Q&A: Chuck D–Yo! Bum Rush The Hall of Fame

Chuck DPublic Enemy is the undisputed benchmark in demanding social change through the power of hip-hop. Although many artists and groups of all different genres of music have been influenced by their powerful messages and chaotic yet urgent compositions (Rage Against The Machine and Dead Prez are two that come to mind), the Long Island collective is still the original authors to the blueprint in how to challenge the status quo via beats and rhymes.

With arguably the greatest hype man in hip-hop history, Flavor Flav, by his side providing a comedic-like balanced antidote, P.E.’s lead MC, Chuck D, has spent the past 25 years educating the masses. With his signature deep baritone delivery that is raw, in your face, and for some, intimidating and threatening, Chuck has become an advocate for many a revolution. This has been most notable within the music industry and in the way hip-hop culture has been portrayed and abused.

The truthful and unapologetic nature of P.E.’s music is still relevant to this day and has touched a variety of walks of life from all different races, cultures, and backgrounds. Even those within pop culture have taken notice, as many can remember actor Edward Furlong as John Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, rocking a Public Enemy shirt throughout the movie while on the run from the T-1000 cyborg. Now, Public Enemy has been bestowed the highest honor a band or musician can receive: A place in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, becoming fourth hip-hop group–including Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, Run-DMC, and Beastie Boys–to do so.

Two weeks before the induction ceremony, which had Public Enemy enter the hall alongside fellow legends such as Quincy Jones, Donna Summer, Randy Newman, Heart, and prog rock pioneers Rush, SoulTrain.com discusses P.E.’s past, present, and future with Chuck D.   

SoulTrain.com: Take us back to Public Enemy’s beginnings at Adelphi University’s student radio station, WBAU, as part of the “Super Spectrum City Mix Show;” where many of the group’s key players first met and started collaborating with each together.

Chuck D: As a student at Adelphi, I was involved with Spectrum City as a mobile DJ unit in Long Island. Spectrum City was actually the name of our outfit at that time that would later change into Public Enemy. So with the help of Bill Stephney, the programming director of WBAU (who later would become Promotions Director at Def Jam), it became our outlet to start getting out the music we were making, as well as the music of others. And from there, the rest is history.  You can Google it [laughs].

SoulTrain.com: Looking at the message and dynamics of Public Enemy as a group, describe what makes the unique yin and yang chemistry of you and Flavor Flav, who is widely considered to be the greatest hype man in Hip-Hop in history, work?

Chuck D: Even though early MCs such as Busy Bee had “hype” personalities, they still were lead MCs. Flav invented the role of what being a hype man is; and that is why he is the greatest at it. His influence is unprecedented. Flav’s personality has always been one of being a hype guy, and he takes our performances to the next level.

SoulTrain.com: That is interesting, because from what I understand, originally [Def Jam co-founder] Rick Rubin just wanted just sign you as a solo artist. 

Chuck D: It actually it took both me and [Bomb Squad member] Hank Shocklee to convince Def Jam that he had to be there because we operated as a group, not an individual situation.

SoulTrain.com: From a production standpoint as a member of The Bomb Squad, alongside Hank and Keith Shocklee and Eric “Vietnam” Sadler, you created a soundtrack that was a sonic “state of emergency.” And that sound still carries on today though DJ Lord and The baNNed’s sonic contributions. What was the importance and inspiration in creating a sound that held a sense of urgency just as your lyrics?

Chuck D: It was one of those things where it was collaborative effort and capturing that intensity in the music was critical to what we were all about. Not only did we operate from a musician effort, but we also operated from a record and DJ effort. Hank was and probably is still the best at speaking about the importance of having the DJ being as much a part of the music’s creative process as possible.

SoulTrain.com: What do you remember the most regarding PE’s first appearance on Soul Train performing “Rebel Without A Pause?” Furthermore, what was its impact on PE’s career at a time where Hip-Hop was rarely, if not at all, shown on a national TV platform?

Chuck D: Soul Train helped our records become nationally seen and known. I remember we recorded our performance in October 1987. During that same two day taping schedule, they also filmed performances by Whodini, Eric B. and Rakim, and LL Cool J–all artists we had already toured with. So with everyone giving these big level performances, we did “Rebel Without A Pause,” which was the song we were most known for at the time. When it first aired in December of 1987, we happened to be on tour overseas in Europe and received feedback that everyone had started to take heed to what we were doing nationally.

SoulTrain.com: “Fight The Power” from Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing Soundtrack is arguably P.E.’s most celebrated record. Even more memorable was the music video for it, in which the atmosphere on the set transformed the shoot into an actual rally on film. Can you please recount for us your experience filming it?

Chuck D: With Spike Lee being from Brooklyn, he really dressed up that area up to be both reflective of the movie, as well as showing his hometown pride as a Brooklynite. Both Spike and us wanted to present a community that was forward and progressive that could handle the issues being raised in the song and video. Spike was able to use the power of film to transcend art with the movement and make that statement, which was highly commendable at that time.

SoulTrain.com: One of my favorite P.E. records I want to ask you about is “By The Time I Get To Arizona,” which was released in 1991 out of protest because the state of Arizona would not recognize Kingdom Day as a holiday.  It has been 45 years since the assassination of Dr. King. Please describe the recording process for it and what the song means to you 21 years later.

Chuck D: The original lyrics for “By The Time I Get To Arizona” were originally recorded to the same track that later became “Shut ‘Em Down.” But I didn’t feel satisfied with the recording takes I had laid down over it, so we put the song on hold. Then came along the beat with the Mandrill sample (“Two Sisters of Mystery”) in it and that became the keeper. One of the main reasons why the song is still meaningful to this day is because of the music video. We wanted to use visual media to make a strong impact with that song and Eric Meza, who directed “Can’t Truss It” for us, was the perfect man for the job. He really encapsulated where we were coming from and pulled out all the stops to make a classic video.

SoulTrain.com: Starting next month, you and P.E. will embark on the Kings Of The Mic Tour with LL Cool J, De La Soul and Ice Cube. You have a history with all three of those acts: LL being signed to Def Jam, De La sharing the same management in the 1990s (Russell Simmons’ Rush Management), and you working with Ice Cube on his solo debut, Amerikkka’s Most Wanted. What is unique about this line up to me is, although the four of you came out during the same era, each was diverse in their own sound and messages. What do you think was the driving connecting force of inspiration during that era of hip-hop amongst you all?

Chuck D: Everybody wanted to have there own distinct areas. LL Cool J, if you remember, emerged in 1984. He was able to really set precedence as a teenager to make a lot of possibilities for all of us, including Ice Cube with N.W.A, Public Enemy, and De La Soul, who emerged four years later. So it’s only in my opinion, LL is the man who carries this torch and we’re glad to be accompanying that.

SoulTrain.com: Speaking of Ice Cube, what do you remember the most from those Amerikkka’s Most Wanted sessions with Cube and The Bomb Squad?

Chuck D: I’m very quick to say everything had its start in Long Island [laughs]. We’re from Long Island, De La Soul is from Long Island, LL was born in Bay Shore, Long Island, and Amerikkka’s Most Wanted was formed in Long Island [laughs]. The biggest thing I remember was being able to finally get Ice Cube to agree to taking on Amerikkka’s Most Wanted after he felt that somebody should pay attention to the works he wanted to come with solo wise, after he felt like he wasn’t given enough oxygen over at N.W.A.

SoulTrain.com: You were one of the first in the music business to embrace technology in a way that is standard for independent artists today, including myself. This dating back to the launch of rapstation.com in 1999, then SlamJamz Records, then online remix album Revolverlution, and now with SpitDIGITAL. releasing P.E.’s latest albums Most Of My Heroes STILL Don’t Appear on No Stamp and The Evil Empire of Everything. You have seen both sides of the coin working with major labels and running independent companies. For you, what have been the biggest advances in these fields in the last decade?

Chuck D: Well Charles, the biggest thing in the last decade, especially with what we wanted to do with SpitDIGITAL, was be able to encourage artists to have their own labels, be at the forefront of D.I.Y. music operations, and to look at their creativity as being the lead instance. This is opposed to follow a retail or business equation. We released two albums on SpitDIGITAL last year as a statement because we believe that music can lead to business, instead of business leading the music. And I say that because in the past, releasing two albums in a year would have been impossible. It was in that moment that we, the artists, dictated that flow of release, not based on what retail or distribution could handle. That is the biggest difference today. Retail or distribution doesn’t completely lead the path to releasing your music. With this timing, it was welcomed.

SoulTrain.com: P.E. will be the fourth hip-hop group to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, following Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, Run-DMC, and your former Def Jam label mates, Beastie Boys.  What does the honor mean to you and for hip-hop culture as a whole?

Chuck D: We don’t take it very lightly. I grew up a sports fan watching players being inducted into Halls of Fame and to me it’s not a “throw” award, but based on your opinion. We have a very active 25 years. If it wasn’t for us being able to travel abroad into 86 countries in the world, I don’t think our longevity would have been here. We never had situations in the United States that supported us like Don Cornelius and Soul Train did in 1987, in 1989, in 1991. I really miss Don and it was one of those things where we miss a great, great person when they are gone. I think that not only Black music, but also music in general, owes Don Cornelius and his family whatever it takes to keep him and his family as an institution. We’re able to say that this [Rock And Roll Hall of Fame] award came out of that.

SoulTrain.com: I agree man, and personally speaking, when I took on the job to write for SoulTrain.com, one of my primary goals was to continue that vision that Don had of bringing new ideas and new artists, as well as showing homage to artists that paved the way. That is always in the front of mind when working for Soul Train.

Chuck D: That’s good to hear, man. You have a really great spirit and you’re in a real great space. Soul Train is a cornerstone and it was great to be able to talk to “The Don” a couple times and be able to get his words of wisdom that still stays with me today.

SoulTrain.com: I actually got to meet Don back in 2006 at the Soul Train Awards as a seat filler. I remember after our brief conversation, him taking my seat from me to talk business with Tyra Banks, who was sitting right next to me at the time. The high school version of myself was kicking rocks to the back seats [laughs], but it is still a funny moment to me and an example of Don conducting business right on the spot.

Chuck D: [Laughs] Actually, Tyra Banks was on the episode of Soul Train we were on in 1991, introducing us.

SoulTrain.com: Wow! Talk about bringing things full circle. Alright, last question, Chuck. It has been 26 years since P.E.’s debut Yo! Bum Rush The Show was released and the group is still going strong today. With all the accolades, including now being newly inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, what aspect of your and P.E.’s legacy do you want to be remembered the most?

Chuck D: Being able to make real music that makes real change. One of the biggest joys we have, selfishly speaking, is having Harry Belafonte, along with Spike Lee, present the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame award to us. That is major for us. That fact that he approves is a benchmark and he’ll be able to let us know his words of wisdom and we’re looking forward to that.–Chuck Nunley

Chuck Nunley (also known as DJ Chuck “thE oLd SouL”) is a Los Angeles, California homegrown DJ/Producer/Artist, and Owner & Director of Operations of the music collective, Honor Flow Productions. Please check out the sights and sounds of H.F.P. at HFPuniversity.blogspot.com and follow Chuck on Twitter @thEoLdSouLHFP . Soul Claps and Salutes to you all.

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