CHUCK D, interview
Melody Maker, October 12th 1991
by Simon Reynolds
"The first album, Yo, Bum Rush The Show was, like, if
you can't get what you deserve, kick that motherfucking door
down by any means. It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Stop Us
was about how there's millions of motherfuckers stopping us
from getting what we need to get. And, from the black
nationalist point of view, there's millions of us holding
ourselves back. Fear Of Black Planet talked about the
paranoia of what race is - white people's problems with
themselves, their misconceptions about race.
"The new album, Apocalypse '91 - The Enemy Strikes
Black is about how we, the black race, have double agents in
our ranks who are contributing to the genocide. In order for
us to get our shit in order, we've gotta get those
motherfuckers. They'll just be outright destroyed, either by
the positive hardcore, or by themselves."
Chuck D looks me over, through hooded eyes, then continues. "From Day One,
I've said that there's no place for people who sell drugs in
the Public Enemy programme. Selling drugs to a seven year
old kid, that's just as lethal as coming by with an axe and
chopping his head off. You wouldn't allow him to do that, so
you shouldn't allow him to sell drugs."
Do you really see pushers as agents of white supremacy?
"Of course. They're victims too, but they're conscious.
They know what they're doing. And when they're doing the
wrong thing, they've got to suffer severe penalties. No more
time for the psychoanalytical approach. We can't feel sorry,
we can't even get emotional. It's damn near prophesised that
the motherfuckers will be slain outright, by the doers of
good over the doers of evil. What's going to happen is the
same thing that developed in South Africa, where the only way
to develop unity and organisation is to eliminate the agents.
In South Africa, they put 'rubber neckties' on them. Here in
America, you're soon gonna see brothers who want to get paid
saying to themselves: 'why bother to sell drugs, why don't I
just stick up and kill drug dealers?' You already got groups
coming up who say 'we love to rob the dope man'. We're gonna
see an apocalyptic situation with the rise of black
It's said that African-American problems have a lot to
do with damaged family structures, with absent or derelict
fathers. I reckon Chuck D wants to be the 'Good Father',
hard but fair, meting out just punishment and putting his
people back on the straight and narrow. That's why he's so
tired this evening, worn-out by his duties. He's been awake
for 24 hours out of the last 28 hours, dealing with the
manifold aspects of Public Enemy, and he has to jet off early
the next morning to give a talk in the Mid-West.
The big conflict in rap right now is between aspiring to
be a "good father" (prophet, teacher, leader) or a "bad boy"
(hoodlum, gangsta). For some, rap's gotten too earnest,
righteous and didactic (you've even got groups appearing with
blackboards and lecterns in their videos). These people wish
rap would go back to the days when it was irresponsible, when
the slogan was "let's get stupid" not "holy intellect". But
others think its time rap grew up, shed its delinquent image.
and ceased reinforcing negative stereotypes of black male
youth. For these people, the inchoate rage of gangsta rappers
and ghetto youth needs to be channelled away from petty crime
and macho tantrums, into an orderly revolutionary programme.
"The new album's lesson is 'no more fun and games',"
says Chuck D. "There's no room for kids here. The black
situation needs less adolescents aged over eighteen. Fun and
games have got to be tucked to the side; responsibility and
business have got to take precedence. The album deals with
the whole question of what 'hardcore' means. The positive
hardcore is much harder than the negative hardcore. Negative
hardcore" - Chuck means gangsta rap like NWA - "is the easy
way out. Going round shooting brothers, beating them down -
that don't make you hard. Gangsta rap is street, but
political rap is a level above that, because once you
understand the streets then you're political. Gangsta rap has
lots of good stories, but it doesn't understand the structure
behind those stories. If you don't understand the situation,
you're gonna end up victimised by it."
If rap is suffering from a malaise right now, it's
because it's gotten so successful, it's fragmented; its
momentum has dispersed as people disagree about "the way
"People are saying rap's getting stale. Rap's not getting
stale; there are problems, but you've got to have a mechanic
that knows the motor rather than someone from outside. One
problem is that a lot of people are not controlling what they
create. Rap is selling more than it's ever sold, but the
industry has got this throw-shit-against-the-wall-and-see-
what-sticks mentality. Too many groups are novices in all
other situations apart from making the music. And they are
getting exploited. You can sell a whole load of records and
the record companies will tell you all the money went on
promotion. And that's where the game comes into play, and
whether you know what the game is and how to play it."
You sound personally bitter about your experiences with
the music industry.
"I'm not bitter, I understand it, where a lot of groups
don't understand it. You always get into a fight with
structures. A lot of people don't know the history of black
music, and how the jazz greats and the blues greats were
ripped off. At CBS alone, Aretha Franklin was exploited,
Johny Mathis was exploited, Sly Stone, Earth Wind And Fire
.... Everybody gets screwed over, I get screwed over - but I
know how to fight."
The last time I interviewed Public Enemy, in late 1987,
I claimed that their aggression, noise, militancy, brutalism,
made them far closer to ROCK than contemporary black music.
It was a contentious argument at the time, but since then the
"Bring The Noise" remake with Anthrax has validated it. Then
there's the fact that Chuck D doesn't like disco and doesn't
like R&B ballads, but loves heavy metal. "Metal has attitude
and it has speed, and that's two things that I like." More
than that, he admires metal groups for having their shit
"I've been to a few metal shows, and they were a
learning experience for me, in that I learned what I was
being shorted on when it comes to live rap shows. Sound
technicians and lighting technicians know how to enhance
metal groups to the max, but they don't know how to get a
good sound for rap. Seeing metal shows, I realised that rap
groups are missing out on a lot. One thing I know about
metal is that the attitude is there, and even though I
personally give out a lot to my audience, I know that other
rap groups can learn from metal when it comes to kicking out
to their audience. Metal records give a lot more in terms of
sleeve information and imagery. That's why metal groups stay
tight with their audiences for so long. A metal group's
career is like this" - his hand draws an undulating but
steadily rising graph curve in the air - "while a rap career
is like this" - he gestures a steep graph line that peaks
quickly then plummets. "In rap, groups are treated like
they're disposable, and so they become disposable. Heavy
metal groups are involved in how their their music is
presented, packaged, marketed. They have control of the
merchandising and their logos, whereas the vast majority of
rap groups have no control at all."
A shame metal groups don't do something more imaginative
with their total control, really. Still Chuck D genuinely
seems to believe rap and metal have a lot of common: Public
Enemy's upcoming tour with Anthrax is an attempt to tap into
the white headbanger market. One thing that Public Enemy's
kind of rap shares with Anthrax and Metallica's kind of metal
is an apocalyptic vibe. In righteous rap, as in doomsday
thrash, the lyrics speak of chaos and imminent devastation,
while the music embodies survivalist discipline in the face
of that threat. After the bewilderment and doubt of Fear Of
A Black Planet, Apocalypse '91 is a return to resilience,
spiritual stamina, girded loins. Musically, the new album's
not as varied as Fear; it's straight-slamming, rock solid
Public Enemy, the only real musical departure being "By The
Time I Get To Arizona", which pivots on a boogie bassline so
bad-ass it's stinks up your room.
Chuck D runs through some of the more notable issues
addressed on the album.
"The opening track, "Lost At Birth" is about how we as a
people were lost at birth, but now we
have to find ourselves. We do have a common bond. Excuses
are played the fuck out. In a time of war, equip yourself.
Equip yourself with what it takes to survive in the modern
world. The next track "Rebirth" deals with that problem:
how to reinstate your situation, get back the pride that we
had in the motherland.
"Night Train" talks about how, in the
black structure, we all look alike, but some people aren't
black inside like they claim to be. Everybody's riding the
same train, but for the shit to roll right, those people got
to be thrown off the train. They could be sitting right next
to you but you just can't trust 'em; they could be a pimp or
a murderer or a drug pusher. You've got to judge people by
their actions, not just by their black skin. You got devils
that come in all colours, all shapes and sizes. You got
grafta devils - 'grafta' meaning white, because whites are an
an offshoot or graft from the original black race. And you
got devils that look just like you. How you gonna treat
those people? You got to take them outa here." He makes a
sound like a pistol shot.
"'Can't Truss It' is about how the corporate world of
today is just a different kind of slavery. We don't control
what we create. And 'cos of the media, we don't control the
way we think or run our lives. We've got to limit working for
a situation that's other than ours. We have no ownership of
anything. If you don't own businesses, then you don't have
jobs. White people have jobs because they have businesses.
They have institutions that teach them how to live in
America. Black people don't have instititions that teach them
how to deal with shit. The number one institution that
teaches you how to deal is the family, but slavery fucked
that up. So the song is about the ongoing cost of the
holocaust. There was a Jewish holocaust, but there's a black
holocaust that people still choose to ignore."
"'By The Time I Get to Arizona' is about how there's two
states left in America that don't enforce the Martin Luther
King holiday: Arizona and New Hampshire. 'Move!' is about how
there's work to do. If you're over eighteen and you're acting
like a kid, get out of the way. The men are taking over.
Positive hardcore's gonna get the job done.
"'One Million Bottle Bags' is about the malt liquor
problem in Black America. Malt liquor has twice as much
alcohol content and twice as many residues, that's to say,
waste products from regular beer. It's fucked up beer, with
more alcohol. Instead of making people laidback, it makes
them hostile. And it leads to a lot of black on black
violence in America. They have massive campaigns for this
shit that are targeted at the black community. Malt liquors
are made by the major brewers in this country. When they put
their regular beers through the filters, all the excess
bullshit they push to the black community. And it's been
killing motherfuckers for the longest period.
"Lately one particular brand of malt liquor has been
advertised using rappers. And in one commercial [starring Ice
Cube] they sampled my voice. And a lot of people rang me and
asked was I down with it. They thought I'd endorsed it. So
I'm suing that company. I wrote "I Million Bottlebags" five
months prior to any of this legal shit. But when I found out
about the commercial, it was a slap in the face."
In Boyz In The Hood, a brilliant new film about life
in black Los Angeles (which incidentally features Ice Cube as
a malt liquor drinking youth) there's a Good Father character
who argues that it's no coincidence that there's a liquor
store and a gunshop in every black neighbourhood. He claims
it's part of conspiracy whose goal is the genocide of black
America. Do you agree?
"Of course. A liquor store, a gunshop and a drug dealer
on every corner. You go to a place like Louisville and
there's a liquor store every five blocks. And the type of
liquor they sell is stuff that's primarily targeted for black
consumption. Higher alcohol content, less healthy
ingredients, more bullshit. A quicker high, but more
devastation in the long run. I had two uncles in the past
year who died of liver disease. Personally, I 've never seen
the purpose of smoking or drinking. With other people, it's
their prerogative to do what they want. But on this issue,
there's two points. A lot of black on black violence is
caused by this liquor, it's distorted a lot of motherfuckers
mentality - they get into arguments, and if they've got a
gun, then somebody gets shot. The other factor is, I tell the
black community, if you're gonna drink anything, at least
drink what white folks drink.
"'Shut 'Em Down' is about major corporations like Nike
taking profits from the black community, but not giving
anything back, never opening businesses in black areas. And
it's saying that the best way to boycoot a business is to
start your own. 'A Letter To The New York Post' is about
how, whenever the Post covers a story concerning black
people, it's very one sided. They like to make out it's them
niggas fucking up again. They're like The Sun - onesided,
sensationalistic, trying to get readers at any cost. They'll
thrive on a racist situation. We've been misrepresented in
the New York Post a few times.
"'Get The Fuck Outta Dodge' is about apartheid in
America, in the form of noise pollution laws which are
designed so that you can't drive your car through a white
neighbourhood with your system playing loud. And I'm saying
when the shit gets that crazy, you've just got to get the
fuck out of town. I got stopped a while back for playing my
system too loud, cos I was a black guy riding through a white
neighbourhood in a jeep.
"Fear Of Black Planet dabbled in all kind of creative
avenues, the music was very broad. Sometimes I made
statements, sometimes I just presented a range of opinions
for the listener to pick and choose. A lot of the lyrics I
put questions marks at the end of them, to tell the listener,
'you figure it out, I don't know the answer'. This album I'm
hammering home specific points, saying you got to take care
of your own shit. Musically, it's very focussed too.
"With Fear Of A Black Planet, my bewilderment was the
question of who set race up. You have a limited amount of
time in your life, and yet the world is trillions of years
old, there's so much history. How much can any one person
That's the reason conspiracy theories are so appealing;
they simplify the confusion of history, give it a structure
you can grasp. It's tempting to imagine a plot (in both the
'narrative' and 'conspiracy' senses of the word) simply in
order to made the data overload manageable .
"You have data and you have counter-data. The data that
there is comes because it was written by people with a
certain perspective. I try to deal with things that are fact,
like slavery. One reason the Jewish people's story is so
strong is that it's recent and it's documented. In "Can't
Truss It" I talk about how it's hard to believe that for two
hundred years ships sailed the ocean with a cargo of slaves.
That's a holocaust. Jews are screaming over the 1932-1945
period - that's the headline for their story of persecution
which stretches back to the Middle Ages. The black holocaust
goes back centuries too, but we don't have that headline. We
don't document and we don't shout about it like we should."