[reprinted from HardC.O.R.E.
vol. 2 no. 5 -- September 1994]
Interview with Chuck D, conducted at Colby College in September of 1993.
Russell A. Potter
Contents copyright (c) Russell A. Potter; any re-distribution must
include this notice; no redistribution for profit without prior
After trying to track Chuck down for an interview for over a
year, trading faxes with Harry Allen and hoping at best to arrange a
phone interview, I was fortunate to have the chance to interview him
in person. Kebba Tolbert, a student at Colby College (where I teach),
got together funding to invite Chuck to Colby to speak, and last
September I went down to the local Holiday Inn to pick him up and
drive him to campus. There was something surreal as I stood waiting
in the lobby, where a group of dull-looking businessmen had gathered
to chat over the _Wall Street Journal_ and coffee, wondering what to
expect. Eventually, Chuck came on down the hallway, looking a bit jet-
lagged. He told me later that he just came from giving a lecture at
another college, where he was also invited to student meetings, taken
out to dinner and then a football game. He looked tired, and I felt
tongue-tied -- after all, when you get to talk with Chuck D, what do
Arriving on campus, we walked up to my office relatively
unnoticed by students (that's Maine for you). I asked Chuck about PE's
next album, and he said that part of it was recorded, but they were
still working on it, and it would probably not be out until sometime
in 1994. After settling down in a chair, and checking out my wall
posters (I suddenly realized I had no PE poster up there with Paris or
Ice-T), Chuck seemed to get a second wind; by a few minutes into our
interview, he was warmed up, and soon we were having a wide-ranging
conversation, especially about the ins and outs of the music business,
label deals, artist rosters, and the past and future of hip-hop. After
talking for about forty minutes, Chuck had to move on to get ready for
his lecture, which amplified his message about the necessity of re-
investing black capital in black communities. Since Chuck, unlike
some rappers, has been in one aspect or another of the music for over
twelve years, and because of his position as one of its most respected
artists, his message has the kind of depth and knowledge that commands
attention, and by taking it to college audiences he gets it out
directly in an academic setting. Chuck talked for over an hour, took
questions for forty minutes, and still took time to sign autographs
for students, including several dozen local high school students who
had been given the morning off for this educational experience.
Thanks are due to Chuck for generously granting the interview, and to
Kebba Tolbert for making it
C = Chuck D
R = Russell Potter
R: One question I had is, since as you say, you're touring twice --
you're doing hip-hop, and that's educational, but then you're talking to
an audience, you know, just talking -- is there anything different that
goes through your head, in terms
of how you prepare?
C: Yeah, there's two different preparations. When you do a concert, I
work more with my team. It's a team type thing, you know, fourteen
individuals, all in synch, one operation. You know that you have an
audience that's hyped for the music, which means that you have a lot
of people that are there for the music, and you have a lot of people
that are there for the point of view; people know what to expect, they
wanna hear some songs, and my dialogue to the audience is short bursts
of, y'know, you know the music, go with the music. But when it comes
down to doing a lecture it's sort of more like an individual point of
view, and I know I'm not really here to give my personal point of view
all the time, but I also pretty much lay a lot of things on the table
and have people pick and choose and use their own opinions, and pretty
much explain the thrust and the aura around hip-hop, and this thing
that we call rap music and stuff like that. I try to get some
definitions clear and straight, and I try not to have people just
leading on to the vibe of the moment without having some facts
straight about the past.
R: I think that's really important. You don't get a whole lot
of history in this country, or you get the old account of history, the
standardized whitewashed account
C: Well, I think, you know a lot of things, like in this music, they
might have covered guys that did the music in the early days, but just
because they did the music doesn't mean that what they did was actual
fact, or defined in terms, y'know. Like for example I say that hip-
hop is the culture, I mean, even Mingus could've been hip-hop, you
know. Hip-hop is the culture of whatever black people create and do.
Grandmama . . . you see Larry Johnson in commercials, that's hip-hop.
Rap music is clearly definable, right there, it's like rap is a vocal,
it's the use of a vocal; the reason it's so strong 'cause it's one of
the few vocals ever created, you know, for recorded music -- you know
you have talking, you have singing -- rap borders that in-between; you
have to talk about another vocal you have to talk about maybe humming --
but, I mean it's rap, singing, and there's talking, and along that
spectrum; and when people talk about, will rap music ever die, you're
talking actually, they're stupid, it's like saying will the vocal ever
die, it's like the silliest thing -- when will all this singing just
stop [laughter] Y'know what I mean. So it's a vocal. And rap music
means a vocal over music, you know; it started as an overdub, it
always will be an overdub, it always will be a vocal music. That's
why, you know, rap can use rock'n'roll, jazz, fusions of rhythm &
blues and different aspects of different musics that it hasn't even
gotten to yet. So rap music actually is a vocal over borrowed music,
or fusions of music -- so it's not goin' anywhere, because it's a
vocal. So those are the types of things that I kinda set the table
with to make people have a clearer understanding on where this form of
music is going.
R: So say if someone like Greg Osby, say if he does an instrumental,
it's still hip-hop.
C: It's hip-hop yeah. It's not rap music. It's hip-hop. It has a
slice of rap music in it -- but rap music is not really a music, like
I said, it's hip-hop.
R: Well it's like -- what was that thing you did about Charlie Parker,
that was really cool.
R: That was a totally different
stylistic type of thing.
C: Yeah, I don't know what to
C: Maybe it was, like you said, bop, I mean you can call it hip-hop
because you had a hip-hop vocalist on it, or a rap vocalist on it, but
it was hip-hop just because it was created out of two black organic
things -- a rap vocalist and a
R: That was a good project. An Jazzmatazz? What did you think of
C: Yeah, that was a great experiment in sound and fusion, you know
what I'm sayin? Any time something is done for the first time I'm a
big fan of it -- it doesn't mean it had to blow up. It just means
that it was done, it was experimented with, it was fucked with, and
you know, here it is, you know?
R: Yeah it's back, I mean in some ways maybe it's like stealing it
C: Uh-huh. I mean, I'm always a fan of things being done and
experimented with for the first time, for example, the RUN-D.M.C.-
Aerosmith thing . . .
R: Yeah, that had to be the
R: Although weren't people using
rock-n-roll for breakbeats and stuff?
C: Of course. That's what I mean by rap being an overdub thing. Back
in the late 70's you had guys like Grandmaster Flash and people like
that, getting a Billy Squier record, Thin Lizzy, and cuttin' the beats
in it. Because the rock guys gave the beats up, y'know, they would
have the beats. I remember one time, I wanted to get this record by
Jeff Beck, "Blow by Blow," 'cause he had this bass line in the middle,
I was like, ohhh . . .
R: Yeah, you're listening differently when you're looking for something
to cut up . . .
C: It's almost like, y'know, you goin' to a turkey, knowing that you
only want the stuffing. You don't want any of the meat . . .
R: Yeah. That brings up another question. I'm kinda curious -- I think
there is a real continuum, that's one of the things I'm arguing for in
my book is that it's not like hip-hop arrived yesterday, it's continuous
with the whole black tradition.
You look back to, like, talking blues . . .
R: Laquan even samples Robert Johnson, reaches back into the thirties,
and it seems to work. So do you think -- I'm just tryin' to think back
to the first time, even before hip-hop was breakin' out, y'know, the first
time when you were growin' up and you're hearin' these tunes, before
the idea of cutting them up is there, is that where the continuity is?
I mean, what are some of the
first things that you remember?
C: I'm a old guy. I'm like,
thirty-three, so . . .
R: That's the same age as me.
C: Y'know, so what caught my fancy was this black music, y'know,
and also I liked a lot of the rock music in the early 70's, because
that's what was played in my area, WABC, y'know, it's a top-40 station, they
played everything. I always liked the drum beat, and y'know the rock
guys gave up a good beat too. Sometimes, y'know, if I wanted to hear
a drumbeat, I just didn't want to hear anything else, I didn't want to
hear vocal on top, or guitar or anything like that. But the beat is
what always made me go and move. But I first started really getting into the
rap music aspect of it, the hip-hop side of it, because of the
technology of two turntables,
that really caught my interest . . .
R: Yeah, I remember in one interview you said you were at a basketball
game or something, there were people with two turntables, and the first
time you saw them you wondered, what, do they need a backup? Why
do they have two turntables?
C: [Laughs] That definitely caught my attention. It was this technical
aspect that first got me hooked
R: And you did radio, didn't
you, before . . .
C: I did radio in the early 80's; rap records came out in '79, and I got
involved with college radio in 1981, actually. Back then, all I wanted
to do was promote rap music from all other angles, other than
performing. So, that was interesting, for me, you know, to really
pick up on the vibe, you know, thrusting records into the market, and
getting feedback. I did that for
about five or six years.
R: So what do you think now -- it seems the '80's have been a
pretty productive decade, and suddenly now, you've got people --
Cypress Hill, Ice Cube, Public Enemy, topping the charts, the record
companies are churning out new acts every other week, the audience is a
lot broader. Does that . . .
C: Do I think that hurts?
R: Well, yeah, it seems like it gets displaced in some ways. There was
this article in the New Republic, by David Samuels, and the cover
showed a white kid with headphones, with the caption "The Real Face
of Rap." And Samuels argues that rap is just catering to white
stereotypes. I don't agree with that, but I hear that argument again
and again in the press these
C: Yeah, well the press, they have their little slice of information,
and not all their facts are correct. You could have just as big a black
audience for the music than you have for whites; the difference is maybe
the blacks wouldn't purchase it, they don't have the purchasing power,
but they're still an audience of it, they still support it some sort
of way, where the white audience will support it monetarily by going
to the mall, and finding out that that tape is at Trax or Sam Goody's
or Record World or Strawberries, or wherever, and purchase that tape,
whereas the black kid, pretty much, is surrounded by it, you know what
I'm sayin'? Every day, homeboy drives up in a car, he got a tape or
something, you know, it's like the black kids is in an environment
where he can go anywhere and hear it, or really experience it in a lot
of cases, where the white kid has to purchase it. So the audiences
might be just as big, compared to each other, but as far as the
statistics read, you know, it might lean to the white side. These
guys, these journalists crack me up, because, you know, you can only
do so much sittin' in a chair at a desk with your computer or word-
processor, and you know, it takes a little bit more than that. On
your way to work, you'll ask a couple of people and then come up with
your own evaluation, and go right to your story, I mean, maybe it
takes some years at a time, and it takes experiencing it in a lot of
places. One thing I've been fortunate about Public Enemy is that I've
been around the world four times, I been to more countries than any
other rapper, thirty-six of 'em, and I've been to every continent, all
in the name of rap.
C: I've seen kids in Brazil who are now forcing themselves to learn
English because of rap. Where, you know, if you talk about
Portuguese, and what they speak down there, and English, you know,
it's like night and day, it seems to be such a difficult hurdle that
kids wouldn't even bother goin' for it. But with rap music, I mean
goin' down there, I remember them playing Too $hort and Biz Markie and
PE; they're rap fanatics, and actually, you know, tryin' to learn the
R: That's wild. Well, on the other side, you know, there's the
influence of dancehall in the United States. I mean, I know a lot of
kids that are just tryin' to get that ragamuffin style, and pick up on
C: That lingo, you know, is definitely a different type of thing, it's
similar to rap, hip-hop, you
know, it's hip-hop.
R: So I'm curious now, what's
the future look like now?
C: Oh, I don't make any predictions about the future, I only make
predictions of the future of, like I mean, life, you know, like how
things be leadin' to, I think black America is in a panic-button, a
crisis. If we don't have certain controls over certain aspects of our
situation, it's gonna be mayhem. I mean, it's gonna just be worse
than it is now.
R: What about right on the level of communities? There are the overall
economic question, I know youve talked about this a lot, where does the
profit from the music go? And now a lot of people are going
independent, you have Paris with Scarface records, Ice-T with Rhyme
Syndicate, you've got Flavor Unit Records now . . . do you think we
need more of that?
C: I think you need more of that , because rappers have to set their own
standards. I mean, the business, I'm caught up in a situation now, I
had a project with a major, and I was told, you know, that if it doesn't
do 470,000 units, I don't stand a chance to gain anything -- 470,000
units! But I've been in another situations where, you know, I have a
situation with another distributor down south where all I have to do
is get up to 75,000 units on a project, even get a little bit of input
into the project, and I actually gain a profit, you know, because I
have full control of the whole
R: So you don't have all these
middlemen, and warehousers . . .
C: All that crap. So the industry is trying to set a standard for
rap, and you see somebody like, a major artist come along, and they
do, like for example Kool G. Rap and Polo or Brand Nubian, and they
clock about 300,000, 250,000, and the record company says they're a
failure, you know, it raises attention to how lopsided the business is
and how much is being taken as the business stands. I always say it's
all dollars and cents, point blank, you have to count how many people
are in the middle. Because you know, like CD's wholesale, go for 9,
for an estimate, wholesale cassettes, most of the retail outlets are 5
dollars, so I take a common figure of 7 dollars, and I multiply it by
200,000, let's say an album does 200,000, right there's 1.4 million
dollars, now even if the record label gave them a 250,000 advance,
they still recoup. Even though, if you add 250,000 -- which are high
figures, they're not giving up those figures -- 250,000 promotion and
video, whatnot, that's 500,000 dollars, you know 1.4 million, you
know, and you can say this and that, this and that. And you know the
argument is made that 200,000 copies in rap actually makes money for
the major, it's just that the artist doesn't get it, not till 450,000.
And that's where the independent situation comes through, you know
Paris sells 250,000, and he's actually in the money, or Ice-T sells
R: You ever think of going independent? Or are you gonna stick with
C: I got partners, I don't think they would want me to go independent.
And then again you got to understand, Columbia's not my label, Sony's
my label. So with the agreements I made with Sony, I got cassettes,
Walkmen, earphones, stuff like that, I try to do my best to stick 'em.
I say, well, they're the ones to stick up more than anybody. Sony?
So I consider myself in a fortunate sitauation. I mean, Sony/Columbia
is a different situation from a lot of artists, 'cause they've kept
their artists for a long time, there's some artists that've been there.
I mean let's look at the case of Fishbone. Fishbone has been a group
that haven't been commercially successful, but they've been there
since '85, '84, you know what I'm sayin', and in any other situation
that's not dealing in music so strongly, or point of view in music,
they'd have been let go a long time ago. They've had artists that
have done 6 or 7 albums. So Columbia has been more of a music label.
I'm not proppin' em, y'know, I'm not proppin' em, they made race
records back in the 20s, so...
R: Yeah, that's a long history there. But I guess with a label like
that, you're carrying. I mean if you sell X million, that goes to an
organization that in a sense is sticking with artists that don't sell
as much ... I've read statistics that say that the bulk of rap sales
are the top few acts, and that some in the industry see them as
carrying the rest of the acts, where in a lot of cases they say
they're taking a fall.
C: They haven't taken a fall, it's like I told you, they haven't taken
a fall. You're not takin' a fall
with 150,000 units sold.
R: Not if you've got control . .
. . that's not bad
C: Of course. You know, so somebody's gotta get into the nitty-gritty
of that information, and just be able to reveal it, and let it go at
that. Plus, these guys are also making a nice nickel off of singles
now. Singles were x-ed out of the market for about 2 or 3 years, once
they stopped makin' the 45 vinyl. I remember, when "Don't Believe the
Hype" came out, and it was actually my last 45, and my first cassette
single. So, that was the era right there, where, you know, people
weren't rushing to buy the cassette singles, and they'd stopped
pickin' up the 45's, so the reason that you seen a lot of rap albums
goin' gold and platinum in that 1988-89 period, is cause a young kid
would come up, an, let's say like "It Takes Two" by Rob Base would
come into the store, they'd look on the racks, and they'd want "It
Takes Two," but Profile did not supply the single, you know what I'm
sayin', and the kid had no other choice but to buy the album for
$9.99. And this happened to a lot of rap albums in that period. If
you look at the rate of rap gold and platinum in '88-'89, it's not
that the music peaked, it's just the business supplied the audience
with only one configuration, so
you had to get the album.
R: That makes more sense to me
C: See these are the facts that I try to lay out there, people will
say, oh, I didn't know that. Whereas some journalist may say, well,
you know, rap peaked here, and now today ... the stats, you know, just
like in sports, the stats can give you a number, but it's not gonna
give you the actual play.
R: Well, what about when they switched to an automated system that
actually polled the registers.
C: Sound Scan?
R: Yeah, that was kind of an eye-opener, 'cause before then the industry
kept on pretending that the real movers and shakers were geriatric
rockers, like the Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney, or whoever, and
suddenly they were forced to
deal with real sales figures.
C: Well, see, they dealt with real sales figures cause they felt that
it was about time to do so, once they figured that a lot of companies
had a lock on rap, I mean, why not, I mean, of course we can say that
Cypress Hill is number one, because we own it. Right now what's
goin' on through rap music, is, sign anybody you can find, and throw
it up on the wall, and what sticks sticks, and what doesn't will slide
off into obscurity.
R: Yeah. Some places now, like I watch out for Epic, they've got a
hyperactive A&R department, they'll put out anything.
C: Yeah, they're the worst, Epic is just horrible. One thing about,
maybe hopefully, with the Flavor Unit situation, maybe they'll be
something. But you gotta understand, with the major labels, all these
label deals inside the major, are designed to fail, eventually.
There's no upside on it. Maybe Russell Simmons will do it, RUSH
associated labels, he's trying to become that David Geffen -- do
volume, do incredible, and then get out in time and be self-
sustaining. But they're having a hard time, I'm telling you, they're
having a hard time even with Onyx, platinum album, and Boss, they're
having a hard time sustaining, so you can imagine anybody else that
does not have those figures.
R: So what is it that gets them?
Is it overhead?
C: Overhead, and over-ambitious. And, like I say, the best
situations, are like, what you see with Paris or Ice-T. Not to say
that those are easy situations, but they're situations that they don't
try to get over-ambitious, they can keep it to one or two groups,
three groups, you know -- three groups at the most. That's something
that might last for twelve, fourteen, fifteen years. Def Jam has been
around, going into their tenth year, but now it's like, it's grown to
a size where they have to do it. Whereas somebody like Sony or
Columbia is backed by so much positioning and power, they're like,
well, maybe we'll get it or maybe not, you know, but Def Jam can't
afford to have a Fishbone.
R: That's wild. 'Cause I always think of DefJam as a big
organization, one of the first, on-the-spot labels, there from the
C: It's like the brontosaurus in the last days, you know? I mean, big
motherfuckin' dinosaur, but there ain't too much to eat! It's a
quiet motherfucker. I mean, I'm tellin' you, I've been with the
organization for seven years, and you know the artist roster, the
amount of money -- you know it's a joint venture with Sony -- the
amount of money that has to go in it just to sustain, to staff it, as
well as the artists, and the promotion. If you don't downscale, if
you don't continue to make cuts, like drop this person, drop that, and
always add on somebody new, and always keep, like, a dream team
number, of like, you got ten artists, that's your dream team number.
That's what label deals should do, with majors. I love Latifah and
everybody, but I foresee that the Epic situation is just gonna run
them ragged. 'Cause you gotta understand, all the groups on the
compilation come out with an album, then they gotta do their second
album, and that's when it gets tough. They gotta do their second
album, you know, the deal's cross-collateralized, or whatever, so it
becomes a big mess when you deal with more than a one-two-three