Archive 2010 – Chuck D: Public Enemy live in SA

In 2010, Public Enemy finally came to South Africa. Here’s Chuck D on conscious lyrics, trouble in the record industry, Sharpeville – and hanging with Flavor Flav for over two decades.

This interview by Evan Milton first appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Good Weekend’ of 2010/12/05.

 Chuck D of Public Enemy (Courtesy Public Enemy)

Chuck D of Public Enemy (Courtesy Public Enemy)

Formed in 1987, Public Enemy are known for songs like “Fight The Power”, albums like “Apocalypse 911 – The Empire Strikes Black” and “How You Sell Soul To A Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul?”, soundtracks for films like Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” and “He Got Game”, and, back in the early ’90s, for pioneering the crossover between rap and rock by co-opting thrash band Anthrax for “Bring The Noise” – a genre-busting single that paved the way for all the rap metal bands to follow. Over those same two decades, Public Enemy – and, especially, the group’s lyrical figurehead Chuck D – have been continually vigilant about black rights in America, cultural activism across the globe, and about maintaining rap and hip-hop as a musical form that belongs to the people who listen to it and make it, and not the record companies who release and promote it. [In 2010, after two decades of spearheading hip-hop music, the legendary performers and cultural activists embarked on their 71st tour: and this time it included South Africa.]

Chuck D, amongst the most significant of American music icons yet to visit our shores, is intelligent, intense, and eloquent, which is to be expected. What’s perhaps not that obvious is that, during the course of a thirty minute telephone conversation, he turns out to be engaging and approachable with a genuine note of good-natured concern threading through his answers and observations, and with a dry, self-reflecting sense of humour that surfaces from time to time. He also seems entirely conscious of the musical and cultural space he occupies as the most-quoted member of a band that truly challenged the American status quo in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and has continued as a vibrant and dynamic cultural force both regionally and globally.

“We have the S1W’s, we have a live band that can deliver all the old classic Public Enemy tunes and the new work, we have Flavor Flav and me on the mic, and we have a show that’s just come off smashing America and England.”
Chuck D on touring Public Enemy to South Africa in December 2010

What, then, can South Africa expect when Public Enemy touches down in Mzansi, just under twenty years after they were first rumoured to be coming to South Africa (somewhere, in the files, is that original little yellow with the iconic Public Enemy logo, the beret-wearing black figure caught in the cross-hairs). “We have all the components in place,” says Chuck, “We have the Security of the First World (the S1W’s, Public Enemy’s off-stage “honour guard” and on-stage dancers), we have a live band that can deliver all the old classic Public Enemy tunes and the new work, we have Flavor Flav and me on the mic, and we have a show that’s just come off smashing America and England.”

He’s not exaggerating – the reviews of the group’s current “Fear Of A Black Planet” world tour have praised the band’s on-stage energy, the way they deliver material both old and new – and how their latest incarnation includes elements that nod at the legacy of black music, like the funk extravaganzas of James Brown and the Afrobeat experience of Fela Kuti. “It’s a full-sound band, not just a backing band,” says Chuck, “The live show is all of these components in a synergy – it’s the hype, the songs, the drums, the dancers, the lyrics and a lot of the things we do and a dynamic that is beyond just voice and turntables.”

As it has ever been, Chuck and fellow vocal frontman Flavor Flav share the vocal limelight, with Flav as a lighter-hearted foil to Chuck’s serious on-point messaging. Since 1982, when they first collaborated, the two men have shared the tour-busses, the countless hotels, the early resistance to the band and later criticisms of it – for longer than many marriages last. “Vocally, myself and Flavor have a different sound between our voices and, in studio, that’s always helped,” explains Chuck. For the live show, it works even better,” Chuck begins, “Everybody is a different individual and, as individuals on our own paths, we respect each other. Then, coming together, we can make a significant statement – that the future is important, that culture is important, that people are important, and about the significance of how people, as a culture and a community, can live in relation to the land. We make sure that the music and the message are there together.”

“We are pretty much paying our own dime to come there, and it’s about giving, not just taking. We’ll be coming to do a lot of listening. I can tell people about the music industry and tell artists things about how to approach this business, and how to think about art, and give advice – and we will – but we are also there to listen, and to share
Chuck D on touring Public Enemy to South Africa in December 2010

While Public Enemy’s visit to South Africa is a music tour, Chuck D is adamant that it’s more than just a series of shows, and says they are eager to meet again with Prophets of da City, the Cape hip-hop pioneers who Chuck D has praised ever since working with them in the 1990s. “Most American and Europeans go to Africa to take, but we want to offer something. We have workshops planned with the rap community that are part of making Africa take the centre positions within a global hip-hop stage. In South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Senegal – these are places where rap music is part of what people do, and that needs to be honoured. We’re also conscious of the reputation that American artists have when they visit ‘the Motherland’, but we know what we can about your country. We know about the Sharpeville massacre and the history of Soweto and the origins of hip-hop culture in your country, and we know that South African leadership has always been able to spread information around in communities. We are pretty much paying our own dime to come there, and it’s about giving, not just taking. We’ll be coming there to do a lot of listening, Yes, I can tell people about the music industry and tell artists things about how to approach this business, and how to think about art, and give advice – and we will – but we are also there to listen, and to share.”

In addition to his role as lyricist, performer and hip-hop figurehead, Chuck has also been an advocate of musicians controlling their own interests, rather than signing to record labels. Asked how he sees the future of music and the record industry, he pierces the question with an astute quip: “The record industry is in trouble; it has troubled itself – but the music industry is always healthy. Music comes from culture and community, and that will always happen. But corporations are separating rap music from any conscience – you can’t have corporations, whose primary concerns are shipping, stock and distribution, things like marketing and manufacturing – you can’t have them dictating what music should, or should not, be made.”

* Now stop reading this and:
*) Follow Chuck D on Twitter: twitter.com/MrChuckD
*) For the headz, watch Chuck D lead a mic freestyle, with Flavor Flav playing live drums, and featuring Cape Town and visiting MCs Mastercat (Serengeti), Ill Skillz, Isaac Mutant, EJ von Lyrik and Garlic Brown (Knoffel)

This interview by Evan Milton first appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Good Weekend’ of 2010/12/05.

 

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