“Speaking Freely” show recorded May 18, 2001, in New York.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression, the arts, and America. I’m Ken Paulson, the executive director of the First Amendment Center. Our guest once described rap as “America’s black radio station.” If that’s the case, we’re joined today by the program director of an entire movement. Please welcome the founder of Public Enemy, Chuck D.
Paulson: You’re a man of opinions. What I didn’t know until reading a bit more about you was that your folks were both activists, that you grew up in a household of opinions. Did that shape the way you look at the world?
Chuck D: Yeah. Because my parents kind of like raised me to be independent and to have independent thoughts, not so much as follow my peers, and to challenge information. So I, I mean, to be an activist just means that they were conscious of certain folks that were circulating. In the ‘60s, they were in their late 20s, so that was a time where you had a conscious movement where people were actually looking into themselves, finding out about themselves and trying to do something to better themselves. And my parents encouraged me to do so myself.
Paulson: I understand that a kind of pivotal point in your own career path was listening to Dick Gregory talk.
Chuck D: Yeah, Dick Gregory came to my alma mater, if that’s what I could call it, Adelphi University, in 1983, and turned me out, meaning that he came and spoke as part of a black-history lecture series, something I’ve been involved with for the last 11 years. And I’d never heard a man so funny, then get so deadly serious and cover topics and issues all in the span of an hour and a half. So it was totally fascinating to me. And I said, “Well, you know what? If I happen to do anything on a public stage, I would hope to do it half as good.”
Paulson: So from where, so where did the musical, you know, concept come from? If you’re motivated by Dick Gregory … Dick Gregory was a speaker. He was a man who organized movements. Why did you do it through music?
Chuck D: Well, my earliest recollection of music is always in my household. My mother listened to Motown, Stax, Atlantic, from Robert Flack and Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, you know. “Chuck, do your chores.” And you’ve got music playing, just seeping, you know, into your bloodstream and earstream. And my father liked jazz here and there. But I was mainly into sports. I was into the organization of sports, and a lot of black folks made strong inroads into sports and that captivated my interests. The whole hip-hop thing that hit me in the middle of the 1970s got me into the music because it was the technical aspect of it. Technology. Two turntables, a mixer, a microphone. I was totally confused. I was like, “Why do they need two turntables? In case the one over there breaks down?” (Laughter) “This person is very prepared.” But that struck me as being, you know, something to get involved with this thing called hip-hop and rap music. And then if you study rap music, you will understand that it’s not a music. It’s rap. It’s a vocal application over music, and the musics have already been defined as soul, jazz, rhythm and blues, then rock and roll, and so on and so on. And that got me into doing a serious back cataloguing of understanding the history of black people’s involvement in music. And if you study our music, you get our history by default, especially the last hundred years.
Paulson: When you looked at the early years of rap, people like Grandmaster Flash, organizations, those rap artists took a risk. They took a commercial risk in the first place because, with rare exceptions, what was then called R&B and soul music didn’t have a lot of political overtones. Did that inspire you, did that affect the way you approached your music?
Chuck D: Of course. Grandmaster Flash influenced me three years before, you know, rap records ever came out. He was the first DJ I’d seen do it correctly and just take risks and take chances, and never be off beat. Hence, his rhymers and rappers at the time that rapped with him — Melle Mel, a fantastic influence because he never made a mistake and he used big words (laughter) and he wasn’t quite simplistic. So this influence, these influences hit me as early as 1976 and 1977 before records. So when they first started to record, you just would know that they would be the first to take these extreme chances with the art because they were far ahead, light years ahead of everybody else. So by the time they had social discussion in 1983 with “The Message,” they had already covered all the other terrains of rap music and hip-hop anyway. So it was expected from them, and therefore they no doubt were an immense influence.
Paulson: Can you talk about the origins of Public Enemy? How did that come about?
Chuck D: I first got involved in hip-hop by doing graphic design, doing flyers. That was my major in college and I was always this artistic phenom. So the left side of my brain was always kickin’. And I would do hip-hop flyers on Long Island and Queens, and all of a sudden I got involved with, being involved in a mobile DJ unit called Spectrum with Hank Shocklee in 1979. And coincidentally, the first hip-hop records came out in July 1979 and October 1979. I was already a sophomore in college. So the bug had hit me. I thought it was inconceivable that there could be such a thing as a hip-hop record or a rap record because it was a party thing about three hours long. So when the first hip-hop record came out … or I should say that when the second one came out in October, the Sugar Hills, Sugar Hill Gang’s “ Rapper’s Delight, Rapper’s Delight,” it was 15 minutes long. But the ironic effect was how short the record was as opposed to how lengthy it was.
Paulson: How did you determine that you had talent?
Chuck D: I never considered myself a talent. I always considered myself somebody who was like Pete Rose in baseball. I have to run and hustle and dive to first base. There were guys like Big Daddy Kane, hands up and hands down the most talented rapper I’ve ever seen, somebody who can come off the top of their head. I never had those talents. The only talent I think that was really God-given was my voice. Back in the early days of rhyming and hip-hop, you had to have a strong voice because most of the systems were cheap. So if you didn’t have a voice that can cut, people would say to get off the mike. And I never got thrown off the mike. I’m like the Satchel Page of rap music and hip-hop. After I started making records, I was way past my prime. (Laughter)
Paulson: Nobody quite made the music you made. “It Takes a Nation of Millions …” is not the kind of music that you heard from other people at the time. It’s a statement that you didn’t hear from other people at the time. What drove you in the direction of very pointed political commentary and in-your-face kind of music?
Chuck D: Our sole intent was to destroy music. (Laughs) And ah, sonically, we set out to do that, to redefine what people thought of as music, at least in the black urban sense and rap. And also to be able to say something. Rap was basically to us saying what you know and saying what you believe, and just filling the rap up with words. My first records, I’m 26 and 27 years old. I’m not going to try to sound like a 13-year-old kid, and I’m not going to try to appeal to them either ‘cause to me, rap was a grown person’s sport, as it hit myself. So obviously, being a child of the ‘60s, I’m gonna say what I know, say what had impact and influence on me. Myself and Hank and others, we would promote gigs and put Malcolm X on the cover of flyers. And some cat would roll up to us and say, “Yo, who’s this Malcolm the Tenth?” (Laughter) That’s when we said it’s important to see if we can use the music as it reaches people and just fill it with something that means something.
Paulson: One particular song and one particular video that got the attention of many, “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” which was about Arizona’s reluctance to declare a statewide holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. At about the same time you recorded that, I was actually working for USA TODAY and interviewed the governor.
Chuck D: Oh, you did that, huh?
Paulson: A lot of us did. This guy was …
Chuck D: (Evan) Mecham.
Paulson: … intransigent. There was no… and the state was in no mood to be lectured to by Public Enemy about what they ought to be doing. You did this rap video and you did ah… The video itself had some provocative scenes. The governor was poisoned, is that right? Or blown up. The governor was blown up and a senator is poisoned. Here’s my question: beyond the obvious entertainment value of that … (Laughter)
Chuck D: I was Steven Spielberg in that one. (Laughter)
Paulson: Who were you trying to communicate with? Did you have any sense that the people of Arizona would watch the video or hear the song and go, “Governor, you’re wrong, we need to declare a national holiday?” Because on the ground in Arizona, they weren’t listening.
Chuck D: Well, my whole thing — we knew that music can make an impact based on communicating to people and especially through MTV. If MTV is not going to be empty and is gonna put a video across the world, I always believed that music you can help the people, you can hurt the people, or be transparent. And I never believed in being transparent when I open my mouth. So when we made the video, we knew the video probably was going to be seen at least once or twice and maybe banned. But I just thought as a black man growing up in this country, it was the audacity of a state that says, “We’re not gonna acknowledge even one of the most peaceful human beings coming out of your camp.” And I.… I just thought that, being a slap in my face, I’ve got to make a statement. So I’m a big Isaac Hayes fan, so I took the title, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” and just switched it to “By The Time I Get to Arizona.” And I said, “OK, we’re not condoning violence but we’re saying that in this violent act America, based on the counterintelligence program, had something to do with the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King. And we’re going to have a lot of subtle messages saying, ‘Well, what if this happened to America?’ And this is how we feel.” And I happened to be in Hamburg, Germany, when all of it was going down. Like I said it was like ah, it was a highlight of my career being that we played in Arizona with U2 in Sun Devil Stadium, no pun intended. Everybody was expecting the big PE show to open up for U2. And we played that song and then got off the stage. By the next year, they voted in a Dr. Martin Luther King holiday. My whole thing was saying that you can spur and you can trigger minds into not being so much asleep by using art, using song, to make them think progressively against what’s wrong or what’s ignored. Oftentimes, when we’re not heard or seen while we’re in pain, you know, it’s business as usual in America. And my whole thing is to say, well, sometimes it can’t be business as usual because slavery was business as usual. And if you have the discussion about slavery in 2001, you still get people that say, “Oh, that was back then but what about now?” And I tell people all the time that the effect of slavery hampers us even more now in 2001, that slave mentality that’s running rampant in the black community even in 2001. You would expect something that took place over 300 years, I guess officially, in this country or in this hemisphere would have an effect maybe for a thousand years. It’s like you know the initial pain of sticking a pin or a needle in your arm might only you know happen for a second, but that pain’s going to linger on maybe for a day or two. It depends on what doctor you find…so… (laughter)
Paulson: You talk about that period being the highlight for you, creating a… you truly created a firestorm. There was a remarkable backlash. And although I’m confident that Public Enemy …
Chuck D: It created a discussion. There was definitely discussion. Front page, USA TODAY, I was like, whoa. And it wasn’t just to create controversy for controversy’s sake, it wasn’t to create controversy for sales’ sake. My whole thing is like, if I’m publicly seen to have a platform, if something bothers me that affects us as a masses or affects us as a people, it’s my obligation and duty to use the medium that reaches out to the people to bring a certain point or issue that’s tucked in the back up for discussion. And that’s what we did. A lot of people looked at rap music as being unable to do that.
Paulson: When you look back at your career with Public Enemy, are there other songs that stand out for you where you go, “We made a difference there, we made a statement there and I feel particularly good about that?”
Chuck D: “Fight the Power” for “Do the Right Thing.” Spike Lee made that happen. We sat down with Spike Lee in Soho, had a simple discussion. Spike says, “Come up with an anthem.” I went overseas, came back with an anthem. But Spike Lee made it happen by shooting two videos, a big one in Bed-Stuy, having a movie and then putting it in the movie eight to ten times. I was like whoa… He made that happen. Yes, I put the words together, but it’s a team that makes things happen. If it wasn’t for Spike Lee making that happen … I think that was a very important key part to Public Enemy’s career. I look back and I say, “Well, you know, that’s something that I wrote. But it was taken and the ball was run into the end zone by other powers that that wanted to help out.”
Paulson: Early on, when you heard that people were saying none of your music should be on the radio, what was your reaction to that?
Chuck D: Well, first of all, they never really considered rap music “music.” And then they said, “Well, it’s a kid’s music.” I remember when George Harrison once called rap music “computerized rot.” I said publicly, “Well, you know, if it was Ringo … if it was Lennon or McCartney I would have felt dissed.” (Laughter) Now I remember when Tipper Gore came up with the parental advisory sticker and “Fear of a Black Planet” was coming out. Automatically, they said that we had to wear the sticker on the cover of “Fear of a Black Planet,” which was gonna mess up my artwork. (Laughter) And I was like, “Well, I don’t have anything derogatory towards anybody in this album. I’m not saying a lot of curse words,” I said, you know. If they gave me “Caution: Revolutionary Lyrics Inside,” I could agree with that. But I couldn’t agree with the fact that parents had to watch out for what I had to say. I think that was the one of the most examined albums all the way up to Eminem. And the fact is, they couldn’t find anything inside it but deep, detailed discussion on things I think young people could look out for when they get older, or even older people could look towards themselves or look towards their peers to inform them while still having a good time and jumping up and down and going to the concerts and doing their thing. I learned from James Brown, “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” I’m 8 years old, had a profound effect on me. Because the year before, let’s say “The Newlywed Game” would be on and me and my brothers and sisters, me and my brother and my sister would be all, “Ooh, they got a colored couple on! Let’s vote for the coloreds!” We were colored a year before! And three years before that we were Negroes! And so I’m like, “OK, say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud. Signify! We’re black, end of discussion. It’s a good thing to roll with.” So that was a song. Same thing as Sly and the Family Stone. They would sing songs that actually brought people together with their commonalities and threw the differences aside. So we tried to work with the elements of those, you know. If they gave me a sticker in 1990 for “Fear of a Black Planet” without looking into the details of what was there, then I would say that’s business as usual in America.
Paulson: We had Bo Diddley on the show not long ago. Bo had this record in 1955 called “I’m a Man.” Those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the lyrics are basically, “Line up all the pretty women and I’ll make love to them all in an hour.”
Chuck D: Bo’s a hell of a man. (Laughter)
Paulson: Yeah, he is. And he still sings it at age 70-something, and he still seems to mean it. (Laughter) But it’s funny. Bo was under attack for “dirty music” in 1955, but Bo is a spirited guy and obviously embraced R&B at a time when it had, when it really did have an edge to it. But Bo said, “I can’t stand this current music. It’s too dirty. This rap music is awful. It’s influencing our kids in a negative way.” This is the heart of my question to you, because you were being attacked really for your political stance as much as for the content. Here, today Senator Clinton, Senator Lieberman, many others are criticizing the content of rap not because it’s revolutionary but because of profanity, sexual content. Do you see today’s music in a different light than you saw your own music?
Chuck D: Of course, it’s a different time. Right now you got you might have 28- and 29-year-olds with 28- or 29-year-old issues, but with a target audience being 8-17. Now I believe, I don’t believe so much in regulation as in the fact that you have to navigate, to teach kids how to navigate through the massive information that’s coming at them. People’s fantasy is their reality. And if you don’t have your realities down, which is your education, your economics, your enforcement, your environment, which is often the case in the black community, you could fall into a situation where fantasy and reality has a very thin line between the two. When you have that very thin line between the two, not only does art imitate life but life can imitate art. Reciprocate, be reciprocated …. That’s what we’re facing with information today. You have situations that control images. Images create perceptions, and young people without being able to navigate through information and images will follow their peers based on the perception. That’s where it gets dangerous. You have some communities that can’t hold their own water, thus the community I come from. Our realities are not controlled by us. Therefore, we can be dictated to on how to act. So that goes with television, music, film, you know. I come from a community where cats might go to the videogames and actually feel that they know what it feels like to blow somebody’s head off. “Son, yo, if I really got a piece it’d be on.” And it’s very easy to get locked up into your own frame of mind nowadays because your own frame of mind can be sold to you. So I think the politicians have an issue when it comes down to dealing with kids because today’s education curriculums are outdated to teach kids how to deal with the millennium age of mass propaganda and information. They’re learning about Patrick Henry. Whoop-de-whoop, OK, cool. You’ve got to learn about that, but can you actually learn how to deal with a person and look them in the eye face to face? You’ve even got adults who are like, “Yeah, chat. Yeah, girl, when I see you, yo, on the real, I catch you at the club, girl.” “OK. I’ll see you then.” (Laughter) And then when they get to meet each other, they can’t even look at each other in the eye. “So, how … how are … you?” “Fine.” Then when they get home? “I had a great time!” (Laughter) This is a serious, serious issue. It’s like, you know, Prince says you get on top of technology, you don’t let technology get on top of you. You be on top of the computer. You get on the computer, don’t let the computer get on you. Because you can actually lose it and fall into Big Brotherism. That’s where we’re at. You’ve got companies out there who are basically heading to the streets of Bel Air based on the expense of the “hood” or the community, which is thrust upon as being this big TV show of entertainment and whatever goes down, it’s “real” TV. It’s “reality.” But really, a lot of people are taking on those images because it’s the only thing that’s communicating to them and they’re grabbing on to it as their reality.
Paulson: So I want to be clear about this.
Chuck D: Yeah, be clear.
Paulson: Be clear. Are you talking about popular culture being dangerous to the welfare of young people, and that somebody needs to do something about it?
Chuck D: Yes, because it’s combined with technologies that go beyond the scope of understanding. Technologies are controlled by corporations for the sake that people go in there and open their wallets up and be subservient to them. So some of these things that are coming across the radio shouldn’t be on the radio. Maybe it’s like you can’t, you can’t regulate the record companies, but you’ve definitely got to get to the point where you’ve got to understand how to have some kind of regulation on the airwaves.
Paulson: Chuck D. is saying we need to keep some music off the radio. Can I see your driver’s license? (Laughter)
Chuck D: Look, there are songs that I made I would never, ever hope that they would ever make the radio because it would start a revolution overnight. But —
Paulson: Did Richard Pryor damage you?
Chuck D: Did Richard Pryor damage me?
Paulson: Yeah, you listened to Richard Pryor when your mom felt it probably wasn’t appropriate. Foul language. Unless you had a very early Richard Pryor album.
Chuck D: He started me off cursing, for sure. (Laughs) I curse like a sailor. But I’m grown. And when I got into Richard Pryor, I was 16 or 17. Trying to sneak that turntable. But at the same time, there was a balance of … OK, my parents knew who Richard Pryor was. And they said, “Yeah, I know Richard Pryor, but no, you can’t listen to Richard Pryor.” And therefore, I just went on outside because I’m not gonna get no turntable. But it might have been different if I was able to get a CD player or a cassette Walkman.
Paulson: Your concerns about parenting are echoed all over this country. But you are Chuck “Fight the Power” D.
Chuck D: Yeah, but to my kids, I’m “Daddy.” “Oh, Daddy, turn the radio back on!” “No, because we can’t play ‘Shake Your Ass’ right on in the car.” Because I got nieces that are 3 years old in the back based on the radio singing, “Shake Your Ass.”
Paulson: And we see this over and over again, people who early on did controversial art. When they become parents, they have a different perspective. Tell me what you would tell Congress what to do about this.
Chuck D: I raise my kids to actually not look at themselves as Americans. I look at myself, I’m not American. I’m a worldly person. I’m from the planet Earth. I’ve been to 53 countries. I’ve been through three passports. Yes, it says, “United Snakes of America.” But hey, I was born here. My people put time in, they worked for it. They haven’t been compensated yet. There’s no such thing as reparations, and I’m here. So I’m gonna claim the United Snakes of America. My trusting and waiting for government to do anything has always been a problem with me. So I’m pretty much, I’m saying, “Well, can we do well for ourselves and can we have access to mass media and the airwaves?” And we don’t.
Paulson: You pull no punches. Thanks for joining us today.
Chuck D: I ain’t gonna pull no punches. I mean, I’ve been me for a long time. (Laughter)
Paulson: Our guest today has been Chuck D. I’m Ken Paulson, back next week with another conversation about free expression, the arts, and America. I hope you can join us then for “Speaking Freely.”
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