For a nineties hip hop nut like me, it’s a surreal dream to pick up the phone and hear Chuck D’s resonant New York baritone on the other end.However, the interview gods must have been angry, as the rap legend’s voice sounded like it had been wrapped in cornflakes and cellophane then shoved down 25,000km of telephone wires. Absolutely slammed at the moment, Chuck was nice enough to make time for me, even if it was through his car speaker phone as he drove through the Baltimore Tunnel.
“However,” the crackly voice assured me, “we’ll make the most out of it” (or toast out of it?), as we ploughed bravely through.
Chuck D is 51 years old, but it seems he’s got the energy of a teenager with a case of Red Bull. He’s hosting a radio show on Rapstation.com, preparing for a world tour across Australia, Europe and Brazil starting this month, and trying to knock out two Public Enemy records before he leaves.
That’s right. Two.
“I wanted to be able to make two albums at a time talk to each other and talk to people about what’s going on in the world today,” he says, “its more like, why not? If you can do it, do it. And make sure you are very clear about setting the bar.”
Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp will be released in June, while its non-identical twin The Evil Empire of Everything will hit in September. Over years of interviews, Public Enemy have vowed to never make the same record twice. So what can we expect of the pioneering hip hop group in their 25th year?
“We’re not making a record for the next and new generation,” Chuck reflects, “we’re making a record that might be able to plant a new generation.” The new releases will stay true to Public Enemy tradition by bursting with socially and politically-conscious rap, but with song titles like ‘Beyond Trayvon’, it looks like the content will be fresh, raw and ready to rile the masses. Despite the hard work, it’s “been a joy” for Chuck to coordinate the 14 collaborators on the albums including Ziggy Marley, Brother Ali, Henry Rollins, and Tom Morello, to help make a “statement of where we stand as a group in our 25th year.”
As one of the fathers of rap who has helped nurture hip hop into a diverse, ever-expanding music genre, Chuck D is still fascinated to see how big its grown.
“Complete worldwide outreach. That is really the thing I thought has been amazing. There’s such a strong rap and hip hop community in Australia, South America, Africa, as well as Europe, Central America, and parts of Asia… that is the most rewarding thing ever.”
However, Chuck still remains disappointed with the direction some rappers choose to drag the genre. Particularly when rappers simply “answer to the profit margin of the company that contracts them. You start to doubt whether it’s the actual truth coming from them, or just hype. It can be disheartening. Artists that are able to do it so well have set the bar so low.”
As a man that’s watched it all happen, I had to ask: how come hip hop has spread so far and wide but female rappers are still missing out?
“I think women bring a special characteristic to rap music and hip hop; but I think it addresses a need of what’s missing in hip hop, and that’s groups. And you can’t find too many groups out there now, coming out of the United States,” he says. “That is the cancer of hip hop, the destruction of groups… the dismembering of groups has crippled hip hop.”
Public Enemy are bringing out their new albums out at a time when hip hop is as commercial as it’s ever been, with many successful rappers relying on popular guest features or radio-friendly pop hooks. Known themselves for introducing the “wall of noise:” a mosaic of mashed-up samples, Chuck D and his cohorts have never been interested in melodies or chord structures, and it doesn’t look like they’re set to change.
In the late eighties and early nineties, “dissonance was our way of life,” Chuck explains. Instead of winning mass approval, they were busy “making something that you weren’t really supposed to like. Especially if you were a woman, you were totally like, ‘what the hell is that?’”
Even at half a century old, Chuck still hasn’t tired of pissing people off. “I love to make something that would really, seriously get on somebody’s damn nerves.”
Chuck D and the Public Enemy crew will be bringing the noise when they kick off their Australian tour on May 10.Write a Letter to the Editor