Public Enemy’s Chuck D: “Activism comes in the aftermath of being shown that you have no power”
“In my lifetime, this is unprecedented,” Public Enemy‘s Chuck D tells NME. He’s talking about the mood in the US, and how the one-two punch of Donald Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus crisis and his response to the protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd left the nation’s black community feeling enraged and unheard. “The pandemic had already come with a lot of pent up aggravation and scattered information, then there was this”.
Chuck’s own anger became manifest when the hip-hop vanguard fought back with new song ‘State Of The Union (STFU)‘ featuring Gang Starr‘s DJ Premier, a battlecry that, they said in a statement, “speaks truth to power while urging people to fight against racism, injustice and oppression with their vote”. Having spent his lifetime encouraging others to ‘Fight The Power”, the rap legend feels encouraged by not surprised by the wave of protests and a shift in dialogue towards positive change that’s sweeping the globe. It’s an inevitable and cyclical reaction to the system that breeds these frustrations.
“Activism comes in the aftermath of citizens being shown time and time again that they have no power,” he says. “People in authority can do anything they want and nobody checks them on it. It has hit a tipping point and people are done with authority being misinformative assholes. All around the world, people are like, ‘Fuck this shit – I can’t get no clear answers’.”
With rap protest songs seeing a huge spike in streams as the soundtrack for people taking to the streets, Chuck D is laying to rest all of the other noise (including his April Fool’s hoax feud with clock-wearing hype man Flavor Flav) to get back to the core of what Public Enemy do: making music with which they fight for change. Here, the hip-hop icon talks art, fighting racism, dethroning Trump and rapping with a message.
Hello Chuck. What can you tell us about the origins of ‘State Of The Union (STFU)’?
“I’ve had it in my head for a long time. Every time I saw the abbreviation ‘SOTU’ [State Of The Union, an annual message delivered by the President], I would think ‘STFU – shut the fuck up’. That came up when I was on tour with Prophets Of Rage [the supergroup formed with Rage Against The Machine], then I was on with DJ Premier last year and we talked about it and later on it all seemed so simple. We’re both 24-hour-a-day, hip-hop lifers. He came up with the beat, I came up with the words and hey presto – it was as simple as that. The record was done in 48 hours.”
What was your chemistry like with Flavor Flav on this track?
“Flav has the easiest job in the world. He’s a pioneer in the department of hype man and only had to say one thing over and over again. His chemistry is like putting sugar in a cake. Flav also has something intangible that you can’t quite put your finger on, and that’s in the video. The video is by David C. Synder, and he’s my record label partner too. We’ve done over 150 music videos for Public Enemy. I want you to print this: he’s the most seminal, unacknowledged video director in hip-hop of all time. He’s a producer, a hero and a hip-hop Michaelangelo.”
Public Enemy have always had powerful visuals, in album art or music videos. Why is that important to you?
“At Public Enemy we have this thing called prop agenda, not propaganda. My headquarters is based with our art director’s Mad Urgency. There’s a lot of work that these guys do outside the record to make the sight, sound and styles flow on a river of things that touch inside your mind, body and soul. The virtual digital era makes it conducive to do so. People can get the immediate image of something in their phones and gadgets. These times are positioned for people like Public Enemy, Wu Tang Clan and Gang Starr to make three or four dimensional statements without record companies or brand organisations trying to invent something that we already have. Talk to me, talk to RZA, talk to DJ Premier – we’re all self-invented. Big companies are trying to look for an angle.”
Do you feel that a young generation of people being connected digitally is what has made this latest wave of activism seem more widespread and unified?
“How young is young? There are a lot of adults who are 30 and 40-years-old who feel that they have no voice. They hit 35 and they’ve got to work in retail to share an apartment with someone because it’s otherwise too fucking expensive. They’re like, ‘Why the fuck was I born at the wrong time?’ The misnomer is calling them young kids and making excuses for why everybody can’t have what they need.”
Does it feel easier now for you to spread your message than it was in the ’90s?
“I’m not trying to spread the message of Public Enemy, nor am I trying to capitalise on any scenario, nor am I trying to be a leader in this movement. I’m not going to be benign, but at 60 years old I’m not trying to sell anybody anything. I’m involved in music and culture and I’m here to advise any movement that goes forward. The dumbest thing is when you see older people trying to assume the mantle of leadership so that they can have a whole bunch of younger people who they deem naive to just look and follow them for no reason at all.”
Whereas Black Lives Matter is more about people than a leader?
“I like the fact that this is what you consider to be maybe a leaderless movement forwards. A leaderless movement is getting a lot of things done because people are aggressively questioning their locale. At my stage and age, my battle is with Trump – to look at this guy that I’ve known since the early ‘80s. I’m from New York and I’ve seen all his bullshit and the mind games that he’s played on the country and the world. He’s just got to go. Fuck waiting ‘til November. We’re trying to Nixonise this guy. We’re trying to get him to step down quick now. If the world can’t stand him and half the country can’t stand him, then why is he there?”
He’s got away with saying so many terrible things that would have ended most politicians’ careers. Do you worry that he might be untouchable?
“Right! I think he’s an alien. There won’t be any animosity if he just fucking disappears and goes back to his casinos, his fake ass football teams, his bullshit hotels and his fake ass reality TV shows. But if he gets four more years, there will be animosity. He’s really irrelevant, but he’s not irrelevant when he’s the President Of The United States. The scary thing is that it’s not really him, it’s the 50million people who say, ‘Fuck it, we’ll vote for him regardless’. The voting system is broken, outdated and a lot of the time corrupted.”
Do you feel confident for the election in November? Is positive change possible?
“I’m not even thinking about November. He has to go now. We’re living in the present. He’s done so much fucking damage. He needs to look at himself, quit and go to wherever it is that 75-year-old people go. How about that? It’s been a nightmare, bro.”
Do you worry that his stint in power has legitimised a lot of evil, right-wing thinking?
“That’s just the human glitch. Many people have it, it’s built on a foundation of hatred and they’re gonna hate people anyway. Yeah, he’s validated it but it’s gonna be there anyway. We just need to reduce it as much as possible. We need to make those factions as human as possible and not monsters.”
Do you feel that the conversation around white privilege might lead to a shift in public thinking?
“I’m always encouraged when people realise that we’ve all got to learn their history the correct way. We’re having a conversation on the phone in English; I speak it with a little bit of animosity because English was beat into so many people on the planet. Proper information and education about all people is a thing that we’re kind of losing sight of, thinking that we can have an equal and homogeneous 21st Century where no one is told the truth because it might bring up economic fears [by upsetting the status quo].”
How do you feel about statues being torn down?
“Having a statue up is a symbol of something, right? Taking them down is equally symbolic. Print that.”
You’ve spoken before about hip-hop becoming too consumerist. Do you think there will be a rise in more political rap?
“You’ve always had active artists, but the focus, the light and the attention is based on the coverage of it – it’s not based on the artistry of it. Many of these artists have been doing this same thing the whole time. Artists in hip-hop usually rap about what they know and stay away from what they don’t know. If there’s something they don’t know but they want it then they’ll clamour towards it – maybe that’s riches or wealth or whatever. But it’s media laziness when this other stuff doesn’t get attention. Usually journalism is waiting to see what washed up on the beach shore, which makes it impossible to gauge what’s been out there for a year, 10 years or 20 years but doesn’t have the numerical weight to get your attention, your eyeballs or your ears.”
What does the future hold for Chuck D?
“I have a record label called Spit Slam Records. We’ve got an amazing roster of artists. That’s non-stop. In this century, you don’t go to the studio, the studio lives in you. Flav is producing the Public Enemy album we have coming late Fall, and we also have another Public Enemy album ‘Nothing Is Quick In The Desert’ coming out on my 60th birthday on August 1. Watch this space.”
– ‘State Of The Union (STFU)’ by Public Enemy featuring DJ Premier is out now.