When you’re a 55-year-old MC, icon and leader of one of hip-hop’s most celebrated and polarizing groups of all time, who has time to mince words? Chuck D, the booming, authoritative voice of the legendary, socially conscious Public Enemy is in the middle of spirited sermon preaching the gospel of his band’s 13th release, Man Plans, God Laughs.
“On this album, I think we set the standard for how a 45- to 55-year-old MC should spit,” he says. “People tell me, ‘Chuck, you sound like somebody’s older uncle.’ And I’m like, ‘Dude, I am somebody’s older uncle. Who the f*ck you talking to? I am that dude.’ [laughter] But as an elder, I’m not into blaming the youth about anything. I think blaming the youth is a waste of time.”
Instead, Man Plans, God Laughs goes after the usual suspects and then some: the racist power structure; bullsh*t politicians; a music industry and Instagram-obsessed culture that has little use for elders; the continuing breakdown of the Black community. “There’s a category above youth that can be accountable,” Chuck explains. “And that’s who we are talking about on this album. That 41-year-old who should know better.”
EBONY caught up with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer to discuss the inspiration behind Man Plans, God Laughs, his thoughts on the confederate flag, the passion of Kendrick Lamar, how President Obama has found his mojo, and why Public Enemy still matters in 2015.
EBONY: You open up Man Plans, God Laughs with the two-fisted track “No Sympathy for the Devil.” The one line that really stood out for me was, “Since when did you decide the truth should hide?/You 20, 30, 40, I’m 55…” Are you talking about the current gatekeepers who only seem interested in presenting a youth-driven point of view to the masses?
Chuck D: Well, I always talk about that, but on that song I’m talking from two or three vantage points. Number one, there’s a lot of ageism going on that I take pride in trying to confront. A 55-year-old MC is rarified air. You can’t name too many in hip-hop: there’s me, Ice-T, and I’m even older than the Melle Mels and the Kool Moe Dees who are all great friends of mine. The third verse was just me saying don’t try to be all lyrically choppy like a 21-year-old would be today. You don’t have do any lyrical gymnastics. Your words can still be powerful.
EBONY: There is a very streamlined, stripped-down approach to the lyrics on Man Plans, God Laughs.
Chuck D: Right… it’s almost like that uncle sitting on the porch. He’s not going to be up there talking fast and all big winded. He’s not going to be screaming. He’s going to say three words that will get you to say, “Damn!”
EBONY: You were nearly 30 when Public Enemy released their most celebrated work, It Takes a Million to Hold Us Back in 1988. This was at a time when LL Cool J just turned 20. Did being the oldest cat in the room give you a leg up over your younger peers?
Chuck D: Like I said in the line you brought up: I’m not in my 20s, 30s or 40s. I’m 55. So I’m going to actually tell you that there’s a great terrain other than being in some type of zone or being a star. I’ve been around since the 1960s. I’ve seen a lot of things, but I’m also very clear to say that of course I don’t know it all. I just finished having lunch with my mom, who is 76, and I was with my dad earlier, who is 77. So I got to be open to what they have seen and how they comprehend things. My parents are still very sharp. If I’m going to be looked upon as somebody that is an elder, I got to say things that stick and count. Make sure your words drop like cinder blocks.
EBONY: The production on Man Plans, God Laughs seems very keyboard heavy, giving a slight nod to the feel of, say, Run the Jewels, a group you recently said inspired you during the making of PE’s new release. Did you make a conscious effort to go for an entirely different sound?
Chuck D: It was a combination of things. I spent my time on the words and Gary G-Wiz [Public Enemy’s in-house producer and DJ] spent his time on the music. In that way, we were like Killer Mike and El-P.
EBONY: You also mentioned in a recent interview about drawing inspiration from Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
Chuck D: Of course. Kendrick is great. He’s at a stage in his career where he can put a lot of words in a small area. He really knows how to use space. He’s one of the people actually saying something.
EBONY: What’s the biggest change you’ve seen within rap over the last few years?
Chuck D: The impact of EDM on hip-hop, which exploded because of the MCs meandering around a little too much. Rappers have gotten too wordy on the rhymes. And when you get too wordy, the lyrics don’t mean as much. MCs have become subservient to the DJ again. So that’s why I told Gary: “you work on this area and I will work on mines, and we will find something that fits.” Originally we wanted Man Plans, God Laughs to be like a 15-minute punk album with 90-second records.
EBONY: Like the Ramones, right?
Chuck D: Yeah! A 15-minute album. [laughter] Well, let’s just go with 30 minutes. But my thing is, it can’t be up to the rapper what stays and what goes on a song. That’s too incestuous. You gotta leave it up to the music; the music has the breath. That’s why I feel like Man Plans, God Laughs is a combination between Run the Jewels, Kanye West’s Yeezus and Kendrick Lamar, while still keeping it Public Enemy. If anything, the record is trying to set the standard for what an MC can sound like over 50 years old.
EBONY: Of course everyone is discussing the tragic massacre of the nine churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina by the racist hands of Dylann Roof. The fallout has been very telling, sparking debate about the confederate flag and President Obama’s own role when it comes to such painful events. What comes to mind when you hear confederate flag supporters say it’s part of their Southern heritage?
Chuck D: People, especially the younger generation, throw the word hate around too liberally. But the murder of those innocent Black people in that Charleston church was the clearest indication of true hate. I’ve played in arenas with the confederate flag hanging. One time I was in Augusta, Georgia, in a place that would later be renamed James Brown Arena. I spent damn near 15 minutes in the middle of a concert talking about that damn flag!
EBONY: How surreal was that?
Chuck D: It was crazy! [laughter] And of course you had people that was affiliated with far-right organizations, whether it was the Klan or whatever. They were part of the crew that did a lot of the stage work around the arena. So Public Enemy made sure to make a statement, because you have to stand up for something or you will fall for anything. Not only am I old enough to remember when the confederate flag was a symbol of a turbulent time, I was there years later when people were still saluting that flag while we were doing our damn shows. Symbols are powerful. And eliminating those painful symbols is very important. You don’t see anyone walking around with a swastika on their head.
EBONY: What was your take on President Obama’s eulogy of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney?
Chuck D: I think what President Obama spoke about was quite poignant. You really couldn’t get no better than him as far as the eloquence he presented. We’ve had great speakers over the years, like Minister Farrakhan, who has a truly radical point of view that I accept. But clearly Obama is mad that he has gray hair. You can feel the anger in his words like, “Yo dude, this job, man. I don’t want to hear nothing about what I did or didn’t do! All I know is I got the grays to show all the bullsh*t I’ve had to go through!” [laughter] And let’s keep it real. Michelle Obama is probably biting 500 holes in her lip. I can picture Mrs. Obama like, “I’m only doing this… I’m only smiling because I don’t want to be a problem for you, Barack.”
EBONY: So with all the talk of Black and White race relations, how do we go about getting a better understanding of one another?
Chuck D: The only way we will bring about change is if everybody knows the f*cking deal. That means you can’t be shallow and say there’s no such thing as Black and White, that we are human beings. Because although older people may know the racist history of this country, a lot of kids today don’t know. Your son or daughter is going around saying ni**a this, ni**a that, using the same language as somebody’s grandfather. Now they might use it in a different context, but that’s how a Dylann Roof happens.
EBONY: Can you expound on that?
Chuck D: Roof happens because he grows up thinking, “Oh, I know Black people. I’ve never gotten along with them. I’ve gotten beaten down by them and I got some Black friends that’s funny with it. They are all the same.” So when you got that going on, it’s like, damn, we are living in a different time. But if you check out Roof’s language, it’s the same racist stuff somebody’s White grandfather said.
EBONY: Public Enemy recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of Fear of a Black Planet. Is it possible to make an album that called out everything from Black self-hatred to responding to detractors that labeled PE as anti-Semitic in this very politically correct era we are in today?
Chuck D: I think Kendrick Lamar just did it [with To Pimp a Butterfly]. He made an important album for this era, for his demographic. I think Kendrick Lamar is the anger of a young generation trying to figure it out. He’s even extended an olive branch to the older generation by using older sounds and working with older artists.
EBONY: What do you hope fans and newcomers will take away from Man Plans, God Laughs?
Chuck D: That not only do we have love for our people, but we have love for the planet and the human race. That’s what this record speaks to. But how do we take that love somewhere else? Just simple things like saying me to we. I think as a collective we tend to praise individuality. Yeah, we got to be accountable and responsible as individuals. But at the end of that spectrum, we have to figure out how do we protect, teach and educate ourselves. When we went from we to me, then we were under a microscope more. We couldn’t fight off those obvious areas of hate. We got to truncate ourselves. When we go from me to we, we will do better.