Public Enemy in Aspen
ASPEN – Looking over my none-too-extensive history with hip-hop concerts, three performances leap instantly to the top. Interestingly, all three – Jurassic 5, at the old Double Diamond, and the Wu-Tang Clan and Public Enemy, both at Belly Up Aspen – were by groups, rather than individual artists.Which would come as no surprise to Chuck D. A co-founder and leader of Public Enemy, Chuck D is a big believer in the power of several rappers on a stage together, sharing turns at the mike.”When you’re watching the show, there’s more aspects to take in,” Chuck D, who was dubbed Carlton Ridenhour when he was born, in 1960, said in a phone conversation. “DJ Lord” – the turntablist who became a member of Public Enemy in 1999 – “is a show in himself.”Chuck D apparently spends much of his time thinking about the business of hip-hop. In an interview with The Aspen Times before Public Enemy’s Aspen debut, in December 2009, the rapper spent most of the time explaining the institutional lessons hip-hop could learn from rock ‘n’ roll: “What holds rock ‘n’ roll up is its folklore, an acknowledgment of the history. The infrastructure holds it up and if you don’t have that infrastructure … then it collapses,” he said then.Among the things hip-hop could learn from rock, Chuck D said, is a greater focus on groups. Where the cornerstones of rock are the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, he believes most of the emphasis in hip-hop has been on individual rappers: Eminem, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Tupac Shakur. Chuck D says that a shift toward groups – along with more autonomous female rappers, an embrace of varied musical styles, and a shift away from commercial concerns and toward artistic ones – would give a needed boost to the hip-hop universe.”We encourage groups to emerge,” he said, “but the business has maneuvered hip-hop to being more solo acts, one personality. That’s stifled the art form.”Probably the prejudice in favor of groups can be traced to the fact that Chuck D is part of such a damn good one, and has been for nearly three decades. Since forming on Long Island, in the early 1980s, Public Enemy has established itself as one of the pillars of hip-hop, perhaps the most influential, significant and greatest act in rap. The back-to-back albums “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” and “Fear of a Black Planet” are a major part of the reason that the late ’80s to early ’90s are viewed as rap’s golden age. The albums ranked No. 48 and 300, respectively, when Rolling Stone magazine ranked the greatest albums of all time, in 2003. The music – hard-hitting, funky, original to the point of occasional weirdness – set a template for rap as an instrument of protest and documenting the experience in urban black America. Public Enemy’s song “Fight the Power” (which later became VH1’s No. 1 rap song of all time) played over the opening credits of Spike Lee’s 1989 film “Do the Right Thing,” pushing hip-hop as close as it had ever been to the mainstream.Public Enemy is hardly basking in nothing but old glory. Their last studio album, “How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul???” from 2007, is bracingly fresh. The noted critic Robert Christgau named it the second best album of the year.As the December 2009 show in Aspen proved, Public Enemy also manages the often elusive trick of making hip-hop come alive on the stage. The performance, largely avoiding hip-hop clichs, generated many positive reviews of the “Wow, who would’ve imagined after all these years?” variety.Driving that performance was the dynamic between Chuck D and his partner in rhyme, Flavor Flav. The two met in their 20s, when they worked together at WBAU, a student-run radio station at Long Island’s Adelphi University. They started rapping together as part of the Spectrum City DJ-for-hire service (and also worked together delivering furniture for Chuck D’s father’s company). “He was crazy,” Chuck D said of the aspiring rapper, who had been born William Drayton, Jr. “But in that community, there was a whole bunch of crazy cats.”••••It’s easy to see Flavor Flav as simply an unhinged, colorful character, with a history of drug addictions, serial appearances on C-grade VH1 reality TV shows, his cries of “Yeah, boy!,” the signature oversized clock around his neck, and most recently, a Flavor Flav’s Fried Chicken in Clinton, Iowa. But at the 2009 Belly Up show, Flav proved himself a strong rapper, an undeniable presence and, in what appeared to be an extemporaneous monologue that stood in for an encore, a surprisingly inspirational figure. He is also an ideal counterpart to Chuck D. In Public Enemy, which also includes rapper Professor Griff, who heads the band’s pseudo-military side unit, the S1W, Chuck D seems like the heavyweight – the spokesman, lead writer, intellectual, designated cooler head, the anchor.”Usually, when people talk about black people, black men, they toss us in the same bag. But we’re a bunch of varied characters,” Chuck D said. But it’s hard to witness a Public Enemy show for five minutes and find many similarities between the group’s two lead rappers. At the Belly Up show, Chuck D occasionally rolled his eyes in earnest, trying to distance himself from subjects Flav brought up. Similarly, in the group’s publicity photo, Flav hams it up, while Chuck D conspicuously looks away.”Still, to this day, he doesn’t fail to amaze me,” Chuck D said. “Personality-wise, and where his personality wants to take him at the particular moment. There have been many characters in musical history – and he’s one of them.”If I’m the steak, then Flav is the steak sauce. And sometimes he’s the dessert. And Griff” – known to be the most outspoken and controversial member – “is the greens. And a lot of people don’t want the greens. It’s a well-balanced plate. The fact that we have a group at all – but a group that fits these three personalities – is amazing.”The group will be on full display in its latest Aspen appearance. Where the last Belly Up show featured a unit stripped down to the rappers, DJ Lord and the S1W, the performance on Sunday, Feb. 20 includes the three-piece rhythm section, known as the baNNed: bassist Davy MX, guitarist Khari Wynn and drummer Michael Faulkner.••••While Public Enemy tries to keep alive a time in hip-hop – say around 1988, a year that saw “It Takes a Nation of Millions,” as well as Slick Rick’s “Great Adventures of Slick Rick,” N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton,” Eric B. & Rakim’s “Follow the Leader” and Eazy-E’s “Eazy-Duz-It” – they also have their eye on an earlier period, before rap existed. Among Chuck D’s raps against modern-day hip-hop is that albums are too long, loaded with too many tracks (a view which overlooks the fact that “Fear of a Black Planet” didn’t suffer from having 20 tracks).”I’m a firm believer that we’re back in 1966, ’67, when an album was six, seven cuts,” he said. “I think the album is an outdated concept – 12 or 14 tracks. I’d like to encourage people in the artist community to release shorter albums, and more albums. It’s a call for shorter, more focuses approaches. I’m a fan of Motown, Stax, Electra records.”He is also a fan of the way rock ‘n’ roll has managed to build a canon of its music. To create a similar perspective on rap, Chuck D launched Hiphopgods.com, a portal that seeks to elevate the most worthwhile music – “where classic hip-hop lives on and on,” he said. “There were classic radio stations in the ’60s and ’70s that separated Led Zeppelin from the Framptons and Meat Loafs. Building portals and networks is necessary.”Public Enemy’s publicist said that the group is at work on a new album, one that, unusual for the group, would extensively use guest artists. Chuck D, though, was hesitant to confirm a new album was in the works.”This music was born out of a period, bred out of one song at a time. It became album-oriented when the industry saw it could make money on albums,” he said. “Singles, man. I like one song at a time. That’s beautiful.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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