- 18 Apr 23
10 years ago today, Public Enemy were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Spike Lee and Harry Belafonte, as part of the Class of 2013. It made them the fourth hip-hop act to be inducted into the Rock Hall – following Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys. To mark the occasion, we're revisiting a classic interview with Chuck D...
Originally published in Hot Press in 2013...
Chuck D is not himself today. We’ve spoken on several occasions and each time were struck by how little the man seated opposite lived up to his Public Enemy stage persona of truth-speaking kingpin. He was quietly spoken, taciturn even. Today he’s nothing like that.
He is warm, engaging. When we tell him we’re from Hot Press his eyes actually light up. “Hot Press! Oh yeah man. I’m in Ireland all the time. Hot Press is one of my favourite reads.”
His good humour is a surprise. Really, he ought to be madder than ever. The morning of our conversation Chuck is knee deep in a Twitter spat with one of America’s most influential urban music stations, New York’s Hot 97. He isn’t the only artist to have clashed with Hot 97 – Nicki Minaj and Mary J Blige have famously had their differences with the network also (in 2001 the entourages of Lil Kim and Foxy Brown had a shoot out in the reception area – which arguably puts a Twitter smack-down into perspective)
While most of these tete-a-etes have revolved around on-air ‘disses’, Hot 97 presenters being very much of the ‘cheeky chap’ school of broadcasting, Chuck D’s disagreement is more fundamental. He’s outraged at the continued use of the ‘n’ word on air, by both Black and white DJs, and by Hot 97’s self-designation as an ‘urban’ station. Urban means ‘Black’ says Chuck – and if you mean ‘Black’ you should say ‘Black’.
“It’s a corporate cancer,” he continues, speaking about the genre of ‘urban’ music generally. “Hip-hop comes from a Black environment and if a station claims to be hip-hop, and 95 per cent of the voices represent Black people, why do they call it ‘urban?’ It’s because they don’t have to be accountable to the people they use in their machine.”
The debate about white appropriation of Black music was reignited when Macklemore and Ryan Lewis won this year’s Best Rap Album Grammy at the perceived expense of Kendrick Lamar. There was an outcry – so much so that Macklemore went on the aforementioned Hot 97 the next morning and essentially apologized for placing first. Chuck D believes it’s part of a wider problem.
“If someone is white and they win a rap award… that’s not the issue,” he says. "I am talking about urban radio broadcasting hip hop and using the ‘n’ word. I wouldn’t come to Ireland and use a curse word to describe Irish people. And these stations think they can just go and do that. I got to attack the corporation – I have to take them down.”
He hasn’t seen 12 Years A Slave, the Oscar-garlanded movie chronicling life on an Antebellum plantation. The movie has divided opinion – some excoriating it as a piece of fashionable masochism for guilty liberals who believe that feeling bad about slavery for two hours qualifies as some kind of atonement, others praising director Steve McQueen for his unflinching evocation of the horrors of the ‘Peculiar Institution’. Chuck D doesn’t think much of either argument: these films are made for a particular audience, one people like him don’t belong to.
“I haven’t seen it, haven’t seen [Quentin Tarantino’s] Django [Unchained] either. Those movies are not going to change my view of history. They came after the fact. I don’t need to see them – don’t need to shape my point of view.”
One thing he has been watching is the World Cup. Like many Americans he’s been struck down with the now traditional, once-every-four years bout of soccer fever. Unlike most of his comparators however, he didn’t wrap himself in the red, white and blue. The idea of cheering Uncle Sam fills him with disquiet.
“I saw the US versus Ghana and I rooted for Ghana,” he says. “Just 'cos I’m born in the United States - why should I be defined the rest of my life by the place in which I was born? I wanted Ghana to win because I knew it would bring so much joy to the country – that people would prosper.”
He hasn’t tweeted about soccer – but it is practically the only subject about which he has not vented lately. An angry man with a lot to say, Chuck D was made for Twitter. He was creating headlines just a few hours ago, posting a picture of a letter Tupac Shakur sent to him, proclaiming his love for Public Enemy, shortly before he was shot dead in 1996.
Out of respect for Tupac’s family, you sense Chuck D is holding back a little. It’s clear he has issues with the glut of Tupac material released posthumously, just as he appears uneasy with the decision to recently put out a collection of uncompleted Michael Jackson tracks.
“I don’t have any say so in all that other than telling you I am disturbed by it,” he explains. “Tupac’s mother is involved, Michael Jackson’s mother is involved – well what can I say? That whole hologram thing [a hologram of Tupac “dueting” with Snoop Dogg and Dre Dre at Coachella 2012]…well I see that and all I can say is ‘okaaaay’.
Chuck D was born Carlton Douglas Ridenhour in 1960. His father was a furniture store owner in Long Island, which was where the future polemicist discovered hip hop in the early ‘80s. By 1987, he had established Public Enemy – the group’s first achievement of note was a support slot on the Beastie Boys’ infamous License To Ill tour.
It was also in 1987 that Public Enemy put out their debut album, the combative, cathartic Yo! Bum Rush The Show. Over the years that followed PE released some of their most seminal LPs: It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, Fear Of A Black Planet, Apocalypse 91 (The Enemy Fights Back) – each distinguished by the Bomb Squad’s womping beats and Chuck D’s glitteringly polemical lyrics.
Since the '90s, the journey has not always been smooth however. Chuck D’s lyrics have caused controversy as much as they have inspired, with PE variously accused of homophobia and anti-semitism.
Chuck D was an ardent supporter of Obama and, unlike many, hasn’t become disillusioned about the US' first Black president. The rapper understands the workings of the world: only so much can be achieved, even if you are the most powerful man in America.
“There is symbolic significance to what he is doing,” he told me last year. “To his becoming President. At the same time, he is trying to figure out how to do the job while coming under attack from other politicians and from corporations. There you go: welcome to the western world.”
“We’ve had a recession in the United States. And when America has a recession, Black America has a depression. They are finding it really hard to rebound. In some ways things have gotten drastically worse. In 1970 there were 100,000 Black men in prison in the United States. Now there are more than a million and a half. How can people say things are better? So you can’t say things have worked out fine. We aren’t there yet. You don’t want to fall asleep at the wheel.”
He’s chuffed Public Enemy were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, only the fourth rap ensemble to be so honoured after the Beastie Boys, Run DMC, and Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five.
“It was better than getting a Grammy,” he says. “A Grammy is just recognition for one year. With the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you are winning the respect of your peers. I would also like to think that it’s in recognition of what we have achieved globally. Public Enemy would never be what it is today had we not performed abroad. America is so insular – most of us don’t even have passports. We always rejected that.”
From the start, Ireland was part of the Public Enemy story, he says. “We first went to Dublin in 1988. We played this tiny club - it was very much true to the hip-hop roots. Then we played Trinity later that night. People at the club were saying ‘hey give them hell’. I like Ireland – it’s wedged between the UK culture and the US culture, with a little bit of Canada in there too. Coming to Ireland having been in the UK is really refreshing – we love to get to places like Dublin or Cork. I’ve always admired the way the Irish have told the world ‘hey man, just leave us to get on with our own shit’.”
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- 27 Sep 23