Thursday, October 14, 2010

Say It Like It Really Is: An Interview With Chuck D

Getting a little catching up done here...

Article first published on BlogCritics as Say It Like It Really Is: An Interview With Chuck D

Chuck D rapped over 20 years ago about being a “Rebel Without A Pause”. In 2010, at age 50, he still means it.

Smartly staying out of the public eye and relying on a “do-it-yourself” ethic that has become more the rule rather than the exception, Chuck D has been Remixing The Industry for more than a decade. After splitting with Def Jam Records in 1999, Public Enemy took to the internet to continue building their legacy. That legacy is set to be on display in all its revolutionary glory on October 15 with the release of Bring The Noise, The Hits, Vids, and Docs Box: Greatest Sites and Sounds (Chapter 2 1999-2009) box set. Spanning the entirety of the group’s post-Def Jam output, the box set will feature 3 CDs and 3 DVDs of Public Enemy tracks, videos, live performances, and a lot more.

Chuck has also compiled many of his solo songs and side projects in to Don’t Rhyme For The Sake of Riddlin’, his first solo release in 14 years. The band is also currently on the fifth leg of their “Tour of a Black Planet”, which is set to wrap on September 17 before heading to Europe in late October.

Known as fair and square throughout his years, he still growls at the livin’ foul. When we had a chance to talk on the phone on September 7, Chuck was as gracious as a host could be. But he’s still every bit the Rebel...and there’s no slowing down any time soon, much less taking a Pause.

Michael Melchor: You’ve recently released your first solo record in 14 years, Don’t Rhyme For The Sake of Riddlin’. What led to putting out another solo album? And it’s only available at digital outlets, is that correct?

Chuck D: Don’t Rhyme For The Sake of Riddlin’ isn’t so much a solo album, per se, as it is a solo project. A lot of projects like Confrontation Camp and Fine Arts Militia are included in this, as well as a lot of other work I’ve done in the last 10 years. I’ve recorded songs for ESPN [”Get Used To Me”, for a Muhammad Ali tribute] and done several others throughout the last 10 years; Don’t Rhyme For The Sake of Riddlin’ collects all that together. If this were to be a physical release, I probably wouldn’t have done it. We’re in an age where we can deliver now without the hindrance of the business side of things. As it is now, I tend to make songs one at a time. The album concept was beautiful back then, but music has been a singles-driven medium for the last 10 years. I see something happening in the world, I can write a song about it and have it out there almost instantly.

MM: Is the recent song you released about the Arizona Immigration Law, “Tear Down That Wall”, on it as well?

Chuck D: “Tear Down That Wall” is on it, as well as the remix done by Johnny Juice, an excellent DJ out of Atlanta.

MM: Excellent. What outlets can you get Don’t Rhyme For The Sake of Riddlin’ at?

Chuck D: You can get Don’t Rhyme For The Sake of Riddlin’ on iTunes and Amazon, as well as on the Urban Aggregator on TuneCore. We’ve always taken pride in paving new digital roads for distribution, as well as everything else. It started with in 1998 and with our label, Slam Jamz, which was founded in 2001. Of course, there’s iTunes, Amazon, and things like that, as well as

MM: I was actually going to ask you about the impetus behind that site and what led to its formation...

Chuck D: - where Classic Rap lives on to the break of dawn. We actually used Classic Rock radio as our model. It used to be - or still is - that you hear newer stuff on the radio, but there are still places you could hear your Meatloafs, your Bostons, Cheap Trick, artists like that. We took that format, gave Classic Rap a home, and turned that in to our own industry. For Hip-Hop, is now that medium where you can hear the classics. Programmers now won’t put a Salt & Pepa or Dana Dane next to, you know, Waka Flocka. So we created a place for that. We also now have, which is a home for Classic female artists. That sort of thing is necessary for the existence of Rap. To make albums, songs, or videos, artists need a platform to be heard, and the internet is now that platform.

MM: I was going to bring that up as well; you talked about going online back in 1999 and talked even then like you knew this sort of thing was coming. Well, I have to say, you were right. [Laughs]

Chuck D: Well, audio and video files were inevitable. I don’t really take any credit for that, I just happened to pay attention to where the business was going. When I have a song or an album I want to get out there, there has to be a way to release it. I won’t beg anybody to put it out, so I had to figure out an avenue to release it myself. In figuring that out, we paved new roads. Of course, we kind of had to pave the road while were driving on it. [Laughs] But we’re at a point now where artists can record, distribute, and get paid from their bedrooms. You have to have a sense of what’s going on now to be able to do that. It’s an instant process; if somebody says something one day, you can write, record, and release an answer to it the next. This is the sort of thing that Bob Dylan would be proud of. [Laughs]

MM: Exactly. Now, as far as physical releases, there’s a Public Enemy box set about to be released as well, correct?

Chuck D: Yes, the box set is due on October 15; we’re taking pre-orders for it now. There will also be a digital component available later on that month as an add-on. The new video from it, ”Say It Like It Really Is”, is out now.

MM: And, on top of all that, you’re also currently on tour.

Chuck D: We’re going in to the fourth leg of our tour, which is the Southern part of the US. The fifth leg will cover parts of Europe, the sixth will be in South Africa, the seventh in Australia, and for the eighth, we’ll be hitting the West Coast of the US. We’ll probably hit over in Asia sometime next year, maybe in to 2012.

MM: Man, so you’re headed all over the world, basically.

Chuck D: Well, places like South Africa, we’re only hitting a few spots. We’re one of the few artists who understand how to rout the world on a tour like this. If the powers that be in the US would pay attention to something like that, that’s great. Otherwise, they become too shortsighted, thinking artists can just sit home and collect their money.

MM: You also now have a backing band with you, is that correct?

Chuck D: Yeah, we do - in fact, that’s their name - The baNNed. They consist of Brian Hardgroove on bass, Khari on guitar, and Mike on the drums. All of them, along with DJ Lord, comprise our rhythm section. We got the idea from playing with The Roots in Japan back in ‘99. We thought we needed some flexibility. Public Enemy is still myself, Flavor [Flav], Professor Griff and the S1Ws. With all of those components, we’re able to put on a unique show that stands up to - and even surpasses - what we did years ago. You can’t always do the same thing the same way you always did. It gets too restrictive. You have to move beyond just having a rapper and a DJ. We wouldn’t be on world tours now if this idea didn’t work out. [Laughs] We wouldn’t still be viable if we were still doing the same stuff we did 15 years ago. We’re not an “oldies” act - there’s nothing wrong with that, but we always covered new territory by having new ideas.

MM: The baNNed is also working on an album of of re-interpretations of the Nation of Millions album, is that correct?

Chuck D: Yeah, their record, It's Back to a Million of Us to Hold a Nation, is in the final stages now. We liked the idea of them taking something like that and making it new. The model works so well in the sense that it doesn’t have to work immediately. There’s no need to sell a million copies overnight, which is what a lot of cats get caught up in. If you can come to the people with your music and let them get it, they will.

MM: No need for the instant gratification that many feel they need and get gouged for, which is what a lot of our culture has turned in to.

Chuck D: Right. What’s the building you have there in Orlando? Isn’t that the Amway Arena?

MM: For the time being, yeah. They’re actually opening a brand new one - the Amway Center - real soon. I think it’s around the beginning of October it’s set to open.

Chuck D: Yeah, you pay $150 for a ticket to see somebody there, chances are you’re paying for the building. Big Daddy Kane, Run-DMC and guys like that, back then, charged $10 and when you came to see them perform, they gave you all they got. More artists now are stuck in an offstage “reality” and now giving much of a performance where it matters. You look at reality TV. Flavor Flav had his, sure, but at the end of the day, he’s still a musician. What does Kim Kardashian do? Sure, she’s on TV and she has an ass, but aside from that, what exactly does she do? The concept of people being famous just for being famous, I don’t get that at all.

MM: Well, now there’s been a pattern recently of artists getting booed off the stage - at least that happened to Smashing Pumpkins. They got off light, though; Tila Tequila and Guns N’ Roses had stuff thrown at them...

Chuck D: Didn’t Tila Tequila have shit thrown at her? Like, real, human shit?

MM: Yeah, she did. You bring up the idea of offstage reality and performers not delivering where it counts, I’m really starting to wonder if we’re seeing a backlash to that idea now.

Chuck D: With an economic recession and crazy ticket prices, PR now is at an all-time high. There’s no negotiation with the fans from any artists. When a fan says an artist is lazy, it’s just like in sports. It’s not like people can do better than what they see on the field, but people get mad at seeing an athlete or a performer just being lazy. It’s that laziness that pisses people off. Something has to differentiate the artist from the spectator. If you take the “awe” - and I know this is the incorrect spelling, but in a case like this, it has to be spelled this way - take the “awe” out of the audience and something has to give. The effort has to be put forth by the artist. Hip-Hop, at its core, is a performance art. That’s how it got started is people rapping for a crowd; all else came afterward. Once that effort is gone, what else is left? Public Enemy, in our shows, we plan on bringing the performance aspect to the front. We’ve never competed with any other artists or anything; our biggest competition is ourselves. We always say on the road, it’s “us against us”. Either you do the songs or the songs do you. [Laughs]

You can follow Chuck D on Twitter at MrChuckD (“I’ve recently become a ‘Twittidiot’ thanks to Johnny Juice,” Chuck laughs) and also e-mail him at Be sure to visit and the Slam Jamz label for all the latest on Public Enemy.

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