If you believe that—and arguing with Chuck D isn’t particularly wise—then you should consider the Public Enemy leader the most important correspondent in hip-hop history. But if you think Public Enemy’s significance somehow ended with the group’s late-’80s/early-’90s commercial heyday courtesy of albums like It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet, you need to tune in for an update.
Hip-hop is now a CNN international edition.
The group—Chuck D, hype-man Flava Flav, Professor Griff and DJ Lord—has never broken up. And while their profile in the States might have diminished, they continue to be an international force. At the end of 2010, they completed the seventh leg of a Fear of a Black Planet 20th anniversary tour that took the band to 26 countries on four continents.
Most notably, as Chuck D told City Weekly, Public Enemy “made it our mission to go to countries we’ve never been before,” including Bulgaria, Poland and South Africa—a country that clearly wouldn’t have welcomed the revolutionary hip-hoppers two decades ago.
“There was such enthusiasm—they’d been waiting for so long,” Chuck says. “It was very much appreciated that we finally got there.
“It was almost like sipping the wine of life to go to South Africa. It was very inspiring to go in, meeting the people and seeing the places, playing a little place in Soweto.”
When Public Enemy visits such far-flung places—the group has now hit a total of 76 countries in its career—they don’t find hip-hop neophytes but rather a thriving community that, unlike America, has yet to be co-opted by the corporations or commercial interests that are so often the targets of Public Enemy’s barbed lyrics.
“Hip-hop has been around for 40 years, 32 years as recorded art. And hip-hop is understood [internationally],” Chuck says. “The only people who don’t understand it are Americans who don’t go nowhere. Americans are short on geography and history. They’d be surprised at anything outside their own heads. The rest of the world has surpassed the United States in hip-hop. If we hosted a hip-hop Olympics, we wouldn’t even be in the top three medals.”
In fact, Chuck credits Public Enemy’s international appeal for keeping the group together for nearly three decades. “If we didn’t travel the world and were just an American act,” Chuck says, “we’d be where a lot of the American groups are.”
Which is to say, long gone. Chuck points toward the corporations controlling the business of hip-hop as the villains who’ve defined the economics of hip-hop in such a way that groups aren’t encouraged. In other words, it’s a lot easier to make money off a solo 50 Cent or Ludacris than a group the size of Public Enemy. “If I asked you to name four groups in hip-hop, and I took away The Roots, who could you name?” Chuck asks.
Naturally, Chuck D is not content to let true hip-hop be co-opted to death. He’s taken Public Enemy independent, producing and releasing their music themselves. He runs what he calls the longest-running hip-hop website—PublicEnemy.com, launched in 1998—and continues to lecture on “rap, race, reality and technology” at colleges across the country. He also hosts an Internet radio show where he showcases underground rap artists from across the United States, even playing Utah acts NUMBS and Mark Dago on occasion.
When asked if he was surprised to find worthy hip-hop in lily-white Utah, Chuck D was incredulous.
“I’ve been to Bulgaria! I’ve been to 76 countries [and found hip-hop]! Why not Utah?” Chuck asks. “Utah’s in the middle of the United States. They get TNT, ESPN. Utah’s only foreign to someone who ain’t been nowhere.”