Prey for the National Guard ready to shoot
Cause them blacks loot ...
Disgraces; All I see is black faces, moved out to all these places
Big difference between this haze and them diamonds on the VMA's ...
New Orleans in the morning, afternoon, and night
Hell no, we ain't alright.
-- "Hell No We Ain't Alright," Public Enemy
Since its inception exactly 20 years ago, supremely innovative and politically charged rap group, Public Enemy, has never broken up. "We took a hiatus between 95 to 97, and that was off the road, that's all," clarifies P.E. leader Chuck D. "By tour 36, I'd gotten tired of not being able to give anything more with the show than what the vinyl records could give. We had to step it up into another realm, somehow."
Along with the 1997 return of the group's Minister of Information, Professor Griff, who was famously placed on sabbatical after allegedly spouting anti-Semitic remarks in a Washington Times interview, P.E.'s desired next step included a live rock band. "Plus we've got DJ Lord," Chuck D says, describing this, the group's 57th tour, "we've got S1Ws moving, myself and Flav are really active. It's like Rage Against the Machine meets The Roots meets RUN-DMC."
Then why do so many people believe that P.E.'s disappeared? "We're not on the radio," Chuck admits. "Because to do that you have to be a slave to a corporation. We've been free for nine years, and nobody's enjoyed their freedom better than us." Since its emancipation from Def Jam records, P.E. has attacked the music industry with Chuck's Internet-first SlamJamz record label, the all-purpose rap supersite, www.Rapstation.com, and the world's first ever Internet album release, There's a Poison Goin On. "We now have five studios and are wired to as many as 20 studios worldwide. The Bomb Squad is now 25 producers," explains D, who, when discussing his music and marketing contemporaries, is more apt to drop the names Bloc Party and TV on the Radio, than any of today's -- or yesterday's -- rap heroes. Without a corporate marketing agenda slowing the band down, Public Enemy has been free to release multiple albums every year, including the fan-remixed record, Revolverlution. Chuck likens P.E.'s current existence to the Stax/Motown method of writing, recording and releasing a new song -- albeit via the Web -- all in one week.
Still, others believe that P.E. no longer runs with the major labels simply because it'll never live up to It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Listed in every music magazine's best albums ever list, Nation of Millions perfected sampling as an art form, stitching together hundreds of virtually unrecognizable, mile-a-minute sound-bites into the world's smartest, funkiest black nationalist punk music. Unfortunately, lazier rap artists quickly tarnished sampling's reputation as an artistic medium. "To the courts, one second might as well be 20 seconds," says Chuck. "They put that whole 'one drop of black blood' mentality into the sampling case: 'If you take even one second, that means that you took a composition.' Which is bullshit."
"We were forced to start using different organic instruments," explained original Bomb Squad producer Hank Shocklee in an interview with Stay Free magazine. "But a guitar that's sampled off a record is going to have all the compression that they put on the recording, the equalization; it's going to hit the tape harder. It's going to slap at you. Something that's organic is almost going to ... hit more like a pillow than a piece of wood. By the early 1990s, [P.E.'s] sound had gotten a lot softer."
Between then and now, however, Chuck's comic sideman, Flavor Flav has gotten a lot more famous for his reality television show work. Chuck describes Flav's place in the ultra-serious rap group as "an asteroid smash-landed to change [our] terrain of imagery." And though he still stands by his hype-man, Chuck has been an outspoken critic of Flav's shows, even going so far as to threaten legal action against VH1 if they aired a Flavor of Love segment wherein Flav fought with his ex-wife. "Somehow, along the way, black culture was deemed profitable," Chuck states in his monthly Terrordome blog, "and 'niggativity,' which was a minority element in the hood, had its DNA corporately extracted, and created the climate for Flavor Of Love, etc." In the end though, Chuck concedes, "I'm glad Flav's busy; he's addicted to fame, and when he's had run-ins with the law and some substance cases, it's been when his fame was on the low."
Chuck, however, has remained consistently in the spotlight. Following Hurricane Katrina, the wordsmith was even interviewed by CNN, among other media outlets, as a commentator on our disaster's racial components. He made his thoughts rather clear in P.E.'s New Orleans anthem, "Hell No, We Ain't Alright," and the Katrina-centric edition of the Public Enemy comic book American Mule.
"I could never play New Orleans and see it as a regular date," Chuck says now. "It's impossible for me to go there, get paid and leave." Chuck's advice for current-day New Orleanians? First, don't blame Nagin: "I admire his courage in the heat of chaos," Chuck defends. "It's easy to attack someone when they're put up on the shelf like that. But I look at it this way: The Native Americans never built on the coastline, they built inland, but this Western way of developing right on the water -- the retro pundit finger can go a million different ways, but it can't be pointed at Ray Nagin." Chuck believes the current solution, at least for black New Orleanians, is clear: "If somebody says that New Orleans belongs to us, that's just a cultural attachment. New Orleans never made us -- we make us as a people. Black folks -- we've always been nomadic, never inherently stuck to one place. The reason our music and culture has traveled is because we've kept it moving. In Africa, and whenever shit gets crazy, we keep it moving to protect (our) families. When Jim Crow said, 'N*****, you better get your ass crackin', working for me or die n***a,' we got our ass up out of there and migrated. If hurricane season is putting [New Orleans] in jeopardy every year, and there's global warming, and you know the government ain't gonna do s**t, then ... You got your answers right there."
Regardless, "Not speaking for Public Enemy," Chuck states, "but Professor Griff and I are doing whatever we can, putting up our proceeds from this show to grassroots New Orleans organizations." When it is then suggested that perhaps a good place to start would have been booking a locally owned venue rather than the ClearChannel-owned House of Blues, Chuck says, "There's no grassroots touring structure in America. To [play one grassroots club], you spend like, a hundred days just for one show. So I have to not pay attention to who House of Blues is owned by and still do what I got to do. If we decide to [tour] in a different way, it takes a certain amount of energy, and it's not worth the energy if I gotta be in Paris April 3rd and in Houston the day before." Still, Chuck urges P.E. fans to "let the promoters and our booking agency know if there's a better suitable venue." Or rather, help P.E. fight the powers that be.
- Walter Leaphart
- Public Enemy has released new music at a prolific rate for two decades.