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Public Enemy’s October 1992 Cover Story: Black Noise, Black Heat

The supposed hook for this meeting with Public Enemy is Greatest Misses, a new Public Enemy album containing six new songs and six remixes of past PE material. But there’s always something going on to make a comment from Public Enemy timely. The elections are coming into view, and, the planet being what it is, […]

The supposed hook for this meeting with Public Enemy is Greatest Misses, a new Public Enemy album containing six new songs and six remixes of past PE material. But there’s always something going on to make a comment from Public Enemy timely. The elections are coming into view, and, the planet being what it is, there will doubtless be some skullduggery somewhere to incite the Public Enemy posse, to fire up the righteous blowtorch of its wrath and direct it at its chosen target. Public Enemy’s Chuck D and producer Hank Shocklee are vivid, commanding figures, blessed with voices so loud they can rock the room with no mike. Both men smite the table with a resounding crash to emphasize a point, and delight in picking up each other’s jokes before they’re uttered. The divine assurance of men on a mission permeates every gesture, the mutual reinforcement of true brothers-in-arms evident. Each man is equally hunky in sports gear. Chuck was sporting prototypes of one of his new business offshoots—chunky black and red high tops, embossed with the name of his fashion concern, Rapp Style. Despite misgivings about the “white media” and its understanding of American rap, Chuck got down with the program of our interview. Each time the conversation threatened to explode, Chuck would chuck in a philosophical truth. His instincts about when to steer the discussion is spot-on for self-preservation.

SPIN: The elections are coming up. It appears that many African-Americans feel so alienated from the political process that they can’t be bothered to vote. How do you feel?

Chuck: This is a sports-driven country, and if you don’t have two popular teams, pretty much no one is going to give a damn.

SPIN: Are you going to vote?

Chuck D: I’m not telling. I can’t tell you right now. I can only vote when I’m confident. The one time I voted was for Angela Davis [vice-presidential candidate, 1984], when Ronald Reagan was running. She was running for some kind of communist party! [Laughter.]

SPIN: But isn’t the ballot box one of the only tools we have?

Chuck: This year, voting is making more sense to me local. To direct you, personally, a lot of people have to register. But the big overall picture is really unclear to me and to a lot of people. Black people are ticking on a trigger. White people’s biggest fear is a race riot situation, and black people feel they have nothing to lose. I travel all over the country. I go to jails, I talk to the brothers, and the average black male sentiment under 25 is, “Kill Whitey, ‘cause I’m fucked up.” I’m talking 80 percent of the people. By 1995, if Bush gets into office, you’ll see the same sentiment among the brothers. They feel just as if they were still at the bottom of the slave ship, lying there with their sisters, sleeping in their own shit. Then, they felt, “If I ever get my hands round that motherfucker’s neck, I’ll kill him,” and that’s how they feel now. It’s not me, or Ice Cub, or Souljah’s feelings—we’re just the messengers, and how you gonna kill the messengers? The best thing about rap is it’s a last minute warning, the final call, like the Nation of Islam paper—a last plea for help on the countdown to Armageddon.

SPIN: You say, if Bush gets in. Does that mean it would be different if Clinton gets in?

Chuck: If Clinton gets in, it’ll be bedlam by 1997. Obviously, there’s more hope with a new face. Otherwise it’s gonna be hell. Shit’s gonna jump that you ain’t never seen before.

SPIN: So what could the government implement to avert it?

Chuck: That would be a program and a half. We have to have black schools that teach you how your black ass will survive in America, and the meaning of family. As of slavery, we don’t even know if we’re related!

SPIN: Are you saying that education of blacks has been inferior?

Chuck: No, I don’t think it’s been inferior. It just doesn’t teach us the hypocrisies and the double standards, and how to make it as a black person. I can go to college and high school and get the top grades, and when I go out into the job market, I don’t know anything about business. Which means business is a family thing, you know what I’m saying? If you’re not family, you’re not gonna get that fucking job!

SPIN: I was reading recently that the producer-director brothers, the Hudlins [Boomerang, House Party], were glad they went to some top school so that they could work the system.

Chuck: Yeah, but at the same time, people were looking down at them when they came out of those schools looking for those fucking jobs. People said, “You’re still a nigger!”

SPIN: So they went off and set up their own separate development, the Black Filmmaker Foundation.

Chuck: And they went and looked at each other, and said, “Yeah, we family, and fuck everything else.” And that’s the only way it’s going to work here. But black people don’t realize they’re family, and the only way they will is if we get informed that we family. The days of working for the white man are over. We can work with them. working with someone is something we can do when we have knowledge of ourselves. When we control ourselves, the black community will strop drug dealers. They will die from our own hands, in front of a thousand people, as the Nation of Islam teaches us.

SPIN: The riots in L.A. were multiracial, but the media said they were only black.

Hank: Yeah! Because the people’s intelligence was insulted; forget Rodney King being black, he’s a person. And those community leaders—the whole of black America was saying it’s the first time we’ve ever seen them. who are the real leaders? Ice-T. Ice Cube. Queen Latifah. They’re the people who are sending a message to the kids right now.

Chuck: Politicians do less talking than rappers, and their actions are almost invisible. When we started out, [political rap] was not in vogue. The black male image in the mid-‘80s was Prince or Michael Jackson, and you were not really defiant. If you was, you was wearing a gold rope and you were a hoodlum. The riots—or rebellion—of 1992 made people look differently at that black man and woman.

SPIN: Five years ago, you said Public Enemy was on a mission to create 5,000 black leaders. How’s it going?

Chuck: Like Elijah Muhammad [leader of the Nation of Islam] says, if you want a good leader or role model, look in the mirror and be one. We’ve gotten a lot of people to the point where there’s better confidence and self-esteem in looking at themselves for a more progressive position.

Hank: There’s a division happening in the United States. In the ‘60s, they called it the generation gap. The same generations happening right now, but the difference is, while you’ve got conservatives and liberals, you’ve got this new class — let's call them the ultraliberals. They’re the teenage to mid-20s group that don’t fit in with the rest of white society. They may be white kids or the may be Puerto Rican or Korean, but the kids got a whole other vibe going on, another culture that’s separated them from their parents. What do the kids got in common? If black and white adults don’t have anything in common, well, black and white kids do. And what is that? It’s the music.

SPIN: What does the idea of reparations mean?

Chuck D: I think after 437 years, black people should be paid back. They shouldn’t pay out no tax, because black people worked for free for 400 years. If you look at the state of black America today, we don’t own shit, we don’t own anything. I still say that the black state has to be repaired. We need to control certain aspects of the media.

SPIN: Are you talking about reparations, as in a check dropped through the mailbox?

Chuck D: If we gave every black family a $100,000 check, and said “This is in reparation for slavery,” you’d probably see $20,000, because you got a 480,000 Benz! [Laughter.] Money is not the answer, control is the answer. Control over curriculum, over education, and no griping about the money afterward or wanting it paid back.

SPIN: How long will it take, and what would it take, to heal the trauma of slavery?

Chuck D: Slavery took place for 400 years, so it might take 1,200. If you take a pin or a knife and stab yourself with it, the initial action would only take a second, but the healing — you’re gonna feel hurt and pain for two weeks before it disappears. But if everybody doesn’t pitch in and understand that we’re physically and mentally down in the dumps and injured, there’s just going to be hell for everybody. The L.A. riots were just the tip of the iceberg.

SPIN: I went to the East Jersey State Prison one time, and I thought there must be a lot of saintly white people ‘round here, or how come the whole jail population is black?

Hank: It’s because black people get processed to the full extent of the law, no matter what the crime is. Everybody sits there and thinks that the law is objective, but there’s a whole lot of subjectivity between the objectivity. If you decide it’s murder, is it Murder One or two? Look at Mike Tyson going to jail for rape. To me, the law says, okay, you’re not supposed to rape a woman, but aren’t there degrees of rape?

SPIN: Uh-oh, we’re going to have a fight here.

Hank: Okay, let me qualify that. if the action takes place in a shopping mall, parking lot, or car in some secluded street, or perpetrators come into your house—I’m saying there’s a degree here.

SPIN: Everybody knows you should have a right to go to someone’s room and not get raped.

Hank: That’s true.

SPIN: Obviously, Mike Tyson was always a great hero, but he seems to have a history of being unable to handle women.

Hank: Yeah, we understand that, but where are the guidelines?

Chuck: I think you’ll always have a problem when white men judge black men. I'd like to end this one now.

SPIN: How do you feel about abortion?

Chuck: I believe in freedom of choice.

Hank: You should have freedom of choice.

Chuck: This is the thing about life. Your parents, your children, your spouses, your friends—everybody else is a visitor to yourself. When you die, nobody says, “Oh, Chuck died, I’ve got to die with this motherfucker!” [Laughter.] So you gotta be able to have some control on yourself.

SPIN: Flavor got a lot of criticism for being homophobic because of the lines in “A Letter to the New York Post” on Apocalypse ’91: The Enemy Strikes Black— “Ask James Cagney/He beat up on a guy when he found out he was a fagney/ Cagney is a favorite, he is my boy.”

Chuck [laughs with Hank.] Flavor will pick a word that rhymes for the hell of it. “Fagney” was just some shit he drummed up to rhyme with Cagney. You can put a lot of science on some Public Enemy songs, but when Flavor does it, you cant put too much science on it.

SPIN: It seems you feel it’s not an easy time to criticize other black public figures.

Chuck D: Right. I don’t think it’s advantageous for any kind of progress among our people. If you don’t control the media, it can only be perceived as confusion. It’s not progressive and it’s not positive.

SPIN: What do you talk about on your lecture tours?

Chuck D: I speak about rap music, its importance, and the change it makes upon our society today—why it’s more than what it seems to be. I talk about it as being a form of media conquest. This country is being controlled by the FCC; the government monitors the media. To have a radio station, you have to report it to the government. Records just went past all that. I break it down—how powerful it is as a world medium.

SPIN: How do you feel about the Nation of Islam publication, The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, that Ice Cube is promoting? [ The Secret Relationship states that Jews controlled the slave trade—a claim supposedly based on the work of Jewish academics who have all subsequently declared the treatment to be a perversion of their research.]

Chuck: I’ve leafed through it. I’m just going to close on this point: I think all books cannot be read by one person, and I think talking to people is somehow better than reading books because you cant read every book. In this society, it’s hard not to judge which book is right and which book is wrong because so much of it is controlled by the government.

SPIN: Have you seen this book Jew on the Brain that [PE’s former long-time publicist] Bill Adler put out? It’s a refutation of The Secret Relationship.

Chuck: Yeah, I saw this. He put Ice Cube on the front. [After the interview, Chuck left the book behind, after saying earlier that he wanted it. On his way out, I passed it back to him. Casually, he said, “Burn this piece of shit,” and split without having read it. That was the only moment of my five-year fandom of the group that I felt fear of a Public Enemy planet.] 

SPIN: You mention the Holocaust in your lyrics: “I got a story/ That’s harder than the hard-core/ Cost of the Holocaust,” on “Cant’ Truss It,” Apocalypse ’91. In the New York Times recently, there was a article by the chair of the African-American Studies Department at Harvard, Henry Louise Gates Jr. He wrote, “And what is yielded by this hateful sport of victimology, save the conversion of a tragic past into a game of recrimination?”

Chuck: Number one, it’s all a game of life, and it’s being controlled by someone else for more devious methods. I’ve got to say that in black people’s search for information, they can't be blamed for that search when the other information has failed them in the past. They can't be blamed for searching for other religious avenues when the religious avenues in the past have failed us and been hypocritical. The Nation of Islam gets a lot of bad ink, but what else is white America going to say for an organization that builds strong black men? Fuck what the white man thinks!

SPIN: How did you start your involvement with rap?

Chuck: We dabble in other areas, but rap’s our life. Our mind-set is 24 hours. Before I met Hank, I dabbled. It was a leisure thing. When I met Hank in October ’79, and we hooked up, it became a full-time motherfucking thing. I left school after my freshman semester. I had no direction. Rap actually gave me the direction to go through school. I wanted to apply my design and artistic skills to this new music. So the hip hop scene and rap became my motive for living.

SPIN: We’re in the offices of S.O.U.L. Records—your offices. You seem to be developing into quite a corporation. How extensive is your diversification?

Chuck: It’s hard to say I’m successful at any of these businesses, but I’m trying. I’m looking at getting into merchandising worldwide. I look at it as being bigger than sports, because it’s international. Rappers are selling so many things the sports guys are selling; we’ve sold more, but the sports guys don’t give a fuck about us, so I wanted to set up my own, even if that meant failing for two or three years. I know that if I keep on doing it, I’ll be all right. I’m calling the company Rapp Style.

Hank: S.O.U.L. Records is actually a production deal we have with MCA Records. I’m working with Son of Bazerk, Young Black Teenagers, Dr. Dre, and Ed Lover, and a group out of Memphis called Triggerman that is pretty interesting. It gives me the chance to find new talent and develop it, to formalize rap. Even though rap is selling and doing incredible numbers, it still doesn’t have a ballpark to work from.

Chuck: We also have Pro Division, an extension of Def Jam. We’re able to give Terminator a little bit of a breather. It’s a tool we’ll be working with the next four to five years.

SPIN: When does your Def Jam contract run out?

Hank: We’re in it for life!

Chuck: We’re one of the builders of that whole place, so…

SPIN: So you’re partners?

Chuck: Yeah, and we’re looking to be better partners! It would have been us, L.L. Cool J, and the Beastie Boys, but the Beastie Boys left. So it’s the house that L.L. built and that we put the electric fixtures to.

Hank: In the next two years we’re going to structure the rap bigger than sports. Bigger than the NBA.

Chuck: They already call Hank “music’s worst nightmare.” These two niggers right here, we’re gonna be called the “music business’s worst nightmare!”