MSN Music: What was your reaction to Public Enemy being inducted?
Chuck D: I take it seriously because it deals with tenure. It’s not like, ‘Oh, wow, you got an award because somebody thought you had the Song of the Year,’ which is always clouded with politics or whatever. And I’m a big sports fan. There’s a baseball hall of fame, same thing with the basketball hall of fame … a hall of fame is having your contemporaries saying, ‘This should take place.’
Bing: More on Public Enemy
And with the 25-year eligibility rule you can’t get in on a whim. It recognizes a career and body of work. But rap was really just getting its legs 25 years ago.
We have a lot of groups from the ’90s and the millennium. … There’s a sort of ‘There goes the neighborhood’ attitude with a lot of traditional rockers, even with Heart and Donna Summer, people like that coming in with Public Enemy. They’re like, ‘OK, what have we come down to?’ But I would tell those people that all of this stems out of a black person playing a note by the side of an old house (decades ago). This is all about trying to express yourself. So we can’t lose sight of where this all came out of even before we said the words ‘rock ‘n’ roll.’ I would say in Public Enemy’s case we emerged out of DJ culture. And DJ culture is the ultimate homage to the artists, the musicians, the records, the labels. We come better equipped as hip-hop artists to understand the idiom of rock ‘n’ roll better than rockers even expect.
When Tupac, Biggie and others become eligible in a few years there will be a floodgate of hip-hop moving into the hall.
It will be interesting. It’s interesting that the first four rap acts in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame happen to be groups. The group is very important in rap music and hip-hop. If anything has disappeared on the hip-hop terrain it’s the disappearance of collectives and groups. They’re coming back here and there. A collective in hip-hop means a gathering of all the elements: emceeing, deejaying, dance and graphic culture. That’s as close as you can get to a band playing together. Nine times out of 10 with bands the bass and guitar and drummer all play together. Hip-hop is groups. There’s a certain synchronicity that goes down that’s underplayed, and Public Enemy epitomizes that. We’re the sum of many parts.
The collaboration in groups was among the members, whereas today the collaboration seems to be with one rapper and his producer or producers. Or one big name working with one other big name.
Right. And when we tried to do an outside collaboration with Big Daddy Kane and Ice Cube, I was told by the powers that be — the legal department — that you can’t because they were two different companies. I quickly eliminated that plantation mentality going on, saying, ‘You’ve got to change that. They’re going to be on my album.’ Ever since that barrier was broken down … it’s almost been overdone. It led to the singular individual signings because it’s less hassle for a company to negotiate with one artist than a bunch of artists. … It can’t be all business all the time, dictating how the music is made. That’s just been terrible. … The whole key to artistry is to let the artist have the time to work. For the longest period of time all these other aspects dictated what the business was going to be. Retail dictated that you couldn’t release two albums in the same space, whereas at one time the Doors were able to release three albums in the space of a year (Editor’s note: It was 18 months). What changed? The business changed. Who changed it? The artists or you guys? … And it all ended up capsizing the industry anyway. If an artist is selling 200 copies or something, you know damn well he can’t ask for a million dollars. But if an artist is releasing music on a regular basis, let the profit-share come in. It got out of whack a long time ago. … Get your private plane on your money!
You touched on this earlier, but what do you make of the fact that some people don’t think reggae should be in the hall, they don’t think Madonna or Donna Summer should be in …
You already gave the answer — they don’t think. That’s that. If they thought with any kind of concise attachment to fact, they wouldn’t even say (expletive) like that.
Public Enemy is getting its artistic due, but you were also ahead of the curve by being one of the first major acts to sell an album via download in 1999, setting a precedent for Prince and iTunes.
We weren’t trying to do it for historical note. We were doing it to try to find a way to get our music to the masses. That was the only way that we saw. If there had been that way five years earlier, we’d have tried it. It just wasn’t there yet. When the opportunity arose … it was the inevitable way to go peer-to-peer or person-to-person without the middleman. There were places in the world where we’d bring out masses of people where you couldn’t even buy (our music). People were buying tickets in Ghana, Africa, saving up money to come to the show. This didn’t figure in their equation of the time. ‘You’re not selling albums in Africa.’ No, but we’re a musical presence that counts. You don’t have a business office in Africa, yet we’re going there six or seven times. We’re going to South America … if you’re not gonna do it, I’ve got to figure out a way. It wasn’t that I wanted to change the business model of the industry. The business model was already broke.
What are your plans for the induction ceremony?
We’re going to be the first hip-hop artist to perform. … Grandmaster Flash, when they were inducted in 2007, they were split up. They didn’t perform. Run-D.M.C. were split up in 2009 (after the death of Jam Master Jay). Last year the Beastie Boys would have been the first band, but Adam Yauch was sick. … Mike D and Ad-Rock weren’t getting any information from his family … so we’re the first inductee performing. It’s just as much about a performance. … We had a couple of obstacles. We wanted to pick our presenter. We went back and forth. Our first choice was unavailable. … Everything is peachy now with Spike Lee and mainly Harry Belafonte introducing us, presenting us. We think that’s major. We didn’t want to just have, ‘OK, you guys are in and that’s it.’ So we’re performing.
This is truly a great moment in Hip-Hip history! What other rap groups are you looking forward to seeing get into the hall of fame?
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