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Public Enemy’s Chuck D on Spike Lee, the Essence of Hip-Hop, and Fighting the Power in 2020

on October 19, 2020, 11:25am
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2006


Reality dating show Flavor of Love debuted, and it garnered Flav some new fans. What was your initial reaction to the show?

I remember I was the first one he told. He said, “Yo, Chuck. I’m doing this show. You know, like The Bachelor, but it’s called The Black-chelor.” I said, “Okay, are you working? Are you doing some kind of job?” I mean, everybody gotta stand on their own two feet. In Public Enemy, everybody got their family … you got kids and stuff like that. So I said, cool.

Before it was like you gotta be a white, all-American, 26-year-old, six-foot-two quarterback with blue eyes to be on a show like this. And then you can have 100 girls around you that are vying for your attention. But alright, Flavor, you’re five-foot-nine, you know, jet black with grills and all (laughs). I mean, I was just happy he was working, man. I didn’t have to be the sole reason that he was employed. But I never watched it … it wasn’t my cup of tea.


2007

“Harder Than You Think” became an international anthem that year, largely due to it appearing in a Tony Hawk video game. Did you anticipate its huge commercial success?

It also became a big record in 2012 with the UK Paralympics. We released it in 2007, but that’s where it became a hit. It ended up being the biggest Public Enemy record … a world record. But it hardly did anything in the United States, which showed people that our base has always been London. It’s never really been the US. When you hear It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the first place that’s screaming is London. We tried to make that point a long time ago, and it came to full fruition.


2013

Public Enemy became the fourth hip-hop act to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. It’s bittersweet because while it was long overdue, rap needs to be recognized way more. What were your feelings about the experience?

I knew that we had represented the art form in the genre … and we’re some of the best that ever did it. When it came up, they had to recognize hip-hop. If Run-DMC got in there and me and LL helped induct the Beastie Boys and before that was Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five … those were groups, and we felt that they can’t overlook Public Enemy because there’s so many things that we’ve done. I knew that we were gonna go in, but we weren’t gonna rest upon our laurels. We had a very busy 1999 to 2012. We never just said, okay, we did it in ’87, ’89, ’91, ’92 … now we’re going to just do nothing and wait until we get in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

We want more rap artists to get in there. But we feel that they gotta pay attention to the actual music, because for LL Cool J not to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but for Tupac and Biggie to get in … it’s a travesty.  I’m not taking anything away from either of those artists, who were posthumously put in, but not having LL Cool J in there is just a ridiculous omission. And to the people that say that rap is not rock and roll, I just shut them up. You know how?  I easily say, “Well, you said, ‘We’re not rock,’ but yeah, motherfucker, we the roll” (laughs).


2016

You formed Prophets of Rage with members of Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave and Cypress Hill. What kind of fulfillment did you receive from that group as opposed to Public Enemy?

Oh man, that was a four-year university of brotherhood. And it taught us lessons of what we could bring back into the hip-hop world from the rock world because of the way they operate. It’s about building the roads, and there was never one bad day — it was run like a machine. We do the thing in rap and hip-hop, but I’ll tell you this much: every night — and a big thanks to Tom Morello who rehearsed us like we were picking fucking cotton … every night we got a standing ovation for four years straight.

But it had to close out like a theater. We had to go back to our thing. Cypress had to go back to what they had to do. Rage Against the Machine had to reform. It happens. It’s like a theater, like a theater play. You go to the theater, and they say, “You know what? This is the last show.” This wasn’t meant to last a number of years, but it was meant to last four.


2020

You released What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down? last month. Its lead single was “Fight the Power: Remix 2020” featuring Nas, Rapsody, Black Thought, YG, and MC Jahi. You performed it virtually at this year’s BET Awards. Was that a full circle moment for you since you clearly inspired all of those emcees?

You gotta give credit where credit is due. The great Questlove, who makes history every night with The Roots band. The great Black Thought. They were commissioned by Jessie Collins over at BET to put something together. They felt that “Fight the Power” was the soundtrack of the moment for young people watching in their own locale this year, especially after the George Floyd murder. But I said, no … maybe young energies should be able to speak and come up with their own soundtrack.

“Fight the Power” was 1989, but we can’t leave out the Isley Brothers’ 1975 song … that’s what I grew up with to make me do “Fight the Power” in 89 as a remnant thought. But Quest and everyone at BET was like, “Yo, this is it.” I would have to be a stupid, old-headed curmudgeon to not be able to go with the energy when you see the energy going the right direction. It was like, “Okay, let’s just get it, make it happen, and don’t get in the way.” Everybody did their thing. It was a no brainer — only a fool would stop that energy.

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