Public Enemy are just as relevant now as they were 25 years ago. We can still count on Chuck D to expose injustice when others have their backs turned. Public Enemy are proof that music can effect change. They fight the power and rebel without a pause. It’s for this reason that Public Enemy possess the political power that no other group has even come close to attaining. They’re more than hip hop icons and music royalty – Public Enemy are freedom fighters, voices for the voiceless, and no other group has dealt with racism in a more powerful way.
“America has to become better educated on the world,” states Chuck D. “That’s one of the things that’s hurting the United States. Its world consciousness and participation has been closed by the fact that it’s been a linearity type of existence... a world-policing type of existence.”
Having an African-American as US President has been more of a symbolic progression than anything else, as the nation clearly has a long way to go in its fight against racism and social injustice. On January 15, Public Enemy set up an inspiring four-hour event, the Operation Skid Row Music Festival, to shine a light on downtown LA’s homeless district. It was an invigorating, politically-charged free concert for Skid Row’s homeless people, featuring a huge selection of local artists including Yo-Yo, Kurupt, King T, Kid Frost, X-Clan, Egyptian Lover and Knowledge.
“We want to be able to make statements like ‘yo – this is what’s going on in our own backyard’,” says Chuck D. “Just the fact that homeless folks are making up a large majority of Skid Row residents is a conflict that we knew, but all the press covered it like it never existed, like it was an incident that broke out because they had never heard of it. We have to be able to pick up the ball and do something like that across the country.”
It’s been 25 years since Public Enemy’s debut album introduced the world to one of the most important musical forces. Formed in Long Island, New York, Public Enemy’s debut album – Yo! Bum Rush The Show (1987) – left an indelible impression. Critically acclaimed worldwide, Melody Maker put it best when they described the impact of the record as akin to “being struck by a meteor”.
The heroic group – comprising Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Professor Griff and his S1W group, Terminator X (who was replaced by DJ Lord in 1999) and Music Director Khari Wynn – stunned fans by following up that debut record with two superior albums in It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back (1988) and Fear Of A Black Planet (1990). The former is now regarded as one of the greatest and most influential albums of all time while the latter – which inspired the name of Nazeem Hussain and Aamer Rahman’s political comedy duo, Fear Of A Brown Planet – is also a classic, colossal record.
Chuck D was only a child when Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were assassinated, but it was all about seeing the truth and remembering it: “We remember,” he affirms. “It was the bold statement that we wanted to make.”
Alongside tense race relations in the US – which have been brought to the fore by the shooting of unarmed African American teenager Trayvon Martin (Chuck D has, of course, written a new song about the important overarching issue) – paranoia about religion has led to a spray of Islamophobia. A few years ago, fellow Muslim rapper Brother Ali made the vital point that hip hop and Islam tend to get caught up in the same misconceptions of being inherently violent, disrespectful of women and homophobic, and that these misconceptions come from weaknesses and insecurity within human beings.
“Brother Ali is a very strong person and one of my brothers,” Chuck D expresses. “As a matter of fact, he features on the new Public Enemy album, a song called Get Up Stand Up. He’s very succinct and he’s very clear about dedication to Islam. He sees it on a minute to minute basis the way people get lost on knowing what it is and what it’s about. It has misconceptions because it seems to not have a total control of its voice. Sometimes hip hop has to have its own voice speak without having a business equation to it.”
Public Enemy will release two new albums this year: Most Of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear On No Stamp in June and The Evil Empire Of Everything in September. Are they in the finishing stages now?
“Yeah, I’ve just come out of the kitchen and it’s a mess,” the revered MC chuckles. “The thing about the two records is, you know, we’re fully into the digital age now and doing two albums at the same time... in the past, this would’ve been called a double-album; it may’ve been called Extended A-side/Extended B-side. We believe that today people rush through albums so quickly without even listening to it. We built upon the two albums being kind of related but bridging some topics and textures. It’s more the thrill or the audacity to make the release different from just a normal release. We wanted to put them close – I don’t think you could’ve done it back in the day with physical albums in the area of retail, warehousing, shipping,” he laughs. “All those things are what impeded it, you know, but now we have this technology, which we had waited for and we helped usher in.”
Chuck D believes that Africa will be the centre-point of hip hop and rap music because the US is losing that privilege, and he’s excited about supporting the new generation of African hip hop/rap artists: “They’re doing their thing and the continent is just rich with language and colourful wordsmiths who are taking rap to the next level in South Africa, Nigeria, Gabon, and Senegal.”
Chuck D’s excellent radio show, And You Don’t Stop, can be heard on rapstation.com. “I tell people ‘hey, we want to make local artists heard globally and global artists heard locally’. Talib Kweli, The Roots, KRS-One... it’s too easy for me to name artists. I think every other continent has a large artist-base in hip hop that wants to be heard and that’s what gets me excited.”
At the end of the day, it all comes back to Chuck D’s philosophy about using hip hop music as a way of illuminating a cause. Where does he find this endless verve to remain the driven and thought-provoking artist that he is? “The energy comes from travelling and seeing people around the world,” Chuck D avows. “I think the international travels have really been the thing that kept Public Enemy in existence – to be able to talk to many people of different walks of life and all in the name of hip hop; to not just come there but encourage them to do their thing (amazingly, Public Enemy have performed over 2,000 concerts across 80 countries). We haven’t been to India; we haven’t been to Kenya... there’s places we haven’t been and I’m interested.”
BY CHRISTINE LAN
PUBLIC ENEMY bring their special 25th Anniversary Tour to The Esplanade Hotel on Thursday May 17 (please note: new venue and new date). All tickets purchased for the original venue and date will be honoured for the Espy show.