Chuck D Explains Why Suing The Notorious B.I.G. Was "Stupid" And Why Jay-Z And Kanye West's Bases Are "Corrupt To Rap"
Exclusive: One of the most powerful voices in Rap history speaks about his face-to-face interactions (and legal entanglement) with Biggie and elaborates on his recent tweets aimed at The Throne.
Long before Cash Money was an Army, Public Enemy were the muthafuckin’ Marines. And their commanding officer was Colonel Chuck D.
Inarguably the most powerful baritone to ever breathe into a microphone, the leader of the Long Island military that took over Hip Hop music and culture during the late 1980s and early 1990s commanded a nation of millions of young people (of all races) to tell their parents that Elvis and John Wayne were not heroes, that Martin Luther King, Jr. definitely was, and if they didn’t honor the late great Civil Rights leader with a national holiday heads were gonna roll, literally.
Bad-ass without being “gangsta,” the revolutionary rhymer shared his always challenging thoughts with HipHopDX in advance of the not one, but two new Public Enemy albums set for release during P.E.’s 25th year in the game (Most Of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear On No Stamps due in June, and The Evil Empire Of Everything due in September).
In the first half of DX’s first ever conversation with Chuck Dangerous, the emcee/author/activist enlightened on Elvis and explained why he believes the base of “The Throne” that Jay-Z and Kanye West currently occupy is corrupt. And in a remarkably laidback tone for one of the culture’s most commanding voices (it should be noted however that even in a leisurely convo Chuck will still challenge you to defend your points and positions), the man who has helped us all see our society, and ourselves, in a much clearer way offered some long-overdue clarity on this, the 15th anniversary of the passing of The Notorious B.I.G., as to why he sued Biggie’s estate in the late ‘90s over the usage of his instantly recognizable vocal for the countdown to Big’s “Ten Crack Commandments” and why that lawsuit had “Nothing to do with Biggie.”
HipHopDX: You had me in middle school arguing with my Mom over your “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me / You see straight out racist ….” line [from “Fight The Power”] – defending your position regarding him stealing Black artists songs, with my Mom retorting that, “No, that was [his manager] The Colonel [Tom Parker] that made him do all that.” And then years later you do that Elvis Lives documentary and prove my Mom right. [Laughs]
Chuck D: Yeah, well I mean, my thing was that Elvis [Presley] was an icon to America but he ain’t invent Rock & Roll. There were other Black heroes [that did]. So that whole thing is like, Okay, you gotta mention Bo Diddley, Little Richard and Chuck Berry too. He ain’t “The King.” And that aspect was racist I thought, that people just obscured the Black foundation of what Elvis evolved from. I mean, that happens even to this day.
DX: Yeah, that’s true. I just wish the Internet woulda been poppin’ in 1989 so we all coulda had more information about who was who and what was what, ‘cause I didn’t even know until recently that way back in 1957 Jet magazine interviewed Elvis and he vehemently denied he had ever said that rumored quote, “The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.”
Chuck D: Yeah, well, here’s another thing, it’s like, there’s a lot of things that are off the record that evolved with Elvis as he became more and more kind of like drunk with himself. He started off being quite humble [I learned] from resources, hearing from people speaking that knew him and knew his beginnings: from Bobby “Blue” Bland, I had conversations with Little Richard, Ike Turner. He started out being this cat that loved Black music, the Black environment, the Black way of dress and all that, hangin’ out on Beale Street. In the first part of his career he tried to still frequent the spots and still be local to Memphis – lived in a rather modest house. So that was ’55, ’56, ’57, ’58. But, the bigger and bigger his whole legend grew, the more The Colonel tried to keep him away from normal people. And then when you’re kept away from normal people you start getting drunk with yourself and believing all the hype and become Hollywood and all that. Eventually Black people became less of a concern of where his fanbase was.
DX: Just out of curiosity, was this research you did post-“Fight The Power” or before the song?
Chuck D: Well, “Fight The Power” was 1989 so … I always knew a little bit about Elvis, but as the years went on more and more things are gonna come out and you do research that’s gonna back up what you say. You gotta find things to back up what you say.
DX: Yeah, definitely. I wanna switch gears dramatically here to The Notorious B.I.G. With the 15th anniversary of Big’s passing coming up on Friday, I wanted to ask you if you ever crossed paths with Biggie, and if so what those conversations consisted of?
Chuck D: The first time I saw [The Notorious B.I.G.] was in the basement of Daddy-O of Stetsasonic’s studio in Brooklyn. And he said, “Yo, I’m working with this kid, Big.” [He was] this towering figure with a hood over his head. [Laughs] And I’m like, “Okay, nice to meet you.”
One of the other times I saw Big was - I think he pulled something in his leg or his knee or something and [Diddy] was pushing him around - at a concert in Long Island. So at that time [it was like a] “How you doing? I’ll help you with your wheelchair” type of thing.
I thought he was a good performer. But I think Puffy had a lot to do with that training and developing, and that’s something that’s overlooked. And when it came down to Big, I think Puffy was just as much of an important figure in his development as Big was with his ability. And, I’m not a person who goes on hype, I’ve seen ‘em all, so … I rank him high. People said he’s the greatest ever, I said only a kid would be fascinated. And I wasn’t a kid.
DX: I have to ask this follow-up: Did you ever regret at all suing over the “Shut ‘Em Down” [vocal] sample in “Ten Crack Commandments”? ‘Cause I know DJ Premier was seriously pissed at you for years after that.
Chuck D: Me and [DJ Premier] is cool. Matter fact, that was an issue before I even knew Preemo was a part of the thing.
Remember, Bad Boy [Records] was going around saying how much money they had and this and that, and I had songwriters who are connected to me who were basically saying, “Well, the song that they’re using, Chuck what’s up?” And the fact is that the crack commandments were something that I was like okay … I don’t agree with it, but … it’s a master use, whatever. But songwriters want their piece. And they, [the song’s producers, The Imperial Grand Ministers Of Funk], said, “Well, if they’re going around and flaunting and falutin about how much they got … then what’s up with our rights to the song?” And I’m like, “Okay, alright you guys.” So, I mean, this is not no kids game, this is real shit.
Taking [my] voice to me is a defamation of character, but really the songwriters pushed the issue as saying, “Alright, that’s part of our song too and we helped write that, so where’s our royalties? Who handles that?”
DX: So this was more business really than a personal issue?
Chuck D: Well, my thing is I don’t go after anybody. But in that particular case, which was coming from Bad Boy, which was BMG, which was who sued me on another end – it was like one of those things. So it really had nothing to do with Biggie. Nothing. It had nothing to do with Premier. And at the end of the day, it was Def Jam and Bad Boy, it was BMG and Universal. It was really one of those … it was just stupid.
But at the same time, I told Puffy, I said, “You know, you guys, when it comes down to me give me a heads-up. Don’t be doing something [when] you know where I am and you know where I come from. How you gonna just go and do some shit like that and not talk to me?” And from that point on, it was cool. That’s when you seen [Diddy remake] “Public Enemy No. 1.” And he called me [about that] when I was in the middle of Guitar Center or whatever and said, “Yo, I just wanna know if it’s cool?”
So, that was the biggest thing … talk to me. And, kids only look at the lawsuit. They’re kids, what do they know? They scream and holler about anything, but at the end of the day it was a settlement between Universal and BMG, Bad Boy and Def Jam. It had nothing to really do with me.
Those guys are all in bed with each other, but nobody asks that question.
DX: Well let me ask that question -
Chuck D: For the longest Puffy was mad at Russell [Simmons]. [Laughs] So I’m like, “Look, I ain’t in the middle of all that. Just make sure you call me before you do anything regarding me if you gonna go in that direction. Simple as that.” It’s simple. And it’s been cool ever since.
And me and Premo’s been fine ever since, but you know … initially Premo had nothing to do with it. Not with me. I’m like, “Okay, you tied with this by default,” but … I don’t know.
DX: I think he just took it as maybe a personal slight [since he produced the track].
Chuck D: Yeah, because he was tied up with that whole Bad Boy operation, and so when it came down to him actually receiving his royalty for the song they wanna tie him up. So I’m like, “Yo, man, forget all that. Let’s deal with each other as people.”
People have the understanding now, [but] at that time people were sticking their noses all up in the corporations booty.
DX: At that time, you mean, what, last week? [Laughs]
Chuck D: No, especially back [in the ‘90s]. As much money as they was paying people, and people flaunting and throwing money at the camera, it was like the majors had a dominant hold on people’s … everything. And I was rebelling against that structure. Hard. I was like, “Man, fuck BMG. Fuck Sony. And fuck Universal too.” I was going after them hard. And still to this day.
DX: Speaking of, you just did on March 2nd via Twitter [@MrChuckD]. I gotta ask you about your tweet, “Ye is a Hip Hop God as Jay is, but their bases are corrupt to Rap.” Were you saying their fanbases, their corporate bases, or both?
Chuck D: Their corporate bases are corrupt to Rap.
I mean, why would you think any different? Listen man, in any kind of business what you want is fair trade. This is what people lobby for, this is what people protest for, fair trade. And fair trade is actually saying that, Alright, you have somebody who comes up in a local [scene], at least they should be heard on local radio. But corporate radio and corporations have dominated over that existence, wiping out that foundation [for fairness]. And therefore the little business can’t even start up right, unless it’s corrupt and just totally, violently opposed to what the community is evolved from. So you gotta be national to even make it locally, where you should be local to make it locally. And even down to speaking to a school or whatever, if the local artists at the top of the local pack aren’t revered as being some sort of heroes, then who you gonna get to talk to the kids at the schools and all that? You gotta wait for a national hero, who might never come? So, too many people are focused on national [artists] who never will come in front of their own eyes and face on a one-on-one relationship. It’s almost like people are screaming at a dream.
In the past you would have somebody from the local are who would actually give advice, give inspiration, be able to be some sort of benchmark for people to follow if they wanted to do the same thing. So that has been totally eradicated as far as the community is concerned, destroyed by urban corporate radio, which means … take the Black ownership out. And also destroyed by the corporation of recording situations which kind of like dominate over those radio stations.
And over television. Somebody does an independent video, they can’t get it on Viacom networks, unless they deliver it with closed caption, high-definition, and also it has to be sanctioned, it has to be agreed upon. It’s a game, so … the Internet is an ally, and it’s supplementary, but it could never be a main venue for your local survival.
DX: I wanna get more into that discussion about corporate control here in a minute, but I do have one more question regarding that tweet I asked you about. You additionally tweeted that Kanye and Jay’s song, “Ngs in Paris appeals to who? Black folk in France? USA White kids? Black kids who probably never learn further about it, perhaps never go there?” Can you elaborate on that tweet for me a little bit?
Chuck D: I think it’s self-explanatory; it’s more like a statement. It’s like, appeals to who? It’s also a question, maybe you can fill it [in]? ‘Cause it’s like, Black kids who would never know about a Paris or a France … “Niggas In Paris” means what? Who’s happy about that at the end of the day? Niggas in Paris? [Laughs] Is that what they saying? Or, White people in the United States who are happy to just say, “Well, yeah, there’s a bunch of niggas in Paris”? You tell me. I mean, don’t ask me, tell me. What do you think?
DX: I just presume that they – This is a presumption, obviously, that Kanye and Jay thought that was a progressive statement in some way.
Chuck D: Alright, in what way? I mean, it ain’t like you in fifth grade, maybe you can tell me.
DX: Just that – I think you actually had a [Twitter] follower tweet you something to the extent of that he was inspired by the song, that it made him think he could be in Paris someday too I guess, I don’t know.
Chuck D: Well don’t say you don’t know. Either you know or you don’t. I mean, I’m just saying, it’s like, what do you think? This is what I’m saying, I just put out a tweet that was just like saying, Okay, now where do you wanna really sit with this? When does it get to a point where – It doesn’t allow us to be like bi-polar with it, like, “Oh yeah, I don’t wanna be called no nigga in anything, but at the same time I can be a nigga in Paris.”
And I’m not even trying to get deep on the issue other than the fact that there are plenty of other songs that get no light, at all, on these same radio stations because of “Niggas In Paris.” So the best answer was probably Yasiin Bey, a/k/a Mos Def’s response, “Niggas In Poorest.” Maybe that should be played as much, right?
So, I think they’re Hip Hop Gods, but at the same time it’s like I don’t think you can be 35 and 40 years old and just pretend to be 12 and 15. C’mon now. [Sighs] What do you think?
DX: I’m as frustrated as you are, honestly.
Chuck D: I mean, I’m not mad at them, I’m happy that they’re great artists. But at the same time, I’m always gonna be mad at the machine. I’m always gonna be angry at corporations. And I’m always gonna be angry at people that show off their money to the poor and the growing poor in America and across the world. That’s just how I am. And people can say that’s bitter, but why wouldn’t I be angry at that? I know I’m privileged, but I’m just totally, totally against somebody showing off riches to the poor. It goes against every fuckin’ storybook tale that we’ve learned since kindergarten. Robin Hood robbed from the rich and gave to the poor and was a hero. How the fuck you gonna rob from the poor and be the rich and be a hero? It just doesn’t make any damn sense.
Stay tuned to HipHopDX for the equally engrossing conclusion to our conversation with Chuck D, in which the living legend expounds on everything from the death threats that were sent to him after “By The Time I Get To Arizona” to Too Short’s theory that a record label conspiracy shut down conscious Hip Hop to why he believes you should re-elect President Obama.