Public Enemy’s recent, guest-star-laden What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down? is, undoubtedly, the greatest album ever made by a hip-hop group 35 years deep into its career – in that it’s almost certainly the only album in that category thus far. That distinction aside, it’s genuinely excellent in its own right, with Flavor Flav – whose status in the group seemed unclear for the while – fully in the mix, and an energized Chuck D leading the way.
Chuck D talked about making the new album (which largely brings together songs released as singles over the past few years) and looked back at the birth of his group’s 1988 masterpiece It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, in an interview also used in part for our 500 Greatest Albums podcast, hosted by Brittany Spanos and made in partnership with Amazon Music.
How do you think about making albums differently now versus the Eighties?
So if I got a choice to listen to 10,000 songs, why am I going to stay with one artist through 10 or 14? What would what would actually make me stay with that artist?
And what’s the answer?
Nothing! I mean, it’s different. We always thought like Iron Maiden or some metal band, as opposed to some rap group, because hip-hop was still a singles medium when we started. You had to have two or or three hits to be able to get an album, which was no different than the Sixties, if you want to talk about Motown or Stax Records. And we came out just with albums. So we had to think conceptually, from the get-go.
Now, people have less of an attention span, whether they’re old or young. You could tell a whole album’s story in five tracks. You can do like the Doors did in 1968 and close out an album in less than 25 minutes. You could do a movie in 15 minutes for this era.
You always sound like yourself without sounding dated. How do you approach rapping now after styles have shifted immeasurably since you started?
Well, you know what you are, and you know you’re not. You know your abilities and you know your limitations. I wouldn’t mind trying something that might end up with an ugly result, or I would fail at. Part of Public Enemy’s mantra is, try something, never repeat yourself, but try something that might be crazy. I could live to regret, for example, if I wore some wack-ass shit. But experiments in sound? If it doesn’t work, I won’t cry about it.
The biggest thing that made us different from other situations that we didn’t care about being loved. I mean, Rick Rubin chased me around for two years [to sign Public Enemy]. So that changes your whole attitude of how and what you’re going to deliver. We didn’t really care about being loved and liked. So I guess maybe that was a little bit punkish. But regardless of what anyone thinks of myself and Flavor, you can’t unhear us. You can’t unhear us.
You and Ice-T mesh really well on “Smash the Crowd,” from the new album. His rap career started a bit before yours; what’s your relationship like?
Well, Ice-T is in rare air. I think when Ice first recorded that song [in 2017], he was the only 60-year-old MC out. I mean, there’s Wonder Mike from “Rapper’s Delight” but he hasn’t done any new recording. I always tell him, you’re the ice-breaker for us to follow.
There’s a great remix of “Fight the Power” on the album that you did for the BET Awards. Is it a little wearying to know that the song is just as relevant 31 years later?
So that’s the second “Fight the Power” that we made in 1989 [P.E. borrowed the concept from the Isley Brothers’ 1975 song]. The Isleys’ song resonated to me, as a 15 year old. So we decided to say, that’s the sentiment, and this theme that Spike Lee wants [for Do The Right Thing]. But the quickest thing to realize is that, yes, it’s a long time, from ’89 to 2020, culturally, but it’s a short time in real life. So you can’t go around saying, haven’t we gone through this before? You’re always attacking systemic racism, you’re not going to say, “everything is cool now in white supremacy. And we could just like lay back.”
How did you get the surviving members of the Beastie Boys and Run-DMC to come together for “Public Enemy Number Won”?
I reached out to them to say for my 60th birthday [in August 2020], I want to pay homage to y’all. Let’s get on this track and roast it. Now I always work with the great DMC, but I was really totally awestruck and farklempt by Run also being enthusiastic about it. And also Mike D and Ad-Rock, breaking their code of not making a Beastie Boys record without MCA. They’re the ones that actually dragged me in to the industry, slowing me down for Rick [Rubin] and convincing me to [sign to Def Jam]. You guys dragged me into this thing, so I’m going to drag you guys back in with this song.
So, ‘It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’ jumped up to Number 15 on our new 500 Greatest Albums list. There was such a stylistic leap between that album and your debut, Yo! Bum Rush the Show. Was the change in your flow just from hearing people like Rakim?
Two guys helped me design a rhyme pattern which would help me with faster speeds. And that was Rakim, especially on “You Know You Got Soul,” and also KRS-One, particularly on the song “Poetry.” KRS-One and Rakim were able to take faster speeds and make the beats go to them. That was different from what Run-DMC and Schoolly D and Whodini and everybody were doing. They were rhyming to the beat and keeping up with the beat. And then people were able to figure out faster beats. A guy like Big Daddy Kane was just phenomenal once he went on took on faster beats, too. But nobody was messing around with our beat areas, like 109 beats per minute. So it was faster, it was stronger, and it was aggressive. So even to this day, you can’t mix Public Enemy records with a regular DJ set. It’s just totally different attacks on the music.