Public Enemy remains as one of the most important groups in the history of music. They emerged on the burgeoning hip-hop scene in the late 1980s with an irresistible mixture of gregarious vocals, revolutionary lyricism, and soul sonic beats. After nearly 30 years, the group continues to move crowds across the world with their signature socio-political commentary and progressive message.
EBONY recently sat down with PE’s legendary frontman Chuck D to discuss the group’s history, current projects and their Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction.
EBONY: What was the thing or moment that made you decide to become an MC?
Chuck D: Well, I always used to do a lot of hosting and I was on college radio in the early 80s. So I was always a part of something that wanted to break deejays and parties out. And that was with Hank Shocklee and Spectrum [City] back on Long Island. What made me want to become a recording artist; I was the first artist that was repeatedly asked by a label to record with them. That label was Def Jam Records. So I was the first recruited artist ever by them. I originally told them no, but a year later, I eventually said yes. It wasn’t like I sent someone a demo. I was feverishly requested to make records.
EBONY: What is the backstory behind the name for the group Public Enemy?
CD: The original meaning for Public Enemy [is tied to the fact that] the Constitution that once considered Black people three-fifths of a man, so we must have been the ‘enemy’ in that way of speaking. So that’s how we came up with the name Public Enemy.
EBONY: The music industry is driven by singles as opposed to albums in today’s climate. Why did you feel the time was right to release two albums within the same year?
CD: Because we started the first urban based digital aggregation system called Spit Digital. We wanted to show everybody that digital distribution is the way to go. So – we started out by saying we could release two albums [Most of My Heroes STILL Don’t Appear on No Stamp and The Evil Empire of Everything] through our system to show people that they could do the same.
EBONY: What led you to create the Hip Hop Gods Tour?
CD: I was inspired by what artists were able to do with classic rock in the 70s—separating it from the originators and pioneers like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Chuck Berry, Bo Didley…Classic rock, in many ways, became bigger than mainstream rock. I knew that rap music, being a recorded music for over 30 years, had an audience. There are artists that I know who are still performing around the world and making records. They just didn’t have an organized setting. So Hiphopgods.com became the infrastructure and organized setting for them to thrive, be noticed and talked about, and plays their music and videos. We [required artists to have] an eligibility of fifteen years as a professional and that’s where Hip Hop Gods became a website then grew to become an area of music, sound, merchandising, and touring. This year we plan on having four to five Hip Hop Gods tours across the United States and other parts of the world. It’s basically a destination for artists to get rid of the term old school and replacing it with classic.
EBONY: Public Enemy has been able to stay together for close to three decades. How has the group been able to maintain a sense of brotherhood and achieve success for so long when most groups seem to disband?
CD: I think traveling the world has helped to keep Public Enemy alive. We’ve never solely depended on the United States. We’ve visited 86 countries and performed on 85 different tours. We know the ultimate goal and mission. We want to let people know that a Black group can stay together as long as you don’t have anyone getting beside themselves thinking that it’s just about the individual when it’s always been a group effort.
EBONY: At what point do you think Black music lost its socially conscious message and Black artists greater cause of not only uplifting Black people, but all people?
CD: I think it happened when folks started selling out our businesses that dealt with culture to conglomerates and corporations. And people who pioneered areas for our music and culture to be seen and heard started being overlooked. For example, I thought one of the most tragic things to ever happen to Black music that never got spoken on was what happened to Don Cornelius. I just felt like the industry totally turned their backs on him. He made it possible for all Black music to breathe in a certain way. He was overlooked and, in many cases, bypassed by people who felt that they had better control over the culture than he had. Another thing that is real disturbing is the disappearance of many Black artists before the age of 60 such as Michael Jackson, Rick James, Barry White, Donna Summer, Heavy D, and Luther Vandross. It is really disturbing how we’ve lost so many Black artists over the past ten to twelve years. It’s been mindboggling. Someone is always pulling the strings, but no one knows who is pulling the strings and controlling today’s artists. We can do better by identifying who makes somebody bigger by being derogatory to Black people and our legacy of culture. It’s not by no accident, you know what I’m saying.
EBONY: How has your sound evolved from your first album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show to The Evil Empire of Everything?
CD: The whole key is to never repeat yourself twice. That’s the bottom line with us. Never try to make the same record twice even when people are screaming for the same sound. I think the key in Public Enemy is never going back to it. You’re always going to sound like yourself, but you can make really strong attempts to keep some similarities, but move away from what you did before for popularity’s sake.
EBONY: When were you notified that you were going to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and how did it make the group feel after you heard the news?
CD: I got a phone call and I had to tell the rest of the group…We’re looking forward to the induction ceremonies. We’re looking to have our own event the night before in Los Angeles before we go into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame the next day. To be in the company of all those legendary artists is fantastic. We’re musicologists and we’re deejays. So everyone in that room means something. Right now I’m trying to push for a certain presenter that we feel should be presenting us. It has to reach their clearance board and stuff like that. We’re going back and forth on that and, hopefully, everything works out.
Chris Williams is an internationally published writer. You can follow him on Twitter @CWmsWrites.