public enemy’s chuck d shares the records that changed his life
The Prophet of Rage has been Fighting The Power for 25 years.
Before Flavor Flav was handing out clocks to bizarrely nicknamed bachelorettes on VH1, he was hyping Chuck D's poignant political rhymes on stages across the world with the rest of massively influential rap outfit Public Enemy. Frequently ranked among hip hop's top MCs, the Queens-born Chuck D is perhaps best known for spitting the group's aggressively inspiring Fight the Power, the anthem that rang through Bed Stuy streets in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. Inevitably, the socially conscious group garnered criticism from mainstream media outlets for lyrics seen as inflammatory and anti-establishment. But this disapproval helped the band galvanize a generation, and their apocalyptic collage of breakbeats, noise, funk, chaos, wrath, theatre and comedy are still influencing the genre today. 30 years on Chuck D is still an idol. He may have mellowed, but not much, and in a couple of weeks he'll be hitting the UK to deliver more knowledge, performing live with PE as part of the Mogwai curated ATP season. Before then, here's his world in records…
And at the other end of the spectrum, what song reminds you of your kids?
Everything by Public Enemy - there's a song called Everything, because being a father humbles you . This song is about when you're trying to look for things that you want to have, that you might already have in a form that can't be topped or matched; your son's laughter, his breath, his light, his smile, him calling you his father, and you realize that's pretty much everything. There's nothing that can top that. Even when your kids are driving you to the tenth wheel, you're like, 'Man it doesn't get better than this'.
Have you got any songs that remind you of Flava Flav?
I mean every song reminds me of Flava Flav cos it's his job to kinda be around…
What would you have played at your funeral?
I don't even know. All I know is funeral is not really the word for me being out. I wouldn't mind my ashes being spread all over the earth. I don't know what the soundtrack to that would be though.
You've created some of the most memorable protest songs of the last 30 years, but what are your favorite protest tracks?
Well, Fight the Power - and I'm not talking about Public Enemy's version, I'm talking about the Isley Brothers. I heard it when I was 15 years old and it was the first record I heard with a curse word in it so it was kinda jarring. I mean, People Get Ready by the Impressions, that's also always cool.
Were you inspired by the energy of those songs?
No question I've tried to recreate the energy of those songs, but you know, you have to also read the times - I don't mean any paper, I mean read the present times and see if you can find a language that actually hits people. And you don't want the language that hits the masses to be one that's always catastrophic, like 'I wanna wake you up because we're in such terrible times.' You can be inspirational too. And you can also make people recognize their times a little better, you don't want it to be the energy of desperation.
Are there any artists that you think are successful in channelling Public Enemy in 2015?
Of course, there's many artists out there; Run the Jewels, I think Killer Mike and El-P are a formidable duo that are saying a lot. Dead Prez haven't gone anywhere, Dead Prez are still here. Boots Riley and the Coup. Kendrick Lamar. And even Kanye West when he says something that's jarring and he puts his mind to it. There's a lot of artists.
And who's best in terms of skills?
For me pound for pound it's not just about good skills - the most powerful voice out there is Brother Ali.
You play hip hop from round the world on your radio show. Was there a song that made you realize the culture had gone global?
We built our whole radio station on the basis of planet earth, planet rap. The world is bigger than the country, the earth is bigger than the United Kingdom and the United States, and there's movements going on in hip hop and rap music that are mind blowing, outside what we know. I knew it was inevitable it would happen with hip hop, just like every other sport and music - when you saw the jazz players coming out of Japan in the 80s, I could see rappers doing it, and sure enough there were rappers doing stuff in Japan and South Asia and Africa in the 80s - they've been doing it close to 30 years now so it's nothing new.
So you've got this show coming up for the Mogwai anniversary. Are there any rock bands that you like?
I was at the Rolling Stones rehearsal the other week. I kinda like them (laughs). Anthrax are my guys. I like how they all play together and they keep going.
Are there any songs you're looking forward to playing live when you go to London later this month?
Yeah man we've got a new album out, Man Plans God Laughs, and I'm trying to learn two or three of the songs off that for that night alone, it'll be really interesting to try and perform these records by then. The new album sounds like Yeezus meets Kendrick Lamar meets Run the Jewels put in the blender by Public Enemy, like George Foreman putting it all in a blender. Last time we played in England, in KOKO, it went down, it was an incredible, festive night.
Public Enemy perform in London on 27 June as part of an Mogwai's 20th birthday ATP Season, running from 24 June to the 5 July at the Roundhouse, Camden.
Text Ian McQuaid
Photography Wolfgang Tillmans