Chuck D Q&A: The Record Store Day Ambassador Looks to the Past for Music's Future

Chuck D
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Rapper Chuck D attends the Record Store Day LA press conference 2014 held at Amoeba Music on March 20, 2014 in Hollywood, California.

A student of history, Public Enemy founder Chuck D reached back to the early 1950s in his remarks at Amoeba in Hollywood this week to suggest an idea that would bring brick and mortar record stores in closer contact with the Internet: Radio stations.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer specifically cited Dolphin's, a store open 24 hours a day that in the 1950s broadcast KRKD from its storefront in Central Los Angeles. The store and its parking lot became a gathering place, a non-stop party for music listeners of all races.

"It's not a futuristic idea," says Chuck D, this year's Record Store Day ambassador, noting that broadcasting fees should be waived for record stores promoting music. "It's right there in the '40s and '50."

Obviously, when people heard the idea, Chuck D was viewed as an oracle. He says he's not, noting "you witness this a lot when people say they're going back. They're not going back far enough. I say to people all the time, 'go back to Edison, to 'Mary Had a Little Lamb. ' If you don't know history and refuse to pick up books, you won't know the whole story."

We hoped to get the whole story out of Chuck D, who spent March 20 promoting  Record Store Day on April 19. This year's roster has nearly 450 releases, among them  vinyl versions of PE's "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" and "The Evil Empire of Everything."

Billboard: You spoke about Criminal Records in Atlanta and Grimey's in Nashville. Were there records stores that were important to you as a kid?
Chuck D:
I didn't collect records in the 70s. I was a sports fan, collecting cards and gear even though it was mostly knock-off stuff. I listened to records because my parents collected records, belonging to the Columbia Record Club and jazz record clubs.  My mother was  into Stax, Motown, Atlantic. My grandmother would have Etta James, Muddy Waters. I didn't feel a need to get my own records until I was 17, 18.

Yet when you spoke today, you seem to have a real love affair with independent record store.
It wasn't romantic to me then. As a professional, I became more immersed into the music and what (record stores) meant to people. Record stores that have weathered the storm understand their identities from deep within. Those that thought they could beat out a Border's or Target or Best Buy found themselves hitting a lot of painful areas. [NBA coach] Pat Riley said this game can bring you a lot of pain. Same thing with record stores. It's something I sympathize with.

What do you see is your role as Record Store Day ambassador?
I hope to be somebody who comes up with a very succinct conversation that connects the past, present and future. I really think the future of record stores is connected to its past. History is fleeting to lots of people because they don't know the whole story.

Part of the story, especially as it relates to rap, connects with the transition from vinyl to CDs, especially at the time Public Enemy was exploding. Can you explain your relationship to vinyl, both in the creation of art and what it meant to creating for one format or the other? 
Public Enemy got signed in the CBS (on Def Jam) system. It was the first and last test of whether rap would be an album-oriented genre. When Public Enemy signed in '86, they were planning for CDs, but it had been classical and then rock, and then big sellers. They never expected that we would move so many cassettes. They were looking at cassettes as an also-ran between what they really wanted to sell, CDs, and other configurations. When we first got into it, hip-hop was still a singles marketplace with 12-inch records, cassette albums and maybe vinyl. Vinyl's function was three-fold: the records had the breaks, so you used it as a tool to entertain. With and the beats, it was a tool for writing. Then the record was also there to just play. Then there was the corporate call in 1992-93, you know, vinyl is dead.

What do you think makes for a great record store?
These places that set themselves up to be interview spots and performance areas. I think that's the future, being able to be a venue to be a radio station, to be a home for a local artist who's getting no love from anywhere. There's one in Belgrade [Serbia].

Belgrade, really? Got any other favorites?
Budapest. There was a record store in Ghana, a record store in Cape Town  where they took old records and made pocketbooks out of them. Our performances at Rough Trade (in Brooklyn) recently was a joy. Getting down at the Wherehouse in Baldwin Hills (in the 1980s).

Is there a new role for record stores?
A real innovative company should set up record store tours. It could work in the tri-state region if they can string together 12-20 stores. But can you justify the means? As an artist you have to be aware of the time and expenses.

How do you mostly listen to music now?
I have a record player. I think Crosley has been in step with the revolution. Right now, it's not much different than when RCA was in the battle of the speeds (45, 33-1/3, 78). I used to look at those record players 16-2/3, 12, 78 (rpm) and you just know that record companies were fighting against the wave of technology and that it would come around again. CD, LP, DL - I might get all three and I think that's where people are at these days.