I’ve been a Public Enemy fan for a long, long time. My introduction to PE came on September 25th, 1992 in Atlanta at the inaugeral Georgia Dome show. PE was opening for U2 on their infamous “Zoo TV” tour. I didn’t know much about PE other than that they were basically the badasses of rap, but for a crowd largely comprised of preppy white kids, they certainly turned some heads.
Between the armed S1Ws (the guns probably weren’t real, but I like to think they were), Professor Griff’s scandolous chants, Flavor Flav bouncing around the stage in a green jump suit (the trademark clock nearly smacking him in the face), Terminator X in control of the tourntables and, most memorably of all, that booming, occasionally menacing voice of one of the greatest MCs to ever spit on a mic, Chuck D. They commanded attention and, although I knew almost nothing about them before that night, they had gained one life-long fan.
Cut to nearly 16 years later at the AFI Dallas Film Festival – not exactly the place I expected to get my chance to meet Chuck D in person. But when I heard that the new documentary “Public Enemy: Welcome to the Terrordome” was playing the Fest and that Chuck D would be in town for press and a performance [at the Dallas W Hotel’s Ghostbar], I had to see if I could hook it up.
As the show finished up and Chuck posed for pics with the crowd, his handler said Chuck would come to my room. The only problem was, I wasn’t actually staying at the W. Luckily, Mark Bell, Film Threat Editor-in-Chief, had joined us by the point and offered his room as the interview spot.
Mark and I headed back to his room, geeking out more than a little that Chuck was about to come to the room! We waited for a while and no Chuck. After a few minutes, Versatile [local rapper whose new album had come out that day] showed up looking for Chuck. He was a nice guy and we shot the s**t for a bit about sports and how he hooked up with Chuck last year at South by Southwest.
Finally, the man himself entered the room. He looked pretty tired and was wheeling his suitcase to head out of town right after the interview. It was now 2am and I was getting the chance to meet Chuck D in as intimate as setting as one could imagine. It was all completely surreal. These are the days where this really is the coolest job in the world. Was this really happening?
Chuck and I shook hands, sat down next to me on the couch and I started my recorder.
Jeff Otto: My introduction to PE was seeing them open for U2 in Atlanta on the “Zoo TV” tour in ‘92.
That was actually the first event inside the Georgia Dome, so we helped bring it in. I’ve been an Atlanta resident for a long time, so when I tell people, especially my daughter who goes to school right there at Clark, ‘I did the first concert in there.’
It was such a non-PE crowd there in Atlanta but you guys really won them over.
There was never a total Public Enemy crowd because there were a lot of rap fans and we knew, since we were only four years in, that we were borrowing other rap fans anyway. We didn’t start having our own crowds until maybe the middle of the ‘90s.
So why now for a PE movie?
We have a bunch of in-house producers and filmmakers and stuff like that and a wide circle of creators. Last year signified the 20th year of Public Enemy, so when they look at rap music and hip-hop, usually there’s just not a lot of talk about milestones or longevity. It’s always talked about in the present sense. What I try to tell people around us is that there’s a past, present and a future involved in everything that you do.
And rap music and hip-hop should not be exempt of these attributes – they give credit to all the other music that’s out there and genres that are out there. Rap music, as a recording art, is 29 years old. 29 years is a long period of time to draw from, so it can’t be any fluke. But there’s a bunch of details that can be considered following that timeline and that’s where I come in.
There aren’t a lot of guys like you or bands that have stayed together in rap. What is it about Public Enemy that has kept you guys together for so long?
I don’t think there was really a precedent before us as far of having a group of individuals that could be strung together by more than one guy. It was unprecedented as far as a number of people. I know that Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five was a five to six man operation but they [weren’t] threaded by Grandmaster Flash. They were threaded by maybe Melle Mel. Maybe I’m the guy that threads the areas of what Flavor does, what Griff brought to the table, what the S1’s brought to the table and still keeping the embodiment of ‘I’m the rapper and the DJ is the DJ’ and tying everything around that loop.
We were able to build a group differently and maybe that was the key to the longevity of the group because it never slowly hinged on one part. But it did also rely on me always trying to always be there and give my all and then everything else can pop and go as they say.
You refer to PE more than once as the Rolling Stones of rap.
I don’t know if I’m Mick and Flavor’s Keith or vice versa.
I think Flavor’s definitely Keith.
Yeah, you know, it’s the type of thing that you want to draw parallels because rock n’ roll is like a 25-year period before rap. When people make judgement calls on rap music and hip-hop, all you have to do is give them a total musical parallel to put them back in their place. If you’re smart and astute enough in what you do, you’re able to draw parallels in the similar areas of genre. But music is music…
Do you see yourself still getting onstage with Flavor and Griff 20 years from now like that Rolling Stones analogy?
I can’t tell you. Believe me, [the Rolling Stones] spark it up, you know? Let me just handle one year at a time because it’s different. It requires a different type of workout and health regiment with us. I don’t know how they did it.
The documentary covers the on-again, off-again relationship with you and Flavor Flav. There are some moments in the film where things get a little heated between you guys. Did you have any problem with that or was that something you talked about with [the director] Robert [Patton-Spruill]?
I didn’t like the fact that it seemed like I was always yelling at him. (Laughs) That’s not the case. And it’s never really on and off like a switch. If he does something, I call him on it. If he catches me, he’ll call me on it. It’s never a thing where we’re out of touch with each other. I know now he’s doing his TV show so he’s really working real hard to try and nail it. Maybe it’s off when we’re off the road and we’re dealing with our individual aspects and our families, but when we’re on it’s on.
Has he changed over the years as far as becoming more of a businessman?
Yes, Flavor’s come a long way from just four years ago when he was kind of on the edge of not having himself together. When he was in the Bronx, it was not really beneficial for him. So going to California, Hank Shockley said it best [when he said] ‘You can go to California and be the most obnoxious in the room and they’ll pay you for it.’ (Laughs)
Do you watch “Flavor of Love?”
How can you not watch it? S**t is on TV… Fuckin’ like it’s ever-present. (Laughs) I mean the TV Guide channel got “Flavor of Love” on it. I would be stupid not to, if I see it, I stop it there. How could you not stop it there? Flavor’s like a brother to me. It’s not really towards Flavor as much as it’s questioning everybody else in the damn show [and] where their head is at.
You’ve been one of the anti-Lars Ulrich advocate of digital downloading…
I’ve been the first first flag-waver. Did you ever think you would come to a hotel and they’d have [an iPod dock]. (He points to an iPod dock on the nightstand)
People answer their own questions when they talk about ‘Is it going to be around?’ [and] ‘What’s the significance?’ It’s right there.
Recently Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have released their albums right on their web sites and allowed fans to pay whatever price they want. What do you think of that trend and is that something you’d like to do?
We thought of that in 1999. In 2002 on “Revolverlution” we encouraged fans to get it for free if they could, but this is where we’re gonna encourage you to go to.
And how have the record companies responded?
They really didn’t because we had our own record company.
Who do you see as the future of the rap game to carry the PE torch?
[Chuck points to Versatile, a local Dallas rapper who performaned with the band at the Dallas W Hotel’s Ghostbar. Everyone laughs and Versatile smiles]
Versatile: A lot of pressure, a lot of pressure.
Chuck D: It’s very important that an artist projects [his music] on the stage to a live audience. And it’s very important that an artist does an interview of clarity so the journalist doesn’t have a task – ‘Okay, damn, this is a headache for me to interview this person who’s a premadonna [who is] an a*****e already.’
It’s a working relationship and when you have an artist such as Versatile and he understands the relationship with all the things that possibly can make him have a family institution of music and songwriting and honing a craft in the arts – there are a whole bunch of connected ventures, be it revenue of non-revenue.
When a person has an opportunity and he understands all of these areas it’s a good thing to see because the art is something that you choose to be a lifetime partner to your well-being.
What’s next for Public Enemy?
Okay, and right after the sleep. Are you guys going to tour again this year?
We are going to tour later in the year, but this was a planned tour year. Last year it was really a great cap on 60 tours, 60 countries and 20th year. And this year I said, ‘Hey, it’s going to be a collaboration year and I’ve got a lot of collaborations,’ and [then] tour very sparingly.
But this is the 20th anniversary of “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” so we participate in these “Don’t Look Back” concerts, which is the rave in Europe and U.K. where an artist performs their album of note. So we’ve got to have our act ready by the end of May.
Like I said, it’s important for an artist to do their music and be able to perform it and do interviews. [Versatile] presents clarity. Definitely clearer than my a*s is now… (Laughs) I’m like ‘down goes Frazier’ and s**t. (Laughs)
Mark Bell: How do you feel that Public Enemy fits into today? How does it fit into today as far as politics, music, the whole deal?
We’ve got a fly MySpace page. (Laughs)
Our videos are on YouTube and what more can you ask for? Ten years ago you’re begging MTV or BET to play your videos and now it’s like, we shoot them and put them up. It’s about getting eyeballs, so that’s gotta change and we’re on the right side of change as far as that’s concerned. I feel good about the new technology and being able to fit in with everybody else.
Now, how do we fit in as far as our theme and topic with all the things that’s going on? Hey, we’re in a highly charged political year and it’s gonna take more than music to make the masses understand that they’re not ‘them a***s.’ Somebody just moves the ‘M’ over on ‘them ‘a***s’ and makes it stick but the masses are not ‘them a***s’ so we’re here to tell people that.