In the first half of HipHopDX’s recent conversation with Chuck D, the legendary leader of Public Enemy took to task the corrupt corporate base of “The Throne” currently occupied by Jay-Z and Kanye West, explained why Elvis Presley may not have been the racist P.E. initially labeled him on the greatest protest song in Hip Hop history, “Fight The Power,” but that Presley still isn’t “The King” of Rock & Roll, and revealed just why he sued the estate of The Notorious B.I.G. for sampling his powerful baritone for the countdown to Big’s “Ten Crack Commandments” and why that lawsuit had “Nothing to do with Biggie.”
Now in the second half of DX’s discussion with Chuck, the man who 20 years ago threatened Nike and other callous corporations with extinction on “Shut ‘Em Down” explained why he is now endorsing a line of $1,000 stain-resistant suits. And in typical unflinching fashion, arguably the most fearless emcee in Hip Hop history also explained why he likes but doesn’t respect the President of BET and why the current CEO of the Island Def Jam Music Group should be on blast, before proceeding to put a former U.S. President on blast for his legislation that essentially ended balanced radio programming. And lastly, the former Air America Radio host (alongside current MSNBC political pundit Rachel Maddow) who refers to the death threats he once received for his controversial stances as “light stuff” weighed in on why he believes President Obama must be re-elected.
HipHopDX: I recently did an interview with Too Short, in which he revealed that Jive Records explicitly told him to be explicit and to strip the social commentary from his music —
Chuck D: — And you know what? He shoulda said who.
DX: He said [former Jive Records CEO and current Island Def Jam Records CEO] Barry Weiss. He said him by name.
Chuck D: Okay, Barry Weiss should be on blast then. Barry Weiss is the son of [former Stax Records executive] Hy Weiss. I mean, things is like – Forget a corporation, I think when you have a problem with somebody you should put that person on blast. You should put their family on blast. [Laughs] You know, the whole nine. If you feel like your family’s on blast, put their family on blast too. Forget Jive Records, [put] Barry Weiss [on blast]. And Barry Weiss should be the person that answers to the community, and if Barry Weiss comes out and says, “Well, yeah, I told him to do that, and fuck Black people,” then the next step is whatever, if anything at all. But at least you get right to the source, you get to the core of it.
For example, I saw Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen last night. I don’t have beef with Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen, I have beef with their structures. I might have a small complaint that, okay, you guys ended up being the same people that we started out rebelling against I thought – more so Lyor than Russell. But I have no beef towards them. I know who they are. It ain’t like I ever hung out with you and you’re my best of friends and all that. I mean, we had a relationship and that’s fine. But I’m gonna be opinionated, and I don’t expect my opinion to change you either. So I have nothing but love for Russell and Lyor.
Now, to me, love and respect is two different things. Even like and respect is two different things. I like a lot of people but I don’t necessarily respect them. And there’s people I respect that I might not necessarily like. So, to get that out of me, liking and respecting, is a hard thing to pull out of my mouth. There are plenty of people, I dig them, you’re cool, from person-to-person I like you. Like, Stephen Hill [President] of BET, I like him, but I don’t respect him. I don’t respect what he does, I don’t respect where he comes out of … but I like him.
DX: I wanna go back to one additional thing Too Short said. After he put Barry Weiss on blast he went on to say that he believes there was a meeting of the minds amongst the major labels to shut down conscious Hip Hop. Do you believe such a collusion happened, or was it more likely that Bill Clinton’s Telecommunications Act of 1996, that consolidated radio ownership, was the real nail in the coffin to message-driven music?
Chuck D: Yeah, the latter was the real nail in the coffin – not so much to message-driven music but to local music being able to have a chance to independently breathe. The consolidation of radio stations was like the worst thing ever done to music.
And, look man, conscious record versus unconscious record, political record versus street record, that’s a bunch of bullshit really. [On an artist’s album pre-consolidation] there were always two to three songs for the hood, for your mom’s or whatever – by every artist. I think when it became formula to continue to just cut joints and you’re pressured to sell – Understand this, niggativity has always been popular and has always been a money-maker in America. Blacks [being degraded and] looked upon at our lowest has always sold – just like slavery itself – more than something that happens to be high standing on its own two feet … to this day. So we shouldn’t be surprised if somebody makes a conscious move to make a quote-unquote positive record and that doesn’t fly out of the record stores, and you make something that might just be talking about stripping or drug-dealing in the year 2012 and it happens to rise because it [works] in the club. I don’t think it’s unfair to measure the music by its quantity instead of its quality …. And too often Rap music and Hip Hop is weighed in bubblegum type standards.
Yeah, but Bill Clinton’s Telecommunications Act was cancerous to local, independent, room to breathe [music] so to speak.
DX: Let me get a little bit of clarity about life before that, because I was younger, I don’t remember exactly – It was still extremely controversial in 1991, but didn’t a song like “By The Time I Get To Arizona” still get played on the radio 20 years ago?
Chuck D: If it had a clean version. Everything that Public Enemy made seriously wasn’t meant to be on the radio. But if a kid happened to get to the music, there wouldn’t be anything that would twist their head backwards to hate themselves. That was the whole key, it’s like, “This is really like over your head,” but there are some things that’s gonna be down there, some things that can be on the radio. And if it had to be on the radio it had to be clean. So “By The Time I Get To Arizona,” yeah, it got cleaned to the point it could be played, but that wasn’t the thrust. We, at our best, only had a record that hit the Black, R&B charts I think as high as [#11 for “Can’t Truss It”].
We sold concept albums …. And also, we were performance headliners. So we were judged by our concerts and our albums, we wasn’t judged by what single we had, what freestyle we busted or no shit like that. We were almost [judged by] Rock & Roll type standards. And [with radio playlists] or mixtapes, you couldn’t mix Public Enemy records with everybody else’s records, they were different speeds, different textures and sounds. This was a different thing. You had to play P.E. records with P.E. records – that’s it. So that was our whole thing: striving to be different and not trying to fit in.
DX: And that was risky business. For my recent editorial for HipHopDX, “The 10 Most Powerful Videos In Hip Hop History,” I put “Arizona” at number one. And in the comments to the piece the director of that controversial clip, Eric Meza, wrote, “Everybody was against the idea that Chuck, Hank [Shocklee] and I came up with … But Russell Simmons held his ground and told people that P.E. is just saying that they want an Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday by any means necessary …” I understand you also got death threats after that video, is that true?
Chuck D: I ain’t never paid no attention to death threats. You’ve always got those coming through, but I mean, what the fuck? We were going all over the world, mail’s gonna always come in, so … that was light stuff.
“Arizona” was a record that was sorta like planned as I was writing it, so the video was kinda like an afterthought. And all of the aftermath – The whole key was like, “Hey, MTV’s gonna show it once. If we can get ‘em to show it once, we’re fine with that.” Knowing that it probably would be banned, so what?
DX: Wow, that’s just – I mean, that mentality just doesn’t exist today where you’re gonna go through all of that effort to get it shown once.
Chuck D: Yeah, but it gotta have some kind of impact. And then you didn’t have traction – traction was like, okay, once it was shown on T.V. unless you taped it you wasn’t gonna see it again. Today, you have YouTube. Matter fact, you have YouTube to see every little thing. So back then it was a risky throw into the end zone. … But the whole key was like, like Bob Marley or Bob Dylan or Bobby Womack, we can make a statement with a Rap record, and a Rap record could change the world just like these other records can [spur] change.
And there was a lot of hemming and hawing about [the video], but why every Rap gotta come at you like a pool party? You safe with that, and that’s cool and all, but it can do this too. This is a hard pill to swallow, so we’re gonna see you try to gulp this one down.
DX: I have a couple more loose questions. First, did I read correctly that Chuck D is a suit model now?
Chuck D: Yeah. Naked Suits, which is a special wear suit [maker] out of Asia, they make these suits where you can spill something on it and still it’s like stain and water resistant. So I said, “Why not?” I wear suits sometimes. I wouldn’t wear it on stage, but … I’m a grown man. I’m 52-years-old. I mean, I could advertise vodka if I want to. I’m old enough to, but I just don’t drink.
DX: Is this the first endorsement you’ve ever really had?
Chuck D: I’ve endorsed speakers and stuff like that – equipment here and there. I’ve done more P.S.A. and public service type of things than I’ve done like endorsements of products, so … why not? I think it’s a good look.
DX: And, my last loose question for you is a much, much heavier one, but one I feel compelled to ask you. You’ve been a longtime supporter of President Obama – I voted for the President in 2008, but after the Osama Bin Laden murder fantasy and some other questionable moves I’m finding it hard to be motivated to vote at all in 2012. What would you say to somebody like me should be our motivation to re-elect the President?
Chuck D: To not let that other dude get in, because most of the masses around us are not equipped to respond when you have somebody who’s in favor of eliminating you off the face of the earth. That’s usually what the Republican Party deep down kind of feels, that young people with a sort of Democratic sense of thinking, Black people, people of color, people they deem as being immigrants who get here illegally and undocumented, they really want us people to kind of like not be here. And that’s the element that would be coming in if Obama is not President.
So it’s almost like a default type of thing. … I’m just saying that if you don’t and the other guy gets in, you’ll be surrounded by a constituency, who fell asleep when Obama was in, who will be unequipped to deal with life from 2013 to 2016 in an area of desperation.
We went from a recession state – Black folks in this country went from recession into depression. The rest of the country is in recession. When the rest of the country eases into the depression, when all kinds of things start happening like the currency doesn’t seem to work anymore [and prices] go sky-high, people are losing their homes at even an accelerated rate – especially in the hood – when America eases into a depression, Black folks and people of color are in desperation.
So, yeah, it’s definitely unsettling what happened in North Africa where NATO says to the world it was giving Africa a haircut but really gave it a decapitation. And, President Obama is sandwiched between a whole bunch of agendas that will propel him further and further away from the needs of the people. And when he first comes to the aid of the people it’s gonna come to the people who are ready and who are equipped, and people of color are not ready and we are not equipped to handle what comes down.
We got to sometimes get out of the emotional handling of the matter and try to figure out what’s gonna actually be the realistic handling of the matter.
DX: Just playing devil’s advocate, what if President Obama never comes to the aid of the disenfranchised in a second term?
Chuck D: He ain’t Jesus. Black folks waiting for Jesus. Look, when President Obama got in there I had no expectations, zero. As a Black man in America, none. But what President Obama did bought me some time … to prepare in the wilderness of North America and the United States Of America on how do you see yourself on this planet, as opposed to how do you view yourself within the confines of the United States.
So, my thing is like this, if Black folks here don’t connect into the [conditions] of the rest of the planet, people of the world, people of color, different ethnicities, cultures and whatever … then we’ll be a slave in America forever. And we are. We’re children in America. We have no power. Black people have no power in America. None. Zero. Don’t own enough property – economically we’re at the same level that we were 40 years ago, and worse than 45 years ago. Statistics don’t lie. Yeah, you can name some ballplayers that got a lot of money … But power? What the fuck does that mean? We’re worse off in many ways than times of our past, so …
DX: Does President Obama have any power though?
Chuck D: He’s the President of The United States, he has some power. But also, he has less power than some of the areas around him that have been in position. See, he’s only in position for four to eight years. You’ve got power positions where people have been sitting in those positions for like 25 to 40 years.
You can’t deny that General Motors is still a power. You can’t deny that McDonalds and Coca-Cola are still powers, right? They don’t move people in and out of those positions in four years.
DX: I’m just concerned that – especially right now with this sort of slow drumbeat to war with Iran – at some point there’s gonna have to be more open challenging [of the President’s decisions].
Chuck D: I’m just saying that having the tools to overstand what’s going on are important. And it’s not enough of us that have the tools to overstand what would happen if Obama didn’t get in and you saw a wave of animosity towards certain demographics. It’s like, “Yeah nigga, what you gonna do?” Go to Paris. [Laughs]
A lot of times when people say, “Well, Chuck, man, you getting deep.” I ain’t getting deep. Matter fact, I’m not getting deep, that’s the problem. 35 years ago this would of just been written off as common sense. Today it might get written off like, “Aw dog, you hatin’, you’re bitter.” I’m like, “No, not bitter.” It could be hatin’, but how could you not hate certain things that are smacking you in the face? What are you gonna be like, “Okay, I’m getting smacked on the left side, smacked to the right, but I shouldn’t hate it”? And like I said earlier, I’m privileged but I recognize my privilege and at the same time I think it’s disgraceful to see the rest of the people thrown under the bus.
We’re watching the throne, but who’s gonna catch the thrown: thrown under, thrown at, thrown to the side, thrown down …? Catching the thrown, T-H-R-O-W-N, is very important. And the masses of people are being thrown around, or thrown for a loop, thrown a bone, so … I didn’t fully come out at Jay-Z and Kanye [West’s] Watch The Throne, but is that or is it not some kind of king shit? It’s like it’s some Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Louis XVI type shit. Man, fuck a king – unless it’s Martin Luther.
So it was one of those things like, no, I admire you guys as rappers but I could never, ever, ever salute that base of cake and greed. Nah, I ain’t never gonna do that.