Fighting the Power With Public Enemy’s Chuck D
The outspoken rap legend on P.E.’s new album, Mike Tyson, Flavor Flav, and why Jay Z probably isn’t employing enough people.
Fronting the most righteous group in hip-hop history has its privileges. Chuck D has long been a respected elder statesman of rap, thanks to Public Enemy’s groundbreaking influence in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, most notably with 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back and 1990’s Fear of a Black Planet, now marking its 25th anniversary. Chuck’s Voice-of-God-baritone, revolutionary rhymes, and interplay with Flavor Flav over sonically dense grooves have made Public Enemy the most enduring outfit in hip-hop. Maxim spoke to Chuck about his new album, why an unreleased Rolling Stones cover is the group’s greatest song, and the social responsibilities of hip-hop’s richest success stories (We’re talking to you, Jay-Z.)
Tell me about the new album, Man Plans, God Laughs.
I was inspired by Run the Jewels and Kendrick Lamar, but stayed far enough away from them to still be Public Enemy. We’re making a comment about the 21st century in this technological yet still political world. It will be able to tell its own story without me trying to talk to it. It’s out July 13.
Are you optimistic about the protest movements rising up from Ferguson and Baltimore?
You hope that movements in arts and culture can spur change in law, but unfortunately the only thing that makes lasting change is law. I’m always optimistic but I’m never optimistic that it’s gonna happen on its own. You have to fight for change. Collectives are always better than individuals. Especially today, attention spans have the lifetime of a mosquito. So as much as people are connected, they’re also scattered all over the place with their opinions, their view points, their realities, their illusions. It’s very important to strike it right on the nose when you talk about getting a point across.
Public Enemy’s third album, Fear of a Black Planet, is not only considered a classic highlight of rap’s golden age, but it’s now 25 years old. What are you most proud of about it?
I took a theory by a university professor and author of genetic annihilation theory [Frances Cress Welsing], and I made a rap record out of it. Having grown up with James Brown, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and The Byrds, I knew better. Why couldn’t we make a record into a manifesto on how we can be better? Fear of a Black Planet was my world record after traveling the world. It Takes a Nation was about the United States of America.
In some ways Fear of a Black Planet served as a soundtrack to rage, with “Fight the Power” and “Welcome to the Terrordome”—a song that Mike Tyson memorably used as his ring entrance music. Did you know he was going to do that?
The first time he did it, I was totally surprised. I just hoped he didn’t lose. But he never lost, so I was kinda cool with that. Then when he switched up, I think that was the one he lost to Buster Douglas.
When he got into that famous brawl with Mitch Green at Harlem’s Dapper Dan boutique, Tyson was buying a custom-made “Don’t Believe The Hype” white leather jacket…which is pretty amazing in itself.
I’m indebted to Mike for life. When you do things like that, there’s an overall message and meaning and impact. Bottom line, it was putting food on my family’s table and I can’t disrespect that.
Spike Lee is another huge fan. He made “Fight the Power” a centerpiece of Do the Right Thing, which took it into a whole different direction.
In order to make an anthem you need help. We had rap music, we had a movement, and we of course the film that pushed “Fight the Power.” When we made “Fight the Power,” we said, ‘It’s a good record.’ Is it in our top five we ever did? At the time we was like, ‘Naw.’ Our direction was a little more hard, you know, ‘We’ll knock your face off.’ But in order to be an anthem, it’s gonna need help.
What are you listening to these days?
Rapstation.com is the greatest rap station ever—because I spearhead it. There’s nobody better than us. If I’m not listening to that, it’s Sirius XM 1964 to 1970 in the car. I’m stuck in the 60s and the 70s. I never go into the 80s and the 90s for anything, ever. Sometimes I might go into the 50s and 40s. But really, I’m stuck on the 60s, and I can go into ‘73 or ‘74 before I lose interest. I graduated high school in the ’70s, so I know the level of wackery that was going on at that time.
Do you think Jay Z’s troubled streaming service, Tidal, has any chance of succeeding?
People shouldn’t think everything has to be as big as they think it should be. How come it can’t be a small aggregator? Why does everything gotta be the big fucking church of whatever? The lawyers and the business people wanna get paid, so everything has gotta be over the top and big. And when you do that with something you don’t know about, it’s bound to collapse hard. When it does well, you don’t know how well it’s doing because you only counting the money, and when it does bad, you don’t know because you only counting the money that you lost.
Public Enemy’s 2007 song “Harder Than You Think” is by far your most popular song on Spotify, with nearly 15 million plays, dwarfing your ’80s classics “Fight The Power,” “Bring The Noise” and “Don’t Believe The Hype”. Is that at all surprising?
That’s our biggest song. It was even played at the Olympics in 2012. London has always been our biggest fan base, it’s never been the United States. We never got played on urban radio. Our music has probably been played less than 1,000 times on black radio in a 29-year career! Public Enemy realized we gonna have to be a different kind of act in ’88, so we went on the road. And we’ve been to a 101 countries on tour. That song is the biggest we’ve ever had and it’s never ever been played on black radio and it’s a mystery.
How is Flavor Flav doing?
Flav lives for the spotlight, the glamour and the stage, and there’s nobody better. In his personal life, he’s had some struggle. He lost his mother last year. It’s a critical time in his life. He may be the so- called “clown that gets down”, but hopefully I can encourage him to pick himself up. But you know, he’s fine. I saw when he did the TV shows, and people laughed at him, not only did I think that was unfair to him, but he’s always been that guy. If that was me, and I had a whole bunch a chicks on a bachelor show, I would understand. But Flav, what do you expect? He’s a wild card. He’s a rebel to the rebel.
Did he ever ask you to be onFlavor of Love?
He knows I wouldn’t be on that show. What would I need it for? I don’t need to be more famous. Who wants that? I don’t need fucking fame or adulation.
You’ve tweeted that top rap acts should tour arenas together. Why isn’t that happening?
Because they’re run by lawyers and ego and people that try to puff everyone’s value up bigger than what it is. At the end of the day, it’s like, your fans should leave better than how they came in. If you’re not doing that, what are you doing?
Now that album sales have been decimated by streaming services, are you making money mostly by touring?
Yo man, Public Enemy is one perpetual tour. We don’t tour a record, the record tours us. We been on a hundred tours but they’re always short and laser focused. 14 days here, and back home. I know I gotta work, but I also gotta work out things with my family. The revenues is basically: Don’t spend more than what you make, simple as that. Yes, sometimes I wish I was in the Jay Z position of being worth $300 million. But then the major labels, they fuel that. Because at the end of the day, their piece is always gonna be their piece. It behooves them to make sure they ride the horse as much as they can.
You were always into blurring genres back in the early days, whether it was performing with Anthrax or on Sonic Youth’s “Kool Thing”. Was that a conscious decision?
We’re rooted from a different era. We did a blazing, scorching interpretation of “Honky Tonk Woman” by the Stones called “Honky Tonk Rules.” It was probably the greatest record we’ve ever done and we’ll probably never use it because we got rejected by the publishers of the song. The Stones don’t own anything from 1970 or earlier. I just saw Keith and Charlie and those guys. The creators of the song love it. We dug it. But the business people and the pushers of the pencils rejected it. The pendulum has shifted so much to business poeple that the creators are now suffering. That’s fucked up. Because I think if the world heard “Honky Tonk Rules”, it would be changed. When people say, ‘What do you thing the problem with music is today? I say, ‘Too many business people are dictating the art.’” [Update: “Honky Tonk Rules” has since been cleared to appear on Man Plans, God Laughs].
You studied graphic art in college, and the Public Enemy crosshairs logo is so iconic. How important are graphics and your visual message?
We’re in a time when graphics and looks mean a lot more even than they they did then. But look, we could rely on help. We had to fight for every little inch that we had. When you had the naysayers and the masters that play you, against you. Jay Z said, it clearly, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.” I hate the fucking game. The game is my fucking enemy. Not only do I hate the game but I see beneficiaries of the game and they don’t spread it across the genre to help other artists. When Public Enemy was doing a national tour of the U.S., we made it our business to take around six or seven acts. We didn’t have to. We jumped on the  U2 tour and opened it up. But we made sure we came back around in our genre and took other rap artists around for 50 or 60 days. Run DMC taught us that. The guys who’ve been on top for the last 15 years, they haven’t done that…that kinda bothers me.
What are the responsibilities of the top 1 percent of musicians who are making the most money?
If you’re worth 300 million dollars, you should be putting a lot of people to work. We have rapstation.com. We distribute tens of labels. And then there’s Public Enemy. It’s about a 100 people that we employ. It’s all independent. My thing is that if you’re worth 300 million like a Diddy or a Jay Z, you should be hiring a 1,000 to 10,000 people. If you’re not hiring all those people than what the fuck are you doing? You’re just hoarding.
Well, are Jay Z and Diddy hiring enough people?
I have no fucking idea. All I know is that I could tell you people that work with Public Enemy for 20 to 30 years. We’d love to have everyone work for us and get paid. So these are the things that bother me about people who are married to the game with out trying to further the art form or the genre.
Photos by Getty; Piero F. Guinti