Photos: Michael Tullberg, Gary Gershoff, Randy Shropshire, Jack Mitchell/Getty Images
Public Enemy’s greatest albums are 1988’s It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and 1990’s Fear of a Black Planet. No cap. No debate. The two works are hip-hop institutions. It Takes A Nation…, arguably the genre’s most transformative album, changed the sound of rap forever. Fear of a Black Planet, which invited in ebony academia and raised the stakes in the fight against American racism, sounded like a protest by day and riot by night. B-boy dissertations like “Rebel Without A Pause,” “Bring The Noise,” and “Welcome To The Terrordome” were alarm clocks for hip-hop fans awakening to both the power and shackles of being African American. And at the heart of the messaging, ringing the alarm, was PE frontman Chuck D.
While in his late twenties, the leader of hip-hop’s first golden era befriended Louis Farrakhan and the late Huey P. Newton — and studied scholars like Noam Chomsky and Dr. Frances Cress Welsing. The former inspired “Don’t Believe The Hype”; Welsing’s 1970 essay “The Cress Theory of Color-Confrontation and Racism” had profound influence on Fear of a Black Planet. In a moment when Black America was being crushed by both the crack era and a Ronald-Reagan-to-George-Bush baton swap, Chuck’s expansive worldview and booming professorial style couldn’t have been more timely.
It ultimately proved timeless as well. Throughout the unbelievable first half of 2020, Public Enemy’s decades-old work bubbled up again and again as the country battled its most prominent issues: Racial disparities in health care (“911 Is A Joke”); racist police (“Anti Nigger Machine”); youth-led uprisings (“Revolutionary Generation”); Black lives mattering (“Fear of a Black Planet”); even the next presidential election (“Final Count of the Collision Between Us and the Damned”). On Sunday night’s BET Awards, he turned that resonance into eruption, premiering an incendiary new version of “Fight the Power” alongside multiple generations of rap firebrands: Black Thought, Nas, YG, and Rapsody.
With the halfway mark of this already historic year upon us, there’s no better person to converse with than Chuck D. The 60-year-old has a forthcoming Public Enemy album titled Nothing Is Quick in the Desert (the first single, the DJ Premier-produced “State of the Union (STFU),” dropped Monday), but right now, his immediate focus is on getting a Black woman into the White House, fighting against “racial gravity,” and how we still need to — all together, now — fight the powers that be.
LEVEL: Most people have just lived the most insane six months of their lives. Though we’re still in a pandemic, America also appears on the verge of real racial change — both systemic and cultural — largely due to White contribution. How do you feel about the hot-button term “White allyship”?
Chuck D: Well, look at it this way: I don’t believe that everybody is the same based on their bloodline. Do you believe that the White people today are the same as the White people in 1989 and 1990? Do you believe White people who were born in the year 2000 are like White people who were born in 1960 or 1950? Or do you think that race is truly a construct?
Yes and yes. I think there’s a difference between White people who were born in the ’60s as opposed to those born in 2000, and I absolutely believe that race is a construct. But I also believe that if in 2020 we’re still in an oppressive system that’s as strong as it was in ’89, then there may be fewer overt racists — but still plenty of oblivious White people who are unconsciously racist.
Exactly! And some are conscious — like in Charlottesville. What makes him grow up with the same behavior as somebody born 100 years earlier in the same area? ’Cause the system is like a yard. If it’s in the same yard, it didn’t fall far from the tree. That’s why systemic racism has to be attacked. You’ve got to go into that yard and turn up all the soil and knock some fucking trees down. I believe that you’re human based off of your experiences, but you don’t even notice that you’re being what they want you to be instead of what you wanted to be. You have to fight against that, but not everybody has the ability to fight against racial gravity.
“I’m from New York and been mad at Trump since the Central Park Five. I don’t hate dude, but go back to your wack-ass casinos, buildings, spoiled brat-ass life, reality TV shows. Fuck November; make him sick enough where he has to quit.”
2020 marks the 30th anniversary of Fear of a Black Planet, and I can’t think of many album titles that speak more to present-day America.
I tried to break the United States out of its arrogance. The strongest word besides Black in that title is “planet.” As Black USA-ers, because the White supremacy agenda here has said that [the United States is] the best place in the world, we often assume that arrogance. So don’t you think everybody in the world picks up on that United States arrogance?
I can see that.
Africa was the starting point. This is already a planet of color, but it’s not acknowledged. White supremacy is a flip of a construct because everything not-White is Black. They’re just mad, and they don’t have a reason to be mad because they come out of us, if you want to get scientific. [We made] the first and maybe only album that took a scientific theory and made a rap album out of it — made people move to it. They didn’t have to understand it at first but would understand it 20 or 30 years later. It’s time-capsule music.
Your early albums constantly addressed Black people living in racist police states. Were these expressions autobiographical or mainly journalism?
I learned from other people’s experiences. The 1970s is when Nassau County [home to Roosevelt, New York, where Chuck grew up] police really exposed themselves. “We’ll shoot you first. You go to the court system, we’re there. There’s nowhere you can go.” It was beyond racism. They were the fuckin’ mafia. We’re in one Black town surrounded by White towns and their authority.
We both know how uncomfortable a strong Black word can make the United States government. Did Public Enemy’s music attract a lot of federal attention for the group?
Yeah. Between 1989 and 1991, I had a phone that cut off every night between 11 and midnight. It would go dead. But I had already put out “Louder Than a Bomb,” which talked about the FBI tapping my phones.
Hip-hop allowed you to visit 116 countries and broaden your young, already broad mind. What kind of impression did your initial travels have on you?
I still say it today: Africa is the future. Ghana was the first African nation I visited, in 1992. It changed the way I would see the rest of my life. Its independence and Kwame Nkrumah [made it] a place that was conducive to my vision. Jerry Rawlings was the president, and I was blown away by how people were living. We’re at a meeting and President Rawlings saluted, put on his helmet, jumped in his fighter jet, and flew off into the sky by himself. People talked about the uptown era and New Jack City, bling bling, and all that. But after seeing that, I wasn’t impressed by anything in the United States.
“Joe Biden is 77 years old! He’s irrelevant unless he picks a woman of color who is ready to get down. Obama put in eight years and look how it aged him.”
Speaking of the United States and presidents, who are you voting for in November?
[Trump] is a clown, man. I’m from New York and been mad at this dude since the Central Park Five. I don’t hate dude, but go back to your wack-ass casinos, buildings, spoiled, brat-ass life, reality TV shows. Fuck November; make him sick enough where he has to quit. I seen it happen once in my lifetime: Nixon said, I can’t do this shit no more, I got to go, and they were like, “Yep here’s the fucking door, ’cause you left a mess.”
Why were you so supportive of Sen. Bernie Sanders?
I did the Bernie Sanders rally because I agree with his principles — child care, health care, climate concern, police reform — but I don’t agree that a 78-year-old person should be the president of the United States. Trump is about to be 75. Biden is 77. Bernie Sanders is 78 going on 79. What does it tell my daughter at 27 about what the future holds? It ain’t telling her nothing. If you’re 79, you’re looking at a window of 10 years, and those 10 years shouldn’t be as a governing administrator of millions of people.
So Chuck D wants POTUS to be a millennial.
No, I’m saying there should be a cutoff age at 65. I believe leadership is in the 40-to-55 range as far as an energy force. That doesn’t take from the mind; the mind should always be present in the form of consultation and consigliere.
What’s your opinion of Joe Biden?
Joe Biden is seventy fucking seven years old! He’s irrelevant unless he picks a woman of color who is ready to get down. I like Kamala. I like Stacey Abrams, but I’m biased and don’t mind being biased. I even like Keisha Bottoms, but these are people who know they can give four strong years. Then I think Biden should step aside. Do the math, Bonsu. I’m older than President Obama. Obama put in eight years and look how it aged him.
Your younger fans may have forgotten just how competitive rap was in the late ’80s. You had to shine amongst the greatest MCs of all time — from Big Daddy Kane to Kool G Rap to Slick Rick. Did you ever rhyme with a chip because you weren’t from the five boroughs?
Just because you come out of the Bronx don’t mean you’re dope. I was that motherfucker from Long Island like, you come out the city with whatever game you got on the microphone, you gonna go right back to the city with an L. Both my parents are from Harlem — 151st between Broadway and Amsterdam. The real Harlem. I was born in Queens but then went to Long Island with a chip on my shoulder. Once we learned Dr. J was from our hometown, we were really trying to take it to the city. When Dr. J went to the Rucker and fucked it up, we were good on Long Island. Dr. J helped turn the Rucker into a worldwide name. Then we said we’re gonna do the same thing in hip-hop.
“Night of the Living Baseheads” is 32 years old, and it still lifts me out of my seat. I’d never heard such an electric song about the crack era while still living in it. How close did the ’80s drug explosion get to your doorstep?
I seen it in my own households. When I was 15 or 16, they took weed off the street and cocaine seeped in. I’m talking about the Nicky Barnes years. See, if it happened in Harlem it would be out in Long Island two weeks later ’cause the [drug dealers] didn’t live in Harlem; they had spots in Long Island and Jersey. In the ’80s, the game changed and went to another level with crack. The valedictorian [of my high school] and his girl — I think she was the salutatorian — were the dynamic couple in school. To see them on the street fiendin’ in 1982 after graduating in ’79 was crazy. They started off in a social setting like, we’re going to do just a little bit of this and that, but then cocaine went to crack real quick. At night in Roosevelt and Freeport, street cats would roam around at 4:43 a.m. wide-eyed, playing ball in the park at 5:17 in the morning. If you saw Night of the Living Dead, it was the same thing.
After some recent tension, you and Flav appeared together on the BET Awards’ “Fight the Power” opener. Are you two mending your issues?
What issues do me and Flav have?
After the Bernie Sanders rally rift, you made a statement that he was no longer in Public Enemy.
Bonsu, does it look like one person is in charge?
The universal perception is that Chuck D is the leader of Public Enemy.
Okay. When’s the last time you seen him?
Before the BET Awards, I hadn’t seen Flav in forever.
Don’t you think I got a problem with that? I love him, but I want him to work. If you don’t work you ain’t going to work, and if you don’t work it ain’t gonna work. Flavor don’t do benefits; he don’t do anything for free. So if someone asks for Public Enemy to show up, he has that right to not show up. But I told him, “You’re my guy, but if you send your lawyers, I’m going to throw something back on you and you’re not going to work.”
It’s still crazy to me that Flav co-produced “Rebel Without A Pause.” If he didn’t spend so many years battling his demons, how far do you think his talent would’ve carried him?
Oh, it’s endless. I’m like, “Dude, I’m here to help you,” but you can’t make someone do… We would tell him that TV was made for him. He would suck stardom out of any room, but you have to get up on time. You have to learn the script. He didn’t have that work ethic. He was distracted by demons. And understand this: I’ve never seen Flava do drugs in my life.
People say I’m crazy, but I’m not around him when he gets high. I’ve known this dude 33 years; I can’t fucking tell if he’s high or not. I can tell when his motor is down. When everybody looks at him as being a spectacle, I got to pick him up, dust him off, and make him spectacular. People don’t care about him. He was on Love & Hip Hop, and it was embarrassing. Y’all see him in the middle of these situations and say nothing because you think it’s normal. It’s not normal — he’s 61 years old.
Why did you choose to have your entire company run by women?
’Cause dudes fucked it up. [Laughs] I’ll tell you one thing: They don’t play. The next president should be a woman. I didn’t necessarily agree that Hillary Clinton should’ve been that woman, but I do believe in Stacey Abrams, Kamala Harris, Keisha Bottoms. If Joe Biden steps to the side, I think somebody like Kamala or Stacy should pick Elizabeth Warren to be alongside them. When Too Short is saying that it’s a woman’s world, it’s time to turn this shit over.