Once he was undisputed heavyweight champion of the rap universe, booming apocalyptic conspiracy theories from some of the most earth-shattering hip-hop albums of the last two decades. These days Chuck D is a rap renaissance man, lecturing and writing books, running a mini-empire of studios and labels, and raising a family in Atlanta. But he’s still making revolutionary statements, challenging music industry convention by releasing the latest Public Enemy album ‘There’s A Poison Goin On’ on the band’s new Internet label, Atomic Pop.
The ‘Net is Chuck‘s current obsession, and he is deeply involved with online radio channels bringthenoise.com and rapstation.com. He also has an explosive new band, Confrontation Camp, and a Puff Daddy collaboration in the pipeline.
Meanwhile, Public Enemy are back at their most formidable form for years, dissing hip-hop’s “jiggy” generation and attracting flak for alleged anti-Semitism. Holding court in a London hotel room, NME wondered whether Chairman Chuck can still talk his way out of a tight corner…
How do you answer charges of anti-Semitism against the track ‘Swindler’s Lust’ on the new album?
“In Schindler’s List, Spielberg was talking about the pain of what he visualised in his people, and I’d just say for me as a black artist in the music industry, the pain I visualised was ‘Swindler’s Lust’. The swindle of the music industry has really been one-sided when it comes to black artists, especially in hip-hop. People have taken it as an attack on Schindler’s List, like it’s me saying Jewish people run the music industry, which I think is stupid and I wouldn’t say it. But I would say that everybody had their piece of taking the soul out of black folks and turning us into jokes, even black people themselves. Anybody can be a swindler. People might say, ‘How could ChuckD play around with Spielberg‘s creation?’ But I’m like, ‘Why the fuck not? He’s not God!'”
Surely people are suspicious because Professor Griff is now back in PE after years of exile for making anti-Jewish comments?
“He wasn’t really exiled, there was a rift between him and other people in the band and something had to give. I understood both sides. I can’t help the way it was presented, I can’t control TV and newspapers. But my version of events is in my book.”
Aren’t you simply stoking up traditional tensions that exist between African Americans and Jewish Americans?
“There’s not really tension. I think that comes out of newspapers and hype coming out of New York, where the communities have overspilled into each other with city problems. Because New York’s the media capital it becomes a bigger issue. The majority of black folk in the United States pay Jewish people no mind, they still can’t find the difference between Jewish people and white people.”
Lay it on the line, Chuck, do you have a problem with Jewish people?
“Not at all, I judge people as individuals. If a person I don’t like happens to be Jewish, I just don’t like that person. Your religion don’t mean shit P if you’re fucked up, you’re fucked up. Do I have problems with black folk as individuals? Yeah, a few of them. But it’s a waste of time to dislike group philosophies other than saying that I’m tired of people being programmed, and that’s what this whole album’s about. Fuck it, I could say I’m Jewish tomorrow P who’s to say I’m not? I really don’t get into classifying people other than saying that, as a black person, I’m classified.”
Do you like what Eminem does?
“Yeah, he’s been doing it for a long time, he’s come through the school of hard knocks. I don’t like to get into the thing of ‘white rapper’ because he’s just a kid who comes up from the ‘hood, and he’s good. I would like to see more rappers and more black entrepreneurs, but I don’t like to separate it into black and white. If you’re gonna say ‘black music’, why not say ‘white companies’? I’d like to see more white music and black companies.”
You slam “jiggy” rappers on the album. Is that a specific attack on Will Smith?
“I’m dissing that aura of saying what you got is the end-all, be-all to the talent line. Will Smith actually came through a hard passage in Philadelphia. Shit, Jazzy Jeff won the world DJ mix championships. We’ve toured together, we know each other, nobody’s down on Will Smith‘s talent. I understand why Will Smith does it because everybody’s talking about how much they got, so he just says, ‘Fuck it, I get $20million a picture P you’re not gonna get any more jiggy than this!’ But some people are trying to be jiggy with nothing.”
As a rapper approaching 40, do you feel the industry is less willing to let hip-hop artists mature and stick around like rockers do?
“Yeah, because the people who control rap music are usually corporations that want to recycle as many faces as possible. The industry is set up to take people for one year, two years, then spit them out. That’s not art. Could you tell Picasso to stop painting pictures? Art Blakey played music till he died! Rap music has been undermined and co-opted to have artists believe their best success is the easiest way out and not the hardest road. But there’s nothing wrong with trying something that doesn’t work. Some of our best music has come out of tremendously unsuccessful ideas that have sparked somebody else to do it better. That’s the beginning of hip-hop! The first time somebody scratched a record, the reaction was probably, ‘What the fuck are you doing?'”
Does the Internet spell doom for the music industry?
“It’s not gonna destroy it, just splinter the market. Downloadable distribution just forces the first two methods, majors and independents, to share the marketplace. It’s a method that helps out the artist and the public, it bites out the middle area of radio, retailer, record labels. Record companies make as much as 400 per cent on their dollars. I think they can afford to make just 100 per cent. Do I think the public can spend half the price they do now? Yes, but the middle has to give. It’s inevitable, with me or without me. Convenience drives people towards technology.”
How will the ‘Net affect music itself?
“You’re gonna have probably a million artists and 500,000 labels in five years. I think it’s good. I’m like: come one, come all to the download ball. People say, ‘But there’s something romantic about going to a record store and looking through all the covers’ and I say, ‘Yeah, because you’re from 1968!’ You still do the same thing on the computer. Overall it’s a good thing for rap music and hip-hop, which is still undernourished as a genre. I can’t tell you what it’s gonna do for Robbie Williams or Shania Twain, but in my genre, 89 per cent of music is under-serviced to the world, and there’s a world appetite for it.”
So it’s still the same capitalist business, just a different structure?
“I dunno. Public Enemy and Atomic Pop is like a partnership, whereas the music business is more like music employment. It’s different from the same old game. Yes, it’s capitalism, but it’s like socialistic reform of the music purchase process.”
Tell us about your new sister project to PE, Confrontation Camp.
“Confrontation Camp comes out of Public Enemy, and it’s really the band elements P noise, metal, funk and three vocals attacks. It’s me, Griff and Kyle Jason and it’s the most exciting thing I’ve been involved with in a while. It goes where Public Enemy would like to go. We cover some tough topics and get deep in the shit. That shit sounds very abrasive.”
What do your kids think of your music?
“My kids don’t listen to my music, heh heh! I don’t make music for kids, and they probably wouldn’t like it anyway. They listen to what’s on the radio, because black people are religious to the radio. I don’t let them listen to stuff with cursing in. You have to navigate your kids, you can’t regulate, because regulation just brings curiosity. But recently I did a record with Puffy and that was a big thing to them.”
Isn’t that an unlikely collaboration, you and Puff Daddy?
“It’s opposite ends of the hip-hop spectrum, because I’m a purveyor of ugly music and unpopularity and uncool. Heh heh! We had to meet halfway P he got ugly. He covered ‘Public Enemy No.1′ and called it ‘PE 2000’ because he feels he’s being hated as a Public Enemy, and as a person who’s been covered probably more than any other rap artist, of course it’s flattering. Whether I was going to get on that record with him is debatable, but then Puffy said he was gonna do a rock version of ‘PE 2000’ and I said, ‘Yeah, why not?’ That’s us meeting halfway. So Puffy got ugly for a minute.”
Your real name is Carlton Ridenhour, so what does the ‘D’ stand for?
“Middle initial. Douglas. Back in the ’70s, if you happened to have anything like an E or B, that’s what you used. I didn’t call myself ChuckR because that had no ring. First I was Chuckie D, but when I got older I just took the ‘ie’ off. But it’s an organic name, I was always called Chuck, it wasn’t a name I made up.”
After nearly 20 years in the game, is ChuckD an embittered veteran or still fighting the power?
“Do I still wake up angry at shit? Every day. And it’s a good thing, it keeps me vibrant. I’ve never taken a bitter approach P people might misconstrue my anger for being bitter but it’s not. I look at the undermining and co-opting of the music by bigger structures that appear invisible to the public and maybe to the artists themselves. I’ve always attacked these processes and I’ve always been respected by all artists in my genre, and that’s a great thing. Maybe sometimes they might just look at me as being the old uncle sitting there going ‘Grrrr’, but there’s a reason for that and I try to make them understand the reason. And they do.”
What are your plans for New Millennium Eve?
“I’m gonna be at home and make sure I’m not international anywhere, especially not in the quote-unquote Third World. I have plans to be at home, and no millennium parties unless it’s in downtown Atlanta. And I’ll make sure my tank is full, because Y2K will probably affect a lot of small systems that work on timers that may have been overlooked. It’s gonna be a rough January for some places.”
You know you spelt ‘millennium’ wrongly on the LP sleeve, don’t you?
“Originally, yeah, but the record label in the States corrected it. I have a pet peeve for misspelled words. But will I lose sleep about it? No, I just say… damn.”
Interview by Stephen Dalton