Chuck D: Fat cats still trying to control who plays

March 27th, 2008

Katti Gray

February 4, 2008

A day after returning from what's been touted as the largest global conference on the future of music, Chuck D, rap star and rebel, was sharing his take on that meeting, on record-industry greed and on how the digital-music consumer has industry titans in a royal, hand-wringing panic.

"They were hovering around like buzzards, trying to figure out how they can dominate the space," said Chuck D, of Public Enemy fame. He was summing up the behavior of those circling music industry chief executives and their sidemen, their bank accounts in free fall, which is what happens when songs downloaded over the Internet are selling at 99 cents a pop.

By Chuck D's guesstimate, fat-cat attendance at the conference - MidemNet's fifth-annual January gathering in Cannes - had doubled since last year, when the general discussion also was about where music has headed. Last year Chuck D was asking and provoking questions, such as why corporations keep trotting out, say, Paris Hilton and her ilk as actual talents. "That's no standard," said Chuck D, who again was an invited speaker at MidemNet, tapped for his insights and his firebrand tendency for telling the powers that be where to put it.

From his Slam Jamz recording label office, outpost and studio in Roosevelt, the Long Island community that birthed him and his old rap group back in the 1980s, Chuck D has been addressing music-industry issues in a more hands-on way. So far, he has assembled a stable of 50 ensembles and solo artists, mainly age 25 and older. At his insistence, they do not mime the sort of music already in oversupply, dominating bestseller charts and the increasingly tacky awards shows. Of the 50 artists, 36 are in digital-only distribution. For Chuck D was, almost 30 years ago, in the tiny chorus and vanguard forewarning that digitized music would be the next big wave.

Sure enough, anybody with an MP3 player or of-the-moment cell phone can download music at a fractional cost or for free. Technically, the latter is stealing, prosecutable, though some democracy-minded musicians have been bucking that rule by nudging people to take their stuff for free. This is good PR, and fires back at the fat cats. If you're sick of hearing the same sad 17 songs in circulation on local radio, so are these recalcitrant musicians.

The next wave of "music is not about having your CDs pressed and doing it in the 1980s-1990s kind of way. We're not an over-the-counter operation," Chuck D said of Slam Jamz, which he hopes will model for musicians on the fringe how to get smack in the middle of things. "Our barometer for success is based on having to create more at a low cost ... and seeing what comes in as a result of that. Simply wanting to get rich is the wrong road to take."

Wealth should not be an artist's primary motive, he said. "I tell all my artists to keep their day job." He tells them to be steeped in the music, its history, its markets and merchants. It is necessary, for example, for the newcomer to know what the storied Motown, formed by black people determined not to be sidelined, holds in common with Def Jam Records, the New York hip-hop label that launched Chuck D's career as the disestablishment frontman for Public Enemy.

When Jay-Z resigned as Def Jam president and the company's owner, Universal, opted not to replace him, Chuck D issued a statement from Cannes: "It's really disappointing. ... It's sort of expected, and a primary reason why the music business has collapsed. ... It's quite clear that these folks could care less. The same thing that happened to Motown is Def Jam's fate." (Formed in 1959 by trailblazer Berry Gordy, Motown Records brought international acclaim to a menu of black artists but, today, is an arm of white-owned Universal.)

Later, he told me, "The higher-ups at Universal are happy with their standard of Negro." Which was a jab at Jay-Z but also every other black mogul who lets a fat cat who happens to be white have ultimate control. This is an aside, but somehow central to Chuck D's talk about what has gone wrong with music-

making and how the industry finds itself scrambling and scraping to catch up. Consumers, in no slight measure, are forcing these fast-changing times. They are as intent as any fat cat on keeping a dollar in their own pockets and the kind of music they really want to hear pumping in their ears.

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