- Time is on their side: 'We're The Rolling Stones of the rap game.'
Hip-hop legends Public Enemy have had an incalculable impact on music and culture since their formation in the early '80s. Through it all, their sound has continued to spotlight bandleader Chuck D's thundering baritone and outspoken commentary and hype man Flavor Flav's comedic asides — a percolating mix atop furious rhythms and blistering samples.
Since issuing their debut LP, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, in 1987, Public Enemy has had numerous acclaimed releases, including 1989's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the first hip-hop LP to top The Village Voice's Pazz & Jop poll. They were also the fourth rap group voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012. Their 13th studio album, Man Plans God Laughs, came out in July.
Meanwhile, Chuck D engages in a wide variety of extracurricular activities, including regular appearances on the college lecture circuit. On Friday, Oct. 2, he'll be speaking at Colorado College's Armstrong Hall, in conjunction with the Fine Arts Center's street art festival JAM.
In a recent interview, the rapper touched on two major themes he'll be addressing: Public Enemy's career and the evolution of hip-hop.
You began in the '80s and have seen a lot of things change over that time-frame. What are the biggest changes that you've witnessed in terms of the music business?
In hip-hop and rap, the disappearance of groups in favor of solo acts is the biggest difference. The severe lack of women in front and behind the scenes.
The business end has been the corporate dominance of a few acts dominating 99 percent of the revenue and opportunity picture. Independents have to fight for 1 percent of the share, with a 99 percent artist pool.
Rap was once widely viewed, at least by many folks in the music business, as an underground/street sound. Today it's a strong component of contemporary pop music. Do you consider that a good or bad thing?
Music is music — however, it's important for those ingrained in hip-hop to know that other music preceded it, and that recordings were at hip-hop's core, with the deejay having the control of the emcee, art and dance. The elements, as they say, make hip-hop watchable comparable to any band in any genre.
Man Plans God Laughs is the group's 13th studio LP. What things did you want to do differently with this one, from both a lyrical and sonic production standpoint?
Inspired by Run the Jewels, [Kanye West's] Yeezus and Kendrick Lamar's latest sonic approaches, myself and [The Bomb Squad producer] Gary G-Wiz get into the studio every eight years to break and innovate. Lyrically, I wanted to write less is more, and set a template for a 50-year-old emcee. I'm 55 and wanted to address myself like an uncle on a porch. Less, but powerful, words. Then I left it up to G-Wiz to slash whatever to keep the music breathing even more.
A lot of lyrics [ended up] on the floor, which furthered the goal of shorter songs. Initially we sought a Ramones-like, no-more-than-two-minute approach, and a 15-minute album. But the total album time is under 30 minutes, where we feel that's the point where that rapping age should reside.
Why do you feel Public Enemy has managed to stay together when groups in general, across the board in various styles, have splintered and broken up?
Playing the Earth, knowing the planet and separating, yet respecting everyone's areas in the group, then trying to come together and make it all sync. We feel the epitome of any genre is performance. And this is performance art onstage. Flavor Flav, DJ Lord, Professor Griff, The S1W, Pop Diesel, James Bomb and the baNNed, Khari Wynn, Davy DMX and T-Bone Motta bring a lotta music to the music.
Looking back, did you ever anticipate that Public Enemy would be going strong well into the 21st century?
Yes, we sought out to do so by traveling planet Earth: 102 countries, 103 tours. We're The Rolling Stones of the rap game for more than a few reasons.
What type of advice do you give to anyone considering a career in any area of the music business?
To thoroughly study the history of music genres, the various categories necessary in the industry. Also, it's important to have conversations with many people involved, past and present. Especially older giants who sit with a pool of knowledge and experience. [It's] very important to learn the category that is desired.
There are more people outside of the industry than inside. Finding these folks is key. It's what you know first, before who to go to. If you know what you [need to] know, then you know exactly who to approach.
Ron Wynn is a contributor to the Nashville Scene, where a version of this interview originally appeared.