Chuck D is a busy man. Clash reaches him on his mobile at his home in California “trying to get shit done before my daughter comes home from school.” It sounds like a building site. “Home improvements,” Chuck explains. “Call me back next week and I might even have a landline.”
Call him back next week, and there’s no telling what the self-titled Public Enemy Number One might have done in the meantime. He may be fifty-two, but Chuck Dangerous - real name Carlton Douglas Ridenhour - shows little sign of slowing down. Last year alone, he declared the album format dead and then put out not one, but two albums, ‘The Evil Empire Of Everything’ and ‘Most Of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear On No Stamp’, travelled the length of the States with some of his buddies from back in the day for a Hip Hop Gods tour, and celebrated twenty-five years as Public Enemy with a free concert on Los Angeles’ Skid Row.
When he’s not on tour, Chuck spends the majority of his time on the West Coast with his wife, a professor of African American studies, and his young daughter. That’s about as far as you can get from the Long Island suburb of New York State where Chuck D was born. Does he ever miss the East Coast?
“I’m in Long Island and Atlanta every month,” he says. “Sixty percent in the west, twenty percent in Atlanta and ten percent in New York. I pay taxes in each one of these places. It’s not a sentimental anything, anywhere.”
But Chuck, that’s only ninety percent?
“I’m everywhere! I’m like air.”
He’s not so far off: it’s hard to say what hip-hop would have been without the enduring influence of Public Enemy as one of the groups that defined the genre in its golden age. This year, for their trouble, Public Enemy will be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of fame. They’re only the fourth hip-hop act hanging from the walls of the Ohio museum where inductees are immortalised. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys got in before Public Enemy due to the simple fact that artists are only eligible twenty-five years after the release of their first record. For Public Enemy, that album was ‘Yo! Bum Rush The Show’, released in 1987 by Rick Rubin’s Def Jam Records, on the heels of Def Jam releases ‘Licensed To Ill’ by the Beastie Boys, and LL Cool J’s’ ‘Radio’.
‘Yo! Bum Rush The Show’ didn’t sell nearly as many copies as those two, but right away it was clear something was up. When the group released ‘It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back’ the following year, that something clicked. The Bomb Squad of Chuck D, Eric Sadler and brothers Hank and Keith Shocklee, who made their name as party DJs in Long Island in the Seventies, created a faster record than its predecessor, and packed it with harsh sounds and outlandish samples. Over the top, Chuck D and his old friend and comic foil Flavor Flav wrote lyrics with an unashamedly political focus. Chuck D declared ‘It Takes A Nation…’ his equivalent of Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’, another album that attempted to hold a mirror to the times seventeen years before.
It’s now quarter of a century since ‘It Takes A Nation…’ Chuck says he still puts it on sometimes, “once in a blue”. He still thinks it has something to say to America.
“Twenty-five years is not long in real life,” Chuck says. “It’s a long time as far as micromedia and stuff like that, but it’s a short time in reality.” Even in micromedia, as he puts it, Chuck D’s influence endures. The week before our interview he performs at the Grammys with Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello, LL Cool J, Travis Barker from Blink-182 as part of an ‘A-team’ of hip-hop and rock royalty put together by mash-up DJ Z-Trip to close the ceremony. The day of our interview, an American public radio announcer comes out with one of Chuck’s lines in reference to the political Puerto Rican rapper Tego Calderon; “People say rap music is the CNN of the streets,” the newscaster says. “People have said that for twenty years, or more, actually.”
This is an excerpt from the April 2013 issue of Clash magazine. Find out more about the issue.
Words: Hazel Sheffield
Photography: Peter Anderson