In 1988, Public Enemy were the greatest rock’n’roll band in the world. Danny Kelly visited Def Jam HQ to hear Chuck D’s plans for global domination…
Public Enemy main man Chuck D has a variety of colourful ways of describing himself. Sat in Def Jam’s downtown office waiting for an audience, I’m nervous. For days now – in the bath, in bed, on the plane over, and here, in my head – I’ve been practising those two little words of greeting: ‘Yo Chuck!’…’Yo Chuck!’ over and over. Like I said, real nervous.
But most of my palpitations have nothing to do with the broadcast persona of Chuck D but rather with the realisation that has dawned on me over the last few months of just what an important hombre he is. For what it’s worth, and for the moment at least, Public Enemy are the greatest damn rock’n’roll band in the world! Now the man at the hub of their steel web of intriguing parts, Chuck D, walks through the door and towards me. One more mental rehearsal – it’s only two words – and my mouth goes into action: “Hello, Chuck, pleased to meet you…”
He is wearing his Los Angeles Raiders cap and jacket; silver and black, like the sides of ‘Nation Of Millions…’ The Raiders are the bad boys of gridiron football, the violent outsiders that the vast majority love to hate: draw your own conclusions. The way Chuck tells it, Public Enemy’s ascension has been anything but haphazard, accidental or lucky, rather the result of talent bolted to scientific planning and attention to detail.
“In the ’60s, my parents were in their 20s so the house was full of it. First jazz, then Motown and all that.” There’s always been music in Chuck D’s life, long before the first explosion of rap turned him into a crusading fanatic. Motown, Atlantic, Stax, all the giant figures from the pantheon of black pop get mentioned. Were these people heroes? “There were idols that I didn’t realise were idols ’til later… The Temptations, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, y’know, most of the people that get followed today except now they call it Rare Groove.” Public Enemy offer a fairly apocalyptic world view on most things. Are they part of the black pop tradition? “Well yeah. Public Enemy is a reflection of the street, of how black people are living, just as all those groups and sounds were about how we were living back then. That’s the problem with most R&B today; it doesn’t reflect…the masses. Back then it did. Especially Motown. Me, I’m a top notch Motown fan. I study Motown: for its relationship to the streets, for song arrangements, for its ability to reach the listener’s inner feelings.”
The success of ‘It Takes A Nation…’ goes beyond the mere quality (massive though it is) of its music and lyrics. An hour long, linked by recurring themes and live inserts, and a distinct leap forward from their previous it is nothing less than a work of art. Its existence quashes forever the last vestiges of the notion that rap acts can never be anything more than interchangeable parts on a hit-making conveyor belt.
Again, the word ‘accident’ is not part of Chuck D’s vocabulary. “I’ll let you in on a secret,” he laughs, after I’ve harangued him for five minutes about the godlike genius of Marvin Gaye. “When I was putting ‘…Nation of Millions…’ together, I wanted it to be the ‘What’s Going On’ of Rap. Not in its content, but in its sense of arrangement and going into places no rap LP had gone before. Now I’m not worried whether people like the individual songs – and I ain’t going to start boasting about them – but I know that no rap album has been made in the places I made this one go. I mean, the live inserts, the beats, the attitude. Forget about the words, I’m talking about the totality, the attitude.
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“The LP is also different because it ain’t as immediate as most rap. Sometimes you can’t make people feel as good as they wanna straight away. There are things on this EP that people aren’t gonna like the first time they hear them, thing that you have to keep going back to, things that’ll take a bit of uncovering… It cannot easily be ignored or moved out of the way. That’s very important for rap; that idea that the music was disposable got me hot, but then again it was true, until we did this album. We had to work against that whole network of prejudice – we had to make sure it stuck like glue.” In succeeding in those missions, Public Enemy – like Gaye, Mayfield, Sly, Davis and very few others before them – dismantled the traditional, ingrained, way that black artists are signed, marketed and listened to.
Chuck is not inclined to make any bones about it. Most of Public Enemy’s success – with the listeners, with the press – is down to a combination of careful hard work and intuition that other groups are too lazy, or stupid, to employ. “It’s a science,” he insists. ‘I mean, rock’n’roll is there to be studied and learned about. Rap has closer links to rock’n’roll than to any other music. What is rock’n’roll? It’s the projection of attitude, not the deliverance of sound. Attitude. Rap acts have that attitude, that character, that rock bands have used to get across to the public. They just haven’t learned to project it.”
Public Enemy’s biggest problems have come from the less easy to control matter of how people respond to their image and stance, rather than their music. The gun-toting ‘Security Of The First World’ comes to mind. “I’ve experienced this before, but in order to keep playing gigs we had to ensure that there was an order of those gigs we played. People need to see the presence of a force of order, and that presence needed to be uniformed, just like the security at a big office building will be uniformed for easy identification. That was crucial in ensuring that people had the space and time in which to enjoy themselves.
“Now that we’re playing places with their own security, ‘Security Of The First World’ are a symbol, a symbol that Public Enemy are at war, and that black people should be at war to regain their enslaved minds. It’s the war to regain awareness; that’s what ‘Countdown To Armageddon’ is about.” But the whole SW1 seems so calculated to provoke. “Of course you’re going to be worried by the sight of black men in uniform. To that extent, it’s deliberate, of course. It makes people feel the same way I, and other people, feel when they see a policeman. Or how all the Vietnamese felt when they saw all those uniformed Americans coming. I want everyone out there to realise that black people feel things too.”
The other part of Public Enemy that its inventor has to keep constantly tampering with is the non-musical output of Flavor Flav and, more recently, Professor Griff, the way that pair behave, the things they say. Chuck isn’t daft enough to pretend he doesn’t know the value of controversy, but he’s aware too that there has to be limits or the group’ll be ostracised. It’s a tough line to walk.
“Well Flavor”, he begins slowly, “will be Flavor. OK, look, Flavor’s gonna make mistakes, but people aren’t going to treat his mistakes in the same way they’d treat one of Griff’s outbursts, where a real threat is perceived. Flavor’s always gonna be Flavor but there’s no real sense of threat. Flavor is only a threat if everyone starts to think like him; then he’s a threat to black people. I’m the mediator in all this. Flavor is what America would like to see in a black man – sad today, but true – whereas Griff is very much what America would not like to see. And there’s no acting here – sometimes I can’t put Flavor and Griff in the same room. I’m in the middle. When Griff says something too much, I come to the rescue of white people; when Flavor does something, I come to the defence of the black public. I do constrain them, but not much, because Public Enemy are the only black group making noises outside of their records. But that controversy has to be harnessed.”
Chuck D is either the most literate, together musician I’ve ever met, or a brilliant actor and bullshitter. Probably plenty of each. He must, I just know, have a game plan for the Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band in the World. “Public Enemy’s programme is the taking of music followers, and those who are willing to listen, to see black life as it’s lived. “It’s a college course in Black Life,” he laughs, “as a matter of fact it’s a whole damn degree you can earn.” Maybe, I suggest helpfully, you could put the exam papers on the inner sleeves of forthcoming record releases. “You’re giving me ideas! Maybe we could give out those little degree certificates with the Public Enemy targets in the wax seal…” “Yeaaaaah Boyee!” I say. Well, in my head anyway…