Alice Meets… Chuck D
‘Music hittin’ your heart cause I know you got soul’
For all their integrity, force, soul and downright craziness, Public Enemy have got to be one of the most truly inspiring groups of all time.
Known for those signature hard beats and the powerful messages of their music, Public Enemy not only pushed political boundaries with their acute and cuttingly honest social observations, but the limits of sound with their uniquely raw rhythms and samples; content and form working in tenacious unity to aurally channel and challenge listeners.
Whilst managing to be uncompromisingly conscious with their work, Public Enemy have also created some of the wildest party jams there are – their fusion of twisted funk and soul with bare noise and hip-hop hype immortalised in tracks like ‘911 is a Joke’ and ‘Cold Lampin with Flavor’. The distinct PE musical composition is reflected in the contrast between Chuck D and Flavor Flav themselves; Chuck’s direct, arresting delivery balanced and boosted by Flav’s infectious hype.
The legendary duo certainly brought their magic to Belgium last month when they headlined Dour Festival, accompanied by DJ Lord and one deft rhythm-section, and completely smashed it on the main stage. The weekend as a whole served up some mighty fine beats but some mighty lame weather, with a notably nasty downpour which cleared up just in time for PE’s amazing, amped-up show to kick off and allow the damp masses to get down. There’s no doubt that their set was the highlight of the festival, which boasted an impressively eclectic line-up this year including fellow hip-hop heavyweights Cypress Hill and Ice Cube.
After the incredible show I managed to grab a little time before dinner with Chuck D and Mike Metalz of ‘HipRock’ group Tranzlate, signed to Chuck’s label SlamJamz, to chat about the evening’s performance, festivals in general and the Ultimate Message…
The energy was just incredible tonight.
Chuck: When I do a show it’s so fast – it’s just like the speed of rapping is so crazy I be spitting that shit out. You can’t eat for like two hours before – that’s a lot of movement. I’m like I have to eat after the show. But let’s do this interview.
Cool. Well, firstly, the show just now was next-level – it was like the rain stopped, rainbow came out – could you just talk a bit about how that was onstage?
Chuck: How the rainbow was?
Nooo – I mean about what that felt like being onstage playing to all those people?
Chuck: Well, the whole key is like we were the first rap group that played gigantic festivals on the regular, now it’s kinda common place. It’s been normal for the last fifteen/twenty years – festivals are more plentiful, now they have rap groups and other different genres on at festivals. But before festivals were for rock groups only and then we were the first to integrate that – although we were not the first rap group, we were the first to integrate because we had driving, hard music. So festivals have been a thing for the last twenty years over in Europe and different countries so you know you gotta keep a rhythm and keep up, you know – go, go, go – non-stop. And it just happens to be that you also got to pay attention to the conditions – the conditions were it was a slippery stage and also with a spontaneous situation, we have a rhythm section. It’s not really a band it’s a rhythm section, so it operates from DJ Lord, we got T Bone Motta over there on the drums – he’s the dirty drummer – we got Davey DMX on the bass and we got Khari Wynn on guitar. So we got four squad rhythm sections operated by DJ Lord, who still commands the sonic template, and it allows us to be spontaneous. So, if I see something going on in the crowd I can fuse it into a sync way of bringing on a record or a song and make it relevant to whatever’s going on at the moment. So there was a rainbow, so you can use that in conversation. You know that you’re in Belgium so you know where you’re at. You should know that, if you’re gonna talk about fighting the power and revolution in your songs, you should know the history of the Congo in Belgium and you should also tell people that they have a new beginning and they are not connected to the old ways, which is war and takeover, and you can do it with very few words. They speak another language but they know more English than you know French or Dutch – and you keep it moving. And there’s symbolic things going on and you gotta keep driving cos people don’t want to be out in the crowds still, especially when the conditions are fucked up they wanna keep it moving themselves.
Yeah, and how do you find playing festivals compared to playing your own show where it’s just Public Enemy fans? Everyone’s come to see you whereas at a festival it’s more varied in terms of who you’re speaking to…
Chuck: It’s a short time, it’s not long. An hour. So you get an hour/ hour and a half – it’s short for us. Twenty five years, we got twenty five years’ worth of songs. So it’s really condensed and you just gotta keep non-stop. Or you ease the crowd into that rhythm – there’s some great crowds out there, and great groups too – like Cypress Hill played on this festival, played the other night. They can take it from very high-pitched, ‘Hand on the Pump’ or ‘I Could Kill a Man’, or really pitch it down into you know ‘Hits From The Bong’, make it really like easy and that’s the building/ beauty of a lot of groups. Mike Metal and his group Tranzlate played with us on tour a couple of years ago and they have a great sense of making it very hype and also commanding and controlling the crowd. Mike – what are some of your favourite tricks that you like to use when it comes down to controlling the crowd that you get in front of?
Mike: Well, first you know you have to bring energy. I think that’s first and foremost – you have to just give them energy and you will inevitably get that back from the crowd. I experienced that the last time that we were supporting Public Enemy in Belgium, France, Germany and Holland. I mean, there were venues that you know I’d never been and people that had never seen me or my band, and they were so hyped up, especially in Germany. It was like they knew all my songs and like they’d known me for years – which was incredible. And I think one of the things is the energy you put into it, the openness, you have to connect to every single one of the people in there. You know I think that’s like not even a trick, it’s just something that you have to bring every time, and like Chuck said you just have to look for a balance in the set. You can’t just keep, you know 150 bpm all the time, you have to balance it out. I have a DJ as well so you give him his room to do his thing – I have a drummer of course so like Chuck said before it’s great to have a band to really catch the moment and not depend on a DJ only or someone who presses a button for the beats. So a band definitely helps.
So you feel like the energy that you put out you get back?
Mike Definitely, definitely. And to me it doesn’t matter if there’s 50 or 500 or 5,000 people. I find that every time I get that energy back from people. It’s hard to describe – but you can’t really grasp that energy, it’s something you feel and it’s an incredible thing. And to accomplish that by giving the people music is amazing – it takes you to that other level you know? When you’re tired or feel sick or whatever man – you don’t even feel that -
It breaks through it?
Mike: Yeah. When you’re on that stage – afterwards you know you sit down and…but it’s an amazing thing. I wanna thank Chuck for that, for taking us on tour and giving us that time – it was amazing. A great learning experience, which only gives me more to build on now.
And Public Enemy’s music is so fiercely conscious and political – I was just wondering, do you still feel like you have the same core message that you’re trying to get out there? Or has it developed in the past twenty five years? If so, how?
Chuck: Same core message. The development was there even before the first song – it’s just that the world and our genre mighta not been ready for the ultimate message which is telling you that we’re culturalists for music. Which means that there’s one race: the human race, right? There’s one race the human race. Now, racists went into race and split it up with the help of governments. Governments split people up, culture brings people together. That’s why I say beware of any government that says they’re in charge of the culture – as they’re diametrically opposed. So, our basic message is that ‘yeah, we come from a place as black men where we come from and we don’t want to be treated less than anybody else.’ Women don’t want to be treated as less than anybody else. We’re truly about respect – this planet, respect your fellow human beings, respect the species on this planet – and governments have been really opposed to that theory for as long as they have existed. And with the way that they tell people that they’re good for the world, they have to work on being fair to the people. So that ain’t no philosophy switch, that’s just the basic bottom line; that you don’t want to walk down the street and be treated how you look – you want people to judge you from your insides, not your outsides. So many people walking around are so preoccupied on fixing their outsides and getting the designer gear and just making sure that they all this on the outside – I ask the question: ‘Who’s designing your inside?’ You know, your outside is designer brand, but your insides is no-frills. So like ‘What the hell?’ That message has not moved from day one, and that message is not Public Enemy’s – it does not belong to us, it belongs to people like Bob Marley, Whodini – they all said the same thing: ‘One Love’. So that’s it.
One Love my readers.
You can catch public enemy performing Fear of a Black Planet at the Kentish Town Forum in London on 8th September 2011 for All Tomorrows Parties: