Public Enemy in Aspen – and Chuck D’s rap against hip-hop
December 25, 2009
ASPEN – Chuck D, of the pioneering rap group Public Enemy, says that hip-hop isn’t dead. More precisely, it’s been narrowed down to the point of near-irrelevance. As major labels focused almost exclusively on one brand of rap, diversity, and eventually vitality, were squeezed out of the music.
“All aspects of it have to be accepted,” Chuck D said, speaking by phone, he explained “from somewhere in the U.S.” “Twenty years ago you had an array of diverse artists doing different things, and they were loved for their differences.”
Chuck D – who was born Carlton Douglas Ridenhour 49 years ago on Long Island – says the blame for rap’s descent can fairly be spread around to everyone connected with the genre. But he spends the majority of the time in a phone conversation pointing out the failures of the record labels to cultivate new and interesting styles.
“The gigantic part of the industry tapered it, limited its power,” said Chuck D, who appears with a stripped-down version of Public Enemy – including rappers Flavor Flav and Professor Griff, and turntablist DJ Lord, though not the Banned, the instrumental portion of the group that has been a component for a decade – on Sunday, Dec. 27, at Belly Up Aspen. “Financially, it worked on things, but it tapered in terms of value. People trusted in the money aspect of the genre. But I think all the other aspects of the art and genre collapsed.”
Measuring rap against the glory years of Public Enemy, however, is bound to make the genre look relatively insignificant. It was the late ’80s, rap was just emerging from the urban underground with a pent-up fury about ghetto life, racial and economic injustice. And nobody used the tools of a few microphones and turntables like Public Enemy. After a critically acclaimed ’87 debut, “Yo! Bum Rush the Show,” the group gave rap a prominent voice with the back-to-back albums “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” and “Fear of a Black Planet.” It had been 20 years or more since rock ‘n’ roll shook up the country’s ears in such a way, and Chuck D believed the new art form could take hold like Hendrix and Dylan had.
“I think it addressed some of the things that needed to be addressed at the time,” Chuck D said. “I saw that it could rival rock ‘n’ roll hand-to-hand, beat for beat, note for note, in its own way. When I signed to Def Jam [in ‘986] you had rock bands playing in arenas, and you had Run-DMC, which could make just as much noise.”
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Perhaps even more than Run-DMC – which launched its popularity, and the popularity of hip-hop, by collaborating with Aerosmith on a remake of the rock band’s “Walk This Way” – Public Enemy put rap in the mainstream. Their song “Fight the Power” played over the opening credits of the Spike Lee film “Do the Right Thing,” and the group later created the soundtrack for the filmmaker’s “He Got Game.” In 2004, Public Enemy was named number 44 on Rolling Stones’ list of the greatest artists of all time.
Public Enemy’s profile has dropped some over the years, even as they have maintained their artistic standards with such albums as 2005’s “New Whirl Odor” and 2007’s “How You Sell Your Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul???” The drop in popularity coincides with, first, the rise of a rap style that glorified money and other trophies; and second, the decline in rap’s overall relevance.
Chuck D says rap failed to follow the path of rock. “What holds rock ‘n’ roll up is its folklore, an acknowledgment of the history,” he said. “The infrastructure holds it up and if you don’t have that infrastructure, it gets flooded. It needs a support system. It needs radio that doesn’t only accept something for the 4-year-old, pop-star perspective. Then it collapses, It’s failure, and that’s what you see now.”
Asked whether, on any given night, a Public Enemy show can still alter one’s perception of the world, Chuck D said, “That’s not going to come from us as much as the audience. The audience has to look at what’s going on in their lives that they can be passionate about.”
Which doesn’t translate to giving up on the power of rap.
“I think it’s a very exciting time for music, for rap and hip-hop culture,” he said. “It’s a time to figure out how to really make a contribution to the music, rather than just taking from it.”