Against the Grain
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2006 Anil Prasad.
Controversy and confrontation are synonymous with Public Enemy’s incendiary brand of hip-hop. Devoid of gangsta rap clichés and pop-rap treacle, the group’s full-frontal lyrical and aural assault is designed to challenge social and sonic complacency. Public Enemy’s core line-up, comprised of iconic vocalist, writer and producer Chuck D, and partners in rhyme Flavor Flav and Professor Griff, always infuses its music with charged messages about demolishing inequity, racism and corruption. Most importantly, the group encourages African-Americans to empower themselves, as Malcolm X once said, “by any means necessary.”
Musically speaking, Public Enemy represents the hip-hop world’s equivalent of Phil Spector’s wall of sound, with layer upon layer of samples and pounding rhythms, as well as rock instrumentation. The approach is best exemplified on the group’s classic albums including 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and 1990’s Fear of a Black Planet, and hit singles such as “Fight the Power” and “Don’t Believe the Hype.”
The last decade saw Public Enemy go beyond the genre’s “two turntables and a microphone” performance standards by incorporating a more organic and live approach into its music. Since 2002, the act has worked with a core group of musicians known as The Banned that includes guitarist Khari Wynn, bassist Brian Hardgroove, drummer Mike Faulkner, and turntablist DJ Lord.
Public Enemy celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2006. The group commemorated the occasion with a trilogy of CDs comprised of New Whirl Odor, Rebirth of a Nation and How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul?, released between late 2005 and early 2007. In addition to an increased focus on live musicianship, the albums share thematic linkages that reflect the era of their creation.
“New Whirl Odor states that the world is in a ball of confusion, so try to recognize how to walk within it,” said Chuck D during this conversation. “Rebirth of a Nation says that if the world is in a ball of confusion, you gotta keep your head held high anyway and try to look at the positive side of life. And How You Sell Soul’s main point is you have to look deep inside yourself to hold onto your spirit.”
What made you want to have Public Enemy expand into live instrumentation?
We did it so we could have a lot more flexibility. It was Professor Griff’s idea. He said we need the ability to do our classic songs, but not be locked into the recorded versions when we perform. You can only make accompanying a record go into so many places. With a band, you can take the live performance into a lot of new territory. It adds a fuller sound that you can’t get from just playing back a recording. With a recording, you only get what you’ve got. It also allows us to improvise like you wouldn’t believe. We have commanding vocalists between myself and Flavor Flav, and everyone else is a musician. Even Flavor can play bass, guitar and drums, and Griff is also a drummer. Public Enemy now represents the best rap situation ever because of our band’s musicianship, knowledge and ability to add to the aura of noise. When people see us, they say “Oh my God, that’s the greatest thing on Earth.” I think the addition of the band makes it so. The show is no longer entirely dependent on me or Flavor just doing all of the classics. We’re now able to do a two-and-a-half-hour, enjoyable show with a lot of variation and interesting elements. I think live performance is the final convincing stroke that tells you if people like your records or not. I think the music business has gotten far away from that aspect. In fact, I think 95 percent of rap and hip-hop performances are terrible.
Why are they terrible?
First, look back at the standards adhered to in the beginnings of rap music and hip-hop. For instance, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash and Run-DMC all had a high performance standard. Artists also need to pay attention to the standards of the great rock, funk and soul singers. These acts all got their training from getting down as live as possible. Initially, when rappers started to play big arenas alongside these other types of groups, they had to raise their performance standards. So they came up with dance steps, outfits and stage shows that were more captivating, because just rapping over the records could only hold people’s attention for a certain amount of time.
The standards started disappearing around 15 years ago. The rap industry figured out the DNA of selling a record is getting the video on BET or MTV and not worrying about tour support or getting the artist out there performing. The labels stopped developing artists and starting saying “Whatever sticks, we keep. Whatever doesn’t stick, we lop off and move on to the next one.” We’ve had 15 years of that and every five years, we’ve had another drop-off in talent and another diminishing return. Today, when you look at the most popular rap artists, ask yourself if they can really outdo a rock or funk group onstage. I was at the 2006 Grammys and Kanye West was up there giving his all as a rapper holding a mic, but the artists that blew people away were Bono and Paul McCartney, as well as Stevie Wonder, just for stepping onto the stage. Today, you have R&B and rock groups that will blow a rap act away, however, the rap act will say “But we’re selling more records.” That’s only because they’re the best part of the machinery.
You have to present a lot of energy and activity onstage to leave a crowd awestruck. I don’t think audiences are awestruck very often anymore in the rap world, which makes it different than sports. Sports leaves people awestruck because most audience members realize they can’t do what those guys do, so you have to submit to that. But the average person at a rap show looks at the stage and seriously thinks they are just as good and probably are just as good. The thing that separates the artist from the audience member isn’t what’s inside the artist, but what’s on the outside. People are more awestruck about what the artist is wearing as opposed to what the artist is doing.
How do you go about directing Public Enemy’s live musicians?
Brian Hardgroove is the leader of the band and was able to get into the psyche and dynamics of the Public Enemy songs. He brought them to the surface in order to determine how they should be accompanied by live musicians. Brian and Khari have a real telepathy going on which is really nice and unique. When I’m onstage, I take an almost James Brown-like role. I signal to people when to lay out, when to come in, when to go crazy and when a musician should be given more room. I’m pretty good at navigating the stage. A lot of my time is spent running my SlamJamz label these days and going against the politics of radio and television, but there’s still no better enjoyment for me than being on the stage.
Electric guitar has always been a prominent element of Public Enemy’s sound. Describe its significance for the group.
Public Enemy has always included guitar in its music because we’ve always stayed true to the original spirit of hip-hop, which means we respect the records. We know the musicians, sessions and labels involved with making the great records of the past. In order to best take advantage of the realm of samples, you need to know exactly what to look for, how to look for it and where those sonic elements are sitting in the mix. This extends to our appreciation of guitarists too. Public Enemy’s music has always consisted of three different layers. You have the base, bottom layer with drums, percussion and bass rhythms. Next, you have the vocal layer. Then you have the topping, which is basically always guitar-driven in our music, whether it’s rhythm guitar or psychedelic fuzz noise, as we call it. When that topping doesn’t consist of guitar, we applied other noise to that music in a guitar kind of way. What we do ended up impacting guitarists as well. For instance, Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine really took notice of us and applied the guitar in an almost turntable-like way to his band’s music.
We got involved with electric guitar because we were educated with a sense of what good music was. When I grew up in the '70s, I would listen to AM radio and hear stuff like Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years,” the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” and James Brown’s “Doing It to Death” which all start off with some great guitar shit. We’ve always had the belief that guitar was something hip-hop shouldn’t try to exist without. Unfortunately, if you look at Black music as a whole, the guitar went through a period of being practically non-existent. People in the community would often unfairly point to the hair and metal bands of the '80s and '90s and say “Hey, those long-haired white boys are the furthest thing from Black music.” And because of their miseducation, they wouldn’t realize that those white boys were in fact playing riffs that started 70 years prior by black artists. But Public Enemy members were always educated about that history. We’ve always known where things came from. We’ve used live guitarists since our first record Yo! Bum Rush the Show in 1987 which had Vernon Reid on it. Every record is a mixture with some of the guitar elements played and others sampled.
Who were your favorite guitarists to sample in the early days before copyright laws clamped down on artists’ ability to do so freely?
You could never go wrong with Albert King, because he brought some really funky guitar to the table on those classic Stax records. We also liked to use James Brown’s guitarists like Jimmy Nolan because of their great rhythms and freedom of expression. We’d also use '70s guitar riffs from people like Leslie West and Billy Squier, because they also had a big beat happening and the guitar was never that far away from it. Most hip-hop cats turn off the record as soon as the guitars came in, but that’s pretty much where Public Enemy always started.
What’s your perspective on the prominence of electric guitar in African-American music today?
It troubles me that Black music is now practically devoid of guitar because the business attached it to white boys’ music. That made Black music very limited in that the emphasis has been on beats for so long. A lot of the musicians don’t acknowledge that you can combine that with a great guitar lick. So, we have this situation where we have great black guitarists like Vernon Reid, Eric Gales and Ernie Isley getting ignored by both the rock world and the Black urban music world. For them to turn their backs on those guitarists is just stupid. It’s like turning your back on Hendrix.
Why do you think people like Reid, Gales and Isley don’t get wider acknowledgement for their contributions?
Black people don’t acknowledge them because they aren’t getting played on their radio and television stations. Therefore, black people have been disenfranchised from the guitar for most of the last 40 years. As for the rock guys, they’ve always been in their own little racist bubble most of the time. That particularly holds true for the older guys. These bubbles are a big problem with a lot of musicians. They create a bubble, thrive in it, but don’t hear anything outside of it. A lot of this can be traced back to the early days of MTV. When MTV first came on, it would have Poison, Ratt and bands of that ilk and their image would make black people run from MTV. It resulted in Black music being devoid of all guitar—even rhythm guitar. The rhythm guitar that did exist would be tucked so far back in the mix that it was irrelevant. It’s such a crime because now you can’t find the guitar—or the saxophone for that matter—in most Black music anymore.
It’s related to education during elementary and high school. People inherently love music, but if you don’t give people knowledge at an early age when they’re first drawn to music, you’re putting their musical interests in the attaché cases of business. The worst situation is having businesspeople tell you what to like. Educators try to tell you something, as opposed to businesspeople who try to sell you something.
Describe your creative process for me.
When I get an idea, I write it down and then I attach it to a great title. The title is paramount for me. Next, I try to find a musical situation that looks like it might fit with the idea. Sometimes I’ll think of something that looks like it will be a disastrous fit, and that usually makes me even more attracted to it. Putting the musical side together is like being in a media storm. You can’t tell how or when you’re going to be hit on the head with what rock. It might start by hearing some music in your head and asking the musicians what they can add to it. There’s a lot of freedom after the initial structure is determined. I sometimes pick musical ideas that might be really off-the-wall and the difficulty becomes trying to make that off-the-wall idea come back home a little bit. I’m not saying I’m Sun Ra, but I do have a weird approach to production and musicianship. Part of the key is taking what I like and transforming it into something other people will like.
What are the key challenges you face during your creative process?
Sometimes it’s easy to fall into the structure of making a song conventional. That can also extend to the length of the song. I’m attracted to the idea of 60-second and 16-minute records that contain a lot of peaks and valleys that only a musician can add to them. I’m not interested in the idea of just having words over a beat. I also believe that even if songs are different in texture and sound across a record, if they’re all the same length, you can still burn out the listener. In general, I’m trying to fit something into what I do that I haven’t done before. But I’m not trying to compete against our back catalog. I’m not trying to outdo what we’ve done in the past. I’m trying to create a total catalog that’s as diverse as possible. If you start making the same music and saying the same thing over and over again, what good does it bring?
Another important part of the creative process for me is understanding the history and mindset of musicians of the past and being able to discuss that with musicians of the present. That’s how I’ve been able to evolve creatively. I think a lot of musicians and artists who are just coming up often think what they’re doing is brilliant, as if it’s being done for the first time. Yeah, they’re making something, but it may not be the first time it’s been done. So, sometimes the perspective I bring to the table is knowledge from the past they can apply to their current and future work.
Despite the U.S. being in a constant state of political turmoil, the hip-hop world has rarely used its immense platform for significant social change. Why are there so few resilient political voices in hip-hop today?
It’s because record companies have dictated to artists and everyone around them how they should think and act. An artist that wants to stand on his or her own two feet can’t go looking for industry results. Sometimes you have to do what you gotta do and not worry about the results. I think people are afraid to be outspoken because they’re afraid of poor sales. But making music looking for results is such a contrived and shortsighted way of working. Artists need to learn the history of music. You don’t have to go far back. You just have to go back to 1877 for the first recording. You really gotta know what you’re talking about to push things forward.
Why do you think hip-hop doesn’t respect its elders in the same way that rock, jazz and R&B audiences do?
It’s because most hip-hop artists become popular when they’re starting out and most of those acts aren’t taught anything about their craft and its history. Understand this: The elements of hip-hop, which include graffiti, breakdancing and turntablism—the musicianship of it all—have been extracted from hip-hop to leave only rap. If the DNA has been extracted out of it and rap with shock value is the only thing you’ve got left, then what you’ve done is strip hip-hop down to the point where it can’t lift itself out of the gutter.
There are some real genre problems out there. They aren’t Public Enemy’s problems because Flavor and I work hard to transcend the genre. For instance, Flavor has had number one television shows and I regularly speak at colleges and universities and am able to do pretty much anything I want on multiple levels compared to most rappers. We want hip-hop to be healthy, but the fact is rock music is healthier. Rap may sell more, but that’s the result of machinery, not of artistry and musicianship. Rap sells more than jazz too, but I’d rather have all my people on my label get jazz results where they only sell 5,000 units and then enjoy a career where they can go play 200 gigs a year. That would be a dream.