At times throughout my life I’ve wished Chuck D were my father. Nothing else has ever spun my brain as hard, both musically and socially, as Public Enemy. Various teenage groundings by my parents kept me from ever seeing P.E. live — outside of a 1996 DVD where Chuck and Flavor Flav seemed tired, like boxers in the last round. But the 2007 New Orleans P.E. show at House of Blues was objectively amazing. The live-band version featuring DJ Lord brought the group’s twenty years of experience to bear, along with an obvious passion for our city. Old rock stars often look silly, straining to somehow recapture youth, but Public Enemy was never youth-obsessed. Chuck’s 46 now, but then he seemed 46 when he was 30, so there was nothing silly about P.E. 2007. Except Flav.
Interviewing Chuck was one of my life goals. And the morning after the concert, I was also honored to watch him speak to a small group of performing arts students at an Uptown high school. Afterwards he asked me to navigate his ﬁrst ever destruction tour of the lower Ninth Ward. No shit. Chuck D dropped me off at my house. Shit’s crazy.
Like other celebrities, orators, and 46-year-old father figures, Chuck D possesses a store of memorized talking points. As a fan, during our interview and the subsequent van ride, I noticed him repeating points he’d made in other interviews, verbatim. Just like your father would. As with my actual dad, I didn’t necessarily feel ours were always interactive conversations. But walking through piles of destroyed 9th Ward homes, I gleaned as much wisdom from Chuck D as I always fantasized I might. Chuck D’s brain is an awesome thing.
During our two phone interviews, he gave me a lot of time and gutsy answers; I was originally allotted only 20 phone minutes with the legend, but we outran that just discussing New Orleans/Katrina/racial bullshit. So Chuck called me back days later, to also talk about music. No shit.
You couldn’t possibly enjoy this interview as much as I did — it is below this video of Public Enemy’s Katrina song, “Hell No, We Ain’t All Right.”
ANTIGRAVITY: Most of my questions are about New Orleans. I promise to ask you about music, but I can’t help but pick your brain regarding the racial implications of our situation down here. I saw Tucker Carlson’s interview you on CNN about Katrina and he came off pretty asinine in his bowtie, telling you that nothing about our disaster was racially motivated — but wait. First: what is your personal definition of “racism?”
CD: There is one race, the human race. Racism splits that race up into categories, and benefits at other people’s expense.
AG: Are we all racists? It often feels like everything in New Orleans is racially motivated.
CD: For you to understand life in this world, you have to understand that Americans are poor on three things: they’re poor on time, poor on Geography, and terrible in History. With those three things going against Americans, anything can happen at any time and [the government] can blame it on anything. Most Americans didn’t know so many black people lived in New Orleans. American history is still a misunderstood story. I ask people all the time, ‘What does 1801 mean to you?’ But so many grown folks just kinda looked at history as being a pass/fail-type quiz that they don’t realize what role the Louisiana Purchase played in the formation of New Orleans — even up to the levees not being as secure as they should have.
AG: Watching that Tucker Carlson thing I just kept thinking, “Split hairs all you want but it comes down to that fact that the government couldn’t get water to the Superdome for four days.” I can’t imagine that happening anywhere else. For me it was the one thing that proved this was all, on some level, on purpose.
CD: Well, America might be too big for itself. Countries that move quicker and are more streamlined can take care of needs. This whole consolidation of ﬁfty states may have worked better in another time. There’s New York, L.A., and D.C., maybe Chicago, and everyplace else has to fend for itself. [Katrina] wouldn’t happen in Boston because it doesn’t have a heavy black population. A black city (that was) dominant at another time, not in the millennium.
AG: New Orleans has made such minimal progress so far that it just feels, again, like everything’s on purpose. If I’m right, what is the purpose of killing off New Orleans, or at least just letting it die?
CD: Naw. It’s just disregarded as not being a priority. America’s money is not worth the paper it’s printed on. They’re concentrating on [the war]. New Orleans is an afterthought.
People asked why folks didn’t get out of town before the flood, but they don’t realize that a lot of New Orleanians don’t ever leave their neighborhoods; they never even go to the other side of this small town.
CD: That’s an American problem. 22% have passports, meaning 78% of the people don’t go nowhere, ain’t seen nothing — that’s a slave mentality, being in a cage and liking it.
AG: I’ve heard you reiterate that quite a bit: ‘Americans, get a passport, visit Europe…’
CD: Visit anywhere. Understand that the world has a lot to offer.
AG: But you’re lucky enough to be able to do that, Chuck. Especially here — like, I teach, and I know many kids and their parents have never been outside of here. I ask a kid. I’ve lived here for six years and have wanted desperately to visit Europe and just haven’t been able, in this economy, to save up even a thousand dollars to go anywhere.
CD: But how different is that from the African who knows themselves and would, back in the day, travel to the other side of the continent?
AG: Because now it costs a thousand bucks. You have to be in a situation where you can save up money to move around.
CD: No, I know, I know. But, like my sister, she had to get the hell up outta New York. She got on the Greyhound with her two kids and went to California, for two hundred dollars. And she… Black folks’ whole thing is like, “When the shit gets rough you gotta get it movin, to protect your family.” When Jim Crow said, “Nigga you better get your ass crackin, working for me or die nigga,” we got our ass up out of there and migrated. Now you got a lot of black folks migrating down to the southern areas, and New Orleans was one of those places they were coming down to, until the disaster. New Orleans should be protected by the government, as a cultural Toa to the rest of the planet. It can’t protect itself — it was built in the wrong place for all the wrong reasons. That’s why it feels funny for me to come down to New Orleans and play a show. I played the State Municipal, I’ve played the ‘Dome, played UNO, and House of Blues a number of times. New Orleans has always shown a greater love. So, not speaking for Public Enemy, but just me and Professor Griff, we are doing whatever we can do, putting up our proceeds from this show to grassroots New Orleans organizations.
AG: I don’t want to ask you anything about Flavor’s television show, but I did find this interesting quote where you said, “Flavor is the type of black man that America feels comfortable with.” I have to say: I have a lot of racist relatives and none of them would feel at all comfortable around Flavor Flav. He’s their worst nightmare.
CD: Well, I meant that he’s always happy-go-lucky, and so considered non-threatening to white America. Griff is the exact opposite; he’s straight forward, he’s of high intelligence, and he has a demeanor where if you smack him he’ll kick you back. And that’s always been a threat to America.
AG: I know you wrote that New Orleans song (“Hell No, We Ain’t Alright”) the week of Katrina, and one of the issues of the Public Enemy comic book was set during our ﬂood. What new insight have you gleaned about all this in the last year and a half since the flood? I know you’re probably not asked about New Orleans so much since we’re no longer national news…
CD: [Chuckles] The reason we have any Jazz and Blues culture today is because of the universal language of love and lookout music developed from New Orleans and slavery. The fact that New Orleans was a… is a port, and we were channeled through that port, is the reason our music meant so much in the ﬁrst place. Without New Orleans we no longer have a code to communicate to one another through the same methods that we had… And to have our music morph into hate music the way it has, it goes against… black music has always been the love music, it’s the unspoken code…
AG: But Tucker Carlson did bring up one point that I always wonder too: if New Orleans is — at least seemingly — run by black people, then why are black people so fucked over here?
AG: I mean a lot of our politicians are black but still racism just seems so much deeper here to where it seems a concerted effort to…
CD: To keep black people down?
AG: Yeah. I teach public school and it seems very obvious and, again, on purpose.
CD: Throughout the years, wherever we’re abundant in numbers, there’s gonna be a different type of game that has us work against ourselves — that’s been systematic. As for New Orleans, there’s [also] a severe lack of endorsement by the government to allow states and cities to seriously be funded but still beat to their own drumbeat. When you don’t have that, you have a possible implosion.
AG: Well I was going to ask you about music now. I’ve read a lot about…
CD: If somebody says that New Orleans belongs to us, that’s just a cultural attachment. New Orleans never made us — America doesn’t make us, even Africa doesn’t make us as a people. We make us as a people. We have to understand that. I think as black folks, we’ve always had the inherent sense to be nomadic: in Africa, and whenever shit gets crazy, we keep it moving. The reason our music and culture has traveled is because we’ve kept it moving. We’ve never been inherently stuck to one place…
AG: So you think that New Orleanians should “get moving”?
CD: I’m not saying that. But if hurricane season is putting the place in jeopardy every year, and there’s global warming [making it worse], and you know the government ain’t gonna do shit, then… You got your answers right there. I was born and raised in New York and there’s a certain love for New York, but then New York makes it impossible for black people to live, so black people have to end up saying, “Fuck New York.”
AG: You did a song recently with our Dirty Dozen Brass band. I teach a class where the kids learn to program beats, and they also write record reviews, and one of them wrote of the Dirty Dozen album, “It sounds like music at a ball for rich people.”
CD: It’s music for rich people?
AG: My question is: I know you’re a big advocate of blues and jazz, but I have a problem with blues music made in 2007, because rarely does anyone seem to do anything new with it. Lots of genre music just seems imitative, to appease audiences.
CD: Well, you know what, if a person is used to going to McDonalds, and they got running water, and they can go to Wal-Mart for clothes and a plasma TV and they’re watching cable, what hard life do they have as opposed to people a hundred years ago? Blues and soul came out of real, tough experiences. And not just experiences of somebody’s mind. So that’s one of the reasons the effort in blues seems contrived today, not coming from people who’ve really been through it. Today, if a person’s doesn’t have a job, there’s a system to keep them from being homeless; a hundred years ago you’d die in the streets, man. For real. 1907, if you ain’t working to survive, your ass is dying in the streets, in the woods. And today America is a spoiled…fat…
CD: Americans are hated everywhere else in the world, they’re delusional and have a very poor sense of time, geography and history. And that’s how the government wants people to be.
AG: But shouldn’t more people who play the blues or jazz do something with it?
CD: Of course. The blues was just born out of something that decided to be what it was. People try something on their own, but the problem is, if others don’t like it they’re quick to reject it. Sometimes hearing a record and hating it at ﬁrst can be good for you. Like vegetables and greens; you can’t go out and buy okra and say, “I’m gonna make this okra look just as good as Twinkies.” Okra’s not gonna get that winning nod offa ﬁrst glance. Then some day you’re like “I need some okra; fuck Twinkies.” And with iPods and everything — when’s the last time someone heard a record all the way to the end? On to the next one. When was the last time you heard a song go out in a crescendo instead of a fade? In the ‘70s and ‘80s, people at least checked for the instrumental break. Now people are just checking out the ﬁrst 15 seconds of the record and “It ain’t hittin, it’s whack.” But even if it’s whack, are you gonna give it a chance three times? Naw. That’s why ringtones are popular; they sell you their bullshit: they give you ﬁfteen seconds and that’s it.
AG: I hadn’t thought of it that way.
CD: I got teenage daughters, they can’t get even get to the middle of the song and that song is outta there. When was the last time you heard a song with an actual ending? 98% of black music is lazy. It’s lazy. TV On The Radio are so good because they know they gotta have an effort to keep up with the standards of the music that surrounds them.
AG: You like Mr. Lif, I assume…
CD: He’s incredible. And El-P just put out an incredible record. These are people who actually love the craft and the art form. And because there’s thought into it, that means it’s for twenty-one and over. But going back to your students saying Dirty Dozen sounded like music for rich people — it’s easy for a young person to hear music with any thought in and say ‘this is music for old people’.
AG: Actually, I think the kids were just saying the Dirty Dozen don’t sound like the brass bands in their neighborhoods but that they sound like a version of New Orleans that’s relevant mostly to the tourist industry.
CD: New Orleans 2007 needs to make its own statement. It ain’t Cash Money and No Limit no more. And Birdman’s making the same record he made ﬁve years ago, rehashing another time.Well, black people, we need to evolve from our neighborhoods and assume our places as worldly people. If we don’t think globally we’ll stay slaves here, trying to ask the white American government to help us get better. You ain’t got a passport: you’re signed to slavery.
OK. My last question is about the class I told you I teach, where the students make beats and write raps. What advice would you give a teacher of rap music today?
CD: Something that’s really lacking nowdays is dreaming — teach them to dream. Teach them that if they can turn their talent into a skill and apply it, it’s more than a beat, man. The beat is nothing but fuel to take a person into dreaming about a lot of different things. But ﬁrst they have to master the language, then they have to write about something right? Well, what are they gonna write about? If you’re gonna make up something, if you’re gonna take something that’s factual. But hype is what’s gonna get a young person in trouble nine times out of ten.
AG: Hype is what kids are attracted to.
CD: Then your job, which is difficult, is to diffuse the hype. And your job, to defuse the hype, is a motherfucking job and three-quarters, man. Also, teach them time: the time that we have been on this Earth. Learn history, thoroughly, because then you start to understand the history of music, musicians and technology. And understand geography and the migration of music. That’s a great place to start, and go all the way up to making beats with a machine. If they don’t know time, history and geography, you’re wasting your time teaching them anything, ‘cause you’re not giving them a basis to comprehend anything that they’re going to want to do in the future, and you’re taking their future away — it ain’t gonna be saved by making a beat. You gotta know where you come from to know where to put the beat. People think that making a beat gonna make ‘em rich but, nah, it ain’t like that.
AG: What would you tell my kids about expressing themselves through writing rhymes?
CD: Time. Geography. And History. Then you understand language. If you can’t master the language you’re in, how good you gonna be at writing words and writing rhymes? I know cats that can rhyme in two or three different languages. Would that make you say that American kids are dumber than other kids around the world? Would you say America has fell off? Tell your kids: they’re part of a system that fell off. Make them expand and think outside the box, and see that they’re a wonderful gift to the planet.