POP MUSIC : Checking In With Chuck D. : The thinking-man’s rapper continues to generate both alarm and acclaim while leading Public Enemy on a ‘live-and-learn mission’

<i> Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic</i>

It’s easy to understand why Public Enemy’s Chuck D. looks tired as he slumps in a chair on the patio of a West Hollywood hotel the morning after the first of the rap group’s two concerts with U2 last weekend at Dodger Stadium.

The problem, says the 32-year-old New Yorker, is that he has been on the run since Public Enemy started touring with U2 early last month, including a quick flight back to Philadelphia on his day off earlier in the week to help a supportive radio station celebrate its 10th anniversary.

To the pop world, however, Chuck D. seems to have been on the run nonstop for five years now.

It was 1987 when Public Enemy’s debut album, “Yo! Bum Rush the Show,” ushered in a new era in rap by adding a sense of social-political urgency and sophistication to a field that had been dismissed largely as lightweight.

Like Bob Marley in reggae during the ‘70s, Chuck D. (real name: Carlton Ridenhour) not only influenced a new generation of rappers, but also became an ambassador for the music. In that role, he helped expand the tough inner-city sound to a much wider audience.


By 1992 standards, some of Public Enemy’s early tunes, including “Prophets of Rage” and “Miuzi Weighs a Ton,” are tame. But they were the first wave of hard-core, accusatory rap, and they were attacked at the time as everything from inflammatory to racist.

Chuck D. fought back in his music and in interviews, spreading a message of black pride and self-reliance that decried gang violence and drugs as quickly as it attacked governmental indifference and oppression. In 1988’s “Don’t Believe the Hype,” he declared, “I’m not a hooligan. . . . I’m not a racist.”

He continues to push boundaries, generating more criticism and alarm last year in the video for “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” which included a staged assassination of politicians. The song was a slap at Arizona officials for failing to join the rest of the nation in declaring a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

The U2 tour should expand the audience for Public Enemy and rap even more, as the group performs before 50,000-plus fans a night (the tour includes shows Tuesday at San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium and Saturday at Anaheim Stadium; Public Enemy also plays the Anaconda club in Santa Barbara on Monday). During the hotel interview, rap’s most acclaimed figure looked back on the last five years of rap and of Public Enemy.

Question: How would you rate the state of rap today?

Answer: People used to say rap wasn’t going to last . . . rap wasn’t going to grow. Well, we took it around the world four times, 36 countries, 22 tours, five albums. Now, the companies are all out there promoting it. There are rap sections 40 feet long in stores that once didn’t want to carry any rap records.

You’ve also got 15 to 20 times as many groups as you had five years ago, and I’m happy that more people are getting their shot. What I’m not happy about is the little control that rap artists have over the money they (bring in).

Q: What do you mean?

A: Rap makes a gigantic profit and that means record companies and the industry want to milk it for what it’s worth. But they don’t seem to have any interest in long-term career development the way they do with pop or rock acts. I think most companies prefer to have the groups disposable so they won’t have to get involved with the big contracts. They’d like to have 10 young groups this year and then replace them with 10 more young groups next year so they can pay (beginner’s) royalties.

The biggest problem, however, is that the industry isn’t making an opportunity for blacks in business roles. Look at record companies, management companies, but more important, look at lawyers and accountants, and you won’t find too many brothers in those areas. Maybe it’s because a lot of brothers don’t know these services need to be taken up. At the same time, the companies aren’t showing any willingness to train (minorities) or recruit them in these areas.

Q: How has media understanding of rap changed over the last five years?

A: There are still a lot of problems in the media because most writers don’t have any understanding of the hip-hop culture, but the situation has definitely improved. One thing that has (helped) is that more people have grown up with hip-hop and are able to write about it.

If there was a riot five years ago at a rap concert, there was almost no defense in the media. . . . There was no one to say that the problems might be the result of social conditions . . . gangs and such . . . not something caused by the rappers. But now you have some voices that will step forward and put the whole thing into better perspective.

Remember the riot six years ago in Long Beach and what happened to Run-DMC, how everyone blamed the group instead of the gangs for the fighting at the show?

That’s one of the things that made me get into this. I knew the media was doggin’ Run-DMC for something the group had no control over. They were asking all kinds of questions and (the members of Run-DMC) were young. They didn’t know how to defend themselves. Run got a bad rap from that incident, and it is hard for him to rebound from it to this day. I was older and I thought I could bring some new thinking to the whole situation. I thought, “That’s something I can do with my music. I can talk about the truth.”

Q: How about radio today? Is black radio any more open to rap than it was five years ago?

A: Radio is worse than it has ever been. Pop radio plays more rap than black radio. Right now, 70% of the black radio format is “quiet storm,” those slow ballads. That’s because their advertisers basically want to reach females 25 and older . . . and their researchers say that audience doesn’t like rap. So they play the ballads. I hate it. I can’t take another ballad. Rap gets more exposure on video channels than it does on radio . . . the Box and MTV and BET. That’s how rap is staying in the marketplace. That and talk on the streets.

Q: Does it make sense to you when someone calls you the Bob Marley of rap?

A: I know that a lot of people respect Bob Marley, so that’s nice. He was a giant in music around the world. I’m still just hoping to work up to that level someday. But I never set out to be another Bob Marley or another anyone in music.

When I was a kid, I was such a sports idiot that the only person I ever wanted to be like was Dr. J (former basketball great Julius Erving). So I wanted to be the Dr. J of rap. Dr. J came from my hometown, Roosevelt, Long Island, and he was someone that everyone respected . . . the players and the public.

Q: What do you think is the biggest public misconception about you?

A: Where do I start? I’ve heard it all. I guess the main thing is that a lot of people think I’m on some kind of search-and-destroy mission . . . out to tear everything down. The truth is I have a great respect for this planet and God’s creations. If anything, I’m on a live-and-learn mission. We all have to learn to live together. We have to coexist, and that means learning more about each other . . . education. Too many people in this world are just trained to believe certain things, and it’s hard to get them to change their mind. But the only tools you have are communication, education.

No one is going to agree on everything, but there is a starting place. The Earth is the only place we can live so we have to take care of it, and we have to respect each other because we need each other for our existence. We better start on those two points and build on from there.

Q: How did you develop your style . . . your themes?

A: We wanted to be different from other artists--so we would stand out. Everybody in rap at the time was talking about gold chains and being stupid, and (producer Hank Shocklee) and I wanted to find a new direction. What always gave rap a leg up on other musics was the anger in it, but the anger before was always directed at other rappers--"I’m better than you” and so forth. When we came along, we decided to direct our anger at something real . . . the government and people who were responsible for what was happening in society. If you look back at our first record, the subtitle is “The Government Is Responsible.”

Q: What was the reaction in rap circles?

A: If you introduce something strong, there is always going to be mixed feelings. . . . Some people will want to tune you out, but others might start checking you out, wanting to find out more. I’d say by the second album it was easier. You weren’t alone in an empty room talking about a subject nobody else was talking about. Soon, pretty much everybody in rap seemed to be talking about real things.

Q: Do you feel a kinship to rappers like Ice Cube and Ice-T?

A: Absolutely. I was at Cube’s the other night. We have to support each other as peers, as artists because I really do believe there is an underlying tone in America that doesn’t want to see black men express themselves, whether what they’re saying is right or wrong. . . . But that expression is essential if we are going to change things as a society. When Ice Cube talks about a Korean situation in the neighborhood, people shouldn’t look at it as being an attack, but they should look at it as a host of questions that need to be answered.

One problem is all these watchdogs out there. As soon as you say anything about this group or that group, they turn the watchdogs loose and say, “Sic ‘em.” They accuse you of being anti-Semitic or anti-Korean or anti-women. They set up these barriers that make it hard to talk about real issues and real concerns because they try to put you on the defensive.

Q: What about Ice-T’s “Cop Killer”? Do you think he took the record off the album because he was concerned about the pressure on people around him, as he said, or do you think he was forced to do it by Time Warner?

A: You can’t pressure Ice-T, man. If he pulls a record, you know it has to be real steep for people around him . . . his family, friends, the support group at the record company. Those threats were real . . . threats on people’s lives, their jobs, their companies. At some point, you have to say, “I’ll have to put an end to this struggle for now, but it’ll go on in other ways.” A fight is not just me slugging it out with you all day long. It can also take the form of guerrilla actions. You’ll see Ice-T fight back.

Q: What do you think of what’s happening to Sinead O’Connor?

A: That’s a tough one. Even if she had the facts on the Pope and the Catholic Church, the average person isn’t going to listen to her. That’s not a topic people are going to want to debate. It’s a closed issue.

Q: What would be your advice to her?

A: Well, maybe just that if you are going to say something controversial, don’t cry when the pressure comes, because it is going to come and you’re going to have to deal with it. In our neighborhood, you have people who have different religious beliefs and they sit on the corner arguing all day. Religion has been used in good ways and bad ways.

You can’t change people by attacking something. You can change them by presenting a picture of what you believe. As Elijah Muhammad says, “You hold a clean glass up to a dirty one and let people choose for themselves.”

Q: I thought you vowed last year not to play Arizona until the King holiday was approved there. Why did you decide to go onstage in Phoenix with U2?

A: When we saw the date on the U2 schedule, we thought about not playing it. Then we saw that the concert was only 10 days before the election so we thought we could make a point by playing it . . . stir up some noise and get people to think about voting in the King day. I think it worked out real good. We just did our normal intro and then we did “By the Time I Get to Arizona” and left the stage. The reaction was crazy, man. There were these 80,000 white kids with their fists in the air . . . like saying, “You’re right, it was a slap in the face of black America for Arizona not to have a King day.” I actually felt a sense of accomplishment when we left there.

Q: What about the Los Angeles riots? Anything left to say about them?

A: I think it all has pretty much been said. To me, it was a situation of people who felt that their community wasn’t theirs. Most black people feel that way. People were saying, “You are ripping up your own community.” But I say it’s not ours. We don’t have any control over it.

Q: Are you any more optimistic about the future in America than you were five years ago?

A: I think rap music has brought a lot of the tensions and problems out into the open . . . and that’s not going to stop. There are new voices coming along all the time. But you have this tug of war. . . . You have something pulling people together, but then you have certain people who don’t want to lose control, who don’t want to lose money. As people work to try to get it better, there is something that is always going to try to throw salt in the game because they will lose something.

Q: What do you say to people who see the violence in the “By the Time I Get to Arizona” and hear the anger in the music and think you are irresponsible and dangerous?

A: I can’t go into Scottsdale, Arizona, and talk to a whole bunch of 70-year-olds and say, “Love me.” My whole thing is you can’t teach old dogs new tricks. It’s their children and their grandchildren that I’m trying to reach. They’re the ones who’ll make the change, and I think that’s the message and hope of the last five years.

The biggest gap in America is between white Americans 25 and under and white Americans 40 and over. Remember how they used to call it a generation gap? Well, it’s a cultural gap now.

When I was growing up, there was a big gap between me and the white kids. They’d be off listening to Led Zep, long hair, smoking hash. I was into playing ball and my own vibe. Now, you see a white kid and there is a white understanding of black culture 25 and under, and a feeling of, “Damn, things really have been kinda (expletive) up. . . . What can we do?”

And that understanding grows every time Ice Cube gets onstage at “Lollapalooza” or we go onstage with U2. The audience gets more information about conditions in this country. White America will get changed from its future rather than its past.