7.15.99 If You Don't Own Your Master the Master Owns You: The Emancipation of Chuck D
(from Minorities Job Bank website) by Mtume ya Salaam, Music Editor
Public Enemy is one of the most critically and commercially successful bands in hip-hop history. Their landmark second album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988) is often considered the best rap album ever made by critics and fans alike. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Public Enemy was considered the premier group in rap music. Through over 12 years in the public eye, Public Enemy’s leader and head rapper Chuck D has never wavered from his agenda – attacking social ills, educating fans, and promoting Black consciousness and awareness.
Public Enemy musical journey has been an incredible one, but the ride hasn’t been without its bumps. In 1989, statements made by group-member Professor Griff during a Washington Post interview led to allegations of Anti-Semitism. Chuck D’s (pictured right) comic sideman Flava Flav (left) has been arrested several times for, as Chuck puts it, "a host of personal reasons." Flav’s drug problems led some to accuse the aggressively anti-drug Public Enemy of hypocrisy. But in his 1997 book, Fight the Power, Chuck angrily denies charges of hypocrisy, saying, "Public Enemy is real…. Flavor’s bout with drugs is even more of a reason for us to fight against them." PE’s 1994 album, Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age, was released during the height of rap’s dominance by commercial and gangsta-oriented fare. Despite significant growth, lyrically and musically, Muse Sick… received negative reviews and became Public Enemy’s first new album since their 1987 debut to fall short of platinum status. After a four-year hiatus, Public Enemy returned to record the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s He Got Game.
Now Public Enemy has a new focus for their attack: the music industry itself. Throughout the history of the music industry, record labels have reaped the benefits of musicians’ labor. The stories of musicians being underpaid or even unpaid for their labor are numerous and legendary. In 1999, five major distributors—Sony, WEA, Universal, EMD, and BMG—hold almost all of the power in the music industry. When Public Enemy’s label, Def Jam, negotiated a new deal with then-major distributor Polygram, Public Enemy’s long-simmering feud with Def Jam came to a head. In a March 1999 Rolling Stone interview, Chuck D said bluntly, "They [Def Jam] didn’t understand how to sell PE records. We may as well have been Brillo pads."
Public Enemy soon left Def Jam and instead of signing with a competing major label, Chuck D decided to "go his own way." The band teamed with the new Internet-based, independent label Atomic Pop. PE’s first album for Atomic Pop (and Atomic Pop’s first album, period) is There’s a POISON Goin On…. POISON… is the first album from a platinum-selling artist that was made available over the Internet before it could be bought in stores. Instead of the up to $17 dollars that traditional retailers charge, computer literate fans can download There’s a POISON Goin On… for only $8.00. Also, the album is available via Internet mail order for only $10.00. In short, Chuck D and Public Enemy are attempting to circumvent the major label control of music and put the control into the hands of artists and fans.
A few days before the official "street date" of POISON…, THE BLACK COLLEGIAN talked with Public Enemy’s Chuck D. In a lengthy two-part interview, Chuck touched on everything from the record business to Public Enemy’s new album to how he comes up with his powerful metaphors and song lyrics.
Chuck D: How are you?
THE BLACK COLLEGIAN: I’m doing fine. How are you doing?
TBC: Alright, you’re ready to go?
TBC: OK, I’m rolling. For people who are not well versed on distribution and music contracts, etc., what makes PE’s arrangement with Atomic Pop so revolutionary?
CD: I’ve mentioned before that in order for art to get to the public, you either have to be signed to a major or be signed to an independent or start your own independent, which is a cost process--.
TBC: And a time process, too.
CD: A time process, and then a political process where you have to deal with middlemen like radio and TV. [There are] record company and also retail outlet politics that cut into your bottom line. But [Internet] technology has come along – this is the first technology that the public has gotten to first instead of the [music] industry. And all the downloading capabilities, so, that’s what makes this hard to beat. So it would be technology in this case that provided an alternative means of distribution.
TBC: What would you say are the most important differences between working with an independent—especially a technology oriented independent like you said—and working with a major label like Def Jam?
CD: Well, more than Atomic Pop and Public Enemy, it’s Al Teller and Chuck D working together. [Al Teller is the president and CEO of Atomic Pop. He is a respected music business veteran and the former head of two major distribution companies. As the head of CBS, Teller worked with Chuck D on Public Enemy’s debut album.] The biggest thing is that I’m able to orchestrate a lot more of my moves outside of the standard and invent moves. I mean, I did that with the majors, but [now] I’m able to design a template, because the whole process is new. That’s probably the biggest difference – designing templates….
[By "designing templates," Chuck is referring to the fact that he now has complete control over his music, both creatively and in terms of marketing.]
TBC: And with Atomic Pop you all retain all your masters, right?
CD: Yeah. And a high [royalty] percentage rate and [we] also control the worldwide rights. Which is very important because with the majors, they would control the worldwide rights but really not be able to master the world. So they could control [musical rights in] South America and Africa but not be able to get records there. That makes me ask the question: "Why are you controlling what you can’t handle?"
TBC: [Do] you want to briefly explain what makes owning your own masters so important…not just monetarily, but in terms of power?
CD: The biggest difference is that you can do whatever you want to with the song without asking permission. Let’s say, if you want a song to go into a movie. You won’t have to go to a lawyer to ask [whether or not] you could get it done. That’s the biggest problem. If you own your own masters, you can exploit them [the musical rights] in as many ways as possible without anybody saying that you have to get permission.
Hand in my pocket
/ Robbed me for my chocolate
[There are two major categories of music rights – publishing rights and performance rights. "Publishing" refers to the musical composition – the arrangement of notes, words, and sounds that form a unique work. Proceeds from publishing (royalties) are split 50/50 between the author of the musical composition and the publisher of the composition. "Performance" refers to the literal recording of the composition that is then duplicated and released on a CD, vinyl LP, cassette, etc. The original recording is referred to as the "master." Simply put, "publishing" refers to the lyrics and musical notes of a composition. "Performance" or "masters" refers to the actual recording that was made.
If an artist composes a song, but allows the record company to publish (copyright) it, then the artist receive 50% of the publishing royalties. If an artist authors and publishes a song, then the artist receives 100% of the publishing royalties. If the artist authors, publishes, and owns the master recording, not only do they receive 100% of the publishing royalties, they receive all of the proceeds from the recording – minus, of course, the costs of distribution, promotion, etc.
While the majority of artists do not retain 100% (or in many cases, any) of their publishing, many established artists do retain their publishing rights. However, performance ownership, not publishing, is the most lucrative aspect of musical rights. For that reason, almost all record companies retain performance ownership, or "the masters." And, as Chuck will allude to, record companies typically own performance rights in perpetuity (meaning, forever).]
TBC: Isn’t it true that if you don’t own your masters a label could decide to make a greatest hits or remix project or sell your music to use in commercials and you wouldn’t necessarily be able to stop them. Is that true?
CD: Yeah, in a way it’s true. But if you control your publishing you can stop records from--. You know, they have to ask both the owner of the master and the owner of the particular copyright for permission. It’s a 50/50 thing. So it’s not like they can go ahead and do things without you. … It’s just that they [major record companies] own so many masters that they can move very slow to kind of stagnate anything with the song. Also, the biggest thing with the majors is that they own the masters forever. [Laughs.]
TBC: Yeah, the business is quite shady.
CD: [Laughing.] Yeah.
TBC: I read an interesting quote the other day—[related to] what you were just talking about, about moving slowly—it said, "The greatest remedy for anger is delay."
TBC: That’s Lucius Seneca and I’m not exactly sure who that is. [Lucius Annaeus Seneca was a Roman philosopher, dramatist, and statesman. He died in the year 65 AD.] But in other words, if somebody is full of righteous anger, if you can just make them wait, you know, then that’s power in itself, like you were saying.
CD: Oh, yeah. It’s like if you’re on the basketball court. You know, your team is up by two [points] and there’s 25 seconds left. [Your team will] stall with the ball. That’s the same type of game they play with a lot of artists who protest against the system. … Or you can design a plan. And I designed a plan starting in 1994 [when Public Enemy’s hiatus began] to eventually murder my contract, pull the pin and throw the grenade right back at them. And once I was able to sever myself completely, then I didn’t just walk away. I went right back at it.
They get the
cheddar / All I got is a f---in’ letter
TBC: [Do] you have any thoughts on what The Artist Formerly Known As Prince is doing with his independent label?
CD: I talked to him two days ago.
TBC: Oh yeah?
CD: Yeah, I talked to him two days ago and we’re doing a song together. We’re going to each independently try to take that song and make it happen.
[I brought up The Artist because The Artist engaged in a well-publicized legal battle with Warner Bros. over the ownership of (then) Prince’s master recordings. The Artist eventually left Warner Bros. and formed his own independent label, NPG Records. However, Warner Bros. retains the rights to Prince’s masters.
In an apt illustration of the difference between publishing and performance rights, The Artist recorded a cover version of his composition "1999." Because The Artist released the new version of "1999" on his own NPG Records, he receives all of the proceeds—both publishing and performance. The reason NPG Records could not release the original version of "1999" (even though it was written by Prince and published by Prince’s Controversy Music) is that Warner Bros. owns the master recording. When Warner Bros. decided to re-release the original version of "1999" single, it put The Artist in the odd position of competing against himself.]
TBC: That’s incredible! Do you think with platinum-selling artists like PE and The Artist [releasing music independently], do you think it’s going to spread? Do you think it’s going to start kind of a revolution in the music industry to get away from the whole plantation system of the major labels?
CD: Well, it won’t kill the majors, but it’ll make them have to adapt. And the more that they don’t adopt the system, it’ll bite them in the leg and affect their bottom line. [It’s not clear whether Chuck is referring to fair pay or Internet technology, or both.] ‘Cause it’s a splintering of the market place – they’ll be forced to share. And by 2002 I foresee about 500,000 labels and a million artists. Because it [the Internet] allows the young entrepreneur, the new entrepreneur or somebody that doesn’t want to go through all the processes, to go immediately into it [releasing music.] But you still gotta know Business 101 – Music Business 101. But this is a proper alternative to exploit.
TBC: Do you anticipate any other major-selling artists to follow the lead to go independent and to do their own thing?
CD: Oh, of course. Yeah. … Five years ago there wasn’t this light at the end of the tunnel. [Chuck is referring to the ability to release music independently over the Internet]. I found myself fighting in the corner with no way out. I [would] throw a punch and the punch comes right back at me. …
TBC: As you well know, there’s a lot of red tape involved in getting the average major label release out there [to the marketplace]. Do you feel that working independently…speeds up releases? That you guys can react more quickly to something if you want to get something out there?
CD: Oh yeah. If the Knicks win the [NBA] Championship I can go with a song the next day! [Laughs.] [The San Antonio Spurs beat the New York Knicks 4-1. This interview was done the day after New York’s Game Three victory.] It’s like this, to make a long story short it allows you to move a whole lot quicker. But you have to detach yourself from industry standards. For example, big, major record companies they move [sell] millions of records and hundreds of thousands of records because they have the machine to do so. But, that machine might have nothing to do with you. Your realities have to be set in what you can do. And my whole thing is…although you sell millions of records, [the truth is] the machine sells millions of records. Artists don’t sell records, big record companies do. You have many artists that swear they sold 750,000 records and I’ll tell them, "No you didn’t. The sales department of that label sold them. A sales department you’ve probably never seen before in your life." Artists make records. Record companies, especially gigantic ones, sell records. So when people start talking about the numbers they did, I say, "Surely you’re joking. Those numbers would’ve been done with you or without you."
Twisted politics /
Tricks I couldn’t get with
TBC: So you all don’t feel any pressure to continue the gold and platinum streak? [Public Enemy’s first six albums reached gold or platinum status.] What about He Got Game? Did He Got Game get certified?
CD: Uh, gold?
CD: I think it’s real close, so…. I mean, I don’t feel any pressure because that has nothing to do with me. My job is to make records. My job is not to sell them. So those standards are industry standards that [have] nothing to do with me. So the pressure of what? The pressure of hanging someone else’s standard around my neck? My job is to make a good record, perform a good record, and be able to have [my] fan base know about it. Bottom line. That gold, platinum s--- doesn’t mean anything. Because if it takes spending four hundred, five hundred thousand dollars, a million dollars to go to radio so they can play a record, to me, it’s not worth it. So that’s really the part that…made me the angriest – the total sales of the process between the buyouts and the middle politics between radio, retail, record companies, you know. And my whole thing is like I said, "may the best jam win." I just can’t stand when radio’s going to spin a record six times a day and the record is purely wack. The only reason it’s playing is because the record company is hittin’ ‘em off [paying radio stations].
checks for sex in spandex
- Public Enemy / "Here I Go"
TBC: I know a lot of people believe that payola doesn’t exist anymore….
CD: Payola, playola and, I say, "Crayola" is Colored radio. And there is never anything more evident that there are stations and people on the take from major labels than the playing of the records that they have. [Chuck is referring to the way commercial radio stations tend to play the same records – records backed by major distributors.]
["Payola" is a bribe or other illegal inducement, typically from record companies to radio stations programmers or DJs. We don’t go into it here, but even without payola, it is unlikely that "the best jam [would] win," in other words, that the "best" songs would receive the most airplay.
All large record companies have promotion reps whose job is to create and maintain personal relationships with radio station programmers in hopes of getting their employer’s records played. Further complicating the issue is the fact that there is a thin, gray line between legal "encouragement" (parties, "promotions," "contest" winnings, trips to conventions and conferences held in exotic locales, etc.) and illegal payola (cash, unearned material goods, etc.).]
TBC: Yeah. And these play lists of [only] 30 records per week. That type of thing. You know, playing the same 30 records 60 times [each]….
…When the money runs out, you can hear that record – [it’s like] a thud of
the [air]play list. [Laughs.] When the money runs out, [sound of a balloon
bursting], it’s like, it’s almost like the helium is out. So it has nowhere
else to go but down!
CD: No, no.
TBC: …Or was that a conscious choice?
CD: No "white-listing" going on. No "j-listing," none of that s---. [Chuck says "white-listing" because he doesn’t like the fact that "black" is often used to mean something bad. I don’t know what "j-listing" means.] I just didn’t want any guest appearances. I just think it’s overdone. I think people use it as a crutch. And they don’t even get…what the original purpose is. I mean, if you look at rock ‘n’ roll…alright, Led Zeppelin might do a cut with one cat to play with them, but it’s not every single f---ing cut! [A reference to the tendency of many rappers to include a guest artists on nearly every song.] And it’s admirable – it shows a slice of unity. But I think it’s overdone to the point where people use it as crutch and don’t really focus on the album itself. The majors require those cats to deliver twelve cuts and not everybody’s equipped to…make an album. Usually, they’re not. So since they don’t cover many different topics they’ll…cover different textures with different voices, different star appeals. But if you understand, Public Enemy was the first group that actually emphasized a production team [The Bomb Squad]. We de-emphasize that on this record. And we’re the first group that kind of emphasized that fact that we could grab different artists from different labels and have them guest-star on a song. I mean, for me to get Kane and Ice Cube cleared back in 1990 when we did Fear of a Black Planet was f---in’ hell! [Rappers Big Daddy Kane and Ice Cube appear on Fear of a Black Planet’s "Burn Hollywood Burn."] You know the labels: "We can’t have you. You can’t have them." Just…you know. Once we broke that gate, they [the labels] got used to doing it. Now the labels are doing it like it’s such a marketing necessity. But our job is to never repeat ourselves…or go down the same road.
TBC: Plus, [it’s] not just a marketing thing, I think another thing that may be the case is that they’re trying to cover all the bases. Regionally, I mean. Because a lot of times you’ll see a New York artist and they’ll make sure they have a Southern artists on there [or] a West Coast artist. You know what I mean?
CD: Yeah. Well, before there wasn’t even an awareness of that. We made sure that we were aware of those facts.
TBC: Speaking of production, is Tom E. Hawk an actual person or is that a pseudonym or what? [The liner notes of POISON read: "Beats created, conceived, hacked and demolished by Tom E. Hawk.]
CD: I’m not allowed to say.
CD: It’s a Tom E. Hawk project and we did it unannounced. That’s all I’m allowed to say.
[Note: A "tomahawk" is a Native American weapon. It’s safe to assume that "Tom E. Hawk" is a pseudonym.]
TBC: [Laughing.] I hear that. On He Got Game I think the Bomb Squad did, like, five songs and for a long time, like you just mentioned, the Bomb Squad and PE were almost synonymous. Are you going to be working with the Bomb Squad in the future or is that over or…?
CD: We invented the Bomb Squad. The Bomb Squad is, was, made up of individuals that surrounded Public Enemy Productions. So, I mean, you know. [Laughs.] I mean, it’s almost like will the Knicks wear home uniforms when they’re in the [Madison Square] Garden? [Laughter.] I mean, those are questions I don’t even choose to deal with anymore, ‘cause you know, working with the Bomb Squad…. It’s not like I "hire" the Bomb Squad. These are the cats that always surrounded [us]. Now, out of six or seven cats, who do we use?
[The conversation then took a lengthy detour about the New York Knicks and their chances in the Finals. Chuck, a lifelong Knicks fan, was ecstatic about their victory in Game Three the night before.]
TBC: Going back to music, I used to work for a major label…. What would happen is, records come out on Tuesdays. By Wednesday morning, first thing, if you have a [large] account, your phone’s ringing and they want to know what your account sold the day before! You know what I mean?
Soundscan? / Ask the company rep
CD: Yeah, that’s one of the…down sides of the music industry. They treat a record that you might [have] artistically crafted for maybe a year [like product]. …And that’s the travesty of accountants and lawyers running art. When accountants and lawyers run anything, man, there’s usually a problem with the quality. And I think there’s a f---ing scorn of the industry’s accountants and lawyers.
Lawyers – no
loyalties / Accountants – no royalties
They should just count s--- and be quiet. … Do legal s--- and stay…quiet. …Record companies could sell hubcaps with a slice of cheese on them for seventeen dollars, you know? If they could, they would. It’s irrelevant for them – as I work on the seventh cut of my particular album, and [I’m] in the studio making it with all kinds of…toil and time. These f---ing idiots are gonna gloat and pass over it like it doesn’t even exist. So why should I deliver all those cuts [songs] to these fools? I’ll do one f---ing cut and charge ‘em.
TBC: Yeah, you could definitely put heart and soul into it and by Wednesday evening, they’ve already decided what your album’s going to do [sell] and whether or not to write you off.
CD: My whole thing [is to] navigate the system. I could go on to release as many as seven singles [from POISON] over the web, with the covers of the artwork and everything. You know, I’ll bring this up. People are like, "You know, well uh, Black people aren’t on the Internet." You don’t count things for what they are now. You count things for what they are to be. And African-Americans are the fastest [growing] group of computer buyers in this country for the past two years. … More computers than televisions have been bought by Americans in the last three years. And we also believe that people are into the "share" system. Jamal has got a computer in his family, burning CDs of Dru Down [a West Coast rapper] and, uh, the new Hieroglyphics [another rap group], you know, some[thing] that’s in the new MP3 form, some PE – making his own CD, right? [MP3 is a digital format that allows music to be easily compressed and downloaded.] Don’t you think his friend’s gonna want to come over to make some CDs too?
TBC: Right, right.
CD: We believe in the "share" system…. Saying Black people ain’t gonna be on the Internet is like saying Black people don’t care about rims [customized car wheels]. [Puts on whiny, mocking voice:] "They don’t have the money to afford $600 rims!" You know?
TBC: I want to ask you a few questions specifically about music, like, about the actual songs on the album. … The first word on the album is "kill." Does that mean anything?
CD: Yeah! Kill the f---ing poison. [Laughter.] Or poison kills. Poison is killing us softly, you know, slowly – sometimes with a song. "There’s a poison going on" represents just certain things in society that we overlook that’s killing us slow[ly].
Pay for play /
[The] only way to get them platinum plaques…
TBC: And does the cover mean that White America is protected from a lot of those things?
CD: Hmm mm. We think everything is open and fantastic and…you know. Pretty much, yeah. The cover is self-explanatory. But, you know, some people are robots and won’t pick it up as quick. Or ever.
[Note: The album cover
pictures several White children and one Black child quietly playing together in
a white room. The White children wear gas masks while the Black child does not.
The implication is that "poison" is being pumped into the room.]
TBC: I read a lot of reviews for the album and almost all of them talked about how you’re angrier than ever and you’re attacking the major label system and, you know, they referred to "Crayola" and "Swindler’s Lust." But, I have to be honest with you, on an independent label, I thought you all would attack even more! So I’m just wondering if you held back at all or if uh… [By "attack even more" I meant that I thought PE would use POISON… to attack the music industry more than they did. Chuck may have misunderstood my question. His answer talks about new music that he will be releasing.]
CD: You know, I mean, it’s a slew of different things that we’re attacking the market place with. Concentration Camp, which is a band – me, [Professor] Griff and Kyle Jason. Kyle Jason is the leader of the particular outfit.
TBC: Kyle Jason had an album on Columbia, didn’t he?
CD: Right, right.
[Jason released a 12-track EP in 1997 named Generations. He also worked on Chuck D’s 1996 solo album, Autobiography of Mistachuck.]
TBC: Yeah, yeah. I heard that album.
CD: Kyle Jason actually is…one of our production partners and everything. He’s like the lead vocalist, the singer. Singing, poetry and rap: hard rhyming attack vocals over metal. That’s what our band would sound like. Somewhere in between Rage Against the Machine [a hard rock/hip-hop band] and the Roots. And Concentration Camp is coming out in July. So that goes a little deeper than PE can go. I’m telling you, it’s some s---! [Laughs.]
TBC: Yeah, damn! That sounds like, uh, I’m trying to remember which tune it is. Number uh…. See, unfortunately in the CD age I know numbers more than I know songs. But I think, like, number thirteen on Music in Our Mess Age is a song where it, uh, builds and builds? With all the drums and everything?
CD: Uh, could be….
[While Chuck is thinking, I rifle through my CDs and finally locate the PE song that sounds like Chuck’s description of Concentration Camp. Chuck comes up with the song title first.]
CD: [It’s] probably "Live And Undrugged."
[I play number thirteen and realize that Chuck is right.]
TBC: That’s it, that’s it! I can hear it already from the drums. That’s it – "Live & Undrugged." Is that kind of the vibe you’re talking about?
CD: Yeah, or even rougher than that ‘cause it’s more guitars. [Makes guitar song effects.] You gotta think of, you know, "Live & Undrugged" with guitars. "Live & Undrugged" on Mess Age… is like, uh, it’s almost like Ornette Coleman [avant-garde jazz saxophonist] just got down…almost a jazz overhaul, you know?
TBC: Yeah, yeah.
CD: …It’s interesting that you pointed that out because a lot of people…criticized Music In Our Mess Age and they never even went into the album! You know, they listen to an album by pressing buttons. [They] press one – three seconds, six seconds. "Oh, I don’t feel it." Why the f--- would I even go into making a whole song if motherf---ers are going to listen to six seconds of the beginning? I mean, a fan can do that. But a journalist shouldn’t be able to do that. You gotta listen to the whole f---ing album in its entirety and a lot of cats, you know, just did lazy journalism just because they had a hundred CDs on their desk. They’re going to cover a CD and skate! And I’m like, "You know what? If I’m spending my time making the motherf---ing record and you’re reviewing the record and you can’t listen to the whole [album], that means you’re not doing your job." Because when I perform this record around the world…the fan base is going to be looking for this album to be performed.
the Seven Seas / Rocked many races…
And I would tell journalists, I say, "Really, you’re irrelevant to my fan base." My fan base is going to be solid because they’re going to be there regardless. But those 3.4 million motherf---ers [the fair-weather fans] I gotta treat them like pop, cotton candy. And people like that if they’re in – cool. If they ain’t – cool.
TBC: You’re right – if you review records by listening to the first minute and then skipping, it’s not going to work.
CD: [There are] things happening in different records by different artists past the one-minute mark. That you know…. It’s just like, you know, you can’t be lazy at it. If you’re in the record business, the music business, you gotta…be thorough.
TBC: Yeah, well, I think the journalists are looking at the deadline, you know? "I gotta get it in by Friday afternoon and I [have] ten records to listen to, and I gotta take my daughter to the movies." So, you know…
CD: Well, that means other priorities are coming in[to] it besides your job.
CD: I’m not talking about you. But in that case it’s like, OK, other priorities are coming in beside your job, then why do it?
TBC: Exactly. Yeah.
CD: [What] if I deliver…thirteen tracks and they [were] only a minute long. I mean…
CD: I mean, who knows? That s--- might work!
TBC: Yeah, that’s a hell of a concept. You could do that.
TBC: [Laughing.] You could do that! You could do an album, make thirteen songs, only do the first minute, and just for the last three minutes of every song, go "blah blah blah blah." You know, and nobody’s going to be listening [by] then anyway.
CD: Deliver that s--- to a major [label]…and have [them] think that they [have] thirteen tracks.
TBC: And then watch the critics – as long as you put something good in the first minute, you’ll get rave reviews, you know? [Laughs.]
CD: Yeah, but the problem is, if they like it, they’ll keep listening. And then they’ll bust it and say, [puts on corny voice] "Alright, wh-wh-what’s going on here? This is a knock against us."
TBC: …Is there a direct relationship between the song "I" and "Air Hoodlum?" Like, is "I" sort of a sequel to "Air Hoodlum"?
["Air Hoodlum" is a song from 1992’s Greatest Misses that tells the story of an illiterate pro basketball prospect that gets cut from the NBA. "I" is from POISON…. It follows an aging, now-homeless, former basketball star on a walk through a ghetto. I thought the two ex-basketball players might be the same character; I didn’t remember that the character in "Air Hoodlum" gets killed. As does the character in "I."]
CD: No. Not at all. "I" is a f---ed up walk through the ‘hood. [Laughs.] And I was inspired by "The Streets of Philadelphia" by Springsteen – the video. You know? [In his video for "Streets of Philadelphia," Bruce Springsteen sings while walking slowly through a Philadelphia ghetto.]
I walk past three
brothers sitting on the porch
CD: …It’s almost, like, in contrast to people riding around, [with] ice [diamonds] on their wrists… You now, riding around in a Lexus, when they’re 21 or 24 or 25 [years old]. But nobody’s talking about life over 45, especially amongst Black folk. It’s almost like everybody forgets their aunt might be 50 [with] diabetes and got that three-pronged thing that she’s going on and she had the jiggy life when she was 20. But she’s f---ed up at 45. And many Black folks, we’re jiggy at 20 and f---ed up at 40. So I decided to tell the f---ed up at 40 side of [it]. …Once upon a time, this person could just…cruise across town in a…’72 Cadi’ – shined up and kitted out, with his gear and wide-brimmed hat. All right, 1999 – the only way he’s going to get across town is have a f---ed up walk. [Laughter.] And my whole thing is "what happened?"
God knows / Who
controls the radios
TBC: On "Do You Wanna Go Our Way," you say, "God knows, who controls the radios," and then you keep going with the "O’s" and say, "So I rose / In the middle of all the woes," etc., etc.
That’s some serious alliteration. That’s something that you sit down and work on? Does it just come to you? I mean, how does that process go?
CD: A combination of both. You know, I mean, I write down a lot of words and my job is to try to arrange as many words on paper [as I can] and sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes you don’t. Luck is involved in the structure and the makings of a song, you know. It’s almost like Larry Johnson’s four-point play. You know, [if] it goes in, you have to say, "Thank God." [New York Knicks forward Larry Johnson made a seemingly impossible four-point play to win a playoff game.]
TBC: Yeah, I think a lot of times critics—especially rap critics—overlook that there is power in sound. It’s not just--. You can’t just break down actual lyrics and say, "OK, he’s saying this, and he means this, blah blah blah." I mean, when you say, "FM Radio / ‘F’ ‘em," [the sound of] that is powerful in itself, before you even get to what that means.
CD: …Yeah, I mean, just like when I did the He Got Game--. The other day I was listening to He Got Game, ‘cause I really don’t listen to too…much of my work after I finish it and it’s out in the stores. But I was like, saying, "You know, I know [basket]ball like a motherf---er, man." I was trying to be a sportscaster!
[Spike Lee’s He Got Game is the story of a high school basketball recruit and his imprisoned father. Nearly every song from Public Enemy’s soundtrack to the film is either about basketball or uses basketball similes or metaphors.]
And I threw so many metaphors in there. And I’m like saying, this s--- just soared over the heads of guys that…. You know, when they rate, I guess, rhymes or…. I don’t know what they f--- they’re talking about when they say, "Yeah, that s--- was [just] aight." ‘Cause they didn’t catch half of the s--- that came their way!
TBC: Right. People don’t pay attention.
CD: And I was like, all right, if you’re gonna rate…skill or metaphors, I threw like fifteen metaphors out there and you caught like four. And, so whose fault is that? What are you going to say? I went over your head and I should be more basic? Or did you catch the metaphors and give me a grade…? …One time I [saw] a slam-dunk contest and Dr. J slam-dunked this ball, right? And they only gave him an 8.5 [out of 10]. But when they went to the instant replay and slowed it down and saw that he touched the backboard on both sides and threw it over his head backwards…! And they [were] like, "Oh, f---!" [Laughs.] But what we saw with our eyes – we only gave him an 8.5. …I get the same feeling.
TBC: Yeah, my favorite [lyric] from He Got Game is "I wonder where Christ is in all this crisis."
CD: Yeah, and that actually was a
conversation I had with somebody. You know, I mean, lyrics are not always made
up on the spot. A lot of times…they come up in conversation. And, it’s my
job to say, "Damn! I’m gonna write this s--- down!"
Chuck wants to simplify the sometimes year-long process of producing, marketing and promoting records before release. "It's quite simple and inexpensive to make a record," explains the highly regarded rap artist who owns five recording studios with his partners. "It's very expensive to take it from that process. What that means is that the process has to be broken down by picking up on the vibe that was already hot."
The ability to put out records as quickly as the Sporty Thievz released "No Pigeons," a man's answer to TLC's broke-male-bashing "No Scrubs," excites Chuck. The strong response to "No Pigeons" warranted Columbia Records to make a video for "No Pigeons" and reissue the group's Street Cinema album with the catchy song added as a bonus track.
Generating exposure for artists via television, radio, and print remains a limited and often political battle. The Internet offers more opportunities for exposure, Chuck says. "The majority of rap does not get covered, does not get exposed to the marketplace," he explains. "The Internet is the perfect opportunity to circumvent television, radio, and print politics. It's a great time for independent artists who want to get put out without having to go through [all that]."
This independence gives artists more control of their music. When P.E. released their 1987 debut, Yo! Bum Rush The Show, no one told the group how to sound; P.E. served as their own A&R reps. But as hip-hop's increasing stake in the marketplace continues to rise, Chuck says artists are being directed to focus more on selling records than on expressing themselves artistically.
"I was in a real different situation," Chuck says of his signing to Def Jam Records, adding that co-founder Rick Rubin sought him for two years before he accepted in 1986. The label's interest and support gave him the room to record the type of music he wanted to make. "That really changed when Def Jam signed to Sony. [Public Enemy] were one of the few acts with Def Jam that all we had to do was turn in our record, and bam, when Def Jam was sold, we were thrust upon having to deal with Def Jam's A&R department."
Now Chuck would rather wade through the glitches of disseminating music over the Internet than deal with major-label policies. For that matter, difficulties some may have experienced while downloading P.E.'s latest album from the Atomic Pop website (www.atomicpop.com) does not discourage him. Downloading appears to be a temporary way of receiving music over the Internet, says Chuck, envisioning more practical streaming methods in the future. "The future might work like free TV," he speculates, "except on cable and TV, content is free. The adapter might cost something. My whole thing is that these things are changing."
thing that isn't changing, Chuck maintains, is Public Enemy's revolutionary
mindset. When P.E. emerged on the hip-hop scene, the socio-politically
charged group, along with acts like Boogie Down Productions, set a precedent
for hip-hop groups devoting all their energy to addressing the ills of
the powers-that-be. Being the first multi-platinum act to offer an entire
album over the Internet is just as pioneering, and Chuck says people should
not be surprised.
Why does Public Enemy want to be the pioneer in this medium?
No. 1, Public Enemy has always made statements. Always. There's one thing you don't find enough of in this music industry — people willing to make sacrifices, and make statements against the status quo. I mean, the status quo never really worked for Public Enemy anyway. We just thought that a whole new way to distribute the music was necessary, and technology works well with hip-hop because it's always run parallel with it. If there hadn't been any innovation on turntables, or using the microphone and the mixes, hip-hop would have been questionable. It was different from music as we've seen it.
When did you get the idea to combine the Internet with your music?
1991. Harry Allen, a great friend [who was] doing publicity for Public Enemy, tried doing online interviews with Terminator X, who really doesn't speak much in public. [We] thought it would be a great idea, but when we went back to Sony they were, "What? Huh?" So we went over their heads. In 1994 we predicted the future of downloadable music and how that was a futuristic option. Following the Def Jam sale from Sony to Polygram — where we thought that ourselves and LL Cool J deserved a piece of their sale for being, I guess, loyal to that camp — I just said, "It's time for a new way." So I've spent the last five years trying to murder my contract.
Do you have any animosity toward Sony or Def Jam?
No. They're dinosaurs, and I'm calling them dinosaurs. I don't think they work well for the genre, and they definitely don't work well for me.
Right now in America the majority of Internet users are white. Do you think putting your music on the Internet will broaden your audience?
I don't look at things as they are right now. I look at things as they are to be. The majority of cellular phone users are white, too, but that's not saying black folks ain't got 'em or don't use 'em every day. Eventually the prices of computers will fall, and it will become a wide-open medium to check out s--- on your own time and on your own control. You can't beat interactivity with programming. And it's the next thing; it's inevitable, whether I'm a part of it or not. Public Enemy was the first to download something this major, but who else would be crazy enough to turn down million-dollar contracts for the sake of trying something that's unproved? At the same time, those million-dollar contracts have so many strings attached they're not synonymous with freedom.
Do you think that you'll end up making less money with an Internet label?
Maybe, but the thing about it is you're creating a whole new way. It just depends on how far you want to take it. In the regular, traditional world, there are limits, and in this world there's none. That's the fun part of it. I make art, so once we start talking about money, we need to start having conversations with economists or accountants or even lawyers, and I'm not really down with them.
Will this new route influence your message at all?
There's a power in the traditional way that's not beneficial to all, so "Fight the Power" goes without saying.
Are you much of an Internet user yourself?
Very much so. I stick to my genre because I know how much exposure it needs, and I use the Internet very properly to do so.
What is your vision for the industry in 10 years?
not giving my secrets away. The major labels can always call Chuck D, and
I'll set them up with templates. I would say this though: If they go with
it, it could be a wonderful way to accent all the master [recordings] that
they have. If they go against the flow, they'll only end up losing, because
this is technology that the public has gotten to first, and the consumer's
always right, huh?
What happened that made you feeling disenfranchised by major music companies?
I was first introduced to the Internet in 1991 with a Terminator X record. We used it as a different way to handle interviews. Since he was a DJ, he was not a verbal person. The computer let him speak with his hands.
I think the turning point came around 1994, when Def Jam was sold from Sony to PolyGram. Even though Public Enemy and LL Cool J comprised most of the label's sales, we didn't receive any piece of that transaction. I knew that there had to be a better way. For my genre, I knew that it was important to microfocus on the needs of the rap and hip-hop community to undercut the traditional triple R ... radio, retail, and records.
We made our move last year during the "Smoking Grooves" tour. We thought it was the perfect time to let our fans know that they could check us out directly at our site.
What do you think the role of the major music companies will be in the future?
They can adapt, but they will still move like dinosaurs. The majors are all run by lawyers and accountants who don't give a f*** about the creative process.
They must learn to understand that this is a technology that the public got before they had chance to control it, as opposed to the other way around.
These developments are not necessarily a threat to the owners of master recordings, since it is not always beneficial to put catalog releases in stores. There is a lot of money to be made, but there is a whole level of politics to deal with. The labels have to adapt, but instead they continue to attack. The glory days of 600% profits are over.
The major labels are trying to control more of artists' activity on the Web through various initiatives, including the registration of formal domain names for signed acts. What do you think about this development?
That is what you should expect from lawyers and accountants. They are the first to see the downside of anything that might be beneficial to artists.
The rap and hip-hop community is oblivious to what is going on right now. My job is to change that. They just don't recognize the ramifications because they don't understand it. When they wake up and realize that their Web sites can be as big an influence on sales as the record company's marketing, it will be too late. The lawyers will have wrapped up all their rights.
Do you fear that your music will be widely pirated and that you won't be paid for it?
The key thing is that this technology enables artists to keep creating content. The artists are now able to create and distribute anything at any time. This process is now so much easier. How can I be mad if 10 million people get three of my songs for free? I have faith that enough people will recognize that artists need income to keep making music. I think that fans will honor the artist -- just as they honor athletes. Fans get to watch NBA playoff games for free on TV, but they are still galvanized to pay to see the games in person if they like the team. If the team is whack, then they don't go. We can't try to control everything in sports, and we can't control it all in music.
I support the music consumer first, but the lawyers and accountants are continuously looking for ways to control the game. It's like a two-minute defense when they are three touchdowns behind. The technology is already in the hands of the people -- before the music industry could get control of it.
Why did you decide to team with Al Teller's new Internet music venture, Atomic Pop? Couldn't you just release your album online yourself?
Al Teller was the first and the last person I spoke to once I decided to go with the Internet. In between there were about 25 other companies, but they either leaned too heavily on technology or music. Al just had the right combination in his approach. We were a perfect match in our vision, and I've had a good experience working with him in the past.
We both think of the music in interactive terms first, then moving it into the offline world. We are already planning to do some cool things with Atomic Pop. We plan to put a cappella versions of "There's A Poison Goin On" in MP3 to encourage fans to remix their own versions of the track. We'll then pick five and reintroduce these remixes to consumers.
Another thing I'm working on is some Internet radio programs, including a top 10 countdown. I guess that makes me the "dark Dick Clark" (laughs).
For now, I am micro-focusing on building rap and hip-hop on the Internet. Only 10 years ago, I could make a hip-hop record for $25,000 and then spend that amount again in marketing. Add a video and then you are talking at least $70,000 for a whole project to bring in a million units, if you were lucky. Things have gotten crazy now, though. Labels are putting in $2 million to get $500,000 back on a project, and that's just ridiculous.
It's just not beneficial to operate in the same stale ways. The beauty about the Internet is that it has changed everything. You can make a streaming video and see it the next day on the Web ... and it doesn't have to be a $800,000 video. TV and radio time cost a lot of money, but you can infiltrate the Internet cheaply.
How long do you think it will be before the rap and hip-hop music community fully embraces the Internet?
It will take another year or two ... but this community will get it. Americans are buying more computers than TV's right now. And African-Americans are the fastest growing group of computer buyers. The prices are going down. The Black community wasn't the first to embrace cellular phones, but we are among the top demographic for that market now. There are some ignorant statements out there now, but never discount what is going on in this community. When it happens, it will happen quickly and there is no going back ... There's a lot of misconception out there that the rap and hip-hop community isn't online, but the development of this music community has always run parallel to technological advances.
I remember when I first was confronted with two turntables, a mixer, and a microphone. I was initially confused by the process, but I eventually had to tip my hat to the technology. This community also was the first to embrace emulators and DAT machines in the creation of music. The Internet is no different.
What's up next for you?
I'm continuing to work on this Public Enemy project with Atomic Pop. I also am working with a new band called Confrontation Camp, which is like a combination of the Roots and Rage Against The Machine. I've also got RapStation.com coming in July.