Few performers have had as profound an impact on popular music as Public Enemy frontman Chuck D, born Carlton Ridenhour. Accompanied by comic sidekick Flavor Flav, DJ Terminator X, "Minister Of Information" Professor Griff, backup dancers The Security Of The First World, and avant-garde production team The Bomb Squad, D helped transform rap music into a blistering political and social force with groundbreaking albums like Yo! Bum Rush The Show, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, and Fear Of A Black Planet. Public Enemy's public profile lowered considerably during the mid-'90s, following controversy, an aborted breakup, and the lukewarm response to 1994's Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age. But D soldiered on, becoming an early champion of the Internet, lecturing at college campuses, battling the Def Jam label, writing his autobiography, and recording a solo record. In the past few years, D has kept busy, working with Public Enemy on both the soundtrack to Spike Lee's He Got Game and the underrated 1999 album There's A Poison Goin On, overseeing several web sites, recording with the funk-rap-rock band Confrontation Camp, and creating music for television and film (most notably, the score for An Alan Smithee Film: Burn, Hollywood Burn and the theme for Dark Angel). The rap legend recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about the Internet, the wit and wisdom of Shaquille O'Neal, and his affection for Insane Clown Posse.
The Onion: How did you become interested in the Internet?
Chuck D: I found that in 1994, traditional media such as radio and television and print were becoming skewed out of the price range of folks like me by the major record labels, which made it increasingly impossible to promote in that world. The Internet was a saving grace for promoting and exposing, and even creating. It's a parallel world to the music industry that already exists, and I'm glad to be a part of it.
O: What do you think of the fact that so many web sites, particularly heavily hyped sites, have failed over the course of the last year?
CD: It was too good. It was stupid and wasn't focused.
O: Do you think things are going to change now that some of the stupidity is getting weeded out?
CD: I don't know. I don't care. All I know is that we're still around. We've never had staffs of 300 people with plastic baseball bats beating their computers. I mean, shit, we're still around with as many as 17 people. We're very micro-focused within the genre of hip-hop, we enjoy the fact that people are connected worldwide, and we'll build upon it.
O: On the Public Enemy web site, you've talked a lot about corporate consolidation, and the fact that there are only five major companies controlling most of the record labels.
CD: Soon there'll be four, soon there'll be three.
O: How do you think that's affecting hip-hop?
CD: Well, it's affected hip-hop because it's kept a certain type of start-up entrepreneur from participating. It's raised the stakes as far as, like, it might cost $300,000 for a video, and $3 million to promote a hit record through the mainstream. Therefore, it can actually dictate the whole direction of where hip-hop should go, based on the spending by big business dominating traditional areas of television, radio, and print.
O: How was the Confrontation Camp experience as a whole?
CD: It was cool, making sure that we made it happen as far as putting the music together. I couldn't tour, because I was busy doing everything else.
O: You were supposed to open for Insane Clown Posse at one point.
CD: Yeah, that would have been a lot of fun.
O: I also read that you're a fan of Insane Clown Posse.
CD: Mmm-hmm, yeah.
O: What do you like about them?
CD: Their humor. I like the fact that their music reminds me of early Beastie Boys, that kind of stupid stuff.
O: You're also a big sports fan. What do you think of athletes making rap records?
CD: Well, you know, this is 2001. It's been 22 years since recorded hip-hop started. The NBA and people in sports, they grew up with hip-hop, so why shouldn't they think they could do it? I think one of the best that's ever done it is Shaquille O'Neal. He's had four albums out, and he's still flowing. I think he's one of the smartest guys in the NBA. A lot of people stereotype him because he's big, real dark, has a bald head, and he talks with a deep voice. They stereotype him, and I think he has more wit than anybody else in the NBA. Expect for Charles Barkley, maybe.
O: You've worked with a lot of interesting artists. Could you describe what it was like working with each of the following people… Sonic Youth?
CD: Yeah, we shared a studio together. It was a no-brainer to participate on Goo. It was cool.
O: Do you listen to a lot of rock music?
CD: I listen to '60s and '70s rock. Zeppelin, Cream, a lot of stuff Hendrix recorded. Morrison, all the classics. Steely Dan and also, what's the name, Three Dog Night. Nothing wrong with those guys.
CD: He's just a genius. Being produced by him on "Undisputed," which was on his last album, was one of the highlights of my career.
O: Ice Cube?
CD: Cube, he's like a little brother. The fact that I had the pleasure of working on his first album with him, and he's never looked back, is one of the prouder moments of my career.
O: Did you feel like he was making a statement by having The Bomb Squad produce his first album?
CD: Yeah, but, you know, Cube wasn't no rookie, because he actually came from the N.W.A camp, and was working with Dre. He wasn't no rookie, but he just wanted to do it on his own. All he needed was a little bit of confidence, like, "Oh shit, you're ready to go."
CD: Yeah, a lot of fun, just a whole new world we was exposed to. And it was a great experience. To this day, that was probably my most enjoyable tour. I should say, tour, video, and recording experience.
O: When you were working with Anthrax, did you have any idea just how big the rap-rock thing would become?
CD: Yeah. Yep, I knew.
O: You saw that it had a bright future ahead of it?
CD: Well, I mean, that was five years after Run DMC did "Walk This Way" with Aerosmith, and seven years after Afrika Bambaataa recorded with John Lydon.
O: I interviewed KRS-One recently. He talked about going to Public Enemy concerts, and seeing the audience being mostly middle-class white kids who all knew your lyrics. Does it seem odd that so much of your audience is white and middle-class?
CD: Well, America is basically white and middle-class. We just say what we're saying, and we looked at what we said as cultural exchange. Often, to have a full black audience there, you have to have the love of black radio and video outlets, and we didn't get that.
O: Why do you think that is? Why do you think television and video don't support Public Enemy anymore?
CD: They never did, really. I think BET helped out a bit, and maintained a black audience on some things, but when it all boiled down to it, I think we're too black and too strong.
O: You've been a big critic of BET over the years. What do you make of them being purchased by Viacom?
CD: Well, it's mixed feelings. It makes me want to say certain things. Like, whoever's the head of Viacom, do they have accountability to the black community? If they can't answer to that, then they should be attacked.
O: Another thing KRS-One said was that the election of George Bush, while not necessarily good for the country, was good for conscious rappers.
CD: Well, yeah. If you have a fucked-up situation at the top, then people see things a little more clearly, and are not diluted by illusions. People will have less confusion over the illusion that we're okay. Therefore, if somebody like Bush is in there, people will be grabbing onto any kind of rock for some kind of navigation.
O: Do you feel like there's a real, substantial difference between Bush and Clinton?
CD: Yeah. Clinton gave the impression that he gave a fuck about poor people and black people, and Bush gives the impression that he don't give a fuck about nobody but the rich. As far as perception is concerned, those are the two perceptions.
O: But as far as actually getting laws into practice, do you feel like there's that much of a difference now between the Democratic and Republican parties?
CD: No, not really, not between the parties. It becomes a personality thing after a while.
O: Do you think a third party could work?
CD: Yes, I do, but you got to get it to that point. That's why the Green Party was important.
O: Were you a Nader supporter?
CD: Yeah, I supported Nader because he called me personally.
O: What did he say?
CD: He pretty much said, "I admire you for your beliefs, and I share some of the same principles, and would you mind endorsing what I'm talking about?" I said, "Yeah, why not?"
O: Were you disappointed that he didn't get more of the vote?
CD: No, I expected he wouldn't get any of the vote, because people in America are robots. Right now, they're robotically trained to vote for the yin and the yang, Democrat and Republican. People go to the polls pretty much in a Pavlovian type of state.
O: In one of your "Terrordome" columns at public-enemy.com, you talked about how certain journalists seem to have taken pride in giving you negative reviews that hurt your career. Do you feel like there are journalists who are biased against you and don't necessarily give you a fair shake?
CD: I think it's kind of difficult for a young journalist to cover the terrain of how deep we can possibly be.
O: You were in An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn. Do you intend to do more acting in the future?
CD: No, I just did a lead in a commercial. I'm one of [Lee Jeans pitchman] Buddy Lee's heroes. I'm a person that always goes against a certain grain. I'm more interested in doing film scores and dominating that field in the urban hip-hop area. Doing what Stanley Clarke has done for jazz scores. That's more important to me than the acting part. I will throw the acting in if I can get [to compose] the score.
O: You've often spoken about the materialism in a lot of mainstream hip-hop. Why do you think so many rappers in the public eye seem to have questionable
CD: Well, I think there's an illusion that black folks want to hold on to, and grab on to. And that illusion is pretty much being wealthy and fly and detaching ourselves from reality. Therefore, the rapper will talk about some of those same things. We've been doing it for a long time, as far as saying what we got. To me, it's a step better than gangsta shit.
O: Do you think it's escapism?
CD: Yeah, of course it is. But at the same time, we have to watch out, because our masses are waiting by bus stops and going to the laundromat, so often we have to be careful of… These cats have to be careful of rubbing their spoils in the faces of the masses.
O: In the last "Terrordome" column, you wrote that you felt there was a war coming on.
CD: Yeah, a war between the states of hip-hop. Before, there used to be a thin line between the art, and the artist, and the public. That gap has widened because of corporate overhaul.
O: Do you think people are angry?
CD: I think people are increasingly becoming angry. If you ain't got shit, and you've got motherfuckers rubbing a steak in your face, and you're hungry, wouldn't you become angry? The bubble has burst, and the dream has been tainted a bit.
O: Will people be forced into action?
CD: Umm, you want people to be forced into thinking.
O: You mentioned gangsta rap earlier. Why do you think gangsta rap remains so popular?
CD: I think the music is more funk-driven. I think the funk is an important aspect of it. Number two, this is a society that is always treading on black people, who are being thrown negativity and are adopting the negativity. Being positive is like going up a mountain. Being negative is like sliding down a hill. A lot of times, people want to take the easy way out, because it's basically what they've understood throughout their lives.
O: Your site says you enjoy performing at colleges more than anything else. What do you like so much about those shows?
CD: Being able to interact with an audience that's maybe 20 years younger, but still appearing like I'm on their wavelength, and giving them something that they can go on. Going all around the country is an enjoyable thing.
O: The reaction to There's A Poison Goin On was interesting. Do you ever feel like you have to constantly prove yourself?
CD: In what capacity?
O: In that every album is perceived as a comeback album.
CD: [Laughs.] Well, that's 'cause the music business is so slow. People are releasing albums once every three years, so every album is a comeback album for everybody. But, I mean, that's how I recorded before the year 2000. After the year 2000, my whole thing is that basically I will record one song at a time and put it on slamjamz.com as an MP3. And I could record all kinds of different ways. I no longer believe in conventional albums as the main thrust of my recording career.
O: Are you working on another Public Enemy album?
CD: Not really. I'm recording freely, and if I make a song, I release it immediately, so I'm more likely to believe in one song at a time as opposed to albums.
O: Does that give you more freedom?
CD: Yeah. Nobody listens to albums from beginning to end anyway, not religiously like they used to when they were really starved for it. Now, there's so much music out there that people are judging one song at a time anyway.
O: If you'd known then what you know now, would you have signed with Def Jam back in the mid-'80s?
CD: Yeah. I mean, I definitely would have to do it with them. I thought they were smarter, I thought that it was the most innovative label, and I thought that I could actually… I shared commonalities with Russell [Simmons] and Rick [Rubin] more than I did anybody else in the music business.
O: What do you think about Eminem?
CD: A talented and skilled individual. He's been doing it a long time. He's no rookie. I think his inner views don't reflect in his interviews and his music.
O: How did you feel about Puff Daddy covering "Public Enemy No. 1"?
CD: I've been covered by more artists than any other rap artist, so that was cool.
O: Do you find it flattering?
CD: Any time somebody covers your music, it's flattering, whether it's Tricky or Puff Daddy or Anthrax. Cool. Any cover is flattering.
O: Where do you see hip-hop heading in the future?
CD: Hopefully more of it online, coming to rapstation.com.
O: Who do you see as the leaders of the hip-hop generation that came after you and KRS-One, that came up in the '90s rather than in the '80s?
CD: I think a lot of people have forfeited leadership. If you talk about anybody who actually seized it and grabbed it, I think Tupac grabbed it. He grabbed all aspects of it, which ultimately led to his death. But today, you got people like Dead Prez, who are screaming very loud that people are not happy and want change. They're screaming very loudly, so I dig them a lot. Roots, Common.
O: Is it encouraging to you to see people following in your footsteps?
CD: Well, I don't think they're following in our footsteps. I think they have to follow in the footsteps of leading because they're getting older. Why act like a child?