Whatever happened to the heroes of hip-hop yesteryear? The brash-mouthed, loose-lipped gangstas and the socially conscious purveyors of political and philosophical wisdom.
There was a time when they ruled the game, when fans hung on their every word, soaking up their tales of street life and trodding in their footsteps on a personal quest for enlightenment. Some of those heroes have drifted from their roots, opting for Hollywood agents and Manhattan penthouses, and some have just drifted away.
But not all of rap's early icons have gone the way of the Jheri curl. Not Public Enemy, who've just released an innovative new album, Revolverlution.
It was 15 years ago when PE stormed the set. Frontman Chuck D's voice resonated like a rumbling volcano, erupting with fire and brimstone. Yo! Bum Rush the Show. It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Fear of a Black Planet. Apocalypse 91 ... The Enemy Strikes Black. The album titles alone carried a ring of intimidation, prophecy, revolution. And, Chuck D believes, they represented rap in its truest, most artistic form -- words and music designed to get people to "hold hip-hop up to jazz or blues or rock 'n' roll as a comparable genre, something able to stand on its own artistic feet instead of just being a disposable thing."
That's Chuck D, who for many years has made his home in Atlanta. He's still around, and still positioned as an advocate for all that's righteous and sacred in hip-hop -- still a name that carries weight in the music industry. His is a voice that has outlasted those of peers long since silenced, muffled or lost in the stampede of rap progeny. According to Chuck, those artists who haven't been as lucky to remain an icon and a spokesman are the casualties of a music industry that focuses more on hit development than artist development -- not to mention a society of cultural amnesiacs who've lost sight of their past.
"Black people in the music industry have no idea what they're in the middle of," he says. "They're less apt to jump on things that will be beneficial 10 years down the line because they don't know what happened 10 years before. Black people in the music business can't name names, can't name dates. It's a microcosm of how we're taught to disenfranchise ourselves from what we create in society in general, so we shouldn't be surprised at how it's carried out in the music business or in any other industry."
Despite the difficulty hip-hop's early heroes have had retaining a viable career in the U.S., Public Enemy has managed just fine. That's because, while Americans may have lost interest in what they had to offer, the rest of the world has not. The group's global popularity continues to provide PE an audience, and a livelihood.
"I look at my peers -- and my peers are like KRS-One and Ice-T and Run DMC and people like that -- and I think, 'How could you not get it?' It's ridiculous if you just say that hip-hop is Nelly -- nothing against Nelly -- but hip-hop is also KRS-One, too. How can the Commons or the Roots or Talib Kwelis or people like that actually have longevity? Well, if they don't use the world but [allow themselves to be] subject to the mentality of America, then they're gonna have problems. But if they continually go around the world, they'll maximize their area and they'll maximize their years. Because the world is bigger than one country. We found that out early in the game, and that happens to be Public Enemy's saving grace."
The freedom of not having to rely on the support of the U.S. record industry has, in turn. opened up new opportunities for the group to continue its trailblazing path. "When we put out There's a Poison Goin' On in 1999, which was a very successful record -- the first downloadable album on the Internet -- it got us immediately banned at two-thirds of the retailers in the United States. They were like, 'How dare y'all do this.' But we're not gonna cater to any one particular demand, because we use the world."
Revolverlution, Public Enemy's eighth album, features a mixture of old and new songs. Says Chuck D, "Revolverlution means it's revisionist, we revisit some of what we've done in the past. It's also revolution, in terms of the arrangement and the structure of how this record was put together: a trilogy within a trilogy."
The album puts together three types of tracks: new PE songs, including songs like "Son of a Bush" that follow in the group's tradition for political confrontation; live versions of old PE songs; and four additional classic PE vocals with music totally reconstructed by fans from across the world ("By the Time I Get to Arizona" by the Moleman from New York; "Public Enemy No. 1" by Jeronimo Punkx of Argentina; "Shut 'Em Down" by DJ Functionist of Austria; and "B Side Wins Again" by Scattershot from Wisconsin).
"We knew that there are millions of computers out there and thousands of producers, artists and songwriters in the community that have followed our music," Chuck says. "So me and Flava did all the songs over and threw them into an ocean of producers to see what we could reel in. It's a new way to look at production."
Fans downloaded the a cappella tracks 11,143 times, and 460 mixes were uploaded to PE's website. A virtual A&R team selected the four winners, each of whom will share in the royalties from Revolverlution. In addition, a fan in the U.K. contributed Revolverlution's liner notes, and a fan in Maine did the artwork. None of the contributors ever met the group in person.
While many artists and label heads seem to rue the day the Web was created, Chuck D embraces it, calling the Internet his "passport" to speak to people around the world. In fact, he and PE are all over the Web: there's Chuck's online MP3 label, Slamjamz.com; the hip-hop news site Rapstation.com; the hip-hop radio "Internetwork" Bringthenoise.com; and the official PE site Publicenemy.com (two more sites, Remixplanet.com and Hiphopkidsbiz.com, are on the way).
"I got involved in this because it's a necessity," Chuck says. "[The Internet] is a parallel industry that is as big as if not bigger than the [music] industry that already exists. I'm not dissing the major labels or the institutions, because I do business with them. I don't do business for them, I do business with them. They're banking institutions. The only thing that they can provide is financing, to lend you money. And distribution lends credence to that banking system they have."
But the Internet, says Chuck, is the "next level of distribution. It has worked well for us, it's the best thing that has ever happened to me," he says.
It's a new Century, and a new world of rappers. But some things haven't changed. Public Enemy is still bold. Chuck D is still blunt and outspoken. Flavor Flav is still playing the role of Chuck's hype man, jester and foil. PE "minister of information" Professor Griff is still a bulls-eye, tarnished by controversy. Still, the PE crew stays together. For the most part, anyway.
"We're sky pirates," Chuck says. "We've sailed the seven continents and the seven seas. We've always seen ourselves as black men with a point of view and an agenda. As far as our relationship with each other, we're different types of people that are able to say, 'We can sit on this boat and tour the world and get this point across for a common cause.'"
Nowadays, the PE crew is scattered about the country, in eight different states. Chuck, who splits his time between Atlanta and New York when he's not on the road, shares an Atlanta studio with Griff. Flav still can be found occasionally up in the Bronx. And DJ/ producer Terminator X lives on an ostrich farm in North Carolina. "When we get ready to do this thing, we have to let everybody know pretty much six or seven months in advance so everybody can leave their personal business and their families to be able to do this," Chuck says.
The group is gearing up for a massive tour that'll hit Europe, North America, Asia, Australia, Africa and South America. New releases on the radar include We're Gathered Here, a collection of Chuck D lectures due in September; a much-awaited Flavor Flav solo album, called It's About Time, in January; and a re-issue of There's a Poison Goin' On.
As for Chuck D, not much has changed. He's still an embodiment of hip-hop's political potential and, even after all these years, he still has something to say. Except when it comes to his personal life.
"My private life is not for sale," he says, chuckling. "I'm going through some issues, but that's my own business. When people say, 'Well, tell me about your personal life,' I say, 'None of your business.' I have enough to talk about without having to talk about me."
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