Interview by Miles Marshall Lewis

From Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential run to the 1995 Million Man March of Black men on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall and beyond, the one man whose phone rang off the hook for hip-hop’s point of view on African-American issues was Public Enemy frontman Chuck D. Fear of a Black Planet, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and more placed Chuck, Flavor Flav and DJ Terminator X at the vanguard of rap’s political consciousness for years.

On its 15th studio album, What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down?, PE makes a strong return to Def Jam—the venerated label that launched their career in 1987—with pop-up appearances from a classic who’s who of ’80s-era MCs like Run-DMC, Cypress Hill, the Beastie Boys and Ice-T. Full of elder-statesman attitude, Chuck D (now 60) checked in with HITS about white supremacy in the age of President Trump, activism in modern rap music, and the fighting the power in the terrordome of 2020.

1998’s Spike Lee soundtrack He Got Game marked the last Public Enemy album on Def Jam. What made PE return to the label after 22 years?
Def Jam was a settlement between me and Flavor. I like to do things independently. But he said, “After 20 years, let’s do something bigger and better.” Flav is the star. [laughter] It’s a different place, it’s grown. They understand the notion that importance can be great as if not greater than popularity. So that was our destination.

Run-DMC, who haven’t rhymed together since 2001, appear on “Public Enemy Number Won” with Beastie Boys. Walk us through the album’s guest appearances from George Clinton, Nas, Black Thought, etc.
A couple of songs were already in the can, with Daddy-O of Stetsasonic [on “Yesterday Man”], Ice-T and Parrish Smith, “Smash the Crowd.” I was on tour with DJ Premier last year with Enemy Radio, our MC-DJ component. The BET Awards requested that “Fight the Power” be the theme this year. I was saying, “Well, I think that younger energy should be able to dictate the narrative here.” But they were like, “Chuck, this is one of those unanimous calls where everybody’s saying, ‘That’s the soundtrack to right now.’ ” When you get to be a triple-OG age, you don’t be a curmudgeon who doesn’t go with the energy when it looks positive to go in a direction. You say, “I salute that. Questlove put it together? That’s the call he made? I’m with the call. Makes sense.” You don’t pontificate and make something that makes sense not make sense. Black Thought, Nas, Rapsody, YG, Jahi from Public Enemy. Being able to participate in that was almost like the no-brainer, so that was a combination.

I reached out already on my 60th birthday to do a collaboration for the song that dragged me [into rap] in the first place. Run-DMC and Beastie Boys dragged [“Public Enemy Number Won”] into Rick Rubin, who chased me down for two years. He wanted me based on that song. I said, “for my 60th birthday, would you guys actually participate in making this song?” I always work with DMC, DMC is my dude. I’m on his projects, he’s on mine. Coincidentally, two of the major forces that helped pull me in—MCA of the Beasties and Jam Master Jay—are no longer here. So it was kind of like an homage tribute.

It organically came together, features. B-Real [of Cypress Hill] was my co-MC partner for four years for Prophets of Rage. I made a call to Uncle George Clinton for his funk-osophy. Younger people go to him for his funk. But I wanted to reach into the futurist, visionary George Clinton, the edges of what made the funk go into the psychedelic Funkadelic, you know? It wasn’t, “OK, we’re gonna do an album and reach out to all these people for collabos and features.” It fell together.

You’ve said classic rock acts get more respect from their audiences than old-school rappers do from hip-hop listeners. Do you still think that’s true? There’s five or six moving generations. What LL Cool J is doing with Rock the Bells Radio was a big step up on SiriusXM. Our system that we have, Rap Station, they have a network, a 10-station channel we curate. I think the biggest thing is lack of curation, lack of writings about [older rap]. But my old-school artists, like we call them “hip-hop gods,” we have a station that plays hip-hop gods with 15-year careers or longer 24 hours a day. If they get the respect from 10 people in the room, so be it.

Do you think there’s enough politics and activism in modern hip-hop? There doesn’t have to be. Because back in the day, we communicated through the vehicle of music and songs getting out to a mass audience quicker than everybody. Today you got social media. That’s the blessing and a curse, ’cause if somebody feels like there’s something on their mind right now, it’s going up right now. A song gotta go through a process. So maybe what [rap] songs did is, they beat everybody to the punch and then dictated the narrative. Now I think songs have to embrace the narrative and the movement. And that’s the difference.

“Fight the Power” was already on the back burner [at the 2020 BET Awards], and that’s why maybe that song could actually embrace the narrative that’s going on right now in this [Black Lives Matter] movement. But before, it kinda foreshadowed a movement and kinda like dictated and narrated that movement. Technology changes everything, and technology definitely changed that.

On “Toxic,” you say: “HBO, Home Boys Only/I really never dug The Wire.” Why not? And have you seen HBO’s Watchmen? No, I ain’t seen Watchmen. And I never dug The Wire because when I was a kid, I had to go to Baltimore. I hated it. [laughter] And I hated when The Wire just made entertainment out of sorry-ass fuckin’ conditions. I know people that got long bids, got caught up in the drug game, which is right there with Reagan and Bush and guns, drugs, money. It’s not a TV show to me, man.

Do you think Trump’s election was a racist reaction to having Obama in office for eight years?
In a way. But I also thought that the Democrats played so many games, and Hillary Clinton gave off an air of arrogance. I mean, in 1980, the first year I was able to vote, I voted for Angela Davis. Because I didn’t vote for Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan gets there. You get 12 years of R&B: Reagan and Bush. So the mathematics are so simple and primitive that’s it’s an either-or type of farce that you gotta pay attention to.

The United States of America, they don’t even realize they’re racist. Even the Proud Boys. I bet you half of them don’t think they’re racist. You end up falling victim to hyperbole, crazy shit, propaganda, prop-agenda. And when they see crazy images of us, they start believing that shit. The Bible Belt who ain’t got as much or any actual Black folks, they believe that. Watching a video and somebody just throwing money at the camera, they’re believing that shit. They got laid off like three years ago, the banks are gonna foreclose on their house. So the only thing they’re gonna do is blame that kid throwing money at the camera, you know? And that ain’t true. Once again, that’s hype that we have to move through. So you cocktail it all up with a goon at the top who basically is just stirring the flames… He gon’ be in the air conditioning.

What does Trump’s election say about the U.S.?
That it’s riding in a haunted-house buggy, trying to detach itself from the rest of the planet. And detaching the United States from the rest of the planet is not good for Black people or people of color, but especially not Black people. If we detach ourselves from the diaspora, we’re chained slaves, man. There is no survival for Black people mentally, philosophically, without connecting ourselves to the diaspora, especially in these times. There’s answers for how we can deal with this somewhere, but not all the answers are gonna come from in here.

Top: PE press pic by Eitan Miskevich

Above: Chuck back in the day with hip-hop radio trailblazer and HITS family member Michelle S.

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