"You can’t stay in the same place. Even if they dig it super-heavy. Don’t repeat yourself."
Chuck D always wants to try new things. The Hip-Hop legend has spent more than 35 years fronting one of music's most politically explosive acts in Public Enemy. He's the voice, and the mind and the spirit of P.E.'s artistry and ethos. But he has to push himself out of his comfort zone. That's why he doesn't believe in sticking to what he's already done. "That’s like the rock motto," he says with a grin. "Even if they love it. Move on to the next. Even if it’s not as popular. Go do it [anyway], take the hit and be a pioneer."
Public Enemy pioneered many things over the course of their illustrious career; Chuck, hypeman Flavor Flav, DJ Terminator X and "Minister of Information" Professor Griff set a standard for political rap and the expression of Black rage in the late 1980s. The Long Island-based crew dropped a string of acclaimed albums, including It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back and Fear Of A Black Planet, during the George H.W. Bush years that made them revered and reviled; spent the mid-1990s challenging a rap industry that seemed intent on selling itself out, and moved into the 2000s as forerunners of the indie rap movement online, with independently released projects like Revolverlution and Rebirth Of A Nation. Now, as he discusses with ROCK THE BELLS, he refuses to let Public Enemy sit still.
"The process is always to not repeat yourself."
Their latest is the timely What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down? The album marks P.E.'s return to a major label – their original homebase of Def Jam Records. The group, which now features a lineup of Chuck, Flav, Griff, DJ Lord, and guitarist Khari Wynn, is invigorated by the push of a major, but the platform is just that – a means to an end.
“'Hittin’ the studio' means what?" Chuck explains. "The studio is inside people, everybody is recording everything visually and audibly anyway. The process – as far as Public Enemy is concerned – depends on if Flavor Flav is ready. Being back with Def Jam was a simple answer."
And Public Enemy isn't looking to exploit the current political climate for hype.
"It wasn’t like ‘We gotta make a Public Enemy record to be relevant' or to get in with a crowd or take advantage of a situation," says Chuck. "I’d rather not do that. I’d rather do it in the flow of creativity. Who the hell wants a terrible situation just so they can be looked upon to be the answer to the terrible situation? Not me. To me, music is about getting away from the trials and tribulation and the ills of life and getting that release, that break."
The signing with Def Jam came on the heels of early 2020 tumult for Public Enemy, specifically between Chuck and Flav.
Chuck acknowledges his complex partnership with the iconic hypeman and reality TV legend. Even rejoining their label was a bit of an olive branch between Hip-Hop's most enduring odd couple.
"It was a settlement between us two; figuring out where should we land the record," shares Chuck. "Independently, internet-wise, I paved a road for the last twenty years. That was good. And Flav rode with it. That was cool. I’m going to be 90 percent of the energy and the work, but his ten percent is major. I asked for 25 percent of his effort! Long story short, he wanted to do something major. Flav is a star; he rode this independent road with me. I still do my independent thing; I have my label, The SpitSLAM Record Label Group. And also Rapstation, which is the 'minor league' of what they do at Sirius Radio and ROCK THE BELLS and all that. So I kind of live in the 'minor league,' independent circles all the time. But I said this was an important time and Public Enemy is important; and Def Jam came into the picture – which was a no-brainer. But Def Jam was a settlement."
That settlement came on the heels of highly-publicized bickering between the longtime partners back in March; after Flav publicly distanced himself from Chuck after the latter booked Public Enemy to perform at a rally for Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders. The two entered into a war of words in the press and via social media, before things calmed suddenly amidst claims that it was all a hoax. Chuck admits that tensions were real. Chuck was focused on recording with P.E. offshoot Enemy Radio (with Jahi and Lord Aswod) as Flav sorted through his own resentments. Over time, the pair wound up working together again.
"The dynamic is that I like to heard and not seen," he says of the differences between he and his mercurial musical partner. "He likes to be seen and heard at the same time. I like him to be a star. I don't wanna be no star. It's the yin/yang for real – to the extreme. I don't mind doing the work. You can just come in and stroll in. It does disrupt an order and cause dissensions. But my thing with me and Flavor – its simple: If we want to work but you don't want to do your work, then we won't work. I can go do other things. But it's not gonna be Public Enemy. I just spent the last four years in a brotherhood [with] Prophets of Rage."
Chuck D respects what Public Enemy is and understands P.E. isn't P.E. without Chuck and Flav side-by-side. But he's adamant that Flav understand that, as well, and puts in the effort.
Chuck D and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy perform at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on June 6, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
"If Flavor got batteries in his clock and [he] wants Public Enemy to work, then [he's] got to work. That was our disagreement at the beginning of the year."
The journey to Def Jam turned out to be just the thing to focus some of the friction. "Then we said, if we do something, where's it going to be? It ain't going to just be wherever you want it to be. And then Def Jam popped up.
But I'm always pushing him to do some work. Because he does work in today's star world – he helped invent it! He's gonna be at the party and at the awards shows. But you can't not record and be a recording artist!"
The album features Hip-Hop's longest running active group in top form, firing off at the current President, the questionable motives of social media giants, Hip-Hop stars who seem to have switched up or given up; and they've got a who's-who of legendary artists onboard. Everyone from Questlove to Stetsasonic's Daddy-O to Ice-T to DJ Premier makes an appearance, and on "Public Enemy Number Won," P.E. rounds up former Def Jam compadres Beastie Boys and affiliates Rev. Run and D.M.C. for some love.
"Some people would say ‘OK, you signed with Def Jam, so we’re gonna line up all these features and collabs.’ But we already had a song with Ice-T and Parish Smith recorded. Me and Preemo and Flavor thought we had something that could speak to the moment. What BET was doing with Questlove and 'Fight the Power 2020,' I would be a fool to fight that momentum. I reached out to do 'Public Enemy Number Won' to pay homage to the people who brought me in. That was all the conversations that made the collaborations organic. It wound up that way, it didn’t start that way."
Chuck D isn't interested in repeating himself, but part of what makes Public Enemy work in 2020 is a healthy mix of forward-thinking and not ducking their legendary status and mythos. They reach back to classics like "Public Enemy No. 1" and "Fight the Power" with newfound vigor, while recording current anthems like "State Of The Union (S.T.FU.)" with both gusto and craftsmanship. It's evidence of Chuck's ever-present passion and commitment to making music that moves you.
"I happen to be somebody who can talk to those trials, tribulations and ills of life," he concedes, recognizing his art and the cultural role he has with fans around the world. "But it’s always done with the end result of you having a good time with what the culture can give you. The end result is not to burden you with the culture. I grew up on the music of Gamble & Huff. All that Philadelphia music. It always made us feel good, made us think and made us move. You really danced to Philly International: Teddy Pendergrass, and Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, and The O’Jays. It was the combination – of head, spirit and soul."
*HEADER CREDIT: Chuck D of Public Enemy performs live on stage during the concert Gods of Rap at the Parkbuehne Wuhlheide on May 18, 2019 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Frank Hoensch/Redferns)