Chuck D on why Fight The Power is ‘still relevant’


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Def Jam

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Public Enemy 2020 (L-R): Flavor Flav, DJ Lord and Chuck D

Chuck D is a voice of the people.

As the frontman of Public Enemy, arguably one of the most important groups of the past 35 years, he played a huge part in pioneering a new wave of rap music that was both musically and politically revolutionary.

His booming, authoritative baritone became a vessel for rhymes about a number of social issues, particularly those affecting the black community, on songs like Rebel Without A Pause, 911 Is A Joke and Fight The Power.

Chuck, who once famously stated that rap was “the black CNN,” has never been afraid to tell it like it is, fearlessly tackling topics such as racial injustice, drug epidemics and political scaremongering.

Last month, Public Enemy announced that they had re-signed to Def Jam Records, the cultural institution they helped build alongside the likes of LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys. It was here that the New York legends, whose current line-up consists of Chuck D, Flavor Flav and DJ Lord, rewrote the rules of what hip-hop could achieve.

The group, who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, put out seven albums on Def Jam, including the game-changing LPs It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and Fear Of A Black Planet. They departed the label in October, 1998.

“I just thought it got real corporate around that time,” Chuck says.

“There were things I wanted to do with our audience around the world but the structures that existed at the time could not get there like us. They did not acknowledge the world like we did, so we had to move on.”

The 60-year-old is referring to Def Jam’s online strategy – or rather, its lack of one.

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Def Jam

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Chuck D: Still fighting the power

An early advocate of the internet and its potential to give artists control of their music, Chuck battled the label for the right to release songs online.

“Technology is levelling the playing field,” he said in 1998. “No longer can executives, accountants and lawyers dictate the flow [of music].”

Things came to a head when Public Enemy began offering free downloads of several unreleased songs in the mp3 format – which was still relatively unknown at the time.

After Def Jam ordered Chuck to take the files down, he signed the group to the web-savvy independent Atomic Pop and launched rapstation.com, a network of online radio stations in 1999.

The same year, Public Enemy released their ninth album There’s A Poison Goin’ On exclusively through the internet; selling downloads alongside CDs on the Atomic Pop website.

While Chuck insists he has “nothing but good memories” of his time on Def Jam, he says the group’s return to the label is just “a visit” and was spearheaded by Flavor Flav, whose “needs sometimes can’t be done independently”.

“Flavor thought it was a good time to do something of note with Def Jam and I agreed… it made sense to go back,” he explains.

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Media captionBBC Newsnight: Kirsty Wark interviews Chuck D

That might come as a surprise to some – given that Chuck announced he’d parted ways with Flavor Flav in March, following a dispute over whether they should appear at a Bernie Sanders rally.

Chuck later said the story was a “hoax” he’d concocted to bring attention to the band, arguing that only negative news stories get traction.

“The [only] news you read about hip-hop is about another dead rapper,” he told the Tim Einenkel podcast. The worldwide coverage of Flav’s firing, he added, “actually proves the fact the gadgets are ruling the game”.

That’s a theme he picks up on the title track to Public Enemy’s new album – What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down? – which envisages a post-apocalyptic world where digital communication has been eradicated.

“Are you prepared?” Chuck asks, before pointing out that there are some who have never lived a life without online access.

“Being that it’s the norm to them, if it’s altered or taken away it will create another myriad of problems,” he explains.

One such problem could be a manipulation of digital technology ahead of the upcoming US presidential election.

“Are you prepared for the tricks that the government might play on the way down to election?” the rapper asks rhetorically.

But despite lyrics that declare “we all caught up in the web” and suggest “folks might have to pick up a book, pick up a pen,” Chuck says he’s not against social media – providing its approached with care.

“Social media is a good thing when you use it as a tool as opposed to a toy,” he told BBC Two’s Newsnight last week. “Technology has made the plea for equality, almost like a digital United Nations.”

‘Fascism is so dangerous right now’

Elsewhere on the new album, Public Enemy include a 2020 remix of their protest anthem Fight The Power, which first appeared in Spike Lee’s 1989 cinematic masterpiece Do The Right Thing.

Featuring Nas, Rapsody, Black Thought, Jahi, YG, and Questlove, the track debuted at this year’s virtual BET Awards, arriving at the height of a reinvigorated Black Lives Matter movement, following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

“Sadly, it’s still relevant,” Chuck says of the song’s message. “The biggest difference between 1989 and 2020 is that people have been born and people have died, and within that period you continuously try to attack systemic racism and all those other ills – but you can’t do it blindly.

“There’s a lot of roadmaps in culture,” he continues. “You can educate yourself by reading about society and the arts, especially in music, film, theatre, or whatever. But if you don’t study these stories or your history then you’ll have no context and you’ll make the same mistakes over and over again.”

“And this is why fascism is so dangerous right now,” Chuck adds. “It’s coming in new ways but with the same old stench.”

The star goes on to discuss how the idea of a pro-black consciousness – celebrating black people and black culture, and living a lifestyle that encourages the economic growth and development of the black community – has been misinterpreted as an anti-white movement.

According to the rapper, this misguided take is the result of the media’s unbalanced representation of black people.

“The media had propagandised the fear and exacerbated the fear,” he says. “The images of us have been lopsided.

“There might be poor white folks that watch a rap video and see someone throwing money at the camera. They’re looking at an image of somebody black instead of knowing somebody black in real life.

“All of a sudden they’ll come to the conclusion that this person is just anti-everything, and they’ll say, ‘I don’t want that, man. [Expletive] these people.’ So this person doesn’t know any black people but will say, [expletive] these people.”

He believes the repetition of these images “become a representative of a certain thing without proof,” adding that the distorted portrayal of black people has built up “animosity and hate” over the years.

And while he had hoped that Barack Obama being in the White House would have “balanced out some of the imagery,” he says some Americans’ dislike of the 44th President was a product of “old school racism”.

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Public Enemy won a lifetime achievement award at the Grammys earlier this year

Those prejudices worked in favour of the current president, Donald Trump, he adds. “They built up into a snowball that he worked into his personal narcissistic favour.”

So does this mean that the Public Enemy frontman thinks Trump will get re-elected for a second term?

“I have no idea,” he says.

“It’s not Donald Trump [we should be worried about], it’s the people that you never see. There’s tonnes of people in places like Nebraska who have their own idea of what they think things are.

“I’m not generalising the entire population, but I’m just saying that there’s America, then there’s the United States Of America, a place the world does not see – and it’s an area that does not care for the world.”

Public Enemy’s new album What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down? is out now on Def Jam Records.

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