Chuck D, the rap renegade whose powerhouse baritone has guided Public Enemy for over three decades, has passionately worked to bring conscious hip-hop to the mainstream. The group’s debut album, 1987’s Yo! Bum the Show, immediately cemented them as icons who always manage to have their sights set on the cultural zeitgeist — regardless of how turbulent it becomes.
The emcee born Carlton Ridenhour remains relentless in his mission to address social issues, particularly ones that affect the Black community. 2020 alone has seen PE back in full effect: rejoining Def Jam, releasing two albums, including last month’s What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down?, and remixing their classic hip-hop anthem, “Fight the Power”, all as Black Lives Matter protests continue to rage across the nation.
Over the course of his career, Chuck D has inspired countless emcees to do the same. From proudly being the voice of Public Enemy to joining one of rock’s most infamous supergroups, Prophets of Rage, his career has been more of an evolving movement than a collection of moments. As racial and political tension continues to consume the headlines, the legendary lyricist sat down with Consequence of Sound for the latest installment of 10 Years and 10 Questions.
Everyone knows you as Chuck D at this point. How would you describe the difference between Chuck D and Carlton Ridenhour?
Carlton listens, doesn’t talk much … watches. Chuck D is when I’m asked to talk and is usually the person that people think talks a lot, because if I ask a question, I’m going to get an answer. So, people are always thinking I’m all talk all the time. But I really listen, and I watch more than I talk … that’s a clear difference.
We all know how Public Enemy started, but what first drew you to rap?
I really appreciated the technical aspect of it and how it was different than singing records. So, that vocal application was a combination of what I heard and radio DJs at the time — and also a little bit of sports commentary. Hip-hop is a creativity that really kind of crosses over into the creativity coming out of a Black environment. It’s a way of style … a way of sight, sound, life. People always have done it, but then it became definitive. You have talking, then you have singing, and rap is in between — that’s why it will never disappear. And what drew me into rap was during the late ’70s, in 1977, ’78, and then ’79, when it became actual records.
Public Enemy’s debut album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, was released in 1987. The group’s dynamic and presence already felt palpably strong, as did that powerful album cover. What were your expectations when making the record?
To at least put something together as formidable as Raising Hell by RUN-DMC, which I consider the greatest rap record ever. Also, it was an album that moved hip-hop totally into the album-oriented format, coming from a singles marketplace. Before that, artists had to have singles before they got albums.
We happened to come with an album right out of the box. That was kind of unprecedented. And it was with a major system for a label that was experimental called Def Jam. Def Jam, in the beginning, was an experiment — it was not a given, so they wanted to sell albums. We came out like a rock act that had albums before we had a hot single on the streets. “Public Enemy No. 1” was our first single, but that came out the same time the album came out.
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back came out this year and changed hip-hop forever. It’s well-documented that you wanted to make your own version of Marvin Gaye’s What Going On, a social commentary on the times. What was the difference between this record and Yo! Bum Rush the Show?
Having a passport and seeing the world was the biggest difference between the two albums. And the speed … the speed of It Takes a Nation was substantially faster than Yo! Bum Rush the Show. But Bum Rush the Show definitely stood out. As a matter of fact, it was our first record acknowledged internationally … that’s why they came up with Yo! MTV Raps. It was off of Yo! Bum Rush the Show, since the show started out in the UK.
But with It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back … first of all, the music was ugly. You got ugly, crazy music all over the place and voices coming at you from left, right, and center. It’s not what you call “nice music.” You can’t really sit down, spark a blunt, and say I’m going to listen to Public Enemy. Public Enemy’s music is more like getting your car and running it through a storefront.
Spike Lee released the cult classic Do the Right Thing and used “Fight the Power” as its theme song. It was the perfect pairing and I was wondering what was that era like for you?
It was a renaissance period at that time in the late 1980s for a lot of Black creators in New York city and Harlem and Brooklyn. You had Spike Lee making movies. You had journalists in The City Sun and also The Village Voice that were proficient. You also had creativity in the music business with Andre Harrell and Russell Simmons. It was a burgeoning period where a lot of creative people spoke coming from a Black vantage point.
Spike was working on his third movie that actually dealt with unrest in the New York area. We had (Mayor) David Dinkins coming in and a lot of people in the city did not like it … It didn’t fix problems right away. Spike actually put together a film that talked about the civil unrest and he said he needed a theme and we gave him “Fight The Power.”
Fast-forward to 1998 when Public Enemy paired up with Spike Lee again for the He Got Game soundtrack. What is it about Spike Lee that brings out the best in the group?
Spike’s a big Knicks fan. I’m a big Knicks fan, but I don’t go to the games. Spike wanted to tell that story at that particular time, and he knew that I was a fan that wanted to be a sportscaster. I had a lot of sports wrapped up in me … metaphors and all that. Writing He Got Game was a rather easy task for me, and Spike thought that it was a good time for Public Enemy to pull it off — and we did.
I felt that at that time nobody in hip-hop knew more about, you know, ball broadcaster-wise than I did. I knew I could break it down in rhymes. To this day, it happens to be some of my best work with vernacular that cats still ain’t caught. It just zoomed past them, you know? I’m way over your head … I’m skyhooking over your head with metaphors — and I definitely know ball.
Click ahead for more 10 Years, 10 Questions with Chuck D…
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.
“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.
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).
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.
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.