MC Chuck D is Branching Out
Music fans really need no introduction to MC Chuck D; they got that nearly a decade ago. As leader of the group Public Enemy, Chuck helped transform not only rap and hip-hop, but other musical idioms with multi-layered, dense sonic mixes. Led by the rapper/producer/spokesman and his partner in rhyme, Flavor Flav, PE exploded onto the collective unconscious of popular music with its one-two punch Yo Bum Rush the Show (1987) and It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back (1988) and pointed rap into the political spectrum and away from the boasting, toasting, wave-your-hands-in-the air atmosphere that had dominated the genre.Through the late '80s into the '90s, PE brought some serious noise thanks to Fear of the Black Planet and Apocalypse '91 ... The Enemy Strikes Back music unmatched by any other group or genre. But after most hip-hop heads slept on the band's sprawling, uncompromising 1994 disc, Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age and Flav ran into legal problems, Chuck began keeping a low profile. Until now.He's got a full plate for fans to feast on over the next year, including a solo disc, The Autobiography of Mista Chuck, which is set to hit stores this month, and a book, Lyrics of a Rap Revolutionary, a collection of the rapper's reflections and ideas on both musical and social issues, slated for release in 1997. Chuck also has become a label owner. His record company, Slam Jamz (distributed by Columbia Records) is just getting off the ground, but Chuck hopes to use the label as a place for nurturing young bands. It will be devoted mostly to releasing EPs, singles, and 12" vinyl. While the rest of the world churns out layz-ass rap groups that come a dime a dozen and then let them twist in the wind while the discs go straight to the cut-out bin, Chuck hopes to restore quality back into the hip-hop equation."I saw in the marketplace that there is the mistake by labels to promote rap like pop records or R&B records," Chuck said in a phone interview from New York. "When the art form had diminishing returns because of lack of development, I decided that maybe I could devise a prototype system with a certain endowment for the art form that would help it instead of hurting it within the major label format."The problem with the majors is that they will sign anybody into executive positions to handle the various aspects of rap. Many of these people are green in terms of handling different artists and understanding rap's worldwide power, so you've had really domesticated, regionalized people making decisions for a music that has international impact."Chuck says he'll be a hands-on executive at the label, serving as A&R rep and general manager, and staying on top of all the elements of who is to be signed, what format bands will work within and how they are marketed and promoted. As he said, "I'm gonna be like Charlie was in 'Charlie's Angels.'"Charlie. Chuck. Pretty much the same, you can say, but judging from Hyenas In The Desert, the first group to drop an EP on the label, the bands are surely no angels, folks. Hyenas' nine-cut Die Laughing, produced by veteran knob twister Gary G-Wiz, is a wicked slice of hip-hop with booming grooves, smokin' flavorful rhymes, and plenty of 'tude. Not a wack cut in the mix, a real change of pace for a rap release as most discs run the ratio of 30 percent killa and 70 percent filla."I'm looking for artists to take chances. The thing that has been missing from hip-hop and rap over the past few years is artists who are afraid to take some chances because they want to secure a record deal," Chuck said. "Therefore, they are forced to think that they have to sell 500,000 units or go Top 20, and I don't think that rap should be built on that premise, I think that it should be closer to jazz and alternative, whatever that means these days. The bands don't have to be highly political, which some people may think I'm looking for. They just have to say what they believe and do things original musically."Chuck looks at the commercial failure of PE's Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age as a good example of a good to great record falling through the marketing cracks, even though it was put out by a band with an enormous reputation and high profile. "The glut of the marketplace these days means that any disc, whether it be from a small group or from a band like Public Enemy or some of the other bands that came of age at the same time as us, can get lost."Domestically, Def Jam [the band's label , which has seen its distribution bounced from Columbia to PolyGram and now to Mercury] simply dropped the ball. They didn't deal with the fine points that needed to be worked on to make the record sales happen. But I'm not angry about it. Listen, if Taj Mahal can make 60-some records then I can make at lease 20 and somewhere along the way, people will pick up on it in retrospect."As for the current status of Public Enemy - rumors had it the group was done - Chuck ensured that the band is still together and will be heard from next year. "There can't be no breakup," he said with a laugh. "The band is made up of elements of my own mind. Flavor is doing fine these days, he's up in New York and we're looking to release a record early next year that is called, Afraid of the Dark, which will come out again on Def Jam. Yes, I'm putting out a solo record this summer, but Public Enemy is still there. I mean if the Beatles can still be putting out records with one dead member, then I can still do a solo disc and work on Public Enemy at the same time."Chuck said the solo disc will indeed have a different vibe than a PE release; he'll incorporate less of the sonic dissonance that marks all of the band's releases and go more for the hip-hop heads' groove. He'll market the record in some atypical approaches, including hitting the lecture circuit (he already does 35-40 speaking engagements a year). But he's also planning a musical tour with a four-piece band and PE turntable wizard Terminator X.The artist is a wonderfully articulate man, a great conversationalist who is willing to discuss any subject posed to him. He reflected on the Million Man March of 1995: "It was a great coming together and it showed that we as black men have to work out our own differences before we talk about coming to terms with anyone else, whether it be our women, our kids, today's society, white folks, whatever. The key person that had it together was Minister Farrakhan."Chuck believes society has a distorted picture of the leader of the Nation of Islam and that the March shed new light on his high profile. "America got another view of a man who is sincere and whose reputation is distorted by a biased press. I think black people in general have always received a great deal of criticism and heat and Minister Farrakhan is always in the spotlight, therefore he receives greater problems. But the struggle for black men and black culture continues and without struggle there is no progress. For every two steps back, you have to make sure you make three steps forward, knowing that you are going to be pushed back one step again."So for Chuck D, the social revolution is an everyday affair that he can contribute to and help make small steps of progress. On the musical front, he has a bit more control and Slam Jamz's purpose is to make some serious inroads."I see the development of talent on Slam Jamz this way: I call it the M.O.V.E. theory, as what bands have to deal with is Music, Objective, Visuals and Entertainment," he said. "The first two are obvious and the last two deals with the fact that the groups should be able to play live and have dynamic stage show and bring entertainment for the dollar. We need a fresh approach in rap music and that's what Slam Jamz is dedicated to."