Chuck D still Public Enemy number one
Chuck D is one of hip-hop’s true pioneers, but even as Public Enemy prepare to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, his impulse to fight the power has never been stronger
Chuck D (aka Carlton Douglas Ridenhour) is just about to give a lecture to students in Massachusetts. He is also juggling preparations for next week’s three-day event at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at which Public Enemy will take their place in the pantheon.
Known for the political depth-charges that exploded in Public Enemy’s rap, Ridenhour explains that he was politicised by the period he grew up in, which included the Vietnam War as well as the Summer of Love.
“It was a very particular time in American history. Every time is particular, but there were more similarities in the 1990s and the first decade of the millennium than in the Sixties. I am a child of the Sixties, and what came out of that era was a lot of energy that I was able to use later on.”
Growing up, Ridenhour harboured hopes of becoming a sports commentator, like one of his heroes, Marv “the voice of basketball” Albert, but a period spent studying graphic design at college changed things.
“It was a weird time, because rap music hit me when I was in my first year of college. I knew it was something for me to be engaged in. I knew I had a voice for it. I wanted to be a sportscaster when I first went to college, but it was a little more difficult, then rap music became a recorded art the very next year, so I was in the right place at the right time.”
This place was Adelphi University in New York, where, in the early 1980s, he met DJ and producer Hank Shocklee, and they went on to form the collective Spectrum, which found its way onto a radio show featuring various local artists, including William Drayton (Flavor Flav), who would go on to become part of Public Enemy.
After Rick Rubin of Def Jam heard Chuck D freestyling, he signed the group immediately, and their politically and socially conscious lyrics, and dense, layered production lent records such as It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back (1988) and Fear of a Black Planet (1990) a unique, direct voice.
Politics, therefore, seems like a natural home for Ridenhour, and is something he has considered: “But I think it is an impossibility because I don’t want to disrespect the strength of politics on a local level, and I love travelling so much. But maybe I could be what Quincy Jones is auditioning for right now – Cultural Ambassador of The United States. I don’t know if I actually want to be a cultural ambassador of the United States, but that’s the only kind of office I could look at.”
Conversation turns to US President Barack Obama, and I suggest that Obama’s support of gay marriage is ultimately a Public Enemy stance (the more mature incarnation) since the group was driven by the struggle for equality.
“Exactly – it’s one world. Human beings should share it. We should all be equal instead of creatures with human features [laughs]. Obama is giving it his best shot. I think he is in a situation of finding out that being between the politicians and the corporations is the widest wedge, and they will try to keep him from dealing with the people.”
Over the past three decades, Ridenhour has consistently championed people who are marginalised. Operation Skid Row, a music festival that took place last year, was one of his most recent projects.
“The most important thing is that we align ourselves with organisations who do this work all the time. It’s a thankless situation they are in. Skid Row is the largest concentration of homeless people in the United States, in the middle of what everyone considers Hollywood, and glitz and glamour. The next thing we are going to do is Occupy Free Air – to occupy the airwaves with local artists, as corporations have taken over radio to a point.We have internet radio, but it comes at a cost. Free Air is about the fact that local artists cannot make a living. We want to push these stations to use local artists on at least 40 per cent of the playlist.”
The US Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allowed media-cross ownership, diminished choice, says Ridenhour. “Right, because things got nationalised. And you know what? Then you got MTV Viacom, who were quick to tell you that they couldn’t put things on the radio because they had demand for other things being televised, then the television stations would say they had to play what the radio was playing!”
Chuck D has consistently railed against the casual commercialism of hip-hop, though the form remains a potent cultural force. He moves on to talk about the focus Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne tour, perhaps because hip-hop’s foundations were rooted in a political kind of movement.
“Beyoncé has a new song called Bow Down . . . like, wow, you know? It’s like Jay-Z’s got Niggas in Paris , and she’s got Bow Down . Come on guys, really? They have so much to say and do – I am not leaning on their creativity, saying they have to do this or that, but when they do that? Come on!”
Public Enemy went on the well-received Hip-Hop Gods tour last year, with artists such as Awesome Dre and Schooly D, to remind people, not necessarily of the “old school”, but of what constitutes classic hip-hop.
“We had a wonderful time,” says Ridenhour. “I hosted it from beginning to end, and I am really proud of these people, and indebted to them for making this happen. We want to do four tours per year, but we wouldn’t headline it, other people would pick up the ball. I like to keep it organic.”
Through such projects, as well as the Hip-Hop Summit of 2010 (which also featured philosopher Cornel West and rapper Talib Kweli), Chuck D revisits his preoccupations without ever repeating himself, while Public Enemy, who released two records last year, remain a vital presence.