Chuck D is quiet, pensive. Each word occupies a very deliberate space, with the rapper retaining a patient tone, as if to emphasise maximum impact for each phrase.
Of course, he could also be tired. Speaking to Clash in London, the rapper is near the end of a global tour that has seen Public Enemy play to more than 175,000 people. The night before, the hip-hop icons played a special set in a West London studio to just 100 fans, reaching through their influential back catalogue across a three-hour performance.
To Chuck D, though, each concert must be treated separately. “See, you got to detach yourself from the previous night’s show,” he states. “That wasn’t me. I can’t tell myself that I did three hours, my body might feel it. You have to say, ‘Well, today is the first gig of the tour.’”
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Chuck D, ‘Give We The Pride’ (2014)
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“Stage is stage,” he continues. “It takes a lot of confidence. This is not like mail order – this is like performance art. I think the epitome of recording, it should be like: can you actually record and then perform what you recorded? It’s like, everything is born – in our genre – out of the marriage of words and music, and then that marriage of words and music is produced into being a song. Then you have to be able to take this production of a song to a record, but too often it stops there in popular culture. Your performances should be greater than your recordings, no question.”
Probed on this, Chuck D admits the so much of what makes Public Enemy such a fantastic live act – the physical impact of their music, for one – lies outside rational terminology. “It doesn’t necessarily have a tangible explanation of why it is and why it might be better. Not everything in culture and music can be conveyed into the printed word. It is what it is. [The] three areas that I think culture is: sight, sound and story.”
For Public Enemy, that story so often involves London. The city was quick to embrace the rap group, who famously stormed British shores as part of a Def Jam package tour in 1987. “It’s really always been our base here,” he smiles. “And Philadelphia, to a certain extent. But London… I mean, London goes to the world. You talk to most Americans, they don’t acknowledge the world because they’re not taught to.”
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I’m an Earth-izen and a culturist. I am a citizen of no one spot on Earth…
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Seated in Shoreditch’s Ace Hotel, the ever-changing landscape of London rolls past the window as Chuck D talks. Asked about gentrification and the shifting nature of London life, he is keen to compare this to the class system.
“Well, the British Isles are exactly what they are: islands. Not a lot of space there, unlike a continent. So, the politics of arranging and re-arranging is going to happen at a quicker pace than if you have something vast. Although travelling the mainland, the British isle in the UK… there’s a lot of space. But that space has been appropriated, it’s been sold, it’s been owned for hundreds and hundreds of years by noble families or whatever the f*ck. You can’t own the planet Earth.”
“But here was a rule structure which came about,” he continues, “which came from this place, an ownership of mountains and rivers which are billions of years old. Aspects that are born out of the United Kingdom, dealing with continent space... My wife is clear on spatial politics and expansion of destinies and agendas. We have British, North America and down in Australia, the whole original monarchy, manifest destiny point of view takes on a different realm. The power is there, and they expand that philosophy until you have no resistance.”
Able to travel the globe with Public Enemy, Chuck D has witnessed at first hand the shifts caused by a globalised economy. “Every year, you got to keep your score card,” he states. “Every year. That’s why I say I’m an Earth-izen. I’m an Earth-izen and a culturist. I am a citizen of no one spot on Earth. The planet Earth is somewhere I can claim I’m from, I can dig it. I’m a culturist because deep down culture is a thing which unites human beings together and I’m able to speak to that spirituality. Religion is all under that one umbrella – although I never thought that God passed out religions like a poker game!”
He laughs, before adding: “It’s a dangerous mix when you have government, politics and religion all in a snowball of confusion, so I go beyond that.”
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One of the biggest problem areas of the last 10 years for hip-hop is that it’s reduced women’s participation and involvement down to a stereotype…
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Public Enemy were one of the first groups in hip-hop to embrace the internet. At the behest of ‘media assassin’ Harry Allen, the band began using the web both as a means to communicate directly with fans and distribute their music. Chuck D retains a love for the empowering possibilities of digital technology, recently launching the SheMovement.com website to encourage feminine identity within hip-hop.
“It’s a totally ignored area,” he frowns. “I just think, to bring the point of view home, one of the biggest problem areas of the last 10 years for hip-hop is that it’s reduced women’s participation and involvement down to a stereotype. And also it removes groups for individuals. We went from We to Me. My movement agenda idea in 2015 is how do we go from Me to We – and what best epitomises that is the arts and culture and music of groups and women. But women being led by nobody other than their own ideological autonomy – if that’s such a combination of words. I want to service that. I was to service them being them, at the top of their opinion and energy. As Nas said, hip hop is dead without women!”
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Public Enemy, ‘Fight The Power’ (1989)
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“My only goals in rap music and hip-hop is how much service can I provide,” he continues. “When people start asking me whether am I going to be part of the Free Gaza movement and this thing going over with Kurds and this thing going over with the water in Detroit, I’m like, yeah, as a public figure I can lend voice to that. But I want to be part of an energy – I don’t want to be the spokesperson only for that agenda, I want to add something to it. I want to see your effort in it! I learn from the Bob to the Bob to the Bob, and that’s Bob Marley, Bob Dylan and Bobby Womack. That’s where I make my combinations at. Wise man once said, y’know, let them write the laws, I’ll write the songs.”
But Chuck D’s passion, his involvement with liberal, left-of-centre, non-mainstream causes is increasingly at odds with pop culture. The recent crisis in Gaza, for example, was marked by an incredible lack of commitment from the music world – even at a non-partisan level.
Asked why that is, Chuck D is unrelenting: “Because they’re under the financial security nutsack of their managers and agents who want to brand them,” he snaps. “And they don’t want to be branded as the bad person. They don’t mind being the bad person if they’re self-destructive or if they’re destructive to things that can’t really defend themselves – like black legacy. But they don’t want to tick off any financial avenue. Usually that insecurity is based on something which is real – but that reality needs to be examined.”
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Words: Robin Murray
Hoodie photo: Peter Anderson
Chuck D/Public Enemy online. Chuck’s new solo album, ‘The Black In Man’, is out now.