Chuck D: “Changing society with culture is a big task, especially if culture is leaning in a different way"

An audience with Public Enemy's Chuck D, discussing his new album, American politics, growing up, and why we'll never hear the best Prophets Of Rage song...

Chuck D: “Changing society with culture is a big task, especially if culture is leaning in a different way"
George Garner

Chuck D can make a bad microphone sound good. He’s always known it. Mastering the art and craft of rapping may have required hard work, but his preternatural ability to transform even the tinniest, shittiest excuse of a mic into an ear-quaking assault weapon with his voice? That was always there. Occasionally, people would use the same microphone as him only to turn and ask, “How come I can’t sound like you?” Chuck’s reply would typically take the form of an action: he simply extended his index finger and pointed it directly at his throat.

“I was a natural voice from the start,” he tells Kerrang!, decompressing after a hectic morning navigating traffic. “My dad could yell over a mountain, so some of it is hereditary, but I also got that particular style from sports broadcasting.”

He goes on to ponder the individual characteristics certain rappers have, be it the pronounced lyrical bite of Zack De La Rocha, the dexterity of B-Real or the innate cool of Ice-T.

“Me? I’ve just got power, man,” he says. “I could just fucking go right through a brick wall.”

Here, perhaps, it helps to imagine the brick wall in question as formed of institutional racism and social injustice instead of bricks and mortar. And for 35 years and counting, Chuck’s deep, booming voice has been applied like a wrecking ball to it via Public Enemy. Today the group – who revolutionised hip-hop in both sound and word, while also enthralling the rock/metal world – return with their raucous 15th studio album, What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down?. Their first since Chuck’s joyous “four-year education” in supergroup Prophets Of Rage came to an end, it is, in many regards, a record that sees the legendary group come full circle.

For one, What You Gonna… sees Public Enemy – completed, of course, by the none-more-charismatic Flava Flav and phenomenal DJ Lord – reunited with Def Jam, the iconic hip-hop label that launched their career, not to mention those of Run-DMC, Beastie Boys and countless more. Speaking of which…

“You know the song by Ringo Starr, With A Little Help From My Friends?” Chuck asks. “I think of that title when it comes to this album.”

Indeed, Public Enemy’s latest features blockbuster appearances from Beastie Boys’ Ad-Rock and Mike D, Run-DMC, Nas, Ice-T, George Clinton, Cypress Hill’s B-Real and Sen Dog and many more. On top of that, the group also reprise (and revise) some of their most legendary moments such as Fight The Power (re-christened Fight The Power 2020) and Public Enemy No.1 (revamped as Public Enemy Number Won) for good measure.

But if PE are reaching back in time in some respects, in others What You Gonna… couldn’t be more prescient. Arriving in the aftermath of the global Black Lives Matter protests, not to mention the current noxious global sociopolitical climate, it is a record that faces, unflinchingly, the horrorshow that is 2020. Now aged 60 – and very much raging gracefully – Chuck has spent his entire career speaking out against racism and police brutality. As such, he is someone who has, sadly, grown accustomed to tragic deaths such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many other African-Americans at the hands of police officers and racists. But he has taken heart by the “total world response” this time around. As much as some things never change, others may be on the cusp.

“I personally think that the officer in Minneapolis knew what he was doing,” says Chuck of George Floyd’s death. “I think he was making a point to the cameras. Many people in authority, they get twisted and caught up on their own power. That’s what I thought Derek Chauvin was on. Taking that life just like that…”

Chuck lets out a long, deep sigh.

“I mean with Breonna Taylor, the police came in firing their guns…”

Another moment of silence.

“It’s hitting a tipping point,” he says, solemnly.

Here, Chuck D takes K! further into the new Public Enemy record and ponders the immense task at hand of unfucking the world…

You have some barbed words for Donald Trump on lead single State Of The Union (Shut The Fuck Up), yet during the Prophets Of Rage era you suggested Mike Pence’s “militaristic point of view” was the real threat. Does this song signal that Trump was a bigger cause for concern than you originally anticipated?
“I totally thought that the job would be so intense that Trump was going to do damage and then hand it off to Pence. But he’s persevered and his perseverance has wrecked so much more. I just thought he was going to do so much damage he’d be out in two years. But he did the four and the fear now is four more, whether it is from Trump or Pence. Seriously, we don’t want to come even anywhere close to that being a reality. His list of ridiculous shit is so long, people get numb to the length of it – his catastrophes are exhausting.”

On Fight The Power 2020, Nas says, ‘The next generation is still singing Fight The Power’. There must be a sense of pride that you contributed to something so enduring, but is there a sadness involved, too – perhaps you would have hoped that the song wouldn’t still be needed in 2020?
“Well, the first-ever Fight The Power by The Isley Brothers came out in 1975, so it’s something that you probably have to say every 15 years anyway. Because people come and people go, the biggest difference between [Public Enemy’s] Fight The Power and the one today is 30 years: there have been people who have been born since and people who have died. That is why the effort is to expose and to try to eradicate systemic racism in all shades, colours and sizes.”

You pay tribute to a host of late legends on Rest In Beats, including 2pac who once said of America: “In this country, a black man only has five years where he can exhibit maximum strength – once you turn 30, it’s like they take the heart and soul out of a man.” With that in mind, just how much of a fight has it been for you to keep the fight alive?
“(Laughs) Well, sometimes it’s a fight within your own surroundings – you have to be able to get everybody on the same page just to keep the thing alive, and then you have to continue to make change. And we happen to be culturalists, man – changing society with culture is a big task, especially if culture is leaning in a different way.”

So, throughout the course of your career, was there ever a time where you thought you might be done with Public Enemy?
“Oh, no, that’s like saying you’re done with your left arm. I tell you this much: I have no regrets about any word I’ve written. And that’s the basis of where Public Enemy is coming from. I made sure that I wrote with my full consciousness at whatever age I was at the particular time. If anybody challenges me, like, ‘Chuck D, man, we need you to do this or that’ – you know what I tell them? I say, ‘Well, I might not have that energy and tolerance I had at 30, so here’s a challenge: why don’t you be like I was when I was 30 and match that, motherfucker?’ You probably can’t. And that ends that story.”

Are there any songs you wrote that you thought would cause more debate or went over people’s heads?
“All the time. Of course, man. I did Hitler Day attacking Columbus Day, but I just thought that we went about it with the wrong production. There’s a bunch of songs like that. I thought that Fight The Power’s biggest brouhaha would be over the Elvis and John Wayne lines [‘Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me, straight up racist, the sucker was simple and plain, motherfuck him and John Wayne’]. I geared up for that, but it was something else that summer [Public Enemy were boycotted by the Jewish Defence Organisation after Professor Griff made anti-Semitic remarks in Washington Times interview].”

In America, there is a tragic legacy of black leaders speaking the truth and losing their lives for it. Did you ever fear that your lyrics could put you in danger?
“The thing I’ve always feared was ignorance. So if I’m going to be put in any kind of danger, it’s usually something that’s ignorant. When you’re angry and hateful at something, you’re ignorant because you’re ignoring the fact of really, truly what that hate is about – sometimes it’s envy, it’s jealousy, or just straight up racism. It might be a bunch of different things. So I always was fearful of ignorance, and I always tried to sidestep it and stay out of its fucking way.”

This next one is possibly too broad a question, or, quite possibly, a bad one…
“There’s no such thing as a bad question. Either I’m going to say, ‘I don’t know,’ or, ‘Next question, please…’”

Let’s see. Was there a moment in your young life where racial inequality hit you so hard it jolted your artistic consciousness to life?
“I grew up on Long Island. In Long Island, you lived in a black town surrounded by white towns and you didn’t go to the other towns. You thought that that was the end of the earth – at least, that was the thought in the town. I never had that; I was raised by my parents to think the whole country was yours, and you could even travel the planet. But I knew there was a general thought of, ‘Stay safe, stay in your own zone and don’t cross the line.’ I would take long walks as a kid in territories I shouldn’t have taken walks in, but I didn’t care. I was just walking. In Long Island you could get stopped for just walking in the wrong place – county cops were good at that: ‘What are you doing walking this street, far away from where I think you live?’ That type of thing. I remember one time walking to college and I had a large portfolio. Police stopped, like, ‘Where are you going?’ My mind was always sharp, thinking, ‘I’m not going anywhere with this flat machine gun, sir.’ (Laughs) I had an art portfolio, like, where did he think I was going, man!? For real. But you also knew not to give the police a wise-ass answer, either. You always had that wake-up call in that community. And if you didn’t have that wake-up call or know how to deal with what was coming at you, then you didn’t have the upbringing that you should have had to give you the tools, so to speak. And that wasn’t your fault, you just didn’t get it. My dad was a king, man…”

A big part of you joining Prophets Of Rage was as a form of therapy after your father passed away – you wanted to fill that sudden silence with noise…
“Yep, that was the deal.”

How have you adjusted to life with that silence?
“It’s different. He was my go-to guy for answers. I’d usually get an answer and I would say, ‘Well, damn, how come I didn’t think of it that way?’ He would deliver the answer in, like, two sentences and I’d be like, ‘What the fuck?!’ I’ll tell you the truth, it’s crazy, but I don't think my father could name more than maybe three of my songs (laughs). We talked about sports all the time, but we didn’t talk about music. My dad liked jazz and James Brown, but my mom was the music person in the family, I was raised up in a Motown/Stax/Atlantic household.”

Do you have hope that at some point down the line Prophets Of Rage might ride again?
“I think it had time its time. I’m telling you this much, the best fucking music will probably not be heard. The best song that me, B-Real and Prophets made, and that Rick Rubin produced, will probably not be heard.”

Why not?
“I don’t know! Give B-Real a call, give [Tom] Morello a call! It was dope, that’s all I’m saying. But look at it this way: it was Rage’s time, man. Rage had to return, and we had to get back to our Cypress Hill and Public Enemy duties, but it was a university of brotherhood. It was such a tremendous joy that myself, B-Real and DJ Lord got to work together on a new Public Enemy song [Grid] along with Sen Dog and George Clinton. We’ve said something that’s important and funky on it. But I’m telling you, from day one to the final day when we closed out, Prophets Of Rage was perfect, man. We knew it had to close, like a theatre show does. But there was not one bad day, bro. Not. One. Bad. Day. That’s the truth. It was great, and I never had to put together a set! Tom Morello is a king. I was like the consigliere, he was the godfather.”

Both Rage and Cypress Hill were directly inspired by Public Enemy, yet you often called yourself things like “the best number two” and “consigliere” in the group – it’s almost like you’re allergic to having an ego?
“It makes the team go good. That’s the truth. You can’t gas yourself up. You gas yourself up, but where’s the pedal? There’s a job to do, man, even when you reach the pinnacle. Let’s say a guy like Jay-Z or Eminem, when you reach the top of rhyme, there’s still a challenge. Like, how do you make hip-hop and rap music seem as important as Bob Dylan? There’s always a challenge to take on. It’s like, ‘Okay, you achieved this in the genre – now how about all these genres that continue to look down at yours?’ You can’t start weighing your success and saying, ‘Well, we’ve got money too!’ Money don’t mean nothing. It’s how can you, artistically, sway and push the opinions of people that your style of art is cool.”

Many would argue you’ve already done that with Public Enemy. That said, were you ever surprised that albums as uncompromising and revolutionary as Fear Of A Black Planet and It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back were actually as popular as they were?
“Well, we did have a machine behind us that needs to be recognised – but we also had good fuel for the machine to run off of. So I think if those records were independently [released] back in 1988, 1990, they would have been obscured. Fear Of A Black Planet was a dissertation by a social scientist and I was a 30-year-old interpreting that dissertation into a rap record – it’s like, ‘What the fuck, man?’ (Laughs) You have got to recognise that it was a convergence of a lot of different things. And although you can repeat the technique, you can’t repeat the time. Time is the thing that none of us ever have a lasso on. You can’t put a lasso or a harness on time – that shit is going to fucking move on you. And some people get bucked off of it like a horse; you get bucked off trying to lasso time. Time also comes at you like it does in a boxing ring, where you sometimes have to be able to visualise the punches coming at you. You duck, you move, you block, you take your shots. If you don’t look at time that way, it’s gonna knock you on your ass.”

Public Enemy’s influence and contribution to hip-hop is both well documented and celebrated. But, as a group who collaborated with Rage Against The Machine, Anthrax and more, what did Public Enemy do for rock music?
“Well, it’s rock and roll. When we were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2013, a lot of rock purists felt like, ‘Oh, Public Enemy! Rap music! That’s not rock!’ I would simply say, ‘You motherfucker, it’s the roll!’ (Laughs) That would shut them up. Motherfucker, we the roll. It says Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, bro. Rock fragmented from rock’n’roll and became its own thing. Rap music borrowed that because it uses all music underneath it. So it can be rock, rock and roll, soul, reggae rhythm and blues. They’re all hybrids of one another musically, but I simplified it by saying, ‘We’re the fucking roll.’ The roll is everything else. It shuts them the fuck up, they go, ‘I never thought about it that way.’ It’s like, ‘Start thinking, bro!’”

Finally, please finish this sentence for us: My name is Chuck D and I have this to tell you…
“I’m an Earthizen. And I’m a culturalist. Peace.”

What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down? is out now via Def Jam.

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