When you look at the most influential acts in music over the years, and hip-hop in particular, there is one act that will appear on every list.
Public Enemy, the Long Island rap legends, were formed in 1982 by fledgling rapper, Carlton Ridenhour and his hype man, William Drayton. They went on to become two of the most recognisable and notable figures in the business under their pseudonyms: Chuck D and Flavor Flav.
PE’s combination of dense production and politically-charged rhymes put them at the forefront of a more hard-edged, socially conscious style of rap than had previously been widely available, and set them on collision course with the establishment, while simultaneously cementing their place in the hearts of rap fans everywhere.
Their 1988 release, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, remains one of rap’s cornerstones, and is considered one of the best records of all time, in any genre. It sits comfortably in the upper ranks of many all-time greatest album lists, and influenced a generation of musicians, from Kurt Cobain and Manic Street Preachers to Eminem and Jay Z.
The band are on their way back to Dublin on April 21 for a date at the Button Factory, and I caught up with Chuck in the middle of Connecticut, on his way to give a talk on rap, race and reality at Western New England University in Massachusetts.
We started by talking about Public Enemy’s inauguration into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame, which takes place this week.
“We heard we were being inducted when were on the Hip Hop Gods tour, and it was just one of those things. We were busy with what we were doing, and it was very welcome when it came through. It’s been a consistent 26 years of hard work.
“The hall of fame is a three-day event, and we have our own events on Tuesday and Wednesday [as well as the induction ceremony on Thursday]. They’re pretty much full to the brim as far as what’s taking place. We’re into the countdown now with a week to go.”
PE are only the fourth rap act ever to be inducted into the Hall Of Fame. Being inducted is a massive achievement in itself, and recognition of rap’s place in musical history, but Chuck explained that there is a larger perspective to their induction.
“I want to be able to alleviate the feeling of ‘there goes the neighbourhood’. The rock n roll hall of fame is letting in all of these other genres and rappers. I’m trying to explain that music as a performance art started from a man or a woman playing the blues or singing the blues, they couldn’t express themselves any other way. You have to respect all the idioms that came out of that background, and we are very fortunate to be allowed in. We take it very seriously. At the same time, we didn’t wait for validation from anyone.
“We always felt that the groups were the best aspect of rock music or hip-hop. As far as groups are concerned, they embody the elements that make it all happen. A band has to play together. I feel that rap music, a group of people who embody the elements that help make is happen in the first place, are a true representation of the art form. When you look at [rap’s previous inductees] Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Run DMC with Jam Master Jay and the Beastie Boys are all perfect examples of groups who went above and beyond.”
This sense of going above and beyond the limitations of the MC and turntable format has led Public Enemy to restructuring their set-up in recent years. The last few albums, which rank among their most vital, creatively, lyrically and musically, feature live instrumentation on record and in PE’s live show. The decision was a natural one, says Chuck, after seeing Questlove and The Roots’ organic band set-up on tour.
“DJ Lord extended the turntable as something we could use in our show. But bringing together the elements of a band, as a rhythm section, and how we perform our classics and break a song down was something that was instituted by Professor Griff, after we played some shows with The Roots in Japan. We realised we could do something similar. It took a while, about three years, before we found a rhythm in there.
“[Bass player] Brian Hardgroove was our first band leader, and he came up with the alchemy of how this would work, with the turntables, the recorded music and live music. You have to understand the dynamic of what PE music is. We had to take it apart before we could put it back together.
“PE is the sum of many, many parts. We’re the Rolling Stones of rap – I might be Mick and Flava is Keith, and there are a lot of other parts to the band who make it happen.”
Chuck has been a fervent advocate of alternative ways of distributing music, and PE were at the forefront of using the internet as a way of selling their music and interacting with their fans since the late 90s. The digital release of last year’s pair of albums, Most Of My Heroes STILL Don’t Appear on No Stamp and The Evil Empire Of Everything, was accompanied by the launch of Spit Digital, a digital distributor and aggregator of content that Chuck hopes will inspire other independent artists to form and become their own record labels, distributing their music online through SPITdigital channels.
“PE have been independent, releasing albums on their own terms since 1999, and we’ve never looked back,” said Chuck.
“We started Spit Digital as something where we wanted to help artists. We wanted to say to them that they didn’t need to be getting into a zone where they were releasing mixtapes or putting their music on Soundcloud, or all those places; you want to be getting into what it is for real. So we encourage artists to start their own record labels, and don’t try to get discouraged. You can’t get discouraged by [sales] numbers – they’re created by corporations and companies, and they cast an ugly shadow over what artists are trying to do.”
“I am approached by a lot of young artists who basically say, ‘Chuck, listen to my music’. They’ve tried some other approaches to get their music heard. There are other aggregators out there, but they feel they can’t reach a service area that will service their dreams and their soul.
“We want to be able to say, we have a range of services – like Rap Station and Hip Hip Gods – that allows them to get into aggregation, that gets them into iTunes and Amazon, and Spotify and other digital stores around the world.“
Chuck D was recently involved in a fascinating public discussion at the recent SXSW festival with Parliament-Funkadelic’s iconic bassist, Bootsy Collins, about how both men came up from their local communities to become international acts, and the power of collective action in effecting cultural and social change.
Collins’ experience mirrors that of Chuck D in terms of expending local musicians horizons beyond their block, having helped create King Records in Cincinatti with James Brown. The records they made were recorded, mastered, pressed, boxed and sent around the world at a time when there was no internet. The local experience and supporting local artists is something very close to Chuck’s heart.
“I had a meeting in Long Island yesterday, where a hometown friend and hero talking about an artist he was cultivating. I said that he had to become a label for this young man, give him guidance and give him part of the love.
“Teamwork is what [delivers results], being a part of your community. We need to be in a position to be able to practice our artforms, and fight for areas of service that help local artists. One of the biggest things I want to do would be to free the airwaves from corporate hold so local artists that can be heard. This could be a worldwide fight.”
“If local artists are given the chance to really grow, it can assist with the nationalisation of culture, radio and music.”
As far as regards Public Enemy’s return to Dublin, Chuck explained that he has very fond memories of playing in the city.
“We first played in Dublin in 1988, in the springtime, at Trinity University. The show was around 5.30 in the morning, but before that, we played this small club in Dublin, and it was some real hip-hop shit, it was dope. We have a good heads-up of what the spirit of the Irish fans is about, and we can’t wait to get back.”
Public Enemy play The Button Factory on April 21.