Public Enemy member Chuck D may not have had an extensive history with the late Tom Petty, but his influence and presence were felt. Around the time that news broke that the rock and roll icon had fallen ill, Chuck took to Twitter to reflect on meeting Petty backstage at a concert some years back and name-checking him in the group’s 2007 song “The Long and Whining Road.” Here, Chuck looks back on that interaction and explains how Petty impacted his career.
I didn’t grow up with Tom Petty as a kid. I was already grown when he was grown. He had like nine years on me. What I got from Tom was somebody who wanted to curate and keep currency the rock and roll that he loved and grew up and respected, that so-called bright in his life. He was more like a dude that marched the drum for musicians that brought in rock and roll and kept that ball rolling. That’s the same thing I like to do for hip-hop and black music, artist who have forgotten. He did the same thing, when he did the Traveling Wilburys, which I respected when it came out… I think we were on the same label at the time, [Bob] Dylan and George Harrison, Roy Orbison, he had a ball with them. I respected how he would never let the things that turned him on be forgotten. I wanted to be that same type of guy. I respected him more as a person who had his stances as an artist.
One time I was backstage, I forgot the event but it was in 2000, 2001, just me and him, ready to go on and do our thing. I was a little, wow, OK, Tom Petty! Kind of nervous in my presentation. He was like, “nah, you’ll be alright, go get ’em.” It was that. I dug his everyday demeanor.
A guy like Tom Petty is a purist, but I think my thing in rock and hip-hop, ever since the first album that Public Enemy did with Vernon Reid, one of the greatest guitarists of all time, as a black man, on our first album, it’s proven that a guy like Tom Petty, this is rap music and this is hip-hop, but you know what man? We understand you and when we fuck around with it, we gon’ make you go hm, cool. I’m not saying he knew any of the Public Enemy songs or even believed what we believed, which is not a requisite, but there’s something there, it’s an effort. That’s always something I wanted to pride myself in, to make the guy that would not just say this is something cheesy that came along with no effort or concern and no regard to the guys like Tom Petty, who’s to the core a purist of rock and roll. That’s why I named him in “The Long and Whining Road,” I said, OK look, this is a respect of what we make music in. I want some James Brown but there’s a regard for Bach and Brahms and Johnny Cash and Smokey [Robinson] and Tom Petty. I think the last line was sort of the last wink, like, if you don’t get what we do in hip-hop, that we can throw a behind-the-back pass and it’s paying homage, but it’s done in a fly way.
I think that Tom actually did what he felt was what he was. He said this is rock and roll, and we’re going to make it as good as possible. If you don’t dig it, cool, but if you don’t, that’s your loss. He was from Gainesville, Florida. He was unapologetic in what he dug and what he was like. He grew up in the time of Elvis and all of that. As a musician, he was basically like, hey, this is what I believe. Respect it. And I certainly felt the same way doing my music. If you like it or not, this is what it is. Tom Petty definitely has a lot of that.
Tom Petty is a bridge for respect because if you leave the music up to businessmen, they’ll say, “whatever’s old doesn’t count.” Tom Petty bridged gaps and moved further into the future. He kept the feeling alive. Now, somebody has to be the Tom Petty of our time. Guys like Tom Morello and Dave Grohl and those types of people.