In the liner notes of Public Enemy’s 1990 tour de force “Fear of a Black Planet,” Chuck D. is referred to as “The Lyrical Terrorist” and 30 seconds of “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” is all one needs to see why he earns that menacing distinction. His ideas are subversive, his delivery is abrasive, and his stone cold baritone strikes fear into the hearts and minds of Reagan Conservatives from Buffalo to Wasilla.
While commercial radio was dominated by the innocuous melodies of Lionel Richie and Whitney Houston, he came along with an authentic barrage of black militancy that used literate rhymes as its main source of artistic sustenance. At its peak, Public Enemy was a politically-charged Afrocentric alternative for those left wondering why the triumphs of the 1964 Civil Rights Act felt like a distant memory.
With a little over a week until Public Enemy invades Buffalo’s Town Ballroom to celebrate the 20th anniversary of “Black Planet,” I had the opportunity to speak with Chuck D. about all things hip-hop and even get his take on a few issues currently facing the country at-large.
MNOD: Before we get started, I’d just like to say that I’m a huge fan and it’s a pleasure to talk with you.
Chuck D: It’s a pleasure talking with you.
MNOD: It’s been a long time since Public Enemy has played Buffalo. What can fans expect this time around?
Chuck D: They can expect a classic show. We’re calling this outing the “Fear of a Black Plan” tour and we’re ready to bring energy back into live performance. We have a great group called The Impossebulls opening up and they’re the first organic hip-hop group of the new millennium. DJ Lord has replaced Terminator X (retired in 2003), but it’s been a long and great tour and we’re gonna bring it hard.
MNOD: How has Public Enemy changed in the absence of Terminator X?
Chuck D: Well, we’ve added a guitarist and a drummer and are able extend songs within a live setting, which we didn’t do before. The idea for that actually came from playing with The Roots a while back, so it’s a great change-up for the group.
MNOD: You wrote “By the Time I Get to Arizona” in 1991 as a response to the governor’s campaign to stop celebrating Martin Luther King Day. Did you ever think Arizona would again be at the center of controversy 20 years later?
Chuck D: (Laughing) Nobody can predict the future, but I can’t say that I’m surprised by what’s happened as of late. I think a lot of the problems stem from paranoia and fear of brown people, which somehow justifies the white man to take land that wasn’t his to begin with. Everyone talks about how the illegal immigrants are the problem, but I think having a policy on human beings is just fucked up and a way to divert peoples’ attention away from real threats.
MNOD: Which are?
Chuck D: Media, Government, Ignorance. Just because we have a Black president doesn’t mean everything is perfect. There’s still a lot of work to be done.
MNOD: What do you think about professional athletes threatening to boycott events held in Arizona?
Chuck D: Athletes need to look out for themselves and not allow outside interests to control them. Growing up, my heroes were guys like Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Jackie Robinson and Jim Brown. They made an impact on their own terms. Roberto Clemente would be rolling over in his grave if he could see how Black athletes are being treated these days. The Black athlete is the silent slave of the new millennium and you can quote me on that.
MNOD: It’s been 20 years since “Fear of a Black Planet” was released. How do you think the album’s themes have evolved through the years?
Chuck D: Before the Internet, the only news we had was what we saw on television and that album was our way of articulating life as we saw it. Songs like “Pollywanacraka” and “Burn Hollywood Burn” reflected issues that mainstream media didn’t think twice about. You guys up in Buffalo should be familiar with government not looking out for the people. At one time, Buffalo had the Erie Canal and other shipping industries to provide jobs, but now the market has evaporated and left a gaping hole in the city. There’s not a job worth beans. The media has a lot to do with it. When MTV is putting forth an image of South Beach as the place to be, why would people want to move to fuckin’ Schenectady? The bottom line is people like to migrate and move on, because they need housing that is super affordable. Look at the BP oil spill. People see the CEO getting multi-million dollar bonuses for fucking everything up and they get upset.
MNOD: What’s your opinion on the state of hip-hop today?
Chuck D: I think hip-hop is in a good place. Even though the record business is failing, you still have a rich and diverse array of artists that are getting out and learning the business. Today, bands need the opportunity to succeed on both a local and global level and there’s no excuse for not understanding how the system works. Regardless of what you believe, there’s an audience out there somewhere and artists have to find a way to tap into that. No longer are fans just numbers. I’ve been in the business for 25 years and it irks me every time I see rappers who get into the game without knowing how it works. Listen David, the cheapest price you can pay in today’s society is attention and people need to understand that.
MNOD: Lastly, what were your expectations for hiphopgods.com when it began?
Chuck D: I wanted to create a home for classic artists that may not get the attention they deserve. I was inspired by classic rock and artists like Fats Domino, so I felt that modern hip-hop artists needed a place to go where they could learn about all the great artists of the past. I wanted other classic artists to know that their time is not over and that they’re still a major piece of the picture.