Public Enemy “If WE don’t matter, no lives matter"
By Ron Wynn
At a time when many of his comrades in rap have turned to acting or shifted their focus to business, Public Enemy's Chuck D remains committed to music. Ironically, for someone associated with hard-edged, unapologetic social commentary, Chuck D.'s musical and cultural focus have evolved over the band's lengthy history that began back in the '80s. It was the blend of Chuck D's thunderous baritone, the comic inserts of longtime friend and comic foil Flavor Flav and relentless grooves that gave the PE sound an unmatched sonic edge. They were responsible for some of the greatest LPs in hip-hop history, most notably "It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back" and "Fear Of A Black Planet."
The list of exceptional singles is just as rich, from "She Watch Channel Zero," to "911 Is a Joke," "Fight The Power" and "Don't Believe The Hype," for only a few. They've celebrating their 25th anniversary this year, and remain committed to making fresh, engaging and relevant music that's not rooted in the past, yet doesn't abandon their past legacy of topical commentary and inspirational lyrics. Now one of the rare rap groups in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, their newly issued 13th release "Man Plans, God Laughs" on their own label is a bit of an artistic departure, though not a complete retreat. But it does highlight Chuck D's eclectic nature, as well as his awareness of what's currently happening in the hip-hop world.
He recently told "Maxim" that he was influenced on this release by the groups Run The Jewels and Kendrick Lamar. He also wanted to talk about contemporary issues, particularly the things that were happening at the time of the recording in both Ferguson and Baltimore. In addition, the release reflects his constant monitoring of the rap world via his internet project "Rapstation.com." What often confounds folks about Chuck D. is that he's so knowledgeable about the music of other eras. He's contributed to anthologies about the blues and soul, has collaborated with jazz musicians and even loves a lot vintage R&B and swing jazz. Indeed, he often says the '60s are his favorite era,
But no one should be fooled into thinking this is a nostalgia project. On the band's website, the artwork for the new release has this quote: “If WE don’t matter, no lives matter,” presumably a reaction to the string of events prompting the Black Lives Matter campaigns. Chuck D. enlisted as producers for "Man Plans, God Laughs," Gary “G-Wiz” & Carl Ryder. G-Wiz, a/k/a Gary Rinaldo, has been a Bomb Squad member and part of P.E.’s production team since their landmark '80s days.. Rinaldo came aboard for "Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black" LP in 1991, and has been a team member ever since, though the Def Jam years, and now as an independent. He's also worked with Method Man, Sinhead O’Connor, KRS-One, and Aerosmith. In addition, he's done the scores for the acclaimed films "Juice" and "He Got Game."
However, the real stunner on the new PE LP is the fact that they are covering a song from none other than the Rolling Stones. When this news broke, there was mixed reaction, but Chuck D. explained it this way in his "Maxim" interview: “We’re rooted from a different era. We did a blazing, scorching interpretation of ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ by the [Rolling] Stones called ‘Honky Tonk Rules.’ It was probably the greatest record we’ve ever done and we’ll probably never use it because we got rejected by the publishers of the song."
"The Stones don’t own anything from 1970 or earlier. I just saw Keith [Richards] and Charlie [Watts] and those guys. The creators of the song love it. We dug it. But the business people and the pushers of the pencils rejected it. The pendulum has shifted so much to business people that the creators are now suffering. That’s fucked up. Because I think if the world heard ‘Honky Tonk Rules,’ it would be changed. When people say, ‘What do you think the problem with music is today? I say, ‘Too many business people are dictating the art.'” Fortunately, those legal problems were ironed out, and “Honky Tonk Rules” is a key single on "Man Plans, God Laughs".
Public Enemy has gone the independent route for several years now, depending much more on income from tours than cutting deals with major labels to get their music distributed. Both Chuck and fellow PE member Professor Griff periodically release singles online, going directly to the listening rather than dealing with the scant few record stores still in business or the super retailers like Walmart and Target. He's also well aware that even in their commercial heyday, urban radio didn't play their music, so he's never depended on commercial outlets to promote or publicize their music.
Despite the well publicized troubles of Flavor Flav, Chuck remains faithful to his friend, saying he'll always have a place in PE. He won't answer questions regarding Flav's recent legal troubles, and he absolutely refused to have anything to do with the TV show "Flavor of Love," though he didn't openly criticize it. The band's music does get streamed on Spotify, but he's far more interested in both controlling his output and ensuring opportunities for others. Indeed, wen "Maxim" asked about current trends regarding marketing and distribution, he responded in typically blunt, outspoken fashion.
'If you’re worth 300 million dollars, you should be putting a lot of people to work," Chuck D. said. "We have rapstation.com. We distribute tens of labels. And then there's Public Enemy. It's about a 100 people that we employ. It’s all independent. My thing is that if you’re worth 300 million like a Diddy or a Jay Z, you should be hiring a 1,000 to 10,000 people. If you’re not hiring all those people than what are you doing? You’re just hoarding."
"All I know is that I could tell you people that work with Public Enemy for 20 to 30 years. We’d love to have everyone work for us and get paid. So these are the things that bother me about people who are married to the game without trying to further the art form or the genre."
(Next issue, a no holds barred interview with Chuck D on 25 years in the rap game).