CONTROVERSY AND CONFRONTATION ARE SYNONYMOUS WITH PUBLIC ENEMY'S incendiary brand of hip-hop. Devoid of gangsta clichés and pop-rap treacle, the group’s full-frontal lyrical and aural assault is designed to challenge social and sonic complacency. Public Enemy’s core line-up—iconic rapper, writer, and producer Chuck D, and rappers Flavor Flav and Professor Griff—always infuses its music with charged messages about demolishing social inequity, racism, and government corruption. Most importantly, the group encourages African-Americans to empower themselves, as Malcolm X once said, “by any means necessary.”
Musically speaking, Public Enemy represents the hip-hop world’s equivalent of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, with layer upon layer of samples and pounding rhythms, as well as live rock instrumentation. Now in its 20th year, Public Enemy has just released Rebirth of a Nation [Guerilla Funk], the second in a trilogy of CDs that offers bold commentary on the chaotic state of global affairs, as well as the sound of electric guitars—which is an element rarely found in today’s hip-hop tracks.
“Most hip-hop is now keyboard driven, because the majority of hip-hop workstations have loops and patches that enable somebody with marginal skills to put tracks together,” says Paris, a prominent hip-hop artist who also served as the writer, producer, and arranger of Rebirth of a Nation. “Unfortunately, most hip-hop artists gravitated towards the path of least resistance by relying on these pre-set patches. As a result, electric guitar and real musicians became devalued, and a lot of hip-hop now sounds the same.”
In contrast, Public Enemy remains committed to going against the grain by incorporating a more organic approach into its music. Since 2002, the group has worked with a core group of musicians, including guitarist Khari Wynn, bassist Brian Hardgroove, drummer Mike Faulkner, and turntablist DJ Lord.
“When I’m onstage with the band, I take an almost James Brown-like role,” says Chuck D. “I signal to people when to come in, when to lay out, and when a player should be given more room. I’m pretty good at navigating the stage.”
Taking a short break from running his Slam Jamz label—and railing against the politics of radio and television in his lecture tours and media work—Chuck D spoke with GP about racist “bubbles,” musical education, and the glories of the electric guitar.
Describe the significance of electric guitar in Public Enemy’s music.
We’ve used live guitarists since our first record, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, in 1987, which had Vernon Reid on it. Public Enemy has always included electric guitar in its music in some way. Some guitar elements are played, and others are sampled. We got involved with electric guitar because we were educated with a sense of what good music was. When I grew up in the ’70s, I would listen to AM radio and hear stuff like Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years,” the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” and James Brown’s “Doing it to Death,” which all start off with some great guitar licks. We appreciate guitarists, because we have always stayed true to the original spirit of hip-hop—which means respecting the records we use to make our music. We know the musicians, sessions, and labels involved with the great records of the past. Having that knowledge allows us to best take advantage of the realm of samples, because you need to know exactly what to look for, how to look for it, and where those sonic elements will sit in the mix.
Who were your favorite guitarists to sample?
We never went wrong with Albert King, because he brought some really funky guitar to the table on those classic Stax records. We also liked to use James Brown’s guitarists—like Jimmy Nolan—because of their great rhythms and freedom of expression. Then we’d use ’70s guitar riffs from people like Leslie West and Billy Squier. They had a big beat happening, and the guitar was never that far away from it. Most hip-hop cats turned off the record as soon as the guitars came in, but that’s pretty much where Public Enemy always started.
Where does guitar typically fit into the Public Enemy soundscape?
Public Enemy’s music has always consisted of three different layers. You have a bottom layer with drums, percussion, and bass rhythms. Next, you have the vocal layer. Then you have the topping, which is almost always guitar-driven in our music—whether it’s rhythm guitar or psychedelic fuzz noise. When the topping doesn’t consist of guitar, we apply some other noise, but in a driving guitar kind of way.
What’s your perspective on the prominence of electric guitar in African-American music today?
It troubles me that black music is now largely devoid of guitar. A lot of today’s black musicians don’t acknowledge that you can combine great beats with a great guitar lick. So, we have this situation where we have great black guitarists like Vernon Reid, Eric Gales, and Ernie Isley getting ignored
by both the rock world and the black urban music community. Black people don’t acknowledge them, because they aren’t getting played on their radio and television stations. Therefore, black people have been disenfranchised from the guitar for most of the last 40 years.
A lot of this can be traced back to the early days of MTV. When MTV first came on, it would have Poison, Ratt, and bands of that ilk, and their image would make black people run from MTV. Because of their mis-education, black people didn’t realize that those white boys were, in fact, playing riffs that were created 70 years prior by black artists. It resulted in subsequent black music being practically devoid of guitar—even rhythm guitar. And the rhythm guitar that did exist would be tucked so far back in the mix that it was irrelevant. As for the rock guys, they’ve always been in their own little racist bubble most of the time. These bubbles are a big problem with a lot of musicians. They create a bubble, thrive in it, and don’t hear anything outside of it.
What would get African-American listeners interested in guitar again?
It’s related to improving education during elementary and high school. People inherently love music, but if you don’t give people knowledge when they’re first drawn to music, you’re putting their musical interests in the attaché cases of business. The worst situation is having businesspeople tell you what to like. Educators try to tell you something. Businesspeople try to sell you something.
Describe your creative process.
When I get an idea, I write it down, and then I try to attach a great title to it. The title is paramount in spurring me to move forward. A great guitar lick can also inspire me to write. Next, I try to find a musical situation that looks like it might fit with the idea. Sometimes, I’ll think of something that looks like it will be a disastrous fit, and that usually makes me even more attracted to it. Putting the musical side together is like being in the middle of a meteor storm: You can’t tell how or when you’re going to be hit in the head with what rock.
In 2002, Public Enemy went on tour for the first time with a live band featuring Khari Wynn on guitar. Tell me about the decision to expand beyond turntables and microphones.
We added the band so we could have a lot more flexibility. It was Griff’s idea. He said we need the ability to do our classic songs, but not be locked into the recorded versions. With a band, you can take the live performance into a lot of new areas. It adds a fuller sound that you can’t get from just playing back a recording. The band also allows us to improvise like you wouldn’t believe. We have commanding vocals between Flavor and myself, and everyone else in the line-up is a musician. In fact, Flavor can play guitar, bass, and drums, and Griff is also a drummer. Public Enemy now represents the best rap situation ever, because of the band’s musicianship, knowledge, and ability to add to the aura of noise.