It was the line in the sand from a hip hop group that would soon become one of the young genre's most important acts. On Public Enemy's chest-beating 1988 single "Don't Believe the Hype," bruising ring leader Chuck D--backed by larger-than-life hype-man Flavor Flav, Professor Griff, DJ Terminator X and the S1W's — laid it down straight-no-chaser: "I don't rhyme for the sake of riddling..." It's a no BS mantra that the 55-year-old emcee has pushed forward on a string of classic albums highlighted by It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988); Fear of a Black Planet (1990), Apocalypse 91...The Enemy Strikes Back (1991) and He Got Game (1998).
On July 14, Public Enemy is set to drop its 13th release, Man Plans God Laughs, armed with the same fire-infused, politically branded, no-nonsense proclamations. BET.com chopped it up with the legendary Chuck D to get his thoughts on his crew's new release, his views on Kanye West, why President Barack Obama continues to be underestimated, finding inspiration from the Rolling Stones, and more.
BET.com: What was your artistic mindset going into the making of Man Plans God Laughs?
Chuck D: Are you familiar with boxing? Remember when George Foreman fought Michael Moorer? Moorer was a formidable heavyweight with a stick and move style. He had a good right hand and a knockout punch. But George Foreman, who was the much older fighter, protected himself and had a plotting, methodical way that he fought. And when he knocked Moorer out people didn't see it coming [laughs]. He plodded, moved slow and had that one shot. That's how the rhymes are on Man Plans God Laugh. The entire album is 30 minutes long. It doesn't waste time hanging around. It's like, "Boom!" and that's it.
Just straight and to the point, huh?
Well, we knew what we wanted. Sound wise, me and Gary G-Wiz (longtime Public Enemy producer) were looking at what Kanye [West] did with Rick Rubin on Yeezus. But while I liked the powerful sonics that Kanye presented, I didn't think his point of view matched up with the production. Kanye is an incredible artist whose rhymes at times ring hollow.
In what way?
[Kanye] has great spit and his rhythm is great, but what did he really say on that album? Yeezus had some incredible sounds, but your words gotta count the older you get. Age can't be a liability...it has to be an asset.
On the new album you are pretty vocal about the treatment veteran hip hop artists receive from the music industry. But it never turns into an exercise in bashing the younger generation. How were you able to maintain that balance and not come off as the old man screaming at the kids to get off your lawn?
You gotta know that new generations come along with their own rules. But also new gens may realize that some of their power is less than what it is and they find themselves being governed by old heads that's trying to pick their brains and pockets just to stay relevant. So I don't have a problem with the kids. I have a problem with the people controlling what gets heard. You have to remember, when I was 29 and 30, Public Enemy was very involved with teenagers. Forget my beginnings with Public Enemy, my track record locally in Long Island on the radio was if somebody 16-17 years-old needed advice, I could give my own views on the culture.
Let's switch to politics. What are your views on President Obama's recent upswing? It seems like he has his groove back.
I was talking to my dad about Obama earlier. When you have a situation where you have the first Black president of the United States you have to be clairvoyant and read between the lines. You have to look at the opportunity we have with Obama and understand that we ain't catching no chest passes. Everything that is going to be coming to us as a people will be around the back, between the legs...some Stephen Curry sh** [laughs]. In other words, there are no easy passes.
It's an alley-oop...
Yeah! And if you ain't got no ups you ain't catching that alley-oop. So I think many of the opportunities Black folks had we just couldn't see the pass coming. So for six years, Obama couldn't transmit those passes to us. He couldn't say, 'Well, I'm going to look out for Black folks.' We all knew he couldn't say that sh**. So when I would hear Black people say, 'Oh, how come President Obama can't help us more?' they just didn't understand the politics of the country they live in. This is the United States of America. People at times give this country way too much credit. You have to read between the lines when you are talking about the U.S. government. You will have problems here if you don't know the history of this country. Your kids are going to have problems. You got to reach and teach, and not only teach the kids. I'm talking about everybody.
Public Enemy is legendary for their live shows. Have you done any of the new songs from Man Plans, God Laughs in front of the fans yet?
I am tomorrow night in London, which has always been Public Enemy's base since day one. People don't understand. Yeah, we're big in the United States and all over the world...there's 100 countries involved. But when you hear It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back you clearly hear Public Enemy's connection with London. We wanted to show that we were international. We were telling the United States, "Look, if y'all ain't on us, somebody is!"
And this was at a time when hip hop was just beginning to become regional.
Right. So the first thing on that record you hear is, "Alright, London!" That was the thing we wanted to prove to our contemporaries at the time: OK, you got New York, you got LA, y'all got the South and Detroit. But you know what? We got London. So we will be trying out the new songs this week. I think we have been doing fantastic shows, but what troubles us is that being in eight, nine different parts of the country, we don't have as much rehearsal time. And that bothers me because you are kind of like winging it in sound check.
Is there someone outside of hip hop, R&B and soul that you have drawn inspiration from in terms of live performance?
I look at the Rolling Stones. I was invited down to their rehearsal by my man Bernard Fowler. Public Enemy did an interpolation of the Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman" called "Honky Talk Rules" for the new album. So, it was just me, G-Wiz and the Rolling Stones for damn near three hours! I'm watching Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ron Woods and Charlie Watts, who was playing drum solos, and after he was finished he looked over my way with his drum stick. I'm like, 'Is he looking at me? What the f***?' [Laughs]
You have been one of hip hop's biggest ambassadors. What keeps you going at the age of 55?
It's the art. Art is our universal language. I'm not a politician...I'm not a preacher and I never claimed to be. And I don't have a pulpit, but I'm a culturalist. I think art is the thing that binds us together with the human spirit. So it's important to protect it. And there are people that want their art to be acknowledged and breath. That's why we do Rap Station.com. Ten radio stations deep. I curate hip hop music across global artists with Planet Earth, Planet Rap. Hip Hop Gods curates classic artists with a 15 year career. But it's not just about their classics and oldies. These are veteran artists that are still in the studio today. Who acknowledges that?
These veteran artists can't get played on Hot 97 or a Power. I tell them all the time, 'You making new records, but where are you taking your records? Bring them to us...we will curate it.' The same thing with women. There are more women today doing hip hop whether it's DJing, emceeing, or producing, than ever before, but it's not being acknowledged. Everybody is pointing to Nicki Minaj like she's the one and only, but we have a history of female emcees. Missy Elliott was on the Super Bowl halftime show and the next day people were like, 'Oh Missy! She tore it up!' It's important to curate something beyond the commerce. This is what I do...this is what I love.
What has changed most about hip hop?
I was talking to Big Daddy Kane last week in Houston. I remember this one particular show we did together. We came unprepared and Kane just burned us and the house down! You remember when your ass gets whupped onstage. You learn from that. You thank your peers and competitors for busting you up onstage. That's one of the aspects that's missing from artists today. Their area of competition is weighed by other things. It's not so much weighed on performance; it's not even totally weighed by records.
It's more about branding than anything else...
That's it. In order of importance, its style, sight and then it's sound. Now it has become, 'Oh, that's the dude who shares the same chick with that other cat...that's the girl on Instagram and that reality show.' The video becomes secondary and the music is all the way down on the list. It doesn't mean music is not important. You just gotta know who you are dealing with.
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