An interview with Public Enemy by Goran M. in Belgrade.
You have just come back from a show in Moscow. It was the first time the band visited that part of the globe. What are your impressions?
Chuck D: Moscow looks beaten down, a lot of people look like they have been exploited from the rich and the government leaders. Seems there is a gigantic division between the rich who are running wild and rampant and the poor who have to squander upon themselves. It’s the Wild, Wild East!
How do you explain the global appeal of your music, through time Public Enemy have evolved into a worldwide symbol of resistance?
Griff: It’s simply ’cause we speak a common language, like a common thread. You see, the same thing that a person might go through in Belgrade a brother might be going through in St. Louis, some other cat might be going through that in China, so a lot of times you can speak of one or two things that all the oppressed people are going through and the basic common thing, that we all got, is that we are all oppressed. Rulers build states for their sake, not for the sake of the people. There is a saying we have in America. It goes “I am because we are, and therefore I am” you understand. So you can use things that Malcolm X spoke about decades ago and still apply them today, which is sad ’cause it shows things have not changed much basically. Now, we might have different faces of oppressors, our oppressor might be the white man in America and that whole system, your oppressor might be that white man’s brother right here, but it’s the same oppression, so we don’t care what color the oppressor is; it is the oppression that connects us for real.
Chuck D: The human family – the many - is controlled by the few. The few control the human family and exploit it in many ways and Public Enemy speaks against that - Fight The Power says it all. If you can’t get an equal treatment from the situation that governs you, well then you want to go against that.
Most of the band grew up in the sixties. How did events that happened in the streets at that time influence your understanding of the world and music?
Griff: The sixties in America were very turbulent, very violent, explosive years. You had the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King, doing what they did, then on the other hand you had the Black Panther Party, then Nation of Islam, you had militant organisations trying to speak out about how and why we are being oppressed. Watching this and seeing things unfold is going to affect you. It’s impossible to see people getting shot, police dogs sitting on them, people mistreated in the streets and not get affected. Gill Scott Heron said “The Revolution Will not be Televised”, well in that case it was ’cause we seen it on TV. Then you had groups like The Watts Prophets and The Last Poets singing about that on our street corners, doing poetry about it, you had numerous groups who spoke about the ills of our people. Growing up and watching it you wanted to go out and do something, but I was too young back then. So, when my time came, when the time came for me to do something for the struggle I did it with my words and music, so the main question now is what is the younger generation doing to continue the struggle? Public Enemy has been on that path for years.
Chuck D: The sixties represent a collective struggle, it was a build up of 40-50 years of people experiencing hypocrisy and then they said “we are not going to take it anymore”. I’m a child from the sixties and I was conscious of a lot of movements in New York around me at that time, I had parents who were very aware.
How do you see the future of the United States?
Griff: I think America is going to have a turbulent future, the next president is going to catch hell. Bush has set the pick for the next president. Everything that Bush is doing now unavoidably has to backfire, and I think we are going to see the decay of America, slowly but surely. The people will rise up in their own way and they will take it back. The American system was already overthrown in the last election. We call it the last “se-lection”, because Bush wasn’t elected. He was selected by those who wanted to put him in power to push forward their agenda. So, all of that is going to backfire and I’m sad because the rap artists are not speaking up. Young people are listening to them, but they are not speaking up in these crucial times.
The Corporate Media has been one of the main targets in your rhymes?
Griff: Well if you spell media M-E-D-I-A. Multi-Ethnic-Destruction-In-America, see what I’m saying? That’s their main purpose; their main purpose is control. Control the minds of the people. If you control the minds of the people, then you make a statistical poll measuring how popular the president really is, you get something like: “62 percent of Americans support Bush Junior” – no! that’s bullshit. They are dumbing American people down with talk shows, playing the same videos over and over again, by sound bytes in the news. So, it’s definitely control, it’s mind control.
Has the media stereotype of a black person progressed since the beginning of the century and the days of the minstrels?
Chuck D: Nope, not much difference to me, only that nowadays minstrels are broadcasted worldwide.
Chuck, you often point out the history of exploitation of black musical expression by white record label executives and lawyers. It seems like a pattern since the days of Jazz. You once mentioned you would be glad to act as a head of the union for the hip hop artists?
Chuck D: Yes, I would like to lead a union for the hip hop world, but first you have to recognise that you have problems, you have to recognise that there is a need to band together for your existence and I don’t think a lot of hip hop artists recognize that. I think the lack of knowledge of self, severely hampers the understanding of who you are as a musician. If they don’t know who they are as a person then how the hell they gonna know what they are supposed to do and how to relate to each other?
Could you explain the concept behind the “Hazy Shade Of Criminal”? You go so far to mention Emanuel Noriega in that song to prove the point.
Chuck D: That song questions who is the real criminal. Are you gonna blame the people who are poor and try to make ends meet so they cross the line of criminality in order to survive, or you gonna look up at the top of the food chain and reveal the ones who set up those laws anyway in the face of criminality? So there is a real thin line between the “criminals” and the “good guys” for real.
How do you see the current state of hip hop. There is a huge gap between what is happening in the streets and what these rappers talk about in their rhymes?
Griff: Some people call that “cultural distraction”. If you watch TV for an hour you will say “look black people are living good!” You see the cars and women and food but the reality is that we don’t. The masses of black people in the US are poor, jobless, hungry, with no shelter. That guy driving through the neghborhood like that, all “bling blingin” with his jewelry is likely to get robbed. You can’t live up there and promote that stuff. No that is dangerous.
Do you feel a bit angry at the white liberal press who dismissed Muse-Sick-N-Hour-Mess-Age as a bad album in a crucial moment in the struggle for Hip hop, even though it’s clear it was a very important album from this perspective?
Chuck D: We were just very consistent. Muse-Sick-N-Hour Mess-Age was a very consistent album as far as some points that needed to be said, but that album came out at the time when Bill Clinton was moving in and there was this whole media aspect of expecting us to say something that was vogue, and vogue at that time was to be hypocritical. We refused to do that.
Griff: No, we don’t feel that way. You see they are doing their job and that is what they felt they had to do at that moment in order to derail hip hop. However you have to understand one thing: black people did it to themselves as far as the decay of hip hop by not respecting other places around the world opening up for the culture. Black people turned on themselves, but of course the main blame is to be put on the white entrepreneur for “niggerising” hip hop. They are the ones who made it look like that if you talk about jewelry, booty, party, you can get paid. As long as you don’t talk about anything political, you are fine. You give contracts and money only to these artists, put them on TV – it was systematic!
Could you point to an exact year when this break happened?
Griff: Hmmm, when did Dr Dre leave the N.W.A.?
I believe it was 92/93 with the whole Deathrow thing ?
Griff : That was it! The resurgence of “gangsta rap” was a spit in the face to everyone that has built the culture to the point where it was respected globally. Multinational corporations took Hip Hop to sell water with it, to sell soft drinks, hamburgers, sneakers, underwear. They don’t have any respect for the culture, they use it, chew it, spit it out.
Do you see any difference between the Republican and the Democratic party?
Griff: No! There is not a dime worth of difference. It’s just different wings - the same bird.
You once said that the American flag to black people represents the same thing that the swastika represents for the Jews.
Griff: Black people went through a holocaust under that flag
Chuck D: Yep! But see now you got so much brainwashing, you got black people hangin’ American flags in their videos and wrapping them around their heads, in their cars, especially after September 11, I never seen so many American flags in the ghetto.
Your new video “Gotta give the peeps what they need” was banned on MTV recently. Your early videos were not banned even though they were as radical as this one. How do you explain this change in the treatment you are receiving?
Griff: You have to realise this is a very sensitive time in America and when you talk about Mumia Abu Jamal and H.Rap Brown, you are talking about two black males with Muslim names who were accused of killing police officers. To mention this in a video is not only controversial, it’s dangerous! So these are critical times and all we are saying is give these people a fair trial – and if you are black, and on top of that Muslim, in America you are not going to get a fair trial!
Chuck D: “Hazy Shade of Criminal” was banned as well ’cause we refused to take out the opening footage of the bombing of MOVE house in Philadelphia. In this video we deal with political prisoners. I guess they thought we are out of sight out of people’s minds, that as a group we are not so popular anymore. It was very hard to ignore PE when we were one out of 25-30 groups but now you got like 300 groups, so it has nothing to do with popularity, it has to do with distraction. The rap game got diluted.
What will it take in your opinion to take hip hop back to the level of awareness it had in the late eighties?
Chuck D: An acceptance of a global situation. If you don’t know the global picture you will never be able to make a clear, wide statement about hip hop. So, as long as Americans don’t learn more about the world around them it will never grow.
I see the U.S. as a vacuum right now and… damn! what is that? (Chuck D and the whole group notice some old army airplanes exhibited at Belgrade airport)…
“I hope those are NATO planes they shot down” – someone from the back
How did the criminalisation of the sample as a basic building block of music production contribute to the degradation of hip hop in the early 90s?
Griff: Here we have to look towards the white entrepreneur once again. That was one of his main cards. At the same time that sampling was spreading his brother was making the prices of drum machines go up. So you buy a drum machine in order to sample, then you sample, then all of a sudden you get sued. So, now you have to be very careful how you create music. Nowadays it is not possible to make a record like “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. That was art! The whole “Bomb Squad” sound, which made PE world famous, was based on samples. So we have to be cunning these days. I mean not to give away all my production techniques, but I would play a live drum beat, record it and then sample it – that would give it that warm, raw sample sound. Then we filter it, hide stuff underneath it, flip it backwards, there are a lot of techniques we are forced to use.
You were one of the first groups to scratch deeper under the flashy surface of the sports industry called the NBA.
Chuck D: The impression people in other countries get is that all a black man in America has to do is grab a ball or grab a microphone and make millions. That’s a hell of an imagery projected all over the world to make them not see the real struggles of black people. The real struggles are many and people get so caught up in the surreal world that they can’t even recognise the fact that it’s not their reality. People are like: “We alright! Kobe Bryant got paid 8 million dollars per year so we are good!” What the fuck! We ain’t good. You cannot feed your family out of Kobe being paid 8 million. People get caught up in other people’s realities.
I mean, NBA players are rich, but some of them are limited. I met Fred Haus (a black basketball player who plays for a Belgrade club). I told him to enjoy his experience because “you are one of the few who got the chance to see the world”. Grab other cultures ’cause its culture that brings us together as human beings and knocks the differences aside. There is only one race, the human race. We might be different shapes, complexions, weights, heights, but racism has been invented by racists. You can divide people and then exploit them and get what you want out of them, make them fight each other. You can also exploit cultural differences like language and religion, so we have to be careful and aware.
Griff: For them we are only as good as the years we can perform in the NBA or NFL. The way the rest of the world sees it is that each black person either sings, dances or plays spots, and that is sad. Where are our scientists, engineers, doctors? So we try to expose it for what it really is, but that’s just surface man. There is so much corruption in America at all levels, in sports, education, law, labor.
You were also one of the first hip hop groups to visit Africa?
Chuck D: The future of the world is in Africa and the future of Africa is in black people, but more and more people of color are being exploited, taken out by disease and famine and all those things. Africa could be in jeopardy.
There was a rumor going around about an internal document circulating through the FBI in the early nineties describing certain Hip Hop artists as a threat to America’s internal security. Do you know anything more about this?
Griff : I don’t know anything more about it, but I do know it existed. They target those conscious, progressive artists that can move and inspire the masses. If you don’t keep that in check, the youth might get all sorts of “crazy ideas”. So, you don’t need a dangerous element like that among the people if your aim is to control them. No, you cannot have Public Enemy in the streets. So you either kill Public Enemy or subdue him or lock him away.
But like Ice T once said “Just like any other good monster, they just made us stronger”.
Griff : (Laughter) That’s right! We don’t die. We multiply!
See the Public Enemy website.
See also Public Enemy: Power to the People and the Beats by Goran M. in Belgrade (September 2003)