1990 – AN AUDIENCE WITH CHUCK D
“Birmingham’s children are out in full force tonight, from tiny, 12 year old guys being refused Tennents Pilsner at the bar to clusters of 13 year old girls in tracksuits stepping out immaculately choreographed routines on the edge of the massed dancefloor, to proud, highly strung youths of 19, occasionally breaking into minor skirmishes with one another as the sparks of machismo flying from the hip hop PA set them off like tinderwood.”
I’d been sent up to Birmingham by Melody Maker to review Public Enemy’s gig and, following it, interview Chuck D. The gig took place at The Hummingbird in Bristol Street, which today goes by the altogether more charming nomenclature of the O2 Academy. (a stickler for inaccuracy, I headed my review “Hummingbirds”). It was packed. And while in years to come Public Enemy would attract about as many people of colour to their gigs as Willie Nelson, tonight’s crowd were young and predominantly black.
Public Enemy were at their incendiary zenith. 1990 would see them release Fear Of A Black Planet, their greatest album, the album of 1990, an album which reached a record temperature for late 20th century music. Public Enemy were at the top of the world, preaching Afrocentrism to the people. While Flavor Flav took a mock dump in an imaginary pair of blue suede shows to show how Elvis Presley never meant shit to him. Chuck D punctuated the gig, a storming set of what I described as “humid electrolysis” with lengthy sermons, raising the crowd ten feet high, castigating the media, of whom I was a slightly nervous and conspicuous representative with my notebook, as well as asserting that “the black man is the original man”, with whites a mere temporary offshoot, an aberration – in time, humanity would be restored to its natural, overall condition of blackness. Still, I noted, as the gig boiled to a conclusion with “Fight The Power” “Never mind skin colour – tonight we were grilled to the bone.”
We’d only discovered on reaching Birmingham that there were absolutely no hotels to be had in the city, owing to a couple of major conferences going on at the time – as with PE themselves, we would have to be put up at a place in Coventry. The interview would take place in the small hours at the hotel, although I wondered if this was seriously feasible – that amid the chaos and come down of a major gig, I’d seriously get a proper sit-down with Mr D. I recalled the chaos of a scheduled interview with Eric B & Rakim, which eventually took place with me hutching awkwardly up with them in the back of a black cab en route to Heathrow with photographer Richard Bellia. To the absolute scornful merriment of my daughter Alisha, initially impressed that her old man had consorted with hip-hop royalty, she spotted in one of Bellia’s pics that I was carrying a briefcase, for my notes, tape recorder, etc. I pointed out that this was well gangsta – as Mario Puzo put it in the original Godfather novel “The lawyer with the briefcase can steal more money than the man with the gun.” So, in a sense, having a briefcase with me was cooler than bringing along a gun to the interview. Not that that would have been cool, guns aren’t cool, also we shouldn’t steal, but, er . . . anyway, Alisha was too busy guffawing to have any of this.
Would I get a sit down with Chuck D? Oh, but I got a sit down with Chuck D, in the hotel lobby, bang on time. Among the most professional of interviewees I ever dealt with. He was dissatisfied with the gig (“I wasn’t in shape, I wasn’t moving round like I like to.”). He’d surely not have been if he’d been standing where I was standing, I told him.
“So, you’re David Stubbs?” he said. “I like your stuff.”
This triggered in my a split-second squabble which went something like the following.
ME: Oh, sure he likes your stuff. Bet he really enjoyed that Nitzer Ebb review you did, or maybe your takedown of Crazyhead? Yeah, right.
ME: Oh, so you’re saying a black man couldn’t possibly be interested in reading about Nitzer Ebb? Way to be a massive racist.
ME: C’mon, I bet if you asked him what his favourite thing was that you wrote, he’d say “I’d have to say, The Very Best Of David Stubbs.” He’s buttering you up, man!
Anyway, while concluding that this was probably something he said to all the girls, I simpered massively and thanked him.
Thing was, so professional was Chuck D’s demeanour that I actually felt emboldened to ask him some fairly tough questions, knowing that he would answer them in full. I’d imagined all interviews would be like this – myself Brian Walden-like, taking artists respectfully to task, as they gave back as good as they got. I wasn’t aware of press officers declaring certain topics off limits, of the grandness exuded by major stars, with the journo best advised to treat them as if Royalty and not err impertinently from the sycophantic, or simply of artists too miserably inarticulate to withstand any sort of robust encounter, for whom it was a result merely to get them to string a sentence or so together, help them limp to the finish line like Derek Redmond’s Dad. And then there were those who acted like they were being interviewed under police caution . . .
None of that with Chuck D. And there were questions to be asked – about “Minister Of Information” Professor Griff, whose status within the group was uncertain following horrifically anti-Semitic remarks he’d made in an interview, about the group’s hard-to-ignore sexism, homophobia. As a massive fan of the group, I vaguely, mutely reconciled myself to all of this by making out that all of this incorrectness was part of the frisson, the danger of PE, unbound by white liberal qualms but really, I knew that wouldn’t do.
I asked him about the Griff situation. Turned out he’d still be playing the group’s upcoming Brixton gig but after that, “that’s the last time we’ll be together for quite a while.” He said that the anti-Semitism row was “just a small factor. It happens in a lot of major groups if someone in the band gets a name for themselves, be it positive or negative, they aren’t going to be constrained in that group. They’re going to have to expand.”
Chuck D said that PE were not anti-Semitic. “We have a mission, which is to make our people interested in the leaders that they have, the leaders that have been swept under the dirt and the history that we have which has been covered up. That’s the most we can do, get people curious.”
Flavor Flav was vaguely present at the interview, prowling about, circling us, making “Yeeahh boyz”-type interjections. You’d have thought after the gig he might have flung off that clock, those outsize shades and slumped into a bar chair to take on board a cold one but no, here he was, still on duty, Flaving away.
I asked D to expand on the idea of “Afrocentricity”, which he’d talked about at the gig, and which would underpin Fear Of A Black Planet, released the following month. “There’s no such thing as ‘black thing here, white thing there’ because everyone evolves from that one place in Africa. So. realistically, you have to talk about the Afro-centric viewpoint which is concerned about the entire world and its people’s needs, while the Euro-centric viewpoint is concerned about the irrelevant, European aristocratic point of view.”
Chuck D’s vision of the universality of all people was founded in the idea that we were all the same insofar as we were all of black origin. “Terminator X, his mother’s white, his father’s black but he’s a brother, you know what I’m saying?”
A part of me actually thrilled to this hardcore assertion of black supremacy but I felt obliged to advance the liberal line – that racism could only end when we achieved a “beige” culture in which all racial divisions were blurred, both blackness and whiteness diluted.
“Well, there’s no way you can talk about blackness being diluted,” said D. “‘Whiteness’ isn’t diluted, it’s eliminated. Your son, your child will be black, as a result of the inter-racial thing. He’ll be something other than white, and that’s something he’s going to have to deal with, living in an Afro-centric culture.”
(Just over 25 years after this interview, in 2015 my first, so far only son was born – Dara, whose heritage is Anglo-Welsh/Iranian/Turkish).
Chuck D talked positively about Professor Griff’s notion that Black people in America should be given 18 states to themselves and then left alone. “What we’re saying is, distribute the planet to the people on the planet. That’s only common sense!
“The whole thing in history to prevent that happening has been distinguishing people on a basis of their visual characteristics. I mean, can you imagine the Queen marrying someone black? You don’t think they’d excommunicate her?”
(Since her husband died, Elizabeth has not demonstrated any interest in becoming engaged to a Black person. However, her grandchild, Harry did. Following their experiences, he and Meghan have, you might say, excommunicated themselves from the Royal Family).
I suggested to Chuck D that their militaristic get-up projected an air of male solidarity which might be alienating to women. He denied this, citing Lisa Williamson, appointed as public spokeswoman for Public Enemy, a young activist in her 20s. (Lisa Williamson, aka Sister Souljah, with whom Bill Clinton got into a very useful public spat during the 1992 Presidential election following remarks she made about killing white people, something you should never, ever do, incidentally). “Our whole thing is reaching out to the sisters but you’ve got to understand, our purpose thing is reaching out to the black man, who’s been downtrodden systematically so that he had no respect for himself and our sisters had no respect for us either.
“The black man has to take charge, take responsibilities. They gotta see more role models than a guy holding a mike or dribbling a basketball. A black leader, a black intellectual like Nelson Mandela. The sisters have been holding the weight for the past couple of hundred years. Now the black woman is looking for the black man to take a lead.”
Was she? Some people might regard that as a sexist proposition, I said.
“Yeah, well you gotta understand, black women don’t have the same problem that white feminists have. There’s two different things going on there. Black sisters are looking to their men to take charge because they’ve been taking charge throughout, they need help. White feminists get into a game of attacking the white male over how he’s held her back.”
We turned to homophobia. On the new album, I said, there’s a cautionary song called “Meet The G That Killed Me”, about a man who contracts AIDS following a string of relationships that began with a homosexual affair. Was he not afraid this might be seen as anti-gay?
He repeated a theory that AIDS had been created “by someone, somewhere intent on biological warfare. There’s no way an illness like that is going to pop up out of nowhere. And it got out of hand, it was an experiment by a sinister mind. It’s like today they promote crack, it’s all invented. Now with AIDS, it’s spread man to man, and all I know is, the parts don’t fit! Men have parts that don’t fit with another man.”
But you have to acknowledge that homosexuality exists, I said. Men don’t behave that way out of sheer, wanton perversity, it’s their sexuality.
“All I know is, once they start violating, sticking things in places they don’t belong, they don’t know what they’re fucking with. I don’t know what they’re fucking with.”
As this mound of absolute nonsense attested, Chuck D, it was fair to say, was not big on intersectionality.
I asked about separatism. D drew a distinction between separatism per se and the need for black people to develop separately owing to their historical circumstance.
The interview concluded, I said something worshipful about PE and we chatted for a while about the state of hip-hop, 1990. D was highly excited. It was spreading, he said. Across America. “They’ve even got Atlanta hip-hop!” He made extravagant predictions for its development. I nodded politely but inwardly, thought, this is delusional. Hip-hop on the East and West coast, sure, with a few dodgy Americanophile efforts in the UK, like Derek B. But that’d be its limit.
Chuck D was wrong, I felt, about a number of things – wrong not to eject Professor Griff (who has since renounced his antisemitic remarks) from Public Enemy more quickly and condemn him more emphatically, wrong about women, dead wrong about AIDS and gay people. “The parts don’t fit”? I’d never had gay sex but I got the sense that that was half the fun.
And yet, in a deeper sense, he was so right. About the historical injustice meted out to black people and the need for a massive, incendiary, visionary response. The white, liberal response was too weak, its dream of assimilation belying a wish for black people simply to become more white, which was why Fear Of A Black Planet was so aptly assertive, designed to rattle Eurocentric complacency.
And he was dead right about hip-hop. In the 90s, it achieved not just national but global supremacy, one it has maintained. It is the lingua franca. Sadly, Public Enemy were no longer at the vanguard, however, supplanted by a new generation of rappers who achieved pop supremacy but were more preoccupied with gangsta and bling than racial justice. In their sound world, their videos, white people barely existed – but not for the reasons Chuck D had envisaged. They were ignored because the 90s generation of hip-hoppers chose to ignore the gauntlet Chuck D had thrown down, the challenge to Fight the Power. Hip-hop reigned, its stars raked in millions but the old hegemonies remained intact.
At one point, I asked Chuck D if he had ever regretted anything he had said in an interview. No, he said, not once. But he would give a different interview in 2022, I think, from the one he did in 1990. Back in 2012, he applauded President Obama’s positive stance on gay marriage as “inevitable and necessary”. He speaks more broadly today in terms of universality and equality, is far less liable to raise liberal hackles. I interviewed Chuck D when Public Enemy were at their absolute peak, but also in the warm aftershock of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. The End Of History months, when liberal democracy was feeling very pleased with itself. How very different today. The force of Public Enemy is needed more than ever.