Interview: Public Enemy's Chuck D on 30 Years of Production

Pioneering hip-hop artist, political activist, and producer Carlton Douglas Ridenhour — professionally known as Chuck D — has spent a lifetime drawing attention to social injustice through his art, poetry, and music.

Chuck D

Over his 30-year career, Chuck D’s undeniable cultural relevance has led to collaborations with artists as diverse as Anthrax, Janet Jackson, John Mellencamp, and Sonic Youth.

His newest project sees him teaming up with members from Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave, and Cypress Hill to form Prophets of Rage. The activist supergroup kicks off on tour this week ahead of the release of their first full-length record.

We had a chance to catch up with Chuck D to discuss the dynamics of The Bomb Squad, advantages of modern record production, and the organic process of forming a musical squadron.

When did you first start writing poetry?

In school, you’d have the art contest, and you’d have the poetry contest. I was an art student and always won the art contests. I didn't even really bother with writing any poetry until I was 20 years old, and it took off from there.

How did growing up in Queens inform your approach to art?

Being a black family in the 1960s from New York, music was always around. I was raised on Motown, Stax, and Atlantic records in the house with my father also being a member of the Columbia Jazz Record Club. The combination of that musical influence alongside my mother teaching theater and my art studies, it was just a natural progression into my adult career.

Public Enemy - "Don't Believe The Hype"

Where do you find inspiration currently compared to when you first started Public Enemy?

When I formed [Public Enemy], Margaret Thatcher was running the UK, the Berlin Wall was still up, Nelson Mandela was in prison, and Reagan and Bush were the president and vice president. A lot of things were going on in the world at that time when I first started at 27 years old. Now, here I am at 57, and the world is in a similar situation. It's upside down.

As far as musical inspiration, I don't think there's proper curation for all the great music that's on the internet. The artists are there, but the curators are not. Then, the curators — because they're swamped with the massive delivery of music — tend to take the easy way out by saying, "I'm going to cover this hundred instead of this thousand."

I counter that by saying, "How many people play sports in the world? They're curated into the organization, right? How many people put on their gym shoes, sneakers, or trainers and run or play pickup basketball?"

I find joy in going on the internet, discovering great music, and building portals to channel them so they can have a place to play."

So, the cream is going to rise to the top, but all the areas are there to curate that athlete. Those areas are not there in music. I find joy in going on the internet, discovering great music, and building portals to channel them so they can have a place to play.

I try to create these avenues by running The SpitSlam Record Label Group and so they can come and do their thing. I don't really go outside of the genre a lot when it comes down to rap stations. We divvy up all the participants, carve them out into their little niche areas, and then try to maximize all those areas. It’s enjoyable and rewarding.

Throughout your career in music and activism, which collaborators have you enjoyed working with the most?

Everybody from Ice Cube to John Mellencamp to Mavis Staples. Ms. Mavis was particularly special. She is like the godmother of Chicago, and she blesses the city with a great message on "Give We The Pride." I feel like Chicago slept on that one, you should bring it back up.

Chuck D - "Give We The Pride" ft. Mavis Staples

How did The Bomb Squad form?

We were making the Public Enemy records, and that’s how we came together. We developed a system that was similar to the Motown assembly line machine, where everybody had their role and responsibility to complete on a song.

I would write the song, pick the samples that fit, and arrange it, combined with Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee, Eric "Vietnam" Sadler, and later on Gary G-Wiz. It was about putting a song together from different vantage points. That was our strength in numbers.

Did you have all the ideas for the samples in pre-production, or did you choose them during the production process as you were making it?

A combination of a bunch of things and also the discovery process. Remember, those samples came from records. So, as you're putting the needle on the record, you're finding sounds and verbs and words that fit along with the theme of the song. Sometimes, it was divine intervention.

Part of those production credits over the years used the name Carl Rider. I use monikers sometimes in my music, so I'm always interested why people choose certain names. What was the reason behind Carl Rider?

It was a shortening of my name, Carlton Ridenhour.

How does that differ from Mistachuck as far as creative approaches and what you want to release under those names?

Mistachuck is just a greying of age. The Autobiography of Mistachuck was my first solo record. Somebody might say, "What do I call you, do I call you mister?" I might say, "I'm alright with that. I am your elder, why not?"

Chuck D - "Mistachuck"

Throughout working with The Bomb Squad, other collaborations, and your solo work, what's the biggest production obstacle you've had to overcome?

The digital world has made it easy, but you've got to know the hard road in order to appreciate the easy road. I think a lot of people who have grown up with digital don't know the hard years. Aesthetically, the simple things — like artwork, having to wait 24 hours for FedEx versus getting it instantly via email — is a blessing.

Recording-wise, let's say you have a take, and the take is really hot on your vocals and you're almost there, but all of a sudden you don't nail it. You would have to wait for the tape to rewind for you to go again. There were certain times I was so close, but I couldn't really wait the 30 seconds to start again. I was so happy to see that eliminated. You know what I'm talking about?

Yes, it's very cumbersome looking back at that and realizing what the standard is now. It's hard to fathom ever going back.

The digital world has made it easy, but you've got to know the hard road in order to appreciate the easy road. I think a lot of people who have grown up with digital don't know the hard years."

The worst thing is waiting so you can start all over again [because] you might lose it in that 30 seconds. Now, with digital, you can start in less than five seconds and capture that take again. You have less of a chance to stunt your workflow. I think this is the first time anybody has ever talked about that.

I read somewhere that you're not a big fan of punching in. In the digital world, would you like to punch in, or would you just rewind the entire section and go back and do the whole thing?

I'd rather not punch in, but sometimes you might have an engineer — like we have Brendan O'Brien and Tom Syrowski, and they're not playing games. Many times, I might want to go all the back and do it over again, but with their level of efficiency, they say, "You almost nailed it, let's just get it from here." And boom, it’s done.

It was a great experience working with Brendan and Tom. Doing the first Prophets of Rage album was almost like going back to 1987, when we made the first Public Enemy album — all of us in a room together pretty much hashing it out.

Give us a little background on how Prophets of Rage came together.

It was from of the mind of Tom Morello. It was organic process, it had to be. I think I was one of the last to be asked to join. Once you had the core of Tom and Tim and Brad formed, it was game time. Tom reached out to me and a couple of things happened, then I brought in DJ Lord to make it different than just fronting Rage Against The Machine 2.0.

It didn't become a reality until B-Real came into the picture. That's when it became clear to me that I could be a number two mic to his number one, and I really enjoy and relish the role. B-Real is a phenomenal MC — one of the best of all time — and it's great to actually work in his shadow and make the shadow stronger.

Chuck D Performing with Prophets of Rage

Many times, it's underrated when it comes to producing a vocalist, which is different than having a vocalist get on the mic and do his thing. The production of a vocalist and the strength of the number two mic behind the number one mic, you have to play the A1-A2 game to make these vocals cohesive.

Especially when you're doing songs that cover Rage Against The Machine and the 25-year-old Zack de la Rocha. What we lack in that fury of a guy sounding like a knife is turning in him, we make up with power and execution.

Are any of the production approaches for this record drastically different from ways you’ve produced records before?

The convergence of analog and digital recording methods. Brendan was able to tie those worlds together really well and adapt to producing a turntablist like DJ Lord. He is able to manage the spontaneous amalgamation of MCs, a bass player, a drummer, a guitarist of high note, turntablism, and to bring it all together in accord.

Brendan also came along with the idea of "reduction is also production." The ability to truncate all these ideas into something cohesive was something that he was able to have a go at really quickly.

Prophets of Rage - "Radical Eyes"

According to the published discography, Prophets of Rage released an EP in August 2016. Now, this studio LP is slated for September 2017. How did the approach change when it came to making a full-length?

It was a longer vision that came through when we performed live and in the making of the song "Prophets of Rage." Also, solidifying the RAGE-ified song "Shut Em Down" as well as the other material we were working with to make that first release.

As far as the record companies are concerned, I don't believe in terms called EP and LP. These are terms that came out of the ‘50s and ‘60s that people don't understand in the 21st century anyway. They keep trying to label artwork in this manner, and I choose not to talk about my work with their record company jargon shit.

What’s the most important topic in modern society that should get more attention?

The ability to have the world communicate with each other on these gadgets more than the governments are actually trying to control people. They're trying to control people, but these gadgets are out there tying human beings together, so the governments have a loss of control of that. That's the difficulty that a lot of these systems are facing — that people are communicating faster than the law.

For more information about Prophets of Rage’s self-titled debut studio album and to check out upcoming tour dates, visit their website.

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