An Interview With Chuck D - Part 1 of 2 (A 2012 Public Enemy Concert Preview)

An Interview With Chuck D - Part 1 of 2 (A 2012 Public Enemy Concert Preview)

Getting ready to launch the "Hip Hop Gods Classic Tourfest Revue," I spoke with Public Enemy's Chuck D last week in advance of his band's appearance this Wednesday, December 5, 2012 at House of Blues in a thirty minute phone conversation that hit on Public Enemy's pair of new albums, the city of Chicago and the band's ability to embrace digital distribution and social media both in the studio and on tour...

Certainly, you've spoke and performed in Chicago many times. Anything stand out for you about the city?

So, Chicago... I mean, it's just an automatic home and backyard to me.  Everywhere from the people in Chicago and the support of people back in the day like [DJ] Pinkhouse, the radio stations and the people that actually represent Chi-Town on the west and south side (George Daniels)... I can't get enough of saying how important Chicago has been to us.

I've heard you're a fan of Chess Records and I know you're a fan of Chicago blues.  I feel like that honesty and raw emotion is always something I've identified in Public Enemy's music.

Yeah, it's one of my biggest complaints when somebody asks me "What do you think about music over the last fifteen years?"  And I'd say the biggest thing... I don't really come at the artists but one thing I do notice to be missing is conviction.  Do you really mean what you say or spit?  That's one thing.  The honesty in music and performance art is something that I've always wanted to ring true.

But Chicago artists were always great at that as well.  What you saw is what you get. There was really no faking or pretending when it came down to that.  And I'm even talking about rap artists especially.

Public Enemy album covers 2012

It has been twenty-five years since the release of the first Public Enemy single.  This year, Public Enemy released two new albums (Most of My Heroes Still Don't Appear on No Stamp and The Evil Empire of Everything).  That's a pretty radical undertaking that utilized modern technology in a way a lot of artists aren't capable of yet.  Can you tell me a bit about the concept behind the two albums and the thought process involved when it comes to releasing a pair of albums in an era where the album has supposedly been so devalued?

We were one of the first to step into the digital realm.  And we felt that this was our area.  This digital realm happens to be really the best thing that the artist of tenure has going for them.  So we started SPITdigital in 2011 as an urban aggregator, one of the first urban aggregators selling to digital stores.  But at the same time, between our release in 2007 (How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul???) and right now in 2012, the only thing we had to wait for was people to catch up, to realize digital is the first thing.  That conversation had to not only be with the fans of music, but also retail had to finally get it.  Like, "Look, we're going to have to really realize that this is the kit and caboodle and we've got to follow the tail of this." And that started to change in 2010 with the advent of smart phones.  Smart phones is what really made it official that digital was the music priority as far as delivery.  When we built SPITdigital in 2011, understand that I came along and I assisted The Orchard in 2004 and also I assisted TuneCore in 2007 and we built our own in 2011.

But the smart phones, the pads, the Androids came along and that has once again changed the whole realm of digital distribution so therefore it was right to release two albums to make a statement in 2012.  I mean, releasing one album is like "Big deal!"  So we showed people, look, it's not so much about the album, it's about the platform.  And it's not about [Public Enemy], it's about how many people can actually take advantage of this:  New artists but we also have Hip Hop Gods, which I was inspired by classic rock in the mid-seventies (When people felt that there had to be a difference between the Chuck Berrys, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones from the Bostons and the people that were coming in the mid-seventies).  So I felt that hip hop and rap music over a thirty-five year period has the ability to departmentalize itself as far as exposure areas and people paying notice that this is a different aspect of the art form than what's branded by corporations today.

When [The Rolling Stones] come through, they present an event that you have to kind of succumb to.  And that's what Public Enemy wants to do.  We're going to present an event.

I like both albums but The Evil Empire of Everything specifically, I feel, is a very fully realized album that covers a lot of musical ground (lyrically as always but musically too). There's soul on everything. You've got Tom Morello and Henry Rollins on "Riotstarted!"  Ziggy Marley is there on "Don't Give Up the Fight."  What's it like for you when it comes to putting together a new album and choosing these guest spots?  Because they're chosen well...

Well, knowing that we had two areas of opportunity... Maybe if this was twenty years ago this would have been an extended A-side or long B-side or something like that.  But since the album format has redefined itself, we knew we had two albums to work for. So it wasn't like "Oh this was leftover from that album."  They both got designed simultaneously as being one aggressive thing that we thought we'd do in a Bomb Squad type of way with producers that had a sensibility of what they thought and what they knew we came from.  And then also, The Evil Empire of Everything was more philosophical, more experimental, and coming out of left field where it was more like "OK, what do you think?  Go for it."

So this is why we said as our statement that these are twins but they're not identical. They're fraternal.  But they'll talk to each other and all you have to do is try to do your best to understand.

...when you individualize the genre, you take the awe out of audience, the A-W-E out of audience.

Well the albums sort of bookended the summer but The Evil Empire of Everything came out not long before the 2012 election.  I can't imagine that release date was a coincidence...

I really wanted the album to come out around September 11th but we had to space it towards some other things.  That's really one advantage of digital is that you can space things precisely and not get them caught up with up other structures like warehouse, manufacturing and all the other things that really effect physical.  As a matter of fact, the waste of physical retail is what really kind of took their ship down.  Because they wasted so much in that business.  And our thing with SPITdigital is the final realization that digital is the dominant delivery of choice.  Wasn't to say that it will be the only way.  We also released the CD in November and our vinyl releases will be December and January.

Those things are no coincidence.  They're very planned out and it's to our own time. It's not based on "Hurry up and rush and get it over so the next product can come through!" We believe that artists should dictate their time.  Because when you make a song and you make a piece of art, it's out there and it's out there for the test of time.  So you might as well at least plan to knock out your time that it's going to go out there to the world and don't go by anybody else's clock.  I think that's been the biggest issue for a lot of artists even when they become independent, that they go to somebody else's clock or somebody else's accounting success methods.  I just think that's bull.  No.  Write your own map.  Have your own plan.

Ya know, you look around, there's not too many boosters lasted twenty-five years.  Period.  Much less groups of black music.  Much less rap groups!  They've succeeded in individualizing the art form and the genre and that I think has been the biggest problem with rap music and hip hop.  Because when you individualize the genre, you take the awe out of audience, the A-W-E out of audience.  The performance art in it is what made people say "Wow!  What the?!  I can't do that!"  Because everything moves in synchronicity:  The DJ and the emcee in sync.  And then you have the addition of the dance and the graffiti artistic aspect.  And they all work in sync which makes somebody say "Well this is a total experience."  The same type of sync that when you check out The Beatles or the Rolling Stones or any band, you say "Well, damn.  The guitar, the bass, the drummer and the lead singer are all in sync coming at me.  I might be able to get one of these elements but I can't get them all."

And once they took that out, the corporate structure came about and said "Well it's the emcee that counts because they make the records."  They reduced it to the reflection of what an accountant and a lawyer want to see instead of the thing that made people just say "This is mind boggling!" This is why a lyricist alone is not mind boggling because a lot of times the other elements are left out of the equation.

So Public Enemy as a group... and yeah, there's records that are being made but there are so many elements to the records (and more elements to the stage performance) that the recordings are just a facsimile of what the group is about. When the Rolling Stones come into town, people can say whatever they want:  "Oh, they're old."  "I like 'Satisfaction' or 'Miss You.'"  Whatever.  When they come through, they present an event that you have to kind of succumb to.  And that's what it's about. You present an event.  And that's what Public Enemy wants to do.  We're going to present an event.

And we're also restoring our peers on the "Hip Hop Gods" tour. People that we can say, "Look.  Let's do this" and just have an event that goes the course of three or four hours of art and is integrated with the systems of now (instead of waiting for the Viacoms, Clear Channels and major structures that will never come!). Take advantage of YouTube, Twitter and Facebook with your music and get that person who loved that record twenty-five years ago to be like "Wow!  I like that record you did last month.  I'd like to stay locked in and in tune with you... And by the way I bought your single for ninety-nine cents from iTunes and SPITdigital."  Why not?

Public Enemy (Photo by David Wong)
Photo by David Wong

The "Hip Hop Gods" tour is a great package tour and you've managed to keep the ticket price pretty low so just about anyone can afford to get in the door and check it out.  It's only $30 here in Chicago.  What goals do you have for this tour?

There is such a thing as touring in the United States for a hip hop tour but it has to be scaled to reality.  You look around and you say "Where's the last hip hop tour?"  Nobody seems to know.  You say "OK, maybe it went in the hands of Jay-Z and Kanye when they went around and did Watch the Throne and they had all these big corporations around them and tickets were $130."  OK...  Or while it's not a tour, there's a bunch of one-offs where radio stations bring all the rappers in that they play on the radio stations for major companies and they once again are able to have tickets for $150 for something that appeals to the people that they broadcast it in front of.  That's not a tour either.

So what we want to do is almost go in the future and still go back.  Going into the future, we're saying that with the social networking, classic artists are determined by their name and their abilities and also their legacy and the music they've made past, present and future.  And also going back, meaning that's what they did on the "Motown Revue" or "Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars" or the shows at the Regal.  Everybody get together, play together, travel together.  They even did that on "Fresh Fest" one and two, when Run-DMC, Whodini and the Fat Boys travelled on two buses.  This was before people got bigger and say "Hey, I'm gonna have a bus alone."  And once things get to those heights, the ends don't justify the means. And that's what happened to, not just rap music and hip hop, but the touring market is down because the touring market seems impressed by its gross receipts and not the awe that they left the audience in.  And what I mean is, this tour hopes to replace the A-W-E into the hip hop and rap audience and we're doing it from the bottom up.

Well it's not just rap where that A-W-E aspect is lacking.  It's touring in general.  I think you take the average fan out of the equation when you start charging a sum of money that is astronomical to a kid or to somebody who just doesn't make that much.

No question.  My thing is like this:  It's going to be beyond somebody coming in and seeing somebody that they followed when they were fifteen and seeing them again at thirty-five and saying "Wow, they did that song."  That's not old school.  Classic is where they came along in classic rock in the middle of the seventies and it was the separated, the differentiated, the standard.  This is the standard.  And that's what we plan on doing with "Hip Hop Gods."

And we plan on "Hip Hop Gods" having a brand touring at least four or five times a year in different configurations.  And I'm just starting this one out.  Not only am I doing like what Ozzy Osbourne did to Ozzfest but I'm hosting it.  I'm putting my signature on it.  There's a right way to do it and there's a wrong way to do things.  Too long, it's been the wrong way because it's been about what somebody can get other than the fans.  The fans gotta be able to go home and say "Yeah, I saw X-Clan do 'Heed the Word of the Brother' but at the same time I got to socially network.  I went and bought their new song for ninety-nine cents.  I'm in lock with Brother J.  I'm tweetin' him back and forth.  I loved it!"

The biggest fallacy that they have about artists is that artists lose it.  And that's why I handpicked an amount of artists that would travel on one bus, two buses, whatever. We'll take it around, we'll headline it but I want people to know that the artists don't lose it.  Especially when B.B. King goes around at eighty-eight years old and is tearing the house down.  Buddy Guy in Chicago.  So why would a rap artist be any different?

One of the travesties, I think, that's been done to rap music and hip hop from a classical standpoint is that they called it "Old School" and they would get a whole bunch of artists and throw them on a small stage and have them do old songs with shoddy systems and just kind of throw them at people and people would go down memory lane.  Nah.  That's not what we do.  No.  That's not what we do.  Yeah, you'll hear catalog.  You'll hear some new stuff.  You'll hear some new approaches and you'll learn some new information.  This is what makes it relevant.  You have to be relevant beyond negligent.

*** This interview conducted by Jim Ryan

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The Hip Hop Gods Classic Tourfest Revue!!!

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Public Enemy, X-Clan, Schoolly D, Leaders of the New School, Monie Love, Son of Bazerk, Wise Intelligent (of Poor Righteous Teachers), Awesome Dre and Davy DMX

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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

House of Blues

329 N. Dearborn

Doors open at 6:30PM

Show starts at 8PM

17+

Tickets: $30 in advance, $35 day of show

Click HERE to purchase tickets

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Public Enemy

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    Jim Ryan

    Jim Ryan has written about music in print and online for a variety of Chicagoland publications for over fifteen years. In addition to duties filling in as Traffic Anchor on CLTV or in the helicopter on NBC 5, you can also catch him Sunday nights at 6PM central as host of "The Rock N' Roll Radio Program" on AM 1420 WIMS and AM 1060 WHFB (streaming at wimsradio.com and via the TuneIn Radio app for the smart phone or tablet). Jim has also worked locally for WXRT-FM, lives within walking distance of the Metro and is an avid White Sox and Blackhawks fan whose first live concert experience came at Comiskey Park in 1984 during the Jacksons' "Victory" tour.

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