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Back to black
20 years after Public Enemy's masterpiece, frontman Chuck D looks back in everlasting anger


1989 was the number. That summer, the national conversation on race had reached a boiling point. Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing threw a garbage can through the country’s safe-distance window, demanding the tension be aired out; Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn teen Yusef Hawkins was beaten and eventually shot by an angry mob of white kids in Bensonhurst, another section of the New York borough; black college students rioted in Virginia Beach over police brutality. Through it all, a group of Long Island misfits – frontman Chuck D, hype man Flavor Flav, rapper Professor Griff and DJ Terminator X – collectively known as Public Enemy, provided the soundtrack. They paid a heavy price for it, too. 

Things weren’t going well for Public Enemy in the aftermath of the group’s ascent. Their high-profile pro-black agenda made them an easy media target. Although they were riding a wave of enormous critical and fan admiration following their fiery 1988 release It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Griff complicated things the next year by criticizing Israel and blaming Jews for “the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe.” Chuck D’s leadership came into question when, under pressure from his record label and their parent conglomerate, he fired Griff and claimed Public Enemy was no more. 

It was time for Chuck D to set the record straight, and in April 1990, a reunited Public Enemy (with Griff back in a diminished role) released Fear of a Black Planet, an hour-long, bona fide masterpiece that transformed the Bomb Squad’s (PE’s production team) notorious wall of funky sound from a series of groove-laden breakbeats into a continuously churning power source. 

PE took on Hawkins’ murder (“First, nothing’s worse than a mother’s pain / of a son slain in Bensonhurst”), the riots in the South (“The Greek weekend speech I speak / From a lesson learned in Virginia Beach”) and Chuck D’s own (self-described) media crucifixion (“So-called chosen frozen / Apology made to whoever pleases / Still they got me like Jesus”).

From “Welcome to the Terrordome” to the Flavor Flav anthem “911 is a Joke,” through the Ice Cube and Big Daddy Kane guest spots on “Burn, Hollywood, Burn” and album closer “Fight the Power” (from the Do the Right Thing soundtrack), Public Enemy balanced danceable rhythms with a powerful message. 

Fear of a Black Planet cemented PE’s reputation just in time; a corporate clampdown on sampling in hip-hop made It Takes a Nation, Black Planet and other incomprehensibly sample-heavy albums (the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, EPMD’s Strictly Business) things of the past. Within a few years, hip-hop was turning to a new class of rappers like Wu-Tang and Tupac Shakur, and Public Enemy’s sales and influence subsided. 

Today, Flavor Flav is a reality-show staple, Terminator X runs an ostrich farm, Professor Griff is a published author and Chuck D, who co-hosted a radio show on the short-lived left-leaning station Air America, is an occasional guest on cable news. Last year, he co-founded the classic-rap multimedia website and started his own label, SLAMjamz, which released his second solo album last month. 

In celebration of the 20th anniversary of Black Planet, Public Enemy has been touring again, performing most of the cuts from both that album and Nation of Millions with a reportedly enormous outpouring of energy, musicality and the old PE anger. Chuck D, as OW discovered in talking with him, has not lost his edge, even if it’s spit through the filter of decades gone by. 

Perhaps with the Griff fiasco in mind, he no longer hedges his bets or bends his opinions. For Chuck D, validation is suspect and anything short of that can be easily explained: To him, Ice Cube hasn’t sold out; he’s some kind of gangsta sleeper agent for the cause. The Library of Congress deeming Fear of a Black Planet worthy of preservation in the National Recording Registry alongside Neil Armstrong’s “One small step for man” remarks from the moon: meaningless. 

In other words, Chuck D is still Chuck D 20 years after his seminal work. We spoke with him about that album, and just what to expect at this week’s Orlando stop. 

Orlando Weekly: So who’s coming with you to town? You got Flavor; were you able to get Terminator X off the ostrich farm? Will we be seeing Professor Griff?

Chuck D: Terminator X retired, that’s not gonna happen. He retired in 1999 and DJ Lord has been our DJ. You’ll see Griff. But Chuck and Flavor, that’s where it’s at. 

How are you recreating that Bomb Squad wall of sound? Live instruments or a click track? 

It’s a combination. It’s a performance. Often, people look into seeing what’s what, but we don’t really reveal how we do it. We just do it. 

In 2004 the Library of Congress basically wrote in stone that Fear of a Black Planet was a masterpiece - one of the few worth preserving for the ages. That had to make you proud.

Well, I was proud of it the minute I released it. Even to this day, they consider rap music as a genre that’s infantile and they’re like, ‘Look at the black monkeys do what they do.’ That type of attitude [is what] I look at. Mainstream media’s coverage of rap music: ‘Oh, it sells a lot of money. Oh, Jay-Z.’ And they know nothing about them. You know, people know nothing about them but they’ve got these buzz words about the music. I’ve always wanted rap music to be as respected as rock & roll. But I’ve also known it had to be mature, you know, in certain circles. And I always thought that people use rap music and hip-hop as this refrigerator, throwing [things] in there and never replenishing it. I’ve always thought different. My thing is like, you know, this is what you can do with this art form that people just thought was for kids. I’m like, ‘No, man, it could be better, but you’ve got to present it right and have an effort and really gotta love what you do.’ And that’s what we do. 

Is it bittersweet for you to look back on that time period of recording Fear of a Black Planet? There was so much pressure on Public Enemy – and you in particular. 

Oh, of course, but I don’t think it had any bearing on the recording. I mean, the studio’s a sanctuary. Recording records and performances are their own particular joys. I think the implosion of personalities at that particular time was a bit of a harrowing experience, but that comes with the territory when you have a whole bunch of people going in one direction, or maybe sometimes lying to each other. I mean, it’s the story of any band or group, the worst and the best of them. But we had no serious casualties. We’re still here and we’re doing it. 

The first third of the album plays almost like one unified track; they share so many of the same samples – “Flash Light,” “Think (About It),” “Atomic Dog” – that you don’t really hear again. Did those tracks come from the same session? Was it intentional to build the album as a few consecutive movements?

The whole thing was to build an album as being one solid statement. I don’t think it was one of those things where we ventured into the area of predictability. We wanted to try and not to repeat ourselves. There are similar styles here and there, but I don’t think they’re so similar where you say it’s the same record. I mean, we’ve had issues – and they were good issues – with It Takes a Nation, which at times sounded like one fast jam session. Fear of a Black Planet was our world record that dealt with the peaks and valleys of emotion.  

”911 Is a Joke” is the one track that Flavor Flav got a writing credit on.

Yeah, and it was a brilliant jump-off for the album. That was probably one of the most relaxing periods of time, because all the way up to “911,” everything was kind of me-heavy. After “Welcome to the Terrordome,” we needed a curveball after that fastball. And something that could take the heat off. Flavor spent about a week writing this record, came back into the studio and did “911 is a Joke,” which became a real good funk-melodic jam that we needed. [It was] danceable, funny, had a humorous tint to it, great video. It was the bringing out of Flavor Flav, and also it was something that seriously addressed the issues. It was perfect. It was a perfect time. I appeared briefly in the video and I remember one time I was sleeping in the house and I woke up and Downtown Julie Brown was on “Club MTV,” and Flavor was doing “911.” I thought, ‘This is great.’  

That’s part of its strangeness, too, that it has such a heavy message and yet it was so danceable. What went into the decision to make it sonically light? 

Keith Shockley and Eric Sadler came up with something that was really, really funky and really right, and that was the one we decided to package and send into space. Fear of a Black Planet was a well thought out record, but not every second was thought out as far as like, ‘It’s gonna be light.’ We thought the funk was there, and if the intent came out light, it’s only because Flavor Flav was taking the forefront. 

I’ve always been pleased to say that Flavor Flav is a one of a kind. Even when he has these reality ‘shows’ on TV, if you put the camera on Flavor, you can’t take the cameras off. Flavor will still destroy anything on television. They’re reality ‘shows,’ but you know, I’m gonna root for my man to destroy all those other reality shows. But they’re not giving him a chance, the MTV networks and all these stupid stations out there. They’re running from Flavor because Flavor will totally disrupt their whole model. You can’t take your eyes off him. But besides that, that’s his side job. His main thing is he’s one of the most accomplished artists and musicians, and he created his own role as hype man. He’s been often imitated, never duplicated. Bottom line. And also, I mean, major props go out to Professor Griff, who’s on the other side of that coin. He’s so deep and committed, it’s hard for America to digest. But the rest of the world digests Griff, ’cause the rest of the world has gotten really acute about politics and all those things, not being afraid to say what you have to say. 

History has shown you to have been dead-on about inequality, the empiricism of American politics, the inevitability of file-sharing ... but can you admit that maybe “Burn Hollywood Burn” missed the mark, so to speak? Even though the movie business certainly trivialized black people in its infancy, that’s dropped away some, even since the ‘90s. 

What, like Hollywood didn’t burn? 

Not so much as embraced performers like Ice Cube.

You know what, I say that’s a whole bunch of crap. There used to be a lot of black faces; let’s look at the world of commercials, right? You can see a black face, or face of color, every two commercials. But the crews and the companies that work behind the scenes are very rarely black, or any other color. So we have blatant frontal racism. You know, if you’ve got 000.1 [percentage of] companies that are black making commercials or producing or directing, some people might say it’s a step forward, but I’m just giving it to you as it is. 

Then again, Cube is a mogul now. 

Yeah, ’cause I think Cube has been a person that, I think, was able to be smart enough, coming from Los Angeles, and he says, ‘You know what? I’m gonna burn Hollywood down by being here and making them deal with me.’ Him and Ice-T, to me, are the guys I tip my hat to. I’m not really in the visual world. I like to put music in movies. 

You’ve done some scoring ...

Done some scoring, yeah. I have a production camp through my SLAMjamz label, and we built some sites like for classic rap listeners, and also SHE Movement, which is for women in hip-hop. So that’s where my attitude is, my area. Film’s not really my area. TV’s not my area, either, ’cause I think it’s just flooded with a lot of crap. It’s a struggle for somebody to do something good and meaningful on there. I mean, what does Kim Kardashian do? People are famous just ’cause of who they are. But what do they do? 

I think “Revolutionary Generation” is the most unsung track that PE ever did. You were spitting the kinds of rhymes then that would be co-opted later by Pac and so many others. Are you able to keep up with it at 50? That and “War on 33 1/3” are so fast and energetic.

Well, it’s not like I have to be Lebron James, as far as the physicality. Although we are highly physical in our performances, so you’ve gotta keep up. You have to keep in shape. You either do the songs or the songs do you, and you can’t show that the songs are doing you. 

Word is that these are monster shows, very long and energetic. 

(Laughs) It’s certainly a shock to people in the United States because they don’t see shit. Something that exhibits that you have to put an effort in. And we have to put an effort into what we do. 

In the United States as opposed to ...

Anywhere else in the world. I think the rest of the world is very acute on what’s hip-hop and what level hip-hop has to be. Anything that comes real easy or real lazy, what you do is embarrass the hip-hop market, because everywhere you go, there’s a hundred groups that want to be able to get some spotlight. Even in this country, if you’re not at your best and you don’t show a standing at shows that you’ve really worked hard to get where you’re at, then you’re a product of a company. 

Is there a scene in the foreign markets that you have your eye on, as far as great hip-hop?

No, the whole entire world. I think the U.S. is lacking and just fell off. Maybe as far as the genre’s concerned, maybe not the entire situation. 

Was “Fight the Power” included as the last track for logistical reasons? It seems like it so belongs in that first batch, while “Final Count” seems like the perfect outro setting up [PE’s follow-up album] Apocalypse 91. I know it was recorded specifically for Do the Right Thing. Was it a last-minute addition to Fear of a Black Planet because of its popularity? 

We knew it was the first or the last [track], because it was the most significant Public Enemy record to this date. So, we knew it was either the end or the beginning. But we didn’t want it to be so much at the beginning and then obscure the back of the album. We made that record, it was our first record in a CD format, where it could go straight through. We try to always make our records - even if it’s tape - we try to make it continuous.

Is there a track on the album you would take out if you had to do it over again? Maybe “Reggae Jax?”

Um, there are a few, but I don’t like to think about that. 

It’s not a Fear of a Black Planet song, but how prophetic was “By the Time I Get to Arizona?” [A track inspired by the state’s early-‘90s reluctance to acknowledge Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a state holiday – an opposition supported by voters, the state’s governor and Senator John McCain at the time.] Was it satisfying to see it come back and bite McCain in the ass during the 2008 Presidential campaign? 

There’s not a long period of time in history between here and 1986. Maybe in the world of pop-culture [or] mainstream society. But as far as history and things that move and things that shake, there’s been a lot of changes, and there have been things that remain the same ... You know, the song about Arizona was how the state refused to acknowledge the Dr. Martin Luther King holiday, and the song was jarring back then because we were considered mainstream pop and penetrated it on our own terms. But on this latest thing with Arizona [Senate Bill] 1070, that requires a song. On my solo record that was just released, I wrote a song called “Tear Down This Wall.” I pointed to the audacity of the United States spending billions of dollars for a wall between Texas and Mexico, Arizona, California, and at the same time, ironically, Ronald Reagan was in Germany in 1988 telling Mr. Gorbachev to ‘tear down that wall.’ What fucking difference does it make? But “Arizona” is a record that stands out again because it’s talking about a state that’s fucked-up again. 

So, I mean, we’re songwriters. We’re music makers. We’re performers. I’m not a celebrity; I’m an artist, and I make that very clear in a time where people confuse the two. Flavor Flav is an artist first and a celebrity second. Paris Hilton is a celebrity; she’s nothing else. Yet she gets more coverage because she’s a celebrity. And for every airhead like that, there’s somebody behind them trying to milk it and feed their face and the company. I’m not a part of that. We get onstage, we get down, we do our thing. If they’re surprised that we can do it at 50, I can’t cover that for them. The only thing I can cover is that when people see us, they’re gonna be like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know, I didn’t know, I didn’t know.’ Or, ‘I knew it, I knew it.’ That’s the collision between us and the damned. 

Are you going to play “By the Time I Get To Arizona” at this stop? 

I couldn’t give that shit away, right? It’s not gonna be like we’re performing Fear of a Black Planet. It’s gonna be a Public Enemy performance, so it’s gonna be everything. You got the time, we got the rhyme.

You mentioned 1986, and I can’t help but think of the Run-DMC mess. [Violence plagued the group’s 1986 “Raising Hell” tour, culminating in a Long Beach, Calif. show in which 40 people were injured. Hip-hop was roasted in the news as an inciting culprit. Chuck D has said this was a turning point for Public Enemy.] As mythology goes, it was a big moment for you. Does that stay with you today, that fire?

Of course, I mean DMC is one of my best guys ever. If DMC releases a song today, they can’t necessarily play it next to Young Jeezy because the people won’t allow it as such. They kind of put artists who are considered old school to the side. As I was inspired by classic-rock radio when it came in the ’70s, they had to separate the Rolling Stones and the Chuck Berrys and the Bo Diddleys from the Bostons and the Framptons and the Meat Loafs of the ’70s, and that became classic-rock radio. How come they can’t do the same for hip-hop? It’s done on a radio standpoint as far as Sirius has Backspin, and that does really well. So we decided we’ll multimedia it out. So I built with DMC. We don’t just rely on things on the Internet just to ride the social networks – Facebook, Twitter. We build them and then we use those apparatuses to promote people back to our base. That’s what I spend my time on. 

This is a celebration of Fear of a Black Planet, and last year with It Takes a Nation of Millions – both sample-heavy. Do you regret suing [Notorious] B.I.G. for sampling your record? [The suit was settled out of court over the use of part of Public Enemy’s track “Shut ’Em Down” on Notorious B.I.G.’s song “Ten Crack Commandments.” At the time, Chuck’s manager claimed it was the song’s content, not the sampling, that riled him.]

I didn’t sue B.I.G. What happened, my songwriters put a claim out, like, ‘Hey, you’re gonna put out this record, and you didn’t pay attention to these other songs.’ I mean, that’s basically where it stems from. Now, where I thought I was kind of being disrespected was I said, ‘OK, look. If you’re gonna actually do this, then call me.’ So it was rolled up in one thing, one bundle. ‘Pay attention to what you’re doing.’ 

I can’t stand drugs, drug-dealers or glorifying that bullshit because of its effect on my family and my community, so I’m that guy. If you’re gonna do something like that, you’re gonna call me. Fuck it, I’m not gonna change my opinion. So, I mean, my thing was nothing against Puffy, nothing against Biggie, nothing against Premier. It was something where I’ve got guys actually working on a song be like, ‘Well, these guys are talking about how much money they’re getting. How about ours?’ My personal beliefs don’t necessarily go to the next person who might have contributed to writing a song going, ‘Where’s my piece?’ The conversation definitely went into some complexities. But my feeling was like, ‘OK, let things go.’ But at the same, what’s he talking about? Then we go to that realm, and it takes on another complexion. At the end of the day, it’s one big company to another big company. It wasn’t like big money was exchanged. I don’t even think Biggie knew about it. 

Do you think Fear of a Black Planet is Public Enemy’s best album? 

Nah, comparing albums is like comparing your children. But if It Takes a Nation of Millions was a fastball, Fear of a Black Planet was a hell of a fucking curve. I was very proud about that.
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