Chuck D: The 'Black Planet' 20th Anniversary Q&A

Chuck D: The 'Black Planet' 20th Anniversary Q&A

Public Enemy's Prophetic Frontman Chuck D On Milestones, Going Independent And The Future Of Hip-Hop.

At the end of "Pirate Radio"-the 2009 feature film about a '60s illegal rock'n'roll radio station in Europe's North Sea-an array of albums is displayed: iconic symbols of musical independence that bucked the status quo. Among the albums on display is

So were opportunities missed then-and being missed now-in terms of bringing rap back to its socially conscious roots?

Obviously. Rice, bread and crumbs are all on the floor. But you've got to live on, persevere. You can't give up the fight. Like Bob Marley said, you have to keep going forward. You have to try to inform as much as possible even though you might be going through a lot of mass distractions.

That was part of the purpose of us doing "Fear." We knew it was going against the odds. But even though we signified and recognized a movement of people wanting to equip themselves with information to go forward, I think that became the far and the few. The climate we have now may not be as clear as it was in 1990 when you at least had people who said, "I know who I am and know where I want to get to. If somebody else gets there and they're in my same bracket, I can dig that too. That's cool; maybe they can pull me forward." The individualism that happened between 1990 and 2010 has kind of left a lot of people way behind the starting line.

The go-for-self period in the '90s has a lot of people on the outside looking in. Music-wise, it was the beginning of the eradication of a wave of independence that really made certain acts stand out. The majors picked them and found the cookie cutter: "This is the way you make a big rap act." It just became kind of contrived with the majors saying, "We've got 40,000 pieces of 12-inch vinyl that we've got to promote at college. So we'll take maybe 550 cats from colleges, fly them to Hawaii and hit them off, then we're going to tie up college radio." So we go into a period when money was supposed to be the thing to fix everything.

And that's what it was: a big fix. And a lot of the passion started dripping out of the bottom of the boat at that particular time, although people started to see numbers. That's what "Fear" was saying: "It's a black planet anyway. Once we know that, what are you going to do with it?

How did the group flesh out the rest of "Fear"?

It was just throwing out ideas; ideas were a daily thing. It was a seven- to eight-year buildup. It wasn't as intense as the cohesion behind "It Takes a Nation" because we were touring and production team the Bomb Squad had done X amount of other music jobs, so everyone was getting fragmented. Not to say this was a job done on the fly. But every day I put micro parts together. And when the time came to do the album, it was a meeting collected into a four-week span. "OK, what have you done for the last year? Dump what you've got on the table." Then we assembled it.

There were so many sound bites and pieces of micro information... It was a second-by-second thing putting that album together. The biggest complaint I had with the album was when a sound engineer at Sony turned down the decibel level on 800,000 tapes. It was unauthorized; they didn't know the tapes were supposed to bleed into the red. It was one of the things I had left that we didn't delegate. I was in Europe at the time. I would cringe when I'd hear someone with one of those tapes.

In the wake of No. 1 predecessor "It Takes a Nation," was the reaction to "Fear" what you expected?

A lot of great things were said about the album, including how much it sold in one week, which meant nothing to me. People also immediately began comparing it to "Nation." However, our whole thing was the minute we finished "Nation," we said we're never repeating an album twice. We don't care if they hate this next one. We aren't doing what we did before because if we do what we did before, people may as well buy that one again.

You were also ahead of the curve when it came to the Internet. What prompted your jumping into those then-uncharted waters?

Public Enemy was the first group to walk away from a $1 million contract [when it left Def Jam after 1998's "He Got Game"]. What the hell is a $1 million contract when you don't have control of your shit? That $1 million is never going to be spent by you. It's going to be spent on your behalf by someone who's just pressing buttons and pushing numbers. And at the end of the day, you've got what? Because they've spent your money trying to make their profit while you're working on a percentage. That's one of the biggest reasons why I jumped into the Internet in 1996.

In 1999, "There's a Poison Going On" was released on Atomic Pop Records, founded by Al Teller, who helped sign Def Jam to CBS. Singlehandedly, Public Enemy and Atomic Pop jump-started the digital revolution by releasing MP3 files over the Web. Then Napster emerged with the technology to explode the technology. A lot of people said I was nuts. Well, if a tree is at a 45-degree angle and it used to stand straight up, it doesn't take much of a prediction to say it's going to hit the ground. And that's what we were saying: telling artists you can set up your own label online. And if you can also set up that record deal, do both.

It's real funny because today I read magazines that talk about the top 100 Web sites, iPhone apps and other Web gadgets. This is not about me getting credit. But you hear a lot of things now about the Internet that were said 10 years ago.

As we ventured into the world of independent content delivery, we recognized the majors and corporate gluttons would slowly pour into the digital territory and try to dominate with analog tactics. Thus in 2009 Public Enemy engaged itself with SellaBand to introduce a new revenue fund-raising model.

It's said that things happen in cycles. Could another PE take off today?

There is a great number of artists and groups spreading across the Internet terrain. The question is, How much of the attention span are they going to grab onto? How much of a base will they build for themselves? There will be a lesser number but everybody has to share lesser numbers now when you have 10 million groups as opposed to 150 groups and everybody's sharing the same space.

There were groups that had 11 million in sales; now, numbers like 1,162 make sense. But it's still about building an audience one by one. Independently, Public Enemy felt that big business corporations had glutted the promotional road. So we built PublicEnemy.com for a direct connection; we cut out the middleman, so to speak.

And that's what I tell a lot of acts today: "It all begins with you. You don't get to a million until you go past one." Then it's "How do we get that person and others attached to our model and make them a fanatic of the brand we're trying to present?" And after that, "How long can we keep them? What else do we do to keep them other than throwing an audio file or video at them?"

If you're a rap act that only stays in the U.S., you've got limited places to go. You've got to expand your game to the whole field. If you're able to work the world solidly, that's going to be two to three years in itself.

We traveled to 30 countries in our first three years. We knew we couldn't get any national help first. So we said, "We have to go on the path that will help build us." Other groups have followed that pattern like the Roots, Gang Starr, Cypress Hill... traveling the world and then coming back inside the States. Look at the Roots. They have a world base, came inside and now they're doing the Jimmy Fallon show.

Why does "Fear" continue to wield such an impact?

"Fear" was the second half of a back-to-back "movement" of albums that immediately signified that rap could be as significant an album genre as rock, forcing respect. It was a musical and political statement that resonates to this day.

Rap and hip-hop altered the musical soundscape audibly and visually with shrapnel impact from many different directions. Beyond the music, the culture was ingrained into many hearts, heads and souls as an equalizer: The themes screamed for it and freedom. By the time "911 Is a Joke," led by Flavor Flav, was released, hip-hop and Public Enemy proved that rap could say something and sound good-make you think and dance all at once.

What's your take on today's rap/hip-hop? Where it is headed?

Rap and hip-hop evolved as the rebellious music against the elite status quo of dominant popular music. But it now sounds like the music it originally rebelled against. Once the price tag is applied as the ultimate goal, trueness can be elusive.

In the 1990s somebody smelled money and, just like with the gold rush, led a 15-year stripping of the ecosystem that the culture organically stood on. Maybe it should have been "Fear of a Rap Planet: Welcome to the Terrordome." There are thousands of rap artists across MySpace, YouTube and Facebook who have adopted creative borders. But there are many more who have rejected them. Rap still has fantastic potential.