Hip-hop icons Public Enemy and their cohorts on the Art of Rap tour—mastermind Ice-T, Naughty By Nature, Grandmaster Melle Mell and Scorpio, among others—have found themselves accidentally swirling in controversy this week.
While Public Enemy frontman Chuck D and his supergroup Prophets of Rage made a statement with their performance and takeover at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland earlier this week, the Art of Rap tour had shows in Dallas and Austin canceled by promoters—a result of tensions from the murders of five Dallas police officers. Some of the songs of several performers on the bill, but primarily Public Enemy, are well-known anthems that criticize law enforcement and the government.
The socio-politically conscious Chuck D, born Carlton Douglas Ridenhour, made his opinions known from the moment Public Enemy first burst onto the national scene with “My Uzi Weighs a Ton,” “911 is a Joke” and ubiquitous anthem “Fight the Power,” which highlighted the frustrations of African Americans. It didn’t help recent matters when a photo surfaced of Public Enemy’s Professor Griff with the Dallas shooter at a meet-and-greet.
Chuck D has definitely not mellowed from those original, spirited anthems, but in a call Thursday he said he understood that these are tense times in Texas and called the cancellation appropriate. The San Francisco stop of the Art of Rap Tour this Sunday is going on as planned at the Regency Ballroom. Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Chuck D, one of the most outspoken men in music, hip-hop or otherwise, took some time to talk about dangerous times, the under-recognized talents of his friend Ice-T, and the enduring Art of Rap.
How did the tour come together with Public Enemy and all these other great acts?
Thirty years, man. It goes back to our roots. It goes back to our alliances. The documentary on [Something From Nothing:] The Art of Rap [directed by Ice-T] is, I think, probably the best comprehensive explanation of what the genre of rap music and hip-hop is. Ice-T is like my godbrother. I’m proud to always say he’s my peer, he’s a mentor in many ways, a confidant. We’ve traveled the world together, we’ve pushed boundaries, we’ve added insight. And I followed his lead. He’s the first rapper who put together a book… back in the early 1990s. What he’s doing with people and his crew was really the first collaborative effort in any situation and Ice-T gave a lot of MCs opportunities over the years. So, it’s a no-brainer to actually come along and be part of the Art of Rap performance aspect of it. I’d do anything for Ice.
The key thing in rap music and hip-hop is that it’s performance art. That has been kind of extracted from the art form over the past 15, 16 years. The elements of hip-hop—MCing, DJing, graffiti, and dance—are the things that make its comparable to a band, when you have the bass, guitar and drums. The elements of hip-hop make it panoramic when looking at it and performing it.
That was the roots of hip-hop in the beginning. It was all performance. It didn’t matter how good your record was because that’s a studio thing, but your performance was your respectability. We performed tours with Ice-T and Public Enemy and before we even started on a particular tour we would sit down with all the groups in one room, back when they were all youngsters, because we had seniority, age, and experience on them. We would sit them down and say, “Look, it’s not about the individuals performing together, we’re all here to support each other, easier dues, we’re all traveling together, we got to have each others back.” Every place is different. The audience is awestruck by your performance. We got to have them go better than they came in.
The thing that people will remember the most out of us is that we’re great counselors. Rap tours are like camps. We are all accountable and responsible for these guys and young women when they actually went home from their performances. They were ten and twelve years younger than us. We help guide them and the understanding of what this thing is all about. And that wasn’t necessarily coming from their record company or their management team.
Is this a tour without a headliner and everybody’s one big team? Or is Ice-T the headliner of this tour since he’s the one who had the original idea?
Well, we just had Ice-T as the headliner. Ice is saying we’ll play last, but it’s interchangeable. We’re a group because it’s not all about Chuck D [and] Flava Flav. We could close the show out with a 45 minutes set, but it’s not about closing it out. It’s about the beginning from the end. We got three hours of lights sounds and story. That’s what it’s about. It’s a story. It’s not what’s done in the past.
What’s the interaction like on the Art of Rap tour? How do you like to spend time together?
We’re all like relatives. Like a back yard barbecue, man. Back in the day, yes, we competed on stage. But one accord is that you came to the concert and left there better. I want you to print this: The whole point was that you left better than you came in. It was always the mantra of the revue, hip-hop collective performance. Ice-T and Public enemy were both of the mantra that no matter where you come from, we all can share with this. Ice-T put the chassis on this hip-hop thing [for signing obscure and international acts to his syndicate label]. He put the drive train on it. And he never gets the credit. What struck me as amazing about Ice-T was not just his total recall, but he was one of the few people who was able to, along with Cyprus Hill, to get highs out of a low. He has that command of theatre, like Alice Cooper does for his thing. Ice-T was the godfather of theatrical performance.
There’s been a lot swirling around Public Enemy as a result of the events of the last few weeks. First, of course, your performance in Cleveland and the two shows in Texas that you had cancelled.
Artists actually don’t cancel. There’s a myth out there that artists cancel shows. Artists don’t cancel shows. Promoters and venues cancel shows. We were all ready to go in Dallas, but you know, considering all the events that happened, it was inappropriate, I thought. You need the police to protect the venue. You need the police, the crowd needs the police, we’re okay as performers. The people coming in need to know they’re protected when coming in. It was just an inappropriate time. It always has been the workings of cities and police systems. I mean, we couldn’t set up a national tour without having that. If anyone had felt uncomfortable going to the event beforehand, they might have felt a little uneasy. So you don’t want to deal with any of that when promoting a concert, you want a clean slate. We’ll be in Dallas again and we will be in Austin again.
There was a photo of Griff with the Dallas shooter that made the rounds. Was it a book signing or a meet-and-greet?
It was a meet-and-greet after a lecture. That was a long time ago, though. I do blame lazy journalism for connecting the two. At a time where everybody’s got a camera on their phone. How are you going to say there’s a correlation between the two when you look for the famous person and all of sudden have the picture you print of the person who is accused… It was unacceptable.
Is there any sort of pressure to tone down the message in light of what’s happening? Have you personally felt any sort of pressure?
Well, there’s a system you always want to point at. I was in Cleveland and Tamir Rice was a big issue in Cleveland because the police officers shot this teenager. So, it is sort of like a glaring… I wouldn’t say disrespect, but it was a situation in Cleveland. It’s a police brutality, murder on black civilians and youth. We understand that there’s both sides of what had happened to the police officers, but its like we care about things [and] people, we don’t care about those. It’s so evident and obvious right now. I mean the flag of this country is still [at] half-mast. I don’t know how long it’s going to be like that. It should be also symbolic what had happened as a prelude to the event, too. As a continuum for outrageous temper. I can’t even grasp the violence. I’m always looking from the outside, looking in. Where’s the accountability? You don’t think the rest of the world is looking at Donald Trump on a national stage and shaking their heads?
We speak to the powerless. We try to give them some logic, balance and understanding. People are equipped to not act immediately. We’ve got to be able to give them energy to think for their surroundings, themselves and their community. I’ve never encouraged people to take the offensive one. It’s just something that happened. But yeah, we can’t be sheep. Like a lot of people, the Black Lives Matter, it pulls me out. A lot of people in the United States of America think that it’s a violent movement because the few people that are part of the structure are saying that cops don’t think of the civilians. They are totally wrong that it’s one thing against the other. When I look at Black Lives Matter as a movement, a push for peace that involves everybody. Killing black people with no chance of jail time. Black lives matter. Yes, all lives matter. No lives matter if black lives don’t matter. That’s what I think is the matter of Black Lives Matter.
That’s a real pinpointed answer.
Culture brings human beings together on the same accord. That’s the beauty of rap music and hip-hop at its beginning. [Hip-hop] came out of a cultural olive branch. Collectives and revues is how hip-hop was meant to be. It is a shame how artists today are so swollen on their management, agent and record company hype that prevent them from putting together these revues that could go around; six or seven artists. Before it was promoter, venue, artist. Radio stations distorted hip-hop promotion. You don’t see radio stations take over the Rolling Stones, do you? The Rolling Stones are going to do their own thing. Prophets of Rage are going to do their own thing. Hip-hop was taken over by radio stations that were going to turn it into pop. It wasn’t a partnership. It was a takeover.
Follow Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.