Photo: Official Public Enemy Site archives
Other than the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy has been one of the only rap acts to span two decades and still remain a vital part of the music industry. What's more amazing is that they've done this as they've constantly went up against the whole apparatus of the industry. Leader Chuck D has never been anything less than outspoken and become not only a spokesman for rap music but for the struggles of African-Americans: his fans wouldn't want him any other way.
interview by Jason Gross (October 2000)
PE's latest battle has been in the online world, making their music available to fans without the tradition marketing strategies, using the MP3 format and letting fans buy their latest release, There's A Poison Goin' On, directly from their website. How will PE fare in this brave new online world, taking bold initiatives that many bands and record labels have yet to manage?
I spoke with Chuck last May (delayed thanks to another magazine's mis-management) to ask him what lied ahead for the band and where the online wars would take him and the rest of us as well. What really amazed and delighted me was how prophetic Chuck's words still were.
PSF: Poison is the first non-soundtrack release from Public Enemy in a number of years. Is there any reason for that?
Chuck D: Yeah, I finally murdered my contract (laughs). I did He Got Game in the studio last year. I did 11 songs for that and it's the same requirement of work. In 1994, when I delivered Muse Sick N' Our Mess Age, I just said... it was time for me to leave. One of the things that made we want to leave was the fact that Def Jam went from Sony to Polygram, they were sold. I thought that that Public Enemy and LL Cool J were integral parts of Def Jam's existance and that we at least deserved 2 1/2 points of the deal. We didn't get it and all that talk of us being family was just bullshit. I said 'fuck that, I'm outta here. Find me a taxi and execute this contract." Our last committment was He Got Game. I did that and then moved on.
PSF: You've called Poison a 'psychedelic' record. What did you mean by that?
Chuck D: Well, in the hip-hop world, 'psychedelic' can mean 'spaced out,' something you really can't put your finger on and say what it is. And that's what we try to do with Poison.
PSF: Do you see that Public Enemy's message has changed at all with Poison?
Chuck D: Every record that Public Enemy has done is different from one another. We're always going to try to be topical so we always pick topics that are going to be different. There's different topics for every album and different sounds on every album. It's inevitable. The larger detail remains the same though- I'm always fighting something.
PSF: Why was Poison released online before it's being released in record stores?
Chuck D: Because we're online first and off-line second. I killed all my contract so everything I do online, on the Web. Why? Because the conventional means has never been really pliable to me and especially in 1999 and 2000, they've out-priced the marketplace. I don't give a damn about fucking radio. I got my own Bring the Noise network on the Web that's only going to get more people with broadband as it comes along. What the fuck do I have to worry about payola to crayola to radio and shit when I got my own fucking thing? We're playing ALL the hip-hop joints. And there's other hip-hop stations on the Web. You play my shit and I'll play their shit- that's the community that we're building now. It's inevitable that it's going to be bigger, with or without (radio). So therefore, as far as doing things off-line, I'm not saying "fuck it" but it's secondary. Am I going to be compliant to the politics that it exists by? No.
PSF: This is a pretty cutting-edge way to do business nowadays. Do you worry that maybe it's a little ahead of its time right now?
Chuck D: I have NOTHING to fear. First of all, everybody else is unavailable for comment. "This unidentified music executive says that Chuck is crazy." They're the ones who are unidentifying themselves- I have nothing to lose. People say "well, what are you looking to sell?" I hold up one finger. They're saying "why is this madman smiling?" I'm just like "Yo, all I got to do is sell one record, man." If I can do something with Real Network and they can give 10 million away, what the fuck do I got to lose?
My whole thing is that I believe in karma because I'm an artist. I got five studios- three in Long Island and two in Atlanta. People say "when are you going into the studio?" I say "What do you mean? When I wake up and fall into it?" They're all Mac based, Q based with Pro Tools. My whole thing is that technology beats technology but hip-hop has always run parallel with technology.
PSF: Do you also see the Internet as being a more direct line to fans?
Chuck D: Of course. What I'm saying is, look at radio and television. You have to wait for people to program you. The only difference is the amount of people that you're going to reach but that's going to even out in the next two or three years anyway. Computers are being bought faster than televisions right now. At the same time, people are saying "where's the hip-hop market?" The hip-hop market comes in all colors and everything. If you just want to talk about Black kids, Black people make up the largest group of buyers of computers as they get closer to being 200 or 300 dollars where you could get everything. So, it's inevitable, change is inevitable. Hip-hop is compliant with technology and runs parallel with it.
People could say what they want. I could be here or not be here but it's inevitable. This is a technology that the record companies couldn't pimp first. The public got to it first so they got to figure out how to adapt to it. The more they attack it, the more it fucking cuts into them. They could give me a call and maybe I'd be willing to sit down and draw up some templates but it's going to be a ROYAL cost to them.
PSF: Rap has taken over rock and country in terms of record sales so it's thriving commercially. Do you think that rap is also thriving artistically?
Chuck D: Overall but the rap that we're exposed to is maybe 15% of what's out there. What the major companies have done in the last few years is find out that they couldn't find any more Whitesnakes. They took a look at their marketing budget and put it behind hip-hop and figured out how to make it pop. The difference is that twelve years ago when I made a record, I could make it for $25,000 and put $30,000 worth of marketing on it and sell 500,000 or 750,000 units of it. Now, it's gonna cost you three or four million dollars just to go through the conventional means of radio or television. Although numbers-wise, it's got the statistics... it's like you scored 40 points but you took a 60 shot. Way back in the day, 40 points was like 20 or 22 for the field.
PSF: Where do you see Public Enemy in the whole rap field today?
Chuck D: Elder statesmen, legends. But not just people who sit on their laurels. Public Enemy is like the Led Zepplin of rap music but kind of more intact because we don't have a John Bonham. (laughs) I can't blame the radio stations for not playing me. But I'm not going to give you the whole rock dinosaur thing- "they're not playing us!" My whole thing is that the Internet is going to such a big threat not just to the record companies, it's such a big threat to the programming of television and radio that the downloading sales is a threat to retails and record companies. It's never going to replace them but it's a threat to the bottom line. The streaming capabilities of the Internet and television programming and video programming under artists' own terms, that's the biggest advantage for hip-hop music because it's still a under-marketed music. That's the advantages that we have and it's a wonderful thing.
Public Enemy has always been defiant in finding a new way and this is the highlight of my career and I've had a lot of highlights.
PSF: Most rap artists fall off after a year or two. Why has Public Enemy survived for so long especially after so many struggles?
Chuck D: We've always found a struggle to fight against. People always want to cheer for the underdog. Public Enemy has done something different with each and every album, which is a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that people admire you for switching up and being different. The curse is that whoever followed you to be trendy and popular with the scene might abandon you because you're not the hip thing. But it all comes full-cycle again and it's all bottom-dollar performance. I think the biggest statement that Public Enemy had made was last year, coming from the last release in 1994 to 1998, headlining Smoking Grooves, which was the pre-eminent hip-hop tour and then doing the first soundtrack exclusively by a rap artist. Making those two statements last year set us up for this one and making more statements in the realm of freedom.
A lot of people said "it seems strange that you're not on Def Jam anymore. How do you feel?" I say that I feel like a Black man in 1866, trying to figure out what the fuck I do with my freedom.
PSF: What do you see as Public Enemy's plans for the next millenium?
Chuck D: Definitely the Bring the Noise networks. Broadband coming into play. The rap station that we're building. Everything I do is Internet first and traditional/conventional second and third. The future of Public Enemy is putting the shovel in the dirt and asking everybody if they want to go our way. The old way is dead, for sure. For an artist to come along and actually spend $600,000 to get radio play when you'll have broadband outlets on the Internet maybe reaching, in the near future, 100,000 people in a clip then spending money for radio is stupid. You'll have the access to get to those same people and the Internet can do that. That's reasons to make a lot of people nervous.
There's nothing romantic about going to a Tower Records and spending $400 on 25 CD's. People would rather go to Red Lobster and take their shit home for $10 for a CD or even free. As artists, we have to take that into consideration and make adaptations for the public. That's what it's all about.
To give my art away as one or two singles, I know that there's an honor system that says "I just want to support the band." No longer will you see major label signing a band and then pours instant success on them and FORCES it down the public's throat. (laughs) What you'll see is like, in the case of a lot of rock and roll bands that I know who tread the circuit for ten years before they got put on, you'll see the same thing in hip-hop as a right of passage. You'll have a fan saying "I dig this group. I'm in New York, they're in Austin, Texas and I've been checking them out. I've seen their growth since they started and I'm going to support them." A supporter never fades away but someone who's popular overnight, there's no long-term effect.
Pop music is run by lawyers and accountant. I'm not saying that there's NO need for them but there's no need for their dominance. Their dominance has to go back to the public somewhat. What's wrong with the public picking up CD's for five dollars? But the major labels have set the standard and they don't want to back off of it 'cause they've had such a boom period to get up off of it. Now… (laughs) the chickens have come home to roost! You could say… the CD has come home to roost.
PSF: You're a very political artist and the issues you bring up are obviously important to you. Do you ever feel that you could put these issues across more forcefully if you were working outside an artistic framework?
Chuck D: I think my messages might not get fully interpreted because of a lack of outlets but it's definitely not diluted. I feel like I'm somebody who sees things clearly and I like to be respected as such. If I see some things that are clear, my style as an artist is trying to get that across to the public where they can at least hear and bop their head a little. I think that a lot of people have gotten away from the technique and it's not their fault either. Everybody's actually afraid to go into a deep topic or go into something that people can pull and draw from because they don't think it's popular or it's not trendy enough for their existence and they're afraid of falling off. But they fail to realize that they might not fall off as individuals but the platform they're on is sinking like the Titantic. You're on deck, you ain't in the water yet but the whole fucking ship is fucking going under!
Then at the end of the day, they come to me like I'm a fucking therapist. They say "Yo Chuck, what's going on? How do you do it?" I've been like a fucking therapist in hip-hop for the last five or ten years. People'll say "Oh yeah, Chuck fell off" but I keep my office doors open and they keep coming back in. "Yo man, I sold 750,000 records and I ain't seen shit!" Meanwhile, when they were selling 750,000 records, they were looking at the 400,000 records I was selling and saying "Yo, I'm selling more than that motherfucker now."
Artists don't sell records, record companies sell records. Sales departments sell records. Artists should have an awareness of all the areas surrounding them. The artist should also understand that it's art first and everything else after that. If they really want to get into the selling of their own records, become their own record company and see how the sales department works. Don't just walk by floor number six like "I don't need to know what the fuck is going on there." Artists need to know the whole fucking game. That's why you see in Black music, you have executives who go to a point, become a dinosaur and then they don't go any further. They come up threw marketing and promotion and they don't really know the other departments. Promotions are maybe a fifth of the major part of what makes the record company tick. People like Donnie Imus are well versed in maybe six or seven different areas. That's the training ground that Black executives haven't been given.
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