CHUCK D cannot keep the disdain from his voice. “The media only wants to know about the egos in hip-hop,” says the frontman of iconic rap group Public Enemy. “They ignore artists who are doing their own thing.”
The subject has been on his mind lately. In a few days Public Enemy will be inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. It is a tremendous honour. The group are only the fourth hip-hop act to be so recognised, after the Beastie Boys, Run DMC and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Chuck D is naturally flattered. But he also sees the event as an opportunity to address what he regards as a problem with the contemporary urban music scene: the emphasis on brand names over talent. Reading between the lines, he is evidently not a fan of 50 Cent, Kanye West, Jay-Z or their peers.
“What’s fantastic is that Public Enemy is being honoured as a group,” he says. “It’s about all those elements that come together — the beats, the dancing, the MC-ing. That is an aspect of hip-hop you have seldom heard about in the last 15 years. And it is an outlook and philosophy we take very seriously. Unfortunately you just don’t see it any more.
“In the press, they cover music that doesn’t have anything to do with art. It’s about superficialities. I have a problem with that. The group element is gone. Don’t get me wrong. There is a lot of worthwhile music out there. The problem is that it doesn’t receive the exposure it deserves.”
The artist born Carlton Ridenhour is a surprise. As a performer, Public Enemy’s leader is bombastic and hyper-articulate — one of pop culture’s foremost commentators on American race relations. In conversation, he is soft-spoken and clipped. If you know him only from rap anthems such as ‘Black Steel’, ‘In the Hour of Chaos’ and ‘Fight The Power’, you might be disappointed. You expect a firebrand. You get a thoughtful, softly-spoken middle-aged man.
He is keen, above all, to talk business. On record, he is in a constant state of apoplexy over the economic disenfranchisement of African-Americans. The sentiment defines his career. Through the 1980s, Public Enemy addressed the plight of black Americans better than any politician. Face to face, Chuck D’s concerns are more prosaic. What he mostly wishes to talk about are the group’s multitude of online interests, which they began after parting ways from their record label in 1999. They include a record label, a digital distribution wing, and several radio networks, on which Chuck D moonlights as presenter.
“I don’t want to tell you that major record labels were ripping people off,” he says. “It isn’t that straightforward. What I will say is they were doing a lot of really, really stupid stuff. Things that just didn’t make any sense. We left that system many years ago. We have set up our own digital distribution label and are encouraging other artists to do likewise.”
He could go on in this vein all day. You fear he is about to. He breaks off from the business pitch when asked for his assessment of Barack Obama’s record in office.
“There is a symbolic significance to what he is doing,” says Chuck. “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.”
The son of a Long Island furniture store owner, Chuck D started making mix tapes and rapping in the early ’80s. Public Enemy’s big break came in 1987 with a support slot on the Beastie Boys’ notorious License to Ill tour. That year, Public Enemy released their landmark LP, Yo! Bum Rush The Show. They soon carved out a reputation as hip-hop’s fiercest, smartest polemicists. On albums such as It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Fear of a Black Planet and Apocalypse 91 (The Enemy Fights Back), Chuck D rapped about the issues facing black America. He was angry. He was also smart and lucid and brought his message to the masses in a way his contemporaries could not.
With success has come controversy. At various points, the group have been accused of homophobia and anti-Semitism. And they risked becoming a laughing stock when Chuck D’s sidekick Flavour Flav starred in a cringe-inducing TV reality show. It says something for Public Enemy’s peerless stature that they have come through these crises with their reputation largely unscathed.
The position of African-Americans in society has improved since the group’s early years, says Chuck D. However, that isn’t to say that the struggle is over.
“We’ve had a recession in the United States. And when American 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? We aren’t there yet. You don’t want to fall asleep at the wheel.”
Having left the world of major labels behind, Public Enemy are free to operate at their own pace. Between 2007 and 2012 they didn’t release any new music. At the end of last year they put out two double albums, exclusively available on iTunes prior to their release on CD.
“We started doing this a long time ago,” says Chuck D. “It was unusual back then. Nowadays lots of artists are taking control of things. Journalists, radio stations, media outlets are doing a terrible job of exposing new talent. So it’s up to the musicians to do it for themselves.”
*Public Enemy play Button Factory, Dublin on Sunday.