“We want to create a new standard for the over-50 rap acts,” says Public Enemy mouthpiece Chuck D on their forthcoming Man Plans, God Laughs, the group’s 13th album and first in three years.
Set for release on Wednesday, the album finds the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers reasserting themselves as innovators. The sounds range from bracingly modern ratchet beats and EDM-styled textures to fresh new takes on P.E.’s signature blend of funk noise. And for the first time in nearly a decade, they’ve collaborated exclusively with one producer — Gary “G-Wiz” Rinaldo, who has worked with the camp since 1991’s Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black, and recently produced their sleeper hit “Harder Than You Think,” the group’s biggest U.K. single to date.
“London has always been our base. If you check out It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the first sound that you hear is [a P.E. concert in] London,” says the 55-year-old hip-hop legend, talking as he drives to LAX airport. “But what do you expect out of a group that’s traveled to 100 countries, and has been on 100 different tours? The United States is just one [of those countries].”
“Harder Than You Think,” the breakout single from 2007’s How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul??? peaked at Number Two on the U.K. charts in 2012, and has become somewhat of a cult classic in the U.S. too, thanks to placements in commercials and movies like End of Watch. It’s currently P.E.’s most popular track on Spotify. And, alongside Puffy and Pharrell remaking 1990’s “Welcome to the Terrordome” in “Finna Get Loose,” it’s a remarkable sign of the group’s continued relevance amidst a catalog that dates back more than 25 years.
“We knew what it was when we made it,” says G-Wiz. “You’re dealing in a time and space in this industry where a lot of the lanes are stuffed with a lot of corporations who have the dollars to do promotions. We’re indie, we’re grassroots. . . .It took a minute, and we understand that. But you’re talking about a song that had 3.5 million views on YouTube [before Channel 4 picked it up].”
For Man Plans, God Laughs, P.E. drew inspiration from a new generation of iconoclasts. “What Kanye and Rick Rubin did on Yeezus was extraordinary,” says Chuck D of Kanye West’s noise-flecked 2013 opus. “I just thought lyrically it could have been a little more focused on his point of view, but that’s his right. He’s a super-megastar.” Additional influences include the Run the Jewels’ tag-team of Killer Mike and El-P as well as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Gary G-Wiz, a fan of Action Bronson’s recent Mr. Wonderful, adds, “I like to make aggressive stuff. That’s always been my thing.”
Together, the two recorded the album earlier this spring in Ventura and Orange County, California. Chuck D switched his vocal style from “less vocal gymnastics to very heavy on solid words that you can’t avoid. They’re like George Foreman verses.” His focus on succinct, “cinder block” songs results in a short album that’s “29 minutes and some seconds, and then get up out of there. It’s very powerful. Probably the most intense Public Enemy record of the century.”
The first half of Man Plans, God Laughs is hauntingly electronic. One highlight, “Lost in Space Music,” hearkens to the industrial noise barrage of their 1999 album There’s a Poison Going On while Chuck D satirizes the gap between hip-hop’s golden age and the Millennials’ “turnt up” raps. Another, “Give Peace a Damn,” cracks open 808 drum machines against ominous dub-styled keyboards. On the second half, Gary G-Wiz revisits PE’s classic formula, from the heavy bass vibes of “Corporateplantationopoly” to “Earthizen”‘s vintage New Jack rhythm. While Chuck takes center stage, other members of the P.E. camp shine as well. Flavor Flav drops a verse on “Me to We”; Professor Griff contributes to “Corporateplantationopoly”; DJ Lord takes over “Praise the Loud” by cutting up memorable P.E. moments over a staccato keyboard rhythm; and frequent contributor Sheila Brody of Brides of Funkenstein lends guest vocals on the Rolling Stones tweak “Honky Tonk Rules,” a theme that’s repeated on the title of “No Sympathy From the Devil.”
“What Kanye and Rick Rubin did on Yeezus was extraordinary” — Chuck D
“With the situation of unrest in society, and the police brutality issue and what happened in Baltimore, don’t expect no sympathy from the government on the people, especially in the United States,” says Chuck. “I don’t put any of this on President Obama at all. He inherited a thief that was already in quicksand, and tried to do a good job about not having the thief go under the quicksand. It’s about to really get worse and capsize when he leaves. That’s when there’s really gonna be no sympathy from the devil.”
As usual, politics are ever-present here, whether he’s exhorting us to “be the change you want to see” on the title track, or reclaiming Africa on “Mine Again.” But when asked about the forthcoming 2016 presidential election, Chuck says he’s noncommittal for now. “Anybody who tells you they’re clear about 2016 or 2020 is telling a damn lie,” he says. “Your liberals are conservative, and your conservatives seem to be liberal at times that are convenient to them. So you tell me. All I know is that when they start bringing up names like Clinton and Bush it sounds like a re-run and an aristocracy to me.”
Man Plans, God Laughs will be released through their own distribution company, SPITDigital. And, as the slow growth of “Harder Than You Think” illustrates, the group isn’t afraid to drop new music and let the audience discover it on their own terms.
“Just like 2007 and How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People. . .when me and Gary G-Wiz get together, we make a significant groundbreaking event, and then let it sit as it detonates on its own,” says Chuck. “But we didn’t learn that from hip-hop. We learned that from Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and Bobby Womack. We learned it from great songwriters that stand the test of time.”