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Oral History

Public Enemy Look Back at 20 Years of ‘By the Time I Get to Arizona’

Chuck D in Chicago, July 1990 (Photo: Paul Natkin/WireImage)

The video for “By the Time I Get to Arizona” aired on MTV only one time in 1991. But its vision of violent retribution in the face of government callousness kicked over the coffee table of America’s polite conversations about race. On November 6, 1990, the people of Arizona voted down a proposal to create a state holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by a margin of 17,000 votes. The vote came two years after then-Governor Evan Mecham cancelled MLK Day, saying, “I guess King did a lot for the colored people, but I don’t think he deserves a national holiday.”

Public Enemy’s response, “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” bubbled over with frustration, contempt, and wit, as legendary firebrand Chuck D took aim at the citizens of Arizona and, Mecham in particular: “The cracker over there/He try to keep it yesteryear/The good ol’ days/The same ol’ ways/That kept us dyin’.” Says Chuck, “I’m a firm believer that hip-hop can change the world and make statements like Bob Marley.”

He recorded it with producer Gary G-Wiz for fourth album Apocalypse ’91: The Enemy Strikes Black. After the platinum success of 1990’s Fear of a Black Planet and the “Fight the Power” single, PE’s legendary production crew the Bomb Squab went on hiatus. Public Enemy was looking for a new direction when current events and the more stripped-down beats of G-Wiz and the Imperial Grand Ministers of Funk stepped in to provide it. Built around a slowed-down Mandrill bassline, the beat to “Arizona” was both world-weary and slick — at least until broken by an apocalyptic 45-second bridge featuring a Jackson 5 organ sample and background screams that evoke civil rights protesters calling from the grave.

The video stepped up the rhetoric, recreating ’60s-era visions of civil rights protestors being beaten and Dr. King being humiliated — culminating in Chuck D detonating a car bomb that assassinates Mecham. For their depiction of blowing up the Governor, P.E. was reviled throughout the mainstream media, including being scrutinized on an episode of Nightline, where columnist Clarence Page said the video was “the exact opposite of the message that Martin Luther King died for.” However, Chuck’s message spread: The NFL pulled the 1993 Super Bowl from Tempe, Arizona, and thousands of conventions and tourists followed suit. It’s estimated the state lost $350 million in revenue before voters reconsidered the referendum in a 1993 vote, re-instating the King holiday.

Terminator X, Flavor Flav, and Chuck D in 1991 (Photo: Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

Twenty years later, Arizona is again at the center of a civil rights crisis in the form of Senate Bill 1070, the harshest anti-immigration measure in American history. Not surprisingly, a group of 12 Arizona rappers recently recorded, “Back To Arizona” a new version of the classic protest anthem, making itds noise a rallying cry for a new generation. SPIN caught up with Chuck D and G-Wiz about the song’s controversial debut and its enduring legacy.

What do you remember about creating “By the Time I Get to Arizona”?
Chuck D: I was writing a lot of songs. My anger was focused on Arizona and New Hampshire refusing to honor the King holiday. It was so much of a smack in the face that I said, well, this needs to be addressed.

Why did you choose that title?
Chuck D: I’m a big Isaac Hayes fan and his version of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” the Jim Webb, Glen Campbell song. The title came first. I always like to work from titles.

What do you remember about the studio session?
Chuck D: It was done quickly, while I was on tour with Sisters of Mercy. I was coming in the studio, visiting, then heading back on stage in some city. Originally, “By the Time I Get to Arizona” was on the track that ended up being “Shut ‘Em Down.” Then we switched ’em up and found something more fitting. In the tapes somewhere, there’s the “Shut Em Down” track with the “By the Time I Get to Arizona” lyrics on it.

Gary G-Wiz: That album was the first thing that Chuck and I did together. I was just thinking, from a musical standpoint, how can we make this more powerful. We had already recorded the thing to tape and I remember Chuck saying, “Let’s erase the middle.” It was like, “Uh-oh.” Then we had this big gap and we came in with that other part that kind of changes the whole song. It turned out pretty cool, but when it first happened, there was no going back, you’re just recording over all tracks on a multi-track.

Chuck D: Gary was a rookie at that point, like “You’re cutting into my fuckin’ track!” But the bridge worked really well in concert. The sample was actually the Jacksons’ “Walk On” music, when they were coming on stage, a re-appropriation of “Walk on By” by Isaac Hayes, my musical Godfather.

Did you expect the song to be controversial?
Chuck D: We knew it would get attention. The question is, What am I making a song for? Am I making a song for high school kids? [laughs] So I can be popular? When it came to Public Enemy, those weren’t our reasons for writing and doing songs. We weren’t trying to make a song to climb the charts.

How about the video?
Chuck D: All the noise came from the video. It was shown once and it made Nightline. A lot of people don’t realize that Sister Souljah is in the song, at the beginning, and Ice-T is in the video, in the diner scene, while the Dr. King character is getting spaghetti dumped on his head. In 1992, Ice T and Sister Souljah had their own reaches into the higher offices of government. That’s the biggest irony to me.

It’s such a powerful video.
Chuck D: That was [director] Eric Meza and his crew. They worked on N.W.A videos before that. Also, [producer] Hank Shocklee gets credit for his sonic innovations, but really his contributions visually were very on-point. We knew that this video would probably be seen no more than five times, but we were okay with that.

Preaching non-violence was Dr. King’s life’s work. Did you find any contradiction in the militancy and the violence in the video, which is about honoring him?
Chuck D: No, because there’s no contradiction in myself. Dr. King didn’t make the video. Dr. King died a violent death and I was answering that. As a child, I was pissed off that they killed Dr. King and I was answering that. Regardless of what Dr. King believed, the act of his life being taken was not a passive thing. So I don’t feel any contradiction to this moment. Look, I’m for peace, but I can make a visual statement about how I feel about what happened. The actuality is that I shot a video in rebuttal to something that happened in real life.

Your stage shows at the time got a lot of attention too.
Chuck D: Yeah, during the performance of the song in ’91, we would hang a Klansman. In Arizona, in Sun Devils Stadium, where we were opening up for U2, we played just that one song and then left the stage.

Did you tell U2 you were going to do that?
Chuck D: I had the blessings of Bono to do it. He just punched me in the chest and gave me a pound. The crowd was kinda pissed off. It was a U2 crowd, but there was a large contingent that was really interested in seeing us.

Audio of Chuck D speaking after the Arizona concert in 1992:

When the Senate Bill came up in Arizona last year, did you think about this song?
Chuck D: No. It really had nothing to do with anti-immigration policies. They voted in the King holiday not too long after the video, so I’m like, case closed, time to move on to something else. I made a song called “Tear Down That Wall” on my own label that’s more relevant, that we spread around. It makes a clearer statement.

Did you hear the remake of “By the Time I Get to Arizona” by Arizona rappers?
Chuck D: That was incredible. I know a few of them.

You recently released a limited-edition art piece called “By the Time I Got to Arizona,” which incorporates your image with pieces of Norman Rockwell paintings and images from Guantanamo…
Chuck D: The artists had gotten to talk about a concept. I was directing the artists to make a visual statement. “By the Time” was a theme, but there was a lot of issues. The conversations just seemed to conjure up images on their own.

Why do you think all these things keep cropping up in Arizona?
Chuck D: It’s a little bit of the wild west mentality out there. They seem to want to hold on to that.

The “By the Time I Got to Arizona” painting by Chuck D and SceneFour