to grow. It was like being 14 years old with a 25-year old body.

DT PE gave voice to a real sense of militancy in 1986 …

CD We knew we had a window of opportunity. Our thought was to annihilate the hand that feeds you. Because you knew the hand that fed you wasn’t feeding you because they loved you, they were just feeding you—

DT To get more in their belly.

CD Exactly, and it wasn’t a fair 50/50 deal anyway. We split five artists points between us, so we had nothing to lose. That’s still how we think about it.

DT There was something palpable about the nervousness that preceded the release of “By the Time I Get to Arizona.” PE was a very strong, aggressive engine of black pride. Then, things shifted—on one end of the spectrum toward bands like De La Soul, and on the other toward gangsta, which you’ve labeled self-hatred. None of that had anything to do with what PE was doing, which itself got deflated as the popular eye shifted. How come nobody came in and took up PE’s mantle?

CD No one took Public Enemy’s mantle. That area has been untouched.

DT Why do you think that is?

CD A lot of people are afraid to go there, because there are a lot of ramifications. You’re talking about being the antistar. Public Enemy is the antithesis of what the business is about, the anticeleb attitude. Public Enemy is everything that the artist today does not want to be. Every artist wants to be popular. Public Enemy always took the unpopular route.

DT But in the process became enormously popular.

CD And eventually, we got surrounded by too many cowboys. The cowboys are the record label itself, mainly people like Russell Simmons and Lyor Coen—who run Def Jam.

DT The Clash: “You think it’s funny, turning rebellion into money …”

CD They are industry cowboys—just doing it to be popular. “This is what people like”—that type of thing. You can’t be on both sides of the fence. You have to take the unpopular times as well as the popular times. You can’t be on both sides of the fence. Running a record company in the ‘90s is a lot of hypocrisy; they’re bred on hypocrisy. One thing I want people to understand is that Chuck D and Public Enemy are not about taking the popular or the expected move.

DT The record business operates on a traditional model—it responds to public demand. Business sees growth in terms of percentages, while you, PE, must see growth in entirely different terms, your evolution as an artist. But public taste will grow in an entirely different way again.

CD Right. We’ll evolve and we’ll persevere. We’ll have the attitude of “This is what it is, so be it.” We’re not here to satisfy you. Public Enemy is here to accomplish its particular mission, its goal—like it or not. I don’t think that’s a snobby attitude, it’s just one that’s always written into the context of struggle. Artists’ struggle, black folks’ struggle. It could be a struggle for humankind, it could be struggle against the template of your own design.

DT When you’re sampling, essentially making collages of sound, the obvious intention is to make a great song. But by using certain pieces and juxtaposing certain samples, you can also make up a whole other series of layers, making statements, if you want.

CD That’s exactly what I’ve tried to do. Me and my guys put steroids into the sampling process. Often, we were six years ahead of the lawyers. Then the lawyers got into the fucking game and now they have sampling teams. It’s impossible to settle permissions with 120 different publishers for sampling bits. My view is if you take a whole composition, then you should be liable for it. If you take an assembly of sounds and arrange them yourself, you can evade the legality. Lawyers will say differently. They make the rules and they control the laws. That’s why the Internet promises, “Hey, its the wild, wild west, and everybody’s got a gun. You can’t put your jurisdiction over me, because you might get shot.” That’s an EPMD lyric. I release a Public Enemy record over the Internet and when you download it, you’re going to hear classic Bomb Squad shit that you might not be able to get in hard copy.

DT Like the remix album of early PE, Bring the Noise 2000, that Def Jam wouldn’t rerelease?

CD Our motto was to never do the same thing twice. We wanted to revisit certain techniques. But if you do something, and you end up taking one sound out, that means you’re checking it out with a lawyer and the sampling people for approval—Public Enemy totally outgrew Def Jam in that process. If Def Jam was going to be about taking one song and then settling with this company, making it appropriate for their radio station, making it appropriate for their legal departments, then it’s definitely not a place for us to perform. We’re in changing times and the companies have invested a lot in rap and hip-hop. They spend millions on the artist’s behalf. Millions spent on behalf of the artist, because they know when they spend money on behalf of the artist, the money comes right back.

DT You just read a piece for The New Yorker Out Loud, a long lost chapter from The Adventures of Huck Finn that, some say, had been censored from the original publication. Mark Twain was an active defender of the rights of the artist to own their work. In his notebooks, he wrote, “Only one thing is impossible for God: to find any sense in any copyright law on the planet.”

CD That’s true right now, too.

DT You’ve created this central hub of PE activity on the Web. You release your records, you retain the copyright, you have ownership, sole control and responsibility.

CD Sole. The thing about it is—I’m not saying I won’t deal with the majors, but you know that it won’t be a long-term anything. I might say, “Here’s an album. This album goes to Arista records.” One album.

DT It will become a licensing situation.

CD Exactly.

DT You become your own cottage industry through the Net. A number of bands, L7 for instance, are rebelling against the traditional record company.

CD The playing field has been unbalanced between artistry and business—historically and traditionally. If we balance out the whole field, so that the artist actually comes into 50 percent of understanding and financial share of the business, then I think that’s something to shoot for. I think every contract has a blasphemous beginning—that’s a territory line so many artists, a lot of black artists especially, sign blindly. It usually says “Territory, the world, and the universe.” Why sign away universal rights? First of all, they can’t even sell records in Africa, so how the fuck can they have control of the fucking world? If I could get to Venus and nobody else can, why the hell should I give away the rights for Venus? You can’t even get there yourself. The bottom line is to challenge the universe clause in every contract. Lawyers are going to object to what I’m doing, and they’ll say, “Cyberspace is part of the universe!’ I’m asking, Why the fuck is “universe” in there anyway? It’s a Chuck D-versus-the-world mentality. If I’m going to sign with a record company, it’s for the United States, not the fucking world, not the fucking universe—unless you can prove that you can do a better job selling my work than I can. But artists sign blindly, and have been doing so for a long time. The only thing that constitutes any type of deal to sign away the rest of the world is a 50/50 deal—maybe. It’s a great feeling, being able to think first and foremost of the Internet, as far as Public Enemy on my label,, or anything else that I do. It opens up the world, not only to distribute the project itself, but it opens the world to your ideas. I believe the fan base is not just who counts up the dollars and cents at the end of the day. To the major labels and the accountants and the lawyers, that constitutes the fan base.

DT No, that’s a customer base.

CD Right. They could give less than a fuck about your fan base. To me, it’s the total amount of people who know you, know your name and know what you’re about. I have a big fan base. If they knew they could get a record for $2 or $1.99 or for free, they would check it out and keep it. But how many times can you hit somebody on the head and say, “Spend $17.99,” and then tell them to buy 25 albums instead of just two. That’s what the majors are doing, they ruin your fan base with their commerce.

DT Their commerce is in bondage to their economies of scale; the artist is forced to comply with that, especially now with these massive conglomerates. But isn’t your struggle here an age-old one, art versus commerce.

CD The key for the record companies is to just keep making more and more stars, and make the ones who actually challenge our way of life irrelevant. The creation of celebrity has clouded the minds of most people in America, Europe and Asia. It gets people off the fucking path they need to be on as individuals. People say, “I need to be entertained to get me out of this stress-filled zone.” Well, the motherfuckers that are putting the stress in your zone are the same motherfuckers who have created these images of celebrities that get you off that. So you go from one spot you’re trying to get away from into one spot that really isn’t giving you anything.

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Chuck D. Photograph for BOMB by Farrel Duncan.

DT It’s interesting to see how politicians adopt celebrities. It happened a lot in England during the last election: Tony Blair surrounded himself with rock stars who were all—by definition—quite happy to be antiestablishment, support the opposition … At least until he got elected.

CD It makes it more confusing, right? Politicians use rockstars for mouthpieces, but celebrities are being created by these corporations; they’re disposable celebrities. I try to be the antithesis of that. They’re concocting new Mariah Careys every second. You just hope that there is less of that shit in the future. My whole thing is to move toward the melting pot. Fuck it! Five hundred thousand labels, and a million artists—let everybody be in on it! That would be a nightmare for the star-making companies.

DT You have to foster a sense of questioning rather than blindly, blithely, receiving.

CD That’s what I tell young people all the time “Make your own decisions based on what you learn. It’s all right to say you don’t like something, it’s all right to say that you do like something, it’s even all right to change your opinion. Just know what you’re talking about. Know what you like and know what you don’t like, but don’t feel like you’re making a decision based on what you’re fed. That’s bullshit.”

DT Back to education.

CD The difference is that 25 years ago you could teach a kid and that was synonymous with programming. But now with the all the misinformation along with the information, teachers have a harder job, parents have a harder job. Now you must deprogram before you can reprogram. It’s a twofold process of clearing out and then filling in. In the past, you only had to fill in a growing mind. Now minds are fully fueled up with shit—just like on a computer desktop—minds are filled up with shit as early as seven or eight. These high-octane apparatuses television, computers, video games, all this very high-tech stuff, gears the mind much quicker than fishing on the creek, riding a bike, playing a sport or reading a book.

DT There’s a trade off with the Internet. The whole thing is set up so that you have greater access to information. In exchange for that greater access they get greater access to you—to sell you stuff, lots of it. The by-product is that everything becomes disposable; obsolescence is built in simply so that there’ll be enough room. We’ve developed this accelerated state of disposability and we’ve gone from J. G. Ballard’s coinage “the society of the ejector seat,” to Richard Hell’s song, “The Kid With the Replaceable Head”—and that was 20 years ago! Taken to its logical conclusion, doesn’t a sense of disposability, over time, seep from being your fridge and your toaster into not only records and books, but relationships too?

CD Exactly.

DT So, what first turned your attention to the net?

CD On Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age, 1994, an album that was vilified by critics, we made two statements. Number one, we were making a record for 1999 and the sounds and textures fit now. And number two, at the end of that particular album, we were making a statement with a song called Harry Allen’s Interactive Super Highway, Phone Call Message to Chuck D, where Harry Allen, a partner of mine, a publicist and good friend, calls me up and tells me about this new technology that is going to change the distribution of music as we know it—evening out the playing field for the artist. This was in 1994. Here we are, 1999, acting out that reality.

DT What’s really revolutionary about these advances in technology is not just making some very sophisticated means of production accessible, but perhaps more important, the means of distribution. You’ve created a hub for Public Enemy—are you going to extend this? You’ve talked about the Web bringing 50,000 artists and a million new labels—the ability to see tons of lean blitzkrieg entities should make for a very exciting, very creative time.

CD With SLAMJamz up on the net, I’ll be releasing singles every week from various, different artists with the idea that this is a further step toward maybe a recording contract and a higher level. On the immediate level, Internet records and recording are going to be bigger and bigger. That’s where you’ll see the 500,000 labels and a million artists.

DT Would you put rock bands, other forms of music on that?

CD Eventually, after I secure the notion of putting forth what I have to put forth first. I mean, music is music, ain’t it? My whole game is doing what they do in pirate radio stations and going to the Internet with the Bring In Da Noise radio show/station.

DT That will be entirely broadcast on the Internet?

CD Around the earth.

DT Anywhere there is a connection. There’s tremendous apprehension about access like that. In Burma you have to apply for Internet access because—

CD It’s full of the ramifications of making people aware.

DT What are you going to put on the Net-radio?

CD We want to move into 24-hour programming—eventually with will be segments of radio shows—our radio shows, first and foremost. We might do a countdown with a combination of word, wit and music.

DT It will essentially be a music/cultural information site?

CD Initially.

DT What about politics?

CD Of course, politics is speaking to what’s running the shit.

DT Politics is two people talking to each other. You could build up this whole educational/historical back end that would offer a broad overview—or, get very specific. Say you’re listening to Marvin Gaye, you could click through, get a biography, find out what was up and what was going on the year the song came out its context, its influence and its influences—a cultural time line.

CD Right, thanks a lot for the ideas … It is something that should be used in the school systems. The way young people pick up information has to be implemented into the school systems. Kids are picking up more education before and after school than they are picking up in school because of these processes. That’s something that should be taken with a grain of salt. If they’re getting all their information from two hours of videos instead of the eight hours of conventional teaching that’s been going on for 70 or 80 years, then we have to figure out how you prepare the 21st-century young mind.

DT On one hand you can’t have censorship, but on the other—

CD Exactly! If you can’t regulate, then you have to navigate the information that goes to young people. Everybody thinks “Hey, it isn’t my kid.” I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. All these children out here are our children. With my kids, I try to do the best I can, to navigate the information going to their heads, what they’re picking up. I try to explain, talk to them, try to be witty enough to be engaging and get inside their heads to influence how they see things. Also, as an adult, in the marketplace, we have to figure out sophisticated methods to communicate the same thing in much shorter spans of time.

DT So your site will ultimately be a cultural, informational hive of activity—thoughts, music … With all this, what do you become? An entrepreneur, a poet, a revolutionary, an educator or a musician?

CD All of the above. I may be a fool, but my whole thing is to try and eliminate as many middlemen as possible. If it’s a record company, it’s the middleman who garners 80 percent. Radio stations are going to say, “We’ll play your shit, but you got to pay us first.” Then retail outlets say, “We’ll put your shit in the racks, but you got to pay us first.”

DT And your Web strategy allows you to eliminate all these people?

CD That’s right. All these middlemen drive the price up. So the fan base has to spend more, more often. I’m not dismissing the game, but the game has turned into something else.

DT But as a businessman aren’t you going to have to consider these things now?

CD How I can have companies out there that will offer the best cut-rate price for the consumer has always been my goal—not to rip the public off. It’s like Henry Ford with the Model T: make it affordable. Why isn’t it like that? I don’t think the problem is the consumer spending money for something—but I think consumers would like the opportunity to get a bargain.

DT Or just good value, and wrapped up in that is the sense that you’re being treated properly, with a modicum of respect, not simply bled.

CD If I could give a million albums away, I know something would come back, some way, somehow. The problem with giving a million albums away in the past was that you had to press them all up.

DT But now you can give them away.

CD It doesn’t cost me.

DT Other than having to make the thing in the first place; but you’ll get that back in some other form.

CD I own five studios. With five studios my records and other artists’ records will no longer have to sit on shelves—that’s the biggest problem. If you have an artist who’s cut something, you sign them to a label and they have to go through seven months of legalities before it can be released. It cuts into the recording process, the heat of the moment. So I’m enjoying this time of seeing the Internet and the things I’m doing put fear in their eyes. They really don’t fully know what they’re afraid of. They do know one thing: my work is going to hack out a big part of their bottom line. This should change and revise the whole way of thinking, of how we get music across.

DT When I was “discovering” music, we were so curious about following the path of music, the more esoteric the better. Obscure was a badge of honor.

CD The process of making the music was to dig into the history of records. DJs found it essential to dig into the ’70s and the Meters collection, finding something in Sam and Davis, Stax, or go into jazz collections. With hip-hop, the DJs and the makers of the music itself were more sophisticated than the fans, or even the writers of the music. A lot of journalists weren’t sophisticated enough to know which sample came from where, so they thought the originality of the music came from the particular rap artist instead of from the original musician. DJs, producers and rap artists just laughed at that. Music existed before the press. When the music press evolved, on top of the music in the United States, it was two to five years behind the DJs. I guess that happened with the Yardbirds and Cream. They got into the records before a lot of the journalists knew that Howlin’ Wolf existed. Later on, everything catches up. There are a few, a select few rap and hip-hop journalists who know where a record comes from, as opposed to thinking it’s the first thing since sliced bread. That’s why there’s a big question mark over who is talking about music. If a journalist is going to pose as objective about what’s going on around them, you’d hope instead that they would be very well-prepared and equipped. If you’re 19 years old, and you start to comment on a work of professionalism but you don’t know the profession thoroughly, who gives a fuck about your ideas?

DT Well, those ideas can be powerful. Public Enemy was about unity and education. Then, the next thing to happen in rap music was this hugely publicized schism. What do you think happened to create the East Coast/West Coast rivalry?

CD I think the voice of rap itself was overtaken by an urban media that found a way to make a living by hyping the violence. By having a lot of unqualified people make judgments on what was happening, a kind of hysteria was created out of the music. Once there was a rap or hip-hop media, people looked at that first and foremost before they looked at the music itself. Rap and hip-hop media—and I mean anything that covered rap and hip-hop—got to the listening ear before the words of the art itself.

DT You have an art form that is essentially communication—

CD But you have people covering the communication, so there was communication on top of the communication.

DT Doesn’t violence come with the breakdown of communication?

CD It could be; but it could be showing the thin line between fantasy and reality—a real thin line that was eroding as the hysteria built up. Everyone is going to come to his own conclusions. And they’ll act upon their conclusions in their own scope. I don’t think that’s a good thing, but that’s how people in the United States operate as robots. They don’t know what’s turning their switches. They don’t know what’s programmed them.

DT During the LA riots, even during Watts, the destruction, the burning of buildings and stores, people were destroying their own neighborhoods. The violence was directed inward. It wasn’t so much a riot as a howl of rage.

CD People didn’t own where they live. So they said, “Attack the oppressor, because he’s right in our face.” People don’t own where they live; they rent. Therefore, they think less of it. That’s why, when you look at the projects, they look like bullshit. The mentality is, “Fuck this place, it ain’t mine.” That can leak into people’s minds, too, where they think the body they’re living in isn’t even theirs. Makes them do shit like drink 40s and smoke: “Fuck it, I don’t own myself!” It’s questionable whether people do own themselves; people don’t even own their own minds … That’s what I was saying in He Got Game. I put a lot of lyrics into that; I really put my foot into it, saying, “It’s going to be a lyrical monster, when people break it down.” I’m not patting myself on the head, but I just said, I’m going to work hard at that one. “Paying mental rent to the corporate president.” There’s that old-folks saying, straight from Berry Gordy’s father himself: “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man how to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” We’re in a society that says, “No; we’re giving you fish.”

DT And we’ll charge you for it.

CD Exactly. We’ll charge you for it, for your lifetime. There’s another saying: “The boss in any successful situation is not a person, it’s logic.” But, we’re in a society that’s like, “I’m the motherfucker, and you listen to me!”

DT You’re saying that we live in an environment where we’re constantly bombarded, assaulted with misinformation, bullied into buying things we neither want nor need—where advertising programs us to dissatisfaction—and the accumulation of this erodes one’s sense of self. In the midst of all this crap there’s got to be some part of you that screams out to preserve a sense of self…

CD I want to be able to control my own sphere, and operate in my own zone. I don’t know if I’m answering your question, but I’d say the same to anybody. I don’t think people’s expectations of me really matter.

DT The central character in He Got Game had, and managed to maintain, despite everyone and everything around him, a tremendous clarity … .

CD He was surrounded by the swirl of doubt—I should say, swirl of uncertainty. A lot of people exist in uncertainty, especially if they’re circling around somebody who is certain. Sometimes you have to look up and say, “This is who I am and I’m depending upon a whole bunch of people who are depending upon my certainty.” You can’t take advantage of that. You have to set some guidelines, take control of some aspects, but push the importance of people controlling their own zones and their own lives. That’s very important, to try to teach independence to each person, to teach them to control their own life. Like I said, people don’t even own their own minds and that’s a terrible thing. That’s probably going to be the biggest crime in the 21st century. Stolen minds. I tell people, “In the next century, you’re going to have people picking electronic cotton and digging digital ditches.” Thinking they’re tech-solvent, they’re going to be on the other side of the wall.

2 Black 2 Strong by Lynn Geller
2 Black 2 Strong.
Harmony Holiday by Farid Matuk
Miles Davis Trumpets

“I don’t want the kind of career where everything is sensible and safe; I’d rather suffer through the anxiety of wondering where I’m going next than suffer the boredom of dancing in the same safe square.”

Vince Staples by Simone White
Vince Staples Bomb 1

“Life has a soundtrack. And certain music is a soundtrack to a certain type of identity or feeling. 50 Cent, the Game, and those kinds of guys—they made us feel like our lives were worth nothing, basically.”

Meshell Ndegeocello by Marc Anthony Thompson
Meshell 01 Body

I might as well tell you straight up: I’m in love with Meshell Ndegeocello. I also should admit that I kind of slept on her exploits until I got to know her a little bit. Now I can’t imagine not knowing her or her music.

Originally published in

BOMB 68, Summer 1999

Featuring interviews with Robert Altman, Ida Applebroog, Chuck D, Alvaro Siza, Joseph Chaikin, Peter Campus, Robert Pinksky, and Maryse Conde. 

Read the issue
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