Chuck D: 'We battled the mainstream, we battled our label, we fought every goddamn minute' The Guardian Interview
The G2 interview Dorian Lynskey
During Public Enemy’s ‘war years’, Chuck D was the sensible one who kept the chaotic show on the road. He talks about Black Lives Matter, not getting an invitation to the White House, and why solo rappers like Kanye and Jay Z are losing their minds
Chuck D : ‘I am your old, cranky uncle. I’m cool with that.’ Photograph: Petra Kleis for the Guardian
It’s funny how rappers who were once explosively controversial, denounced by the press, police and politicians, turn into beloved elder statesmen. Gangsta rap pioneers NWA have been almost canonised by the hit movie Straight Outta Compton. “NWA were a bigger movie than they were a group,” Chuck D says admiringly. His group Public Enemy, meanwhile, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame two years ago. “We don’t get Grammies and shit like that,” says Chuck. “It’s an incestuous circle. We’ve always operated outside the circle and attacked the circle, which makes our existence harder sometimes. When we got into the Hall of Fame, we felt we were properly curated.”
We are sitting in Chuck’s room at the Park Hyatt in Hamburg. Supporting the Prodigy in Europe’s arenas buys a better class of hotel, but Public Enemy have managed on a lot less. Chuck calculates they have played almost 4,000 shows in 104 countries and this is their 104th tour. On Harder Than You Think, which became the theme tune to the 2012 Paralympic Games and their biggest UK hit, he called the band “the Rolling Stones of the rap game”. He remembers telling his label Def Jam in 1990: “I don’t wanna be the guy that’s gonna be doing this shit for 30 years.” He sips his coke, looks at a suitcase leaking clothes and raises his eyebrows. “Duh.”
Chuck’s an “old head” now and he doesn’t mind admitting it. On Public Enemy’s new album, Man Plans God Laughs, he raps “I’m 55, double nickel” because he figures it’s a strength, not a weakness. “Someone says: ‘Chuck, you sound like an old man.’ Motherfucker, I am an old man!” He booms out a big, husky chuckle. “‘You sound like my old, cranky uncle.’ Yes, I am your old, cranky uncle. I’m not trying to not be. I’m cool with that.”
Carlton Ridenhour never really sounded young. He was already 26 when he co-founded Public Enemy in Long Island in 1986, and he sounded as if he already knew everything, with a voice like an angry god. Every element of the band, from the logo to the stagewear to the raging sea of samples, was designed to draw maximum attention to their rebooted Black Power message. Hits such as Bring the Noise, Fight the Power and the Noam Chomsky-inspired Don’t Believe the Hype sounded like urgent instructions. No other group, in hip-hop or rock, has ever expressed political ideas with as much intellect and visceral excitement – the NME hailed them as “the greatest rock’n’roll band in the world”. But they were always thorny, never safe, and they made enemies of liberals as well as conservatives: the black critic Stanley Crouch went as far as calling them “afro-fascist race-baiters”.
Chuck calls this 1987-1991 period Public Enemy’s “war years”, and he was the flak-catcher. “You take the most hits, you get the most scar tissue,” he says in his weighty baritone. “That’s cool. I got no regrets on that. We battled the mainstream, we battled our company, we fought every goddamn minute.”
'We battled the mainstream, fought every goddamn minute. I got no regrets on that'
Chuck likes to say that his interviews are better than most artists’ shows. The man can talk for hours. When they were touring together two years ago, LL Cool J and Ice Cube called his voice “the iron lung” because it never tired. “I could yell over a mountain,” Chuck says. “If I wasn’t MCing, maybe I would be a supervisor yelling across a factory. My father has the greatest, biggest voice of all time. I was like: ‘Just beat me, don’t yell at me!’” He laughs and makes a sound like vibrating walls. I knew he had a sense of humour – he played the spoof black radical Malcolm Y in deleted scenes from Anchorman – but I didn’t expect him to be quite so different from the formidably intense figure on the cover of Public Enemy’s 1988 masterpiece It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. I didn’t expect jovial.
Believe the hype … Public Enemy in 1988.
Believe the hype … Public Enemy in 1988. Photograph: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images
Unlike most rappers, Chuck is rarely autobiographical – he says his life is “irrelevant” to the music – but his background explains a lot. He grew up in the middle-class black suburb of Roosevelt, Long Island (“the first test market for white flight”), old enough to remember the 60s. His neighbours included future bandmates Professor Griff, Hank Shocklee and Bill Stephney, as well as Eddie Murphy. “We were surrounded by like-minded people from similar backgrounds. You feel that way too? You experienced that too?” In middle school, he attended a summer programme called the Afro-American Experience, taught by Black Panthers and student radicals. “They would tell you: ‘No, Columbus did not discover America, this is the real deal.’ So when we went back to school, we presented a problem. We just thought it was the truth.”
Public Enemy hit the ground running; no other band was as informed and opinionated. “We knew what people were not doing. That allowed us to be daring.” They realised they’d only have a short window of opportunity, which Chuck now defines as the two years between Rebel Without a Pause in 1987 and Fight the Power in 1989. “We knew hip-hop moved every two, three years. We knew in the 1990s the new thing was coming in.” So their records were crammed with information that Chuck happily unpacked in interview after interview. “What’s going on with Thatcher? Why is Nelson Mandela still in prison? That type of shit. I felt confident. I was in a group. If I was on my own and it was all swirling around my head, I’d have been loony.”
'There's things I said 30 years ago where I think I have must have been out of my mind'
Did he ever feel out of his depth? “Yeah, I was like, man, I’m having to answer shit on Israel and Palestine and y’all ain’t got this shit together. It’s still a chaotic mess in 2015!” Was he ever wrong? “Of course! Man, there’s things I said 30 years ago where I think I must have been out of my goddamn mind. Who doesn’t think that? Ain’t none of us Jesus.” (He has previously apologised for the early song Sophisticated Bitch and remarks “that wasn’t totally favourable for outside of heterosexual relationships for black people”.)
When the crew were going to clubs in the early 80s, Chuck, who didn’t smoke or drink, was the designated driver. In a way, he became Public Enemy’s designated driver: the sensible one who kept the car on the road while his friends on the backseat were acting crazy. Public Enemy was meant to be a lively democracy, with Chuck mediating between the goofy, anarchic Flavor Flav and the stern, ultra-militant “Minister of Information” Professor Griff, but that didn’t pan out. “I eventually had to assume the role of boss because if you decide to slide away from the steering wheel, the car could go off the cliff.”
We both know what he’s talking about. Public Enemy’s biggest crisis blew up when an overworked Chuck assigned some interviews to Griff, who, in 1989, told the Washington Times that Jews were “responsible for the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe”. The situation was toxic for Public Enemy, not least because many of their closest collaborators were Jewish. Chuck tried to defuse the crisis without throwing Griff (who apologised too late) under the bus but his compromise solution ended up pleasing nobody. Collectively branded antisemites, the group briefly broke up and, says Chuck, “probably could have collapsed if I wasn’t the main motherfucker”. In the absence of such intense media scrutiny, he gives his bandmates space. He doesn’t publicly criticise Griff for giving paranoid lectures about the Illuminati, just like he didn’t knock Flav for becoming a clownish reality TV star. Sometimes he seems like a long-suffering sitcom dad. He says touring is “like being trapped in an ice-cream truck”.
Hard though it was playing “paintball” with the media, Chuck thinks it was easier to deal with the press, radio and TV than it is to handle the internet. “I’m swimming in a pool and I can manage in a pond but then you’re thrown into the Black Sea,” he says. “A lot of people aren’t literate on how to swim in the web and not believe the hype. Ha! Sounds like a song.”
In July, Chuck experienced his first Twitterstorm after he criticised attempts to erase Bill Cosby’s legacy. “No way I’m defending Cosby. But this wiping history out with a swoop is akin to Nazi book burning. Context is everything. Phil Spector still plays,” he tweeted.
Was he surprised by the backlash? “It surprised me that I was trending because I didn’t know what trending was. But I’m not into social media being this immediate lynch mob either.” He says Cosby’s alleged offences were “really criminal” and has no affection for the man. “I saw him one time and he was talking to Will Smith most of the time.” But he insists: “It’s not like a hard drive where you can say his life didn’t count. The data removal of somebody’s existence is what I was pissed about. When I was talking about the data removal being a problem, people were coming at him hard because (a), He’s Dr Huxtable, Mr America, and (b), he’s drugging chicks. I understand that.” He admits that it’s a distinction not everyone thinks is worth making. “My wife had a different point of view: ‘You’re wrong for saying that.’ I understood that. She’s an academic star in her league.” (Gaye Theresa Johnson is an associate professor at UCLA.)
'When I look at a guy like Kanye or Jay Z, the guys who are successful individuals, they're batty'
I think Chuck got into trouble because he’s more interested in critiquing patterns of behaviour than individuals. He studies group dynamics: bands, sports teams, industries, political systems. So he thinks the N-word is being “ridden to success” by “lazy” rappers, but won’t name names. He likes conscious, rebellious hip-hop (Kendrick Lamar, Run the Jewels, Kanye West’s Yeezus) but, unlike some old Public Enemy fans, doesn’t expect every rapper to be political. He thinks the music industry is racist but won’t pin it on white MCs such as Macklemore. “KRS-One says we understand that these are the barriers of race but beyond that we are hip-hop. Yeah, you’re white in the United States of America. There’s gonna be people who relate to that and structures that’s gonna be able to cosign it quicker than a black guy who did it before. I’ve always fought to change the system. Individual MCs are a product of systematic conditioning. But Macklemore and Ryan Lewis? I thought it was fantastic.”
His main beef with modern hip-hop is simply that there are too many solo acts and not enough groups. “When I look at a guy like Kanye or Jay Z, the guys who are successful individuals, they’re fucking batty,” he says. “They’re out of their goddamn minds. They got no team. I’m a fan of Kanye’s rebellion. I’m not a fan of one-man teams as much. The thing that inspires me is I’m with my team. One person on stage, after 18 minutes they’d better be juggling lawnmowers or eating fire.”
He’s surprisingly diplomatic. Would he have made a good politician? “Hell, fucking no!” Why not? “Because I’m a culturalist. I’m damn near a fucking hippy. The closest I would be to any office is cultural ambassador.”
Chuck believes that “all these governments are full of shit”, but he supported Obama in 2008 and still does. “I dug him. I dig him. I don’t make any attacks on the president. You see how much he’s aged physically because if you have a good heart and you want to see it make a change then you know you’re going up against the perfect storm every fucking minute.” He grins. “My questions are real practical. One, how the fuck does he get some sleep? Two, how does he keep his old homeboys away?”
The Obamas know Public Enemy’s music – their first date was a showing of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which features Fight the Power 15 times – so did Chuck expect a White House invitation like Jay Z? “Oh no,” he booms. “No! I would have been naive and stupid and self-centred to think: ‘Oh man, the president’s gonna invite me to the White House!’ That’s fucked up. Just listen to that sentence.”
Chuck finds it strange to be older than the president. He has always sought the counsel of his elders. When Public Enemy were starting out, he consulted Black Power veterans such as Huey Newton, Malcolm X’s widow Betty Shabazz and the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan. When the band entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he insisted they were inducted by Harry Belafonte rather than a younger rapper. You could say the modern equivalents to the young Chuck D are Ta-Nehisi Coates or Deray Mckesson of Black Lives Matter, but he hasn’t read Coates and doesn’t want to elbow his way into a new generation’s struggle uninvited.
“You have to pay attention to their energy and concern,” he says. “Black Lives Matter are responding to a gaping need and they’re being vocal about it the best way they can. I didn’t go to Ferguson but don’t be talking about how that shit ain’t good. I salute everyone who went to Ferguson.”
It comes back to acting your age, he says. He feels that there’s a “missing generation” of black activists in their 30s or 40s who can guide and advise young protesters. “They’re invisible to me,” he says. “I think what we’ve seen in the past 20 years has been a loss of how to age gracefully.” Chuck believes in continuity. He sees himself as a link in a chain much longer than hip-hop: Paul Robeson inspired Belafonte, who inspired Bob Dylan and Curtis Mayfield, who inspired Public Enemy. Through his record label, SLAMjamz, and internet radio channel, Rapstation, he mentors young rappers and DJs. “I say to people, how can I help? If I can’t help, this shit is a fucking waste.”
If Chuck were really an “old cranky uncle”, he’d be rubbing old wounds and grouching about how things were better in his day but he describes himself as “a realist and an optimist”, qualities that save musicians and activists alike from a bitter, disappointed middle age. He still talks about white supremacy, inequality and the prison industry but his searing, unapologetic rage seems to have evolved into something warmer and more philosophical. It was always obvious he was smart when it came to politics. It turns out he’s smart about life, too.
After the interview, he removes his black Public Enemy baseball cap to rub his shaved head and we spend another 15 minutes talking about raising daughters. He is about to miss a week of the Prodigy tour so that he can go home to his four-year-old. His older daughters, 22 and 27, are successful professionals. “I wasn’t gonna sacrifice family for the sake of the stage,” he says. He has some long-term parenting advice for me: “You gotta map some of this shit out. Your nine-year-old is going to be 24 in 2030. What will the world be like in 2030?”
Does he think it will be better or worse? He sighs and throws out his hands. “Life is life. Life is a fight, man. In the middle of the smoke, you fight to breathe.”
Man Plans God Laughs is out now. Public Enemy tour the UK with the Prodigy from 24 November