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Hip-hop elder

Public Enemy

Chuck D loves making analogies.

Public Enemy, the innovative activist hip-hop group he fronts, is rap's Rolling Stones. Record companies are like hair bands, circa early '90s. Governments are the cancer of civilization.

That the vociferous MC, a46-year-old born Carlton Ridenhour, is a frequent employer of the rhetorical device is unsurprising. He's just trying to make his point and make it stick.

As he's forged in recent years - with little archetype to draw from - the public persona of hip-hop's elder statesman, Chuck D has been doing the same thing: trying to get his message of political action across however he can.

So if hosting an Air America radio show or an ESPN special on Muhammad Ali helps turn people on to P.E., job well done. The same goes for the publicity generated by the group's hype man Flavor Flav, a near-constant presence on cable TV and the star of his own reality show, "Flavor of Love."


"That's just a viaduct," Chuck D said in a recent 30-minute phone interview with The Forum. "They count because we never ever could rely on MTV being our darlings or BET being our darlings."

That's also why the group has spent so much time on the road, building a global fan base with tours that took them to places like Ghana and Croatia. By its own count, Public Enemy is now on its 56th tour. This is the first time, however, that it's made it to some of the small markets on its current schedule, including Fargo.

All part of the plan, Chuck D said.

"We always had a model: We'll get to you," he said.

The Forum: What has your impression been of some of these smaller Midwestern cities?

Chuck D: It is kind of special because we come into a marketplace that might have really become acclimated to rap music and hip-hop over the last 10 years but probably had nobody trek through or visit it on the regular.

Do you get a sense from crowds that you're drawing new fans because of the exposure Flavor Flav has been getting?

When people see him [at a Public Enemy show], they say, 'Whoa, there is a history behind him.' Remember, we're in America. America is more like now, now, now, now, now, and very transparent on any past and not really hinging on any future. So when they see he's got a history and see him get down, they're like, 'Whoaaa!' America seems to sometimes forget that people come from somewhere.


Is that happening a lot? Are people coming in that have seen Flav on TV, going to a show and getting blown away?

It's a mix. You've got people who have heard about Public Enemy that never could have gotten to a show. You have people that grew with Public Enemy. You've got people who weren't old enough to check out P.E. and are real hip-hop fans. You've got young hip-hop fans who definitely want to be able to check out the classics. When I grew up, I knew that the Beatles and The Who and the Rolling Stones and the Isley Brothers and Parliament Funkadelic, you know, I knew that they were the real classics. When I was in high school, Frampton and Boston and Nico and maybe ABBA were the ones that were presented to me as main artists. But as a fan of music, you go back.

You're playing with a live band on this tour, right?

I tell people, I say, 'Hey man. Public Enemy really was the first to take all these aspects of records and sounds and the Bomb Squad, and all of this is just a return to that factor.' ... It's just the natural ingredients that help us make our records anyway. So it's very organically a part of the Public Enemy show.

Do you agree with the notion that hip-hop with live instrumentation seems to attract a larger white audience?

Well, most of America's white. It depends on where you're at and what you're doing. If you go to Africa, you're going to attract a black audience because they're going to appreciate the instrument-playing. ... There's no language more universal than music itself. Whether it's instrumentation, whether its records, whether it's somebody just popping a record through their iPod on an mp3, I think it's the attraction of music that brings a wider audience. If you're talking about the demographics of the United States or Canada or places where there happens to be, quote unquote, white people, it's going to bring a wider audience as well.

What is the biggest thing having a negative effect on hip-hop?

The biggest thing to have a negative effect on hip-hop is the lack of an organization and structure. For example, in other music or even in sports, you see the players end up taking on ancillary duties. ... In rap music, it's sort of like those who participated at a higher level end up disappearing and fading away and never engage in making some of the new things better. That's a critical issue. ... At the end of the day when you ask young people, 'Well you saw the show. Did you enjoy it?' they shrug their shoulders and say, 'It was all right.' They really, really don't get it. They can't make a comparison between a good show, a great show and wack show. We have to continue to work on that.


Do you think we're at the beginning of an era when the recording industry model will break down?

The model is breaking down before your ears. I mean look man, seriously, MySpace is really the oncoming of things I talked about 10 years ago, when I said there would be a million labels and a million artists all doing their thing. The music industry is vibrant. It has more participants. Eventually the marketplace, especially rap music and hip-hop, will have more do-it-yourself artists doing it better than artists that got signed. ... The guys at the corporations, [they're] all business-heads. They didn't give a damn about the music. They could have been selling burgers.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535

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