a long talk

The State of the Union, According to Chuck D

The Public Enemy pioneer is still here for a fight.

Photo: Matt Baron/Shutterstock
Photo: Matt Baron/Shutterstock

Earlier this year, by all outward appearances, the landmark Long Island hip-hop group Public Enemy seemed to cease to exist, as front man Chuck D fired longtime sidekick Flavor Flav in a public spat over a planned performance at a rally for Vermont senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign in March. Flav sent a cease-and-desist order, bristling at the feeling of being forced into a political endorsement; Chuck replied with his own message, announcing that his comrade of 35 years had been ousted. A month later, Chuck’s Enemy Radio, best explained as “the DJ and MC component of Public Enemy,” released the album Loud Is Not Enough, along with news that Flav’s firing had been an April Fools’ Day stunt, which drew criticism that he had gamed the press in order to promote an album. The truth is both a little more complex and much more simple: Chuck and Flav did have different ideas about the future of Public Enemy after nearly 20 years of independent releases; in 1999, the group left Def Jam, where hip-hop classics like 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and 1990’s Fear of a Black Planet were released, after the entertainment company PolyGram acquired a majority stake in the label in the late ’90s. Chuck was cool with continuing down that path, but Flav was ready for a little major-label razzle-dazzle.

Compromise brought the duo back to Def Jam for this month’s What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down?, Public Enemy’s first work with the label since 1998’s soundtrack for He Got Game. Grid is a love letter to hip-hop’s golden era (and the classic Def Jam roster’s role in it), full of withering political analysis, blistering boom-bap and rap-rock productions, and guest appearances from George Clinton, Nas, Ice-T, and members of Run-D.M.C., Beastie Boys, and EPMD. Updated versions of “Public Enemy No. 1” and “Fight the Power” prove the group’s message remains potent decades on, and Chuck and Flav’s alluring Odd Couple chemistry is unaffected by the spring dispute. One thing brothers are gonna do is work it out. I spoke to Chuck D on the phone last week just hours after the verdict in the Breonna Taylor case came down in Louisville, and we had a vital talk about the business of the music industry and the ceaseless work of fighting racism and misconduct in American politics.

You gave us a good scare this year with the Public Enemy “breakup.” Since then, you told everyone it was an April Fools’ joke, and you’ve now released two albums with contributions from Flavor Flav. A lot of people are curious about what really happened there.
Well, No. 1, Public Enemy is Chuck D and Flavor Flav, but it’s gotta work. You can’t all of a sudden be. One of the factors is that [Flav] was exhausted with going the independent route, although he might … not deliver a lot of the work. I said he had a point there, but we’re not just gonna go to any other major [label] situation, because there’s a lot of responsibility and obligation there. So it was at a standstill, and I was happy recording with Prophets of Rage and my label, but he wanted to seriously get into making a record and it had to be the right place if we were gonna make it on a major. It happened to be that Def Jam was the right place. It made the most sense. Def Jam is sort of a settlement between me and him. It’s a visitation to the place that we helped put a beginning to, electric lights to. That’s all Flavor wanted, but he went the Flavor Flav way about trying to convince me to do what I didn’t really want to do.

For people asking what happened, I can kick someone out for two days. Here’s another thing: Flavor can give you 10 percent, but you can’t unhear him. Flavor’s 10 percent is someone else’s 50 percent. On “State of the Union,” produced by DJ Premier, you cannot unhear Flavor. Without Flavor, you don’t have a Public Enemy record like that. He should be acknowledged if he wants to come and do his percentage of the work. That’s all that was. You can’t say you’re doing an album without getting in the studio and doing the album. You gotta do it!

So you’re longtime friends, with a business arrangement that sometimes ebbs and flows?
We are Public Enemy at the top, me and Flavor Flav, so it’s gotta be worked out there. There’s a body of participants that you negotiate with, some you kinda deal with and kinda don’t deal with. It’s my job to hold everyone together best as possible, and it’s Flavor’s job to be a star. Sometimes those philosophies don’t mix. You gotta prepare yourself for Public Enemy. That’s what the album is asking in the title: “What you gonna do when the grid goes down?” You better be prepared for the worst if it happens, or the inevitable if it continues to bend to the point where it breaks in these uncertain times, especially leading to the election, and maybe another 30 to 40 days afterward. This is unprecedented in my day.

Over the summer, you released an updated version of “Fight the Power.” The divisiveness and violence in the current climate remind me a lot of what was going on in New York City when you were making Fear of a Black Planet. Do you feel like we’re better off now than we were 30 years ago?
The biggest difference between 1989 and 2020 is that people have come and people have died. This is one of the reasons you attack systemic racism and all the ills and -isms, the impending fascism. People come and go. A lot of people in the narrative right now were born in the interim, but that doesn’t stop you from attacking the leftover odor that comes from those ills from the past, and culture probably answers to that best.

We just got the grand-jury decision in the Breonna Taylor case, and it really feels like we’re gonna be fighting the same fight forever. As someone who has been committed to these conversations for many years, are you optimistic about the future?
You always gotta be optimistic. You gotta fight for people. You gotta fight for rights. You can be optimistic and know you still have to keep fighting. Sometimes your lungs have to fight for breath. Sperm fights to find the egg in order for conception to take place. Fighting for survival is not something that’s outside the ordinary. You can’t be asleep and expect things to wash up on your shore and all of it be positive. I don’t think life works like that. Should life work like that? That’s taking the God position I don’t know if I can be afforded to take.

When you have people in power standing in the way of progress and protesting is being painted as anti-American, with officials even trying to gin up extra charges for resistance, how do you get past that?
You would hope that that would die off and they would get old and past their moment, but the problem is that they spread their ideology. When you have three people in the beauty pageant of the presidential election of the United States, all of them 75 to 79 years old, they can’t be talking to younger people. There’s a lot that they’re saying that might be derogatory to the structure, but some things maybe should be. One thing young people did with that energy is they said, “Look, we’re even not gonna deal with D.C. We’re going to our own local jurisdictions.” We see something that’s blatantly racist, and we might take that statue down. The crazy thing is when you see a president of the United States look at something like that and toss out 10-year jail sentences.

The fact that this guy, Donald Trump, who’s been philandering a half-assed celebrity joke for the last 45 to 50 years in New York City, the fact that he has that power is a disgrace to the planet Earth. He’s not equipped to govern millions of people or thousands of people. He’s not equipped to govern 100 people. Get the fuck up outta there. He shouldn’t even be there. The fact that he pulled a three-card-monte job on the United States of America isn’t just a reflection on him. It’s a reflection of the comfort zone a lot of Americans feel. They’re telling you your life don’t matter. Black lives don’t matter. Women don’t matter. You can go through a lot of the doctrine of the United States of America and see where it’s been shown and proven that certain people don’t matter. On top of that, you have authority that basically says they don’t care.

I feel like that’s new in the equation. The government used to at least pretend to be decent.
Dr. Martin Luther King wanted to put pressure on them so that they lived up to what they put on paper. Even there, they were fronting. That was 50 years ago. The chips have turned and changed. Now, you have an arrogant authority because they’ve positioned Black Lives Matter as radical, fundamentalistic, and crazy so they can push their agenda for the few at the expense of the many. Black Lives Matter is beyond an organization. It’s a movement, like the National Urban League in the 1930s, or the NAACP, who were up against a society that considered Black lives not to matter. The new hyperbole they’re throwing in, that Black Lives Matter is an antifa terrorist movement — you’re not gonna say we don’t matter. Some ears are gonna be shut down to our logic, wisdom, understanding, and delivery.

Always. In the new song “Toxic,” you ask, “Can a song save the world?” I’m curious what your answer to the question is.
Songs can change the world and insert soul and meaning. Rap songs epitomize that because they have the notes, the words, and the volume of words. Something that brought Public Enemy and Def Jam back together is a question: At what point do we become mature as a society? And this has nothing to do with making records or anything. The other was: At what point do we consider cultural importance to be as valuable as popularity? Everything Bob Dylan ever recorded for Sony in the Columbia vault is guarded to a point where if you went into Sony Music to try to fuck around with a Bob Dylan tape, they’d probably take your head off before they could turn you over to the police. You’re messing with their foundation of value, and Bob Dylan is not racing up and down any chart. That was the conversation with Def Jam. They consider Public Enemy and LL Cool J important. It’s part of the foundation. Importance and popularity are all in the same stew, but there has to be a balance.

That’s a problem we have with our legacy hip-hop acts. There’s not enough of a foundation here. There’s not enough classic hip-hop radio stations. There’s not enough of a tour circuit here. You have to go overseas to get a certain reception.
Only an American would consider overseas foreign. [Laughs] It’s a whole world, Craig. Public Enemy’s base has never been the United States. When you hear It Takes a Nation of Millions, what’s the first thing you hear? You hear London. It’s always been our base. We did what Hendrix did. We got big over there, and we came into the United States big in ’88. Remember the show Yo! MTV Raps? Yo! MTV Raps was a show [that first debuted] in London [on MTV Europe]. Why do you think they called it Yo! MTV Raps? They were influenced by the pioneering sound in the middle of the ’80s of [our 1987 debut] Yo! Bum Rush the Show. It was a British show, and the first host was Fab Five Freddy’s homegirl from France, Sophie Bramly. We did the first Yo! MTV Raps show and pilot over in the U.K. They test-ran it in Europe, and the next year it became a thing in the United States. Those two instances show that our base was somewhere else in the world. You have artists out there who have made a living their entire hip-hop lives who quietly did well up until the COVID pandemic. You ask Masta Ace where his base is — and he’s been part of Juice Crew his entire life — but Masta Ace’s base is up in Europe and Asia. A lot of the time, people in the States sometimes wear USA blinders. Someone will say, “Man, this world is fucked up,” and I’ll be like, “Let me look at your passport and see where you’ve been in the world.”

You left Def Jam in 1998 and then released There’s a Poison Going On the next year with a paid download option; you were one of the first major acts to do that. It was you, Prince, David Bowie, and Tom Petty who were talking up the possibilities of the internet as a distribution tool for artists. Was it annoying watching the music industry fall behind the internet in those years?
No, because when I was in the major system trying to find ways to promote under a million dollars, it became impossible in that system. I knew that system was bound to fail and fall. You would go in and have this budget to make this video and then give the video away for free while you try to sell the song. You’re giving away the audio and visual at top recorded quality, and you’re talking about selling the record trailing the video, a promotion that you already spent $200-to-$400 thousand on. That became top-heavy. Your best artists would persevere, but many other artists would fall underneath the nut of what they had to owe back to the company for all those deep expenditures at the beginning. People couldn’t get their budgets down because there were too many situations on the financial take.

The big system didn’t work, especially for Public Enemy, because at that time we were traveling to 75 countries around the world, but the major [label] situation could only get to maybe 50 percent of those. So I’m like, Damn, what happens to the other 50 percent of those countries, and why would you keep the rights? You sign a contract that covers “the world and the universe.” If I get to Jupiter first with my CDs, you got the rights but ain’t been there? What did seem to be liberating was the world of cyberspace, where I could reach a peer group that meets and joins me in the same place. When I was attacking the RIAA and siding with Shawn Fanning from Napster, the music business had gotten to a point where they were doing stupid shit with manufacturing, like CD singles. What the fuck? You can burn anything onto a CD, hundreds of songs. Why were they trying to put a dam on the technology when the genie was already let out of the bottle? We got in first because of the freedoms. We felt it would open up the music, the genre, and us. It was important to reach a peer directly because there wouldn’t be anything set up for you to reach that peer unless you were signed to a major system and one of the top 20 groups in that system. If you were one of the top 100 groups, in the bottom 80 of that 100, you weren’t gonna get any of those distribution perks. I don’t think we were in the top 20 [at Polygram], which threw everything up pricewise. I went independent from 1999 to 2017, as far as Public Enemy was concerned, and that was the point where Flavor was done with it. Flavor was like, “I wanna be big.” I don’t wanna be big, but we have a catalogue at Universal, so why not? It can make sense.

A little over 20 years later, you’re warning people about the dangers of misinformation and social media. Did we create something we can’t control?
That’s usually the case. Things that start out as a tool end up as a toy. I’m sure Henry Ford, when he made the car, couldn’t foresee drag racing or doing figure eights in a parking lot, drunk driving and all that. He made the Model T to get a person from A to B economically in a horseless carriage. That happens with all technologies. You have generations that grow up with technologies that look at them a different way than the pioneering thought. I try to be simple and tell people to use these things as a tool a little bit more than a gadget. Prince said it very clearly: He said we should look to manage our gadgets, or else they’ll master us. That’s where we’re at right now because what comes through on the other side of the transmission is dictation to master you if you don’t watch it.

In a few spots on the new album, you talk about different ways that rap and life in general have changed since the ’80s and ’90s. Do you think mainstream hip-hop is in a good place right now?
I think it’s in a place, but hip-hop’s problem is that it doesn’t have the body of curators that can handle a plethora of artists. I have Rapstation, and I think we do a damn good job. We have an all-women station called SHEradio. We have Hip Hop Gods for those with 15-year careers or longer. We have Planet Earth Planet Rap, which plays international artists and curates them carefully throughout all the languages. We have Rap Inst, which does instrumentals and producers. The business is a top-heavy hustle still. There’s not a body of curators concerned about the 99 percent. One percent floats up to their nostrils, and they can make a living off of it, write about it, and play it on the radio stations they’re sanctioned to. The other 99 percent need TLC, curation, understanding, and knowledge to project it forward with no ulterior motive. Me, I love breaking a song. It’s not because I’m looking at the value stock-point system Rapstation might have, which is none. Mainstream hip-hop is part of the one percent, but the 99 percent knocking at its door is not heard.

Have you been following what Kanye West has been saying about fair record deals and artist unionizing? How do you feel about that?
We said that 20 years ago, but he’s speaking to his people at his particular time. As long as Kanye ain’t talking about governing millions of people, that’s fine. It’s hard enough to govern yourself. You can’t dupe people into thinking you can govern their existence when you can’t manage yourself. That’s just not right. That’s not fair. There’s people who are born for politics and have the energy to do the right thing and to be concerned over people who need care and direction. It’s a tiring job, and I don’t look at any job as being easy. I’ll leave you with this: You want to welcome scholars into any field because scholars have to read the ugly shit, like lawyers. They have to read the shit that motherfuckers don’t want to read. That’s the difference between someone who’s a zealot and someone who’s a scholar. A scholar has to read the wrong shit and the right shit and be able to process the logic that comes out of it. Most people read shit that makes them feel good, and they’re not fucking with the unwanted shit. That’s why you can’t laugh at scholarship.

I respect that — especially now, when we’re in a place where everyone can have their own niche on the internet where they only encounter what comforts them.
If you don’t know the other side as thoroughly as you know the side you dig, you’re a patron and a fan and you can speak to the fanaticism of it, but it doesn’t mean you can speak to the balance of it. That’s the biggest thing: Can you read the shit that you don’t wanna read? Then, there’s comprehension. You’ve read the shit that you don’t want to, and now you have to comprehend and compare it and weigh it against the shit you believe. Too often, people think you can inject intellect through a syringe. It doesn’t work like that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The State of the Union According to Chuck D