Public Enemy still firing on all cylinders
All rapped up ... Public Enemy will be playing Groovin' the Moo in May.
Midway through our chat, Chuck D excuses himself and disappears off the line. It is a tense moment. It has, after all, been a month-long battle to get hold of the legendary MC. Thankfully, the faint strains of a distant conversation ﬁlter through the receiver and soon enough the man’s deep, familiar voice returns.
“I’m sorry,” he apologises. “There are so many things going on at the same time ...” He trails off with a chuckle.
Chuck D is in the studio working feverishly on new Public Enemy material. The pioneering US hip-hop group has undertaken the mammoth task of releasing two albums this year, the ﬁ rst of which, Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp, is due out in June. The follow-up, The Evil Empire of Everything, is to be released two months later.
“There’s a whole bunch of different things happening in different studios all at the same time, in competition with each other but also in chemistry,” Chuck D explains.
“Then it’s up to another set of producers to assemble the parts to make them all work together. It’s a daunting task. We live in eight different parts as a group. Now the recording and the production aspect of it is just scattered contributions all over, whether it’s coming through the studios in which we exist, the portable studios, emails, texts, to people recording on their phones.
“In the digital age, it’s almost like the world is a recording studio. But you still have to do the real work of corralling these things and having them all make sense.”
The responsibility of overseeing the whole operation basically falls on Chuck D’s shoulders. The band’s current mode of operation is somewhat removed from their early days of working with famous production team The Bomb Squad.
“The Bomb Squad was a lot of people in one room,” he says. “We all had to take on a certain duty. The difference is pretty much the upgraded millennium way, where we have a lot of different contributors but they’re not going to produce the album. You’ve got to guide them in the areas of how to produce and arrange the songs.
“You still have to have someone at the helm with the overall vision of where these things are going to end up. When the smoke clears you have something, but right now, this kitchen is a mess.”
Despite the proverbial smoke, the group’s lyrical focus remains clear. As always, political and social concerns dominate, or as Chuck D puts it, the group remains determined to “bring a world conversation into the picture”.
“There’s titles from the songs that are self-explanatory. Fast Food is about how people treat their digital surroundings. Get Up Stand Up and Don’t Give up the Fight, those two songs are a call to arms. Tracks like Everything, which is on Evil ... talk about how you can have everything in your life but have nothing. Or you can have nothing but have everything.”
Even the idea of releasing the two records, Chuck D says, purposely ﬂ ies in the face of modern, playlist-driven listening habits.
“I think consumer tastes have been [cultivated] to consume – and to be lazy at what they consume. Just like fast food.”
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the band's groundbreaking 1987 debut Yo! Bum Rush the Show, which, with its abrasive production style and caustic lyrics, shook up the music world. For such a forward-thinking band as Public Enemy, dwelling on such milestones never seemed like the group's style. Marking the anniversary is intended more as a tip of the cap to their supporters.
''It means a lot to us because it means a lot to the people who have supported us,'' Chuck D says. ''I don't think it's something where we're actually blowing our own horn. It's something that we have to recognise as being very, very important to the people who support us.''
At the top of the list of things planned to mark the anniversary are the new LPs, plus the band continues to push its online radio station, Rapstation.com. ''It's about building these areas, these internet situations, as well as being able to do the basic traditional thing like go and play a show or a festival and tear the house down. The challenge for us is with two new records - how much of these new records are actually going to be performed? That's the type of challenge you're always going to face. When they're making new recordings, people are going to be like, 'OK, let me hear the classics.' The bottom line is to just be the strong performer that you are and everything else will follow.''
Striking a balance between old and new material in a set list can be difficult, especially with a back catalogue which includes certified classics such as It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back and Fear of a Black Planet. ''You've got people who are seeing you for the first time and you've also got people who have seen you every single time for the last 20 years, so you don't want to give them the same shit,'' Chuck D says. ''With Public Enemy, we said years ago that when we play live, we're going to present an event.''
Since its first visit in the early '90s, Australia has been a favoured destination. for Public Enemy, and Chuck D was a vocal advocate for KRS-One's recent trip to these shores.
''I have been talking to Kris for years about [it] - 'Man you've got to get down there!' Let me tell you, it's awesome that he's there. We know that KRS-One is the greatest rapper in the world, the greatest MC in the world in my opinion, and the fact that he's in Australia, it has to be an awesome experience for both him and the crew and also the people of Australia. You get no better than that.
''It's always a great time coming to Australia. When we first started coming to Australia as a rap group, it was not a frequented trip. A lot of groups didn't get down to Australia - black groups, especially rap groups - and I felt like we helped paved some of that road.''
Public Enemy @ Groovin' the Moo
WITH: Hilltop Hoods, City and Colour, Digitalism, Kimbra, Parkway Drive, Kaiser Chiefs, Wavves and more.
WHEN: Sunday, May 13
WHERE: The Meadows, University of Canberra
TICKETS: $99.90 from Moshtix
■ Peter Krbavac is a Canberra music writer, musician and radio presenter with 2XX