Today, Chuck D descends on the UK with old-school hip hop heroes De La Soul and Wu Tang Clan for the Gods Of Rap tour. At 59, the Public Enemy frontman has more than earned that title, via a string of era-defining albums, his unwavering political voice and tracks that are unimpeachable hip hop classics. Kevin EG Perry headed to Chuck’s campaign room in California to find him plotting his European offensive.
From the outside, the house looks perfectly ordinary. A three-bedroom suburban family home built in the mid-60s, it sits up on a hillside in California. On a clear day, like today, you can glimpse the coastline and the ocean beyond. Look again at the house and you might notice that above the garage a string of fairy lights have been pinned up in the shape of the CND logo, the internationally recognised symbol of peace and political activism. That’s the only clue that this is the house where Chuck D lives.
The Public Enemy leader appears before I even get to the front door. He’s dressed all in black except for a dark green military cap with a pair of wraparound shades balanced above the brim. I get the impression he enjoys this relative seclusion. A veteran of a staggering 112 tours of duty, he’s currently preparing to embark on his 113th: the aptly-named ‘Gods of Rap’ tour, where he’ll join Wu-Tang Clan and De La Soul for shows in London, Manchester and Glasgow.
Upstairs, Chuck’s home office is dotted with memorabilia – Public Enemy action figures and souvenir baseball caps – and lined with hundreds of books on music and politics, showcasing his all-encompassing taste. Elvis and Carole King jostle for space alongside Thelonious Monk and a copy of Simon Reynolds’ rock and hip-hop history ‘Bring The Noise’, named after one of Public Enemy’s own hits. Another set of shelves is dedicated to an equally impressive DVD collection. Alongside Prince and Nelson Mandela documentaries, I spot a copy of Wu-Tang Saga.
Chuck has been a fan of his new tourmates since before Wu-Tang even existed, back in the early ‘90s when RZA was still going by the name Prince Rakeem and was signed to Tommy Boy Records. “Naughty By Nature were also with Tommy Boy, and they set a precedent,” remembers Chuck. “You had to come harder than Naughty By Nature around ’92, and I think RZA realised that he had to posse up. Those guys: GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, they were like superheroes, man! My favourite Wu-Tang record, if I had to just pick one, would be ‘Triumph’. It’s tribal, it’s relentless. It’s a song that could go on for 30 minutes. It has no beginning and no end. ‘Triumph’ is a problem, because it can never end.”
Likewise, Chuck has known De La Soul since before they even released their debut record. On an early Def Jam tour – also featuring LL Cool J and Eric B & Rakim – Public Enemy found themselves sharing a bus with Stetsasonic, whose DJ Prince Paul told Chuck about a new group from Long Island he had just started producing. “Understand that off of that bus came three masterminds of albums: ‘It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back’ by Public Enemy the next year, ‘3 Feet High And Rising’ two years later from Prince Paul and also Daddy-O with ‘In Full Gear’, which to me was just as good an album as ‘It Takes A Nation…’,” says Chuck. “We’re hoping to have some guest appearances on this Gods of Rap tour, and Daddy-O might be one of those. It just comes down to whether the paperwork goes through in terms of his visa, you know? You hate that the paperwork gets in the way of performances, but governments really play a factor more than they used to.”
Chuck D speaking out about government interference is, of course, nothing new. Public Enemy are one of the most politically aware bands ever to have existed. Chuck’s own political awareness was first stirred at the age of 10, when his parents sent him to a summer camp on Long Island called ‘The Afro-American Experience’. “My parents were around 28-29 in 1969-70,” he explains. “These issues were in the air. If you weren’t socially responsible then you were a louse. My parents were very outspoken. They encouraged me to be outspoken and they encouraged me to be studied, not just to speak at the top of my lungs. The camp had students, rebels, Nation of Islam, Black Panthers… they were our counsellors! It made us challenge the theory of Colombus when we got back in the fourth grade. It had a profound effect not just on myself but on other people in Public Enemy like Shocklee, Flavor and Griff.”
Chuck took that political awareness and channelled it into Public Enemy’s music and their interviewers. When NME journalists would travel to New York to meet the likes of Beastie Boys and LL Cool J, Chuck saw an opportunity to spread his message – and build the reputation of his band. “I would see our music in the NME charts, so when guys like Dele Fadele and Simon Reynolds came over I befriended them,” says Chuck. “My interviews were about some shit they’d never even fucking imagined. Revolutionary, Black Panthers, London streets, The Clash. They would get all that.”
By the time Public Enemy first came to play in the UK, they were determined to build on the impression they’d already built up through those very interviews. “We went over, and that was what we called the British Invasion,” he says with a laugh. “We went to Army Navy stores and got the whole outfit. We knew that the other Def Jam acts we were playing with would see the UK as being a drop-off for them, because in the States they were revered. We went in there like we were going to take everything else in the world. We did things like we did in the United States, like we’d play the concert and then be in the tube right after the concert with the people. Or we’d rally the people in the streets before the concert. We wanted to spill blood on the stage.”
Chuck’s charm offensive paid off –Public Enemy’s first two records were each named NME Album Of the Year: ‘Yo! Bum Rush The Show’ in 1987 and ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’ in 1988 respectively. The following year, they would release their defining anthem, ‘Fight The Power’, as part of the soundtrack for Spike Lee’s ‘Do The Right Thing’. This year marks the song’s 30th anniversary.
“It was requested that we write a song for a third movie that he was going to do that was meant to be incendiary,” explains Chuck of the song’s genesis. “Spike simply said: ‘I need an anthem, guys!’ There was a black rennaissance of creativity in the ‘80s. You had people like Basquiat in art, Spike Lee as a filmmaker, and you had us in music. There was a burgeoning explosion out of New York coming from a period of unrest in the city.”
The song’s chorus is lifted from The Isley Brother’s 1975 song of the same name, a tune which had made a big impact on Chuck and the other members of Public Enemy. “We were all teenagers when ‘Fight The Power’ by the Isley Brothers came out, and as a teenager you kind of know what’s fucked up. It was the first record we’d heard a curse from [“…all this bullshit going down”]! When Spike said he needed an anthem, that stuck in my mind as far as a title was concerned. To me, that’s how I write songs. A good title can spit a thousand notes and words.”
‘Fight The Power’ is played repeatedly in ‘Do The Right Thing’, which helped solidify the song as an anthem. “I was just so amazed that Spike would put a song in a movie over 20 times. I mean, who does that?” marvels Chuck. “Spike, from me, gets the utmost credit for making that song what it was.”
The track would also be included on Public Enemy’s next record, ‘Fear of a Black Planet’. It was while recording that album at Greene Street studios in Manhattan that Chuck ended up making an unscheduled guest appearance on another track which would become an indie anthem: Sonic Youth’s ‘Kool Thing’.
“We were making ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ while they were making ‘Goo’ in the next studio,” recalls Chuck. “We were using Studio B, they were using Studio A. We were ordering from the same menu, literally. It would be: ‘Hey, what’s up Thurston? Hey Kim! What are y’all ordering? I’m gonna order some of that too!’ All of this was over lunch or dinner. ‘Come in and see what we’re doing!’ It was just a case of same place, same time, same vibe. We knew them, but it’s not like we were putting their music into our mix. We had more respect for the fact they liked the same food. ‘You’re ordering from the same Chinese restaurant? Yeah, I like that too.’”
While Public Enemy’s late ’80s output may have defined their reputation, their biggest streaming hit came much more recently – and thanks to an unlikely source. When ‘Harder Than You Think’ was first released in 2007 on their 20th anniversary album ‘How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul?’ it received little fanfare. Yet five years later when it appeared as the theme tune to Channel 4’s coverage of the 2012 Summer Paralympics suddenly it was everywhere. It’s now been streamed over 40 million times on Spotify, twice the number of times ‘90s comeback ‘He Got Game’ or ‘Fight The Power’ have been listened to.
“It was really weird, but it shows the power of technology and the power of access,” points out Chuck. “It was totally a different generation’s song. Anybody who loved Public Enemy and ‘Bring The Noise’ in ‘87 were probably like: ‘Woah, where did this come from?’ But like Spike Lee playing ‘Fight The Power’ in ‘Do The Right Thing’ 20 times, it was the same thing with Channel 4 choosing it as a theme. It’s a solid record. It was a solid record when myself and Gary G-Wiz made it in 2007. We knew that we probably couldn’t get played on radio stations to make a quote-unquote ‘Jay-Z record’. You know what I’m saying? You envy these guys in a good way. It’s not jealousy, but it’s a different time when Ludacris is getting played on the radio 500 times a day. We got blessings from a different area, and now that’s exactly where people look to place their songs. That’s the world it became, and ‘Harder Than You Think’ was a galvanising force in transitioning to understanding that songs can have a life other than the norm.”
The track also proved that Chuck and Public Enemy could remain relevant to a whole new generation of fans. He’s still a pioneer, which isn’t bad for a 58 year old. “Shit! There’s only me and Ice-T at this level,” he laughs. “Ain’t nobody else in this era. Ice is 61 and I’m gonna be 59. I’ve been hearing that I’m old to be doing this since I was 30. I just told everybody: ‘Unless you die, you’re going to be heading the same way, and you ain’t gonna stop doing what you’re doing.’ Back in the day I’d just tell everybody: ‘This is 21st century blues.’ Blues started out as a young men’s game. Then they got old, and you’d have all those kids in the ‘60s going out looking for Mississippi John Hurt, or John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, Lightning Hopkins, T-Bone Walker. I always had that understanding because when I looked around I realised there weren’t many people my age. I mean, I’m older than Melle Mel!”
Which isn’t to say that his stripped-down, MC-and-DJ sets as Public Enemy Radio on the Gods of Rap tour will see him slowing down. He’s still just as energised about coming to Britain during the “very strange times” of Brexit as he’s ever been. “We’re coming from the cult of Trump, so it seems like this is a continuing daymare and nightmare,” he says. “In the ’80s, Donald Trump was the owner of a football team, the New Jersey Generals. Now he’s in charge of real generals. So you have to go places with your antennas up, and you have to be astute about history so you don’t sound like a talking box. I still have Thatcher in my left ear. You have to know what is happening in a country, what has transpired. One of the abilities that Public Enemy always has is knowing where we’re going before we go there.”
He points out the world map pinned to the wall opposite him, like a general planning another campaign. A general who spreads peaceful anthems rather than war. Whether he’s here in California, in New York or London or anywhere else on the globe, Chuck D is always at home.
“When you’re a musician, you’re not a citizen of any one place,” he says. “You’re an Earthizen. Some people are born in a place, they stay in that place and they die in that place. That’s not a musician’s life. We’re almost similar to pirates. Sonic pirates. It’s not trying to get society to walk the plank, but you want them to recognise the waters, the choppy seas. Music can give them a sort of GPS to who they are. That’s what I’m looking forward to doing on this tour. Wu-Tang, DJ Premier and De La Soul will take care of themselves, and the Public Enemy Radio set is going to be enjoyably powerful. We have a couple of great surprises planned for London, Manchester and Glasgow.”
That means – visas permitting – Public Enemy Radio could be joined by guests drawn from throughout the history of rap. Yet regardless of who else makes it to Britain for these shows the centre of the lyrical storm will always be Chuck, and just like when he first arrived in London he intends to leave blood on the stage. That’s what he does. Thirty years on it comes as no surprise to find Chuck D still on the road, still making music, still fighting the power.
Gods Of Rap is at SSE Arena Wembley (May 10), Manchester Arena (May 11), SSE Hydro Glasgow (May 12) and 3Arena Dublin (May 14).