“We were kids from the 60s, we were seriously there at one of the most awkward and intense periods of time in the history of the United States.” Public Enemy’s Chuck D, moments before playing to thousands of adoring, crying, screaming fans at Movement Festival, Detroit.
Revolutionising a musical genre is an accolade that rarely holds up under the test of time. Having turned the art of sampling on its head and come with more slogans than your average trainer company (from the politically potent “Fight The Power” to the irritatingly catchy “Yeah Booooi”), Public Enemy are one act that can rightly make this claim. Their 1987 album Yo! Bumrush the Show! ushered in the golden era of nineties hiphop, and since then they’ve barely taken a break, notching up over 80 tours and 12 albums. To mark their 25th year, they’ll be adding two more to this total (Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp, out this summer and The Evil Empire of Everything in the autumn), returning to the themes of social injustice and the plight of the African-American community that define their message. And judging by recent performances, they’ll be doing it with all the unflinching vehemence and pithy wit that helped them make rap music the “black CNN”. i-D online caught up with Chuck D at Movement Festival in Detroit to ask how much has really changed since those heady, angry days of ’87.
Who do you see as the flag bearers for Public Enemy’s message today? Well, Public Enemy was a group and I don’t see many groups, except for Dead Prez and The Great Duo, still making statements today. Arrested Development is doing it with speech and soloists like Brother Ali can always make a powerful statement. The Roots are still making powerful statements. There probably won’t be another Public Enemy because we have such dynamic, diverse characters that all come from a different era. You can’t bring someone from the 90s and pretend they are someone from the 60s. We were kids from the 60s, we were seriously there at one of the most awkward and intense periods of time in the history of the United States. We went from being called “negroes” to “coloureds” to “blacks” with civil rights in the middle of that. People fighting and assassinations and wars for the first ten years of our lives, and all of that stuck with us. You can’t take the delta away from the cat that plays the blues and for someone that didn’t come up in the delta, they can probably play but they can’t feel what it really means right down to their feet.
You lecture in schools and have a lot of engagement with young people. Do you think kids growing up in America today have it better than you did? No. It is very, very difficult for a young person growing up today because there are weapons of mass distraction everywhere. There are so many things going at a young person’s mind that their physical existence might appear to be comfortable, but there minds will just be shrapnel. These are some of the things I address in the two albums coming out ‘Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp’ and ‘The Evil Empire of Everything’. People today are weaned into being consumers of everything, so they are victims of consumption. That’s definitely the theme that makes the two albums talk to each other.
And what’s the new element in the Public Enemy voice? 2012! That’s the new element: there’s nothing new under the sun other than the year.
So there are still the same messages to be made? No, these are different messages. Some of them are the same. But the thing is, what always changes is the time. And it’s not that we have brought the time, but the time has brought itself. Time has come today. It’s nothing new but you can always adapt whatever you bring to the time to appear like it’s brand new because the people are new. If a person was 11, ten years ago, they’re 21 now and when they turn 21, they’re 21 for the first time. 21 is new to them.
So do you think 2012 will be particularly open to your message? A lot of people are open for everything. You just say, ‘ok, some people are open to this, and some people are open to everything’, and they’ll be open to rat poison too! You make your contribution to be one of those things that is also available as well as the rat poison. If you’re poisoned by rat poison, then some of the things that people are open to when they realise they’ve been poisoned is the antidote. But if you don’t realise you’ve been poisoned, you’re not looking for antidote, right? They’re looking for more poison!
You said in an interview in 2003 that British musicians are “more talented than the rest of the world”. Do you think that’s still the case? Well, there are a lot of other countries who’ve understood that and they’ve surpassed it. For example, Australia has picked up since 2003.
So is there a particular British artist who you think is on point right now? Guys like Roots Manuva and Dizzee Rascal are still on it – but they’re the old school guys now. I like guys like Sway.
And are you excited to go on? Yeah, I’m excited… I’m always excited!
‘Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp’ will be released this summer and ‘The Evil Empire of Everything’ will follow later in the year.
Text: Oscar Quine
Photography: Caroline Spearpoint