CLICK HERE to read the first half of my interview with my hero Chuck D, conducted just after Hurricane Katrina.
In PART TWO we discuss Ray Nagin, hip-hop concert technology, sampling as illegal artform, the racial implications of guitar distortion, and House of Blues versus local clubs.
Have you ever met Nagin?
I have not met Nagin yet.
What would you tell him?
I’d tell him I admire his courage in the heat of chaos.
He’s not getting very good reviews around town these days. Rumor has it he is living mostly in Houston.
It’s easy to attack someone when they’re put up on the shelf like that. I look at it this way: Native Americans never built on the coastline, they built inland, but this Western way, this Manifest Destiny, developers making so much money right on the water, as if just because it hasn’t happened means it’s not gonna happen. The retro pundit finger-pointing can go a million different ways, but it can’t be pointed at Ray Nagin.
Honestly, I think if you lived here you’d be mad at him. He seems to be gone, and crime is getting worse…
He’s overwhelmed. New Orleans was, like, blindsided, and the only thing that can fix it is to have super government intervention and care. New Orleans can’t fix itself. How come corporations are allowed to build casionos right on the coastline and spend millions of dollars on gambling when no one can protect the fact that New Orleans is under sea level? Someone needs to stabilize and protect the city before the casinos can do all that. It seems like a twisted sense of priorities. What happens in the next ten years of the storms happen to keep hitting New Orleans?
It could have happened this summer! All they did was bring the levees back up to the level they didn’t work at before.
It’s a patch up situation. I’ve been to Amsterdam and Holland, and their levee systems are like, they know they can’t afford a mistake. I had friends in New Orleans that would and show me the levees and I was like, “How the fuck is that gonna stop a disaster? That’s all there is?” And they’re like, “Yeah, that’s all there is, but it ain’t happened yet. People who’ve had families there for 50, 60 years living on “It ain’t happened yet…”
You don’t have much love for ClearChannel, I assume?
No, not at all, why?
But you know that ClearChannel’s “Live Nation” company owns the House of Blues where you will be playing in New Orleans.
Corporations are buying up everything. Any corporations I work with – I ain’t working for them.
I feel like ClearChannel is the thing that killed rap music as an intelligent mainstream voice. How can you feel comfortable getting into bed with them? Especially in New Orleans where House of Blues is competing with truly local clubs…
I do the best I can. I have to go with House of Blues and not pay attention to who they’re owned by, and still do what I got to do. I got acts on my label that I would love to come play New Orleans, but you know what? Small clubs say they can’t come because they won’t pull no people because nobody knows them. Why? Probably because ClearChannel won’t play them on the radio.
So then why not find a local club to play at?
The only dynamic in that, in all fairness, is that only works for one particular date, isolated itself. You can’t come up with a structure that’s gonna string along a whole tour. A tour is a blizzard, a blanket of dates, and it’s a routing thing. And if you decide to do it a different way it takes a certain amount of energy, you know what I am saying?
It seems it would be worth that energy.
Not if I gotta be in Paris on April 3rd and in Houston the day before. There’s no grassroots touring structure. I want to bring my SlamJamz tour down here to New Orleans but the small clubs ain’t helpin me. So to do that I gotta spend 100 days just to secure one date. But yeah, we got a ways to go.
So tell me about the live band you have now.
It’s been a part of Public Enemy for years. It’s Rage Against the Machine meets the Roots meets Run DMC. And that’s because everyone in the group besides me is a musician. They add flexibility to the Public Enemy shows beyond the records.
Are you still using backing records with the vocals on them?
The records that we have from back in the day, but…the vocals sound better now. The records are always EQ’d low, and that’s not the majority of the show these days. It goes in and out. You might be able to catch a backing track way in the back sometimes.
Have you all always performed over a copy of your own album or do you have dub plates of the instrumentals.
You can’t have dub plates because they jump onstage. If we just walked around on stage or stayed in one place and didn’t jump around—that was one of Public Enemy’s biggest problems up to the year 1999. A live DJ and MC element is a cool thing, but you got S1Ws moving, myself and Flav are really active – and once the record jumps you can’t pick it back up if you can’t hear a vocal. It may work for tracks without choruses…but when it jumps to the chorus, what do you do then? But that’s irrelevant, because we’ve got the live band, and also new instrumentals, all kinds of things coming at you, so it’s not Milli Vanilli. You just sometimes need vocal references to let you know where you’re at.
These days, does Professor Griff play do drum solos at your shows?
He does a lot of solos and in fact both he and Flav play drums.
I’ve seen clips of Flav playing drums. So Public Enemy has never broken up, technically?
Never. Americans only hear what’s on the radio. Black people only listen to black radio and BET. We’re not on the radio because you have to be a slave to a corporation—we’ve been free for nine years and nobody’s enjoyed their freedom more than us. We’ve just gone to the rest of the world – ClearChannel doesn’t operate all over the world. We only do America every four years. We did take hiatus between 95 and 97, but that was just off the road, that’s all. We just had to figure out a new way to do shows. By tour 36 I’d gotten kinda tired of the whole process, and of not being able to give to the show more than the vinyl could give. We had to step it up. Then Griff came back in 97. He’s been back for ten years.
If you hadn’t already been established, could you have pulled off being an international, internet-propelled, independent act?
There are a lot of groups that started out with us in the 80s that aren’t here now, so it’s not that it’s easier for us. We have different combinations that work for us. If we were strictly an American group there might be some problems. Then there are people who understand their local thing going on, so they succeed that way. All we had was a name and a legacy and we built on that. Now, you can be lazy and think that’s gonna work for you when it’s not. We always fight for survival, and that’s what makes us different. When you look at bands like TV on the Radio or Bloc Party, they’ve definitely taken a non-traditional approach to creating a fan base, and rap and hip-hop music could stand to figure out how they do it. You don’t hear TVOTR on black radio stations or on BET, right?
Black people go to their shows though.
Yeah, exactly. And is Zack from Rage Against the Machine a rapper or a singer?
So why are Rage not played on urban stations? Are they not funkier than any group on black stations now?
I am not a fan of Rage Against the Machine.
Well, I am. And if he’s rapping, how come he’s not on black radio?
Maybe because of the guitar? Or just the distortion pedal, it often seems like a tool of racial divide.
There’s not much distortion in Rage. And Tom Morello plays the guitar like a turntable! Though when’s the last time you heard a turntable on urban stations either?
I’ve always been interested in sampling legalities. From an art history perspective, collage-type music like you made on Nation of Millions was more or less made extinct by capitalism. Has that ever happened before where an artform was made sort of…illegal?
I know exactly what you mean. As close as you can get is like Lenny Bruce’s blue comedy, political comedy…
But all of that has pushed its way back into society…
Mm hm. Same thing with dirty rap like 2Live Crew. That’s been able to recover.
But sampling records is almost a dead artform.
They could never differentiate between us doing it and somebody like, say, EPMD doing it. We made it an art, but EPMD would just take a track and put a killer vocal on top of it. To the court one second might as well be 20 seconds. [Chuckles] They put that whole “one drop of black blood” mentality into the sampling case: “If you took even one second then you took a composition”. That’s bullshit.
Do you have a studio in your house where you make beats now? And if so, where do your source sounds come from nowdays?
We have five studios and we’re wired to as many as 20 studios worldwide. The Bomb Squad is actually 25 producers who contribute. They come up with different techniques. That’s why we were able to make four albums in the last few years. But I don’t do none of that no more; with 25 guys I’d rather navigate their production. I’m a wordsmith, and I’ve stayed that way. I’ve got a little Zoom box that makes beats I can get on top of. I collect a lot of classic 60s and 70s CDs and enjoy my personal collection.
Do you feel a certain resentment that your collage method you’d perfected was taken out of your artistic arsenal, so to speak?
No, I don’t get upset at that. Our thing is to innovate and create new methods. Now we have guys like DJ Sharpie who really can take a track apart second-by-second and spend the time to make a very intricate sonic layout. My thing is to come up with a complete song. I feel like Duke Ellington, who was writing songs on matchbook covers til the day he died. And it’s much easier to make our music now in the underground shadows, underneath the radar of lawyers and accountants. I think this is a brilliant time.