When Public Enemy burst onto the music scene in 1987, helping to popularize rap (along with the Beastie Boys and Run DMC), socio-politically conscious co-founder and MC Chuck D polarized the country with lyrics that criticized the justice system and the media.
White Middle America was put off by songs such as “My Uzi Weighs a Ton,” “911 is a Joke” and ubiquitous anthem “Fight the Power,” which highlighted the frustrations of African Americans. Perhaps the only ones who foresaw Public Enemy having a lengthy lifespan were Chuck (Carlton Douglas Ridenhour) and the rest of the group, which includes hype man Flavor Flav, Khari Wynn, DJ Lord and Professor Griff.
“When I decided, agreed, to doing records, I had the Rolling Stones of rap music in mind,” Chuck said in a phone interview one recent evening, a couple of weeks prior to the group’s performance at next weekend’s Treasure Island Music Festival.
Roughly 25 years and several platinum albums later, Public Enemy has its music stored by the Library of Congress (1990’s Fear of a Black Planet) and included in numerous “top albums” lists (1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back). The group also led the revolution in online and peer-to-peer music when it divorced Def Jam Records in 1998 and walked away from a guaranteed paycheck into the unknown.
Now 52, Chuck is still speaking out about the injustices he sees, be they political, financial or social.
“I want to fight against the anti-immigration attitude going on in the United States,” he said. “I’m a culturist. I know that you got to to be a realist to deal with the system that you’re in. I get political as far as understanding the necessities and the basic minimums. Other than that, I just try to be practical.”
He is also advocating for rap and hip hop to break new ground, as it did with “Fight the Power.” There are more barriers the genre can break through, such as the depiction of the treatment of women and homosexuality in lyrics. Chuck said he’s not sure whether the majority of MCs still speak for the people they write for.
“I think one of my hardest criticisms of MCs is that I don’t believe a lot of them write what they really, truly believe … to the core,” Chuck said. “Oh yeah, there’s plenty of barriers.”
Recently, Chuck D also had some harsh words for the likes of Kanye West and Jay-Z, remarking that albums such as Watch The Throne focus too much on entertainment and image, and lack a meaningful message. MCs have focused too much on being liked instead of rapping about challenging issues, he said.
“I think it’s more individualistic and selfish,” he said. “It hurts hip hop as a performance art. It also won’t be able to captivate new challenges. I think a lot of individuals have made it weaker.
“I like those guys (West and Jay-Z) a lot. I just hate all the companies they’re with – the major record labels – because their game is to destroy everything in their path.”
That is the reason Public Enemy left Def Jam, Chuck said. Having to satisfy too many label executives and others in the periphery wore the group down so it jumped ship. Public Enemy was among the first major acts to choose independence. Chuck D founded indie label Slam Jamz, which was one of the first websites that allowed people to purchase an album in MP3 form.
Public Enemy has been busy in 2012. The group released its 11th studio album, Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp, last spring. A follow-up, The Evil Empire of Everything, will drop at the end of October. Both albums are on Chuck D’s and producer Gary G-Wiz’s music distribution company, SpitDigital. And a few weeks ago, “Harder Than You Think,” a track off 2007’s How You Sell Your Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul? climbed to the top of British song charts after it was selected as the theme for the Paralympics. Not bad for a rap group in uncharted territory 25 years down the road.
“We do it one year at a time is how we look at it,” Chuck said. “Every year, now, breaks in to 12 months. That breaks down to 30 to 31 days, and each day is 24 hours of seconds and minutes.”