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POP MUSIC : Public Enemy's Chuck D: Puttin' on the Rap

February 07, 1988|ROBERT HILBURN

NEW YORK — Chuck D, the chief wordsmith and propagandist for the outspoken rap group Public Enemy, spent much of 1987 defending himself against some charges that his songs reinforce the violent image that is often associated with rap music.

"Yeah, there was a problem with some of the language on the album, but most of it was just a misunderstanding of what the songs were about," acknowledged D, in the decidedly un-plush headquarters of his management company, Rush Productions.

Among the concerns raised last year: a reference to Uzi machine guns by a group that stresses black power and black pride.

"I'm not urging anyone go pick up a gun," explained D, who was wearing a Los Angeles Raiders jacket as he sat in a chair near posters of fellow Rush acts Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys.

"I used Uzis as a metaphor for the brain . . . to point out how words can be more powerful than bullets. You have to use strong images at first to grab people's attention. If I had just said, 'My brain is powerful,' no one would have thought twice about it. I say Uzis and they pay attention, but you could tell what the song was about if you paid attention. Some people just heard that one word and said, 'Oh, it's about mindless violence.' "

The rapper also insisted that other charges frequently leveled at him--that "Sophisticated Bitch" is misogynist and that "You're Gonna Get Yours" is an inflammatory attack on police--are based on misinterpretations of the songs and his position.

So one might assume that Chuck D also has a clarification ready for the attack on black radio programmers and, more important, for the apparent endorsement of controversial Black Muslim minister Louis Farrakhan that appears on a new Public Enemy track, "Bring on the Noise." The track, which appears on the "Less Than Zero" sound-track album, has been released as a single by Def Jam Records, which is distributed by Columbia.

But this time, Chuck D says no defense is in order. The song is a challenge to black radio programmers who, he says, avoid playing Public Enemy's music because it's "too black or too political." And the Farrakhan line--"Farrakhan's a prophet that I think you oughta listen to"--is not a metaphor for anything.

The rapper's slap at radio isn't unusual. Progressive or controversial record-makers are always attacking conservative radio programmers. But the Farrakhan remarks are not going to be as easily dismissed--not that Chuck D wants them to be.

Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, has been widely criticized for statements interpreted by some as being racist and anti-Semitic. Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley asked City Atty. James K. Hahn last year to determine if the city could legally block a Farrakhan speaking engagement at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Hahn advised Bradley such action would probably be illegal, and Farrakhan addressed more than 8,000 people, urging blacks to work together to "seize economic power."

Observed Chuck D, "Farrakhan scares people, at least white people. But a lot of people who attack him have never even heard the man. They just take quotes that the media throws out at them. Farrakhan is a man I believe in and a lot of black people believe in because he lays everything out logically."

If some of Chuck D's views invite debate, Public Enemy's music has been widely supported by critics--especially in England, where the prestigious New Musical Express named the group's debut album, "Yo! Bum Rush the Show," the best LP of 1987.

Still, the album has only sold about 300,000 copies--healthy for a debut LP, but far short of the multi-platinum debuts by Rush Management stablemates the Beastie Boys and L.L. Cool J.

"It's frustrating," Chuck D complained, but he has no intention of listening to those who have whispered that he'd get more airplay and sales if he toned his messages down a little.

"If we toned down, it would take the satisfaction and fun out of making music," he said sharply. "If you toned down, you would end up with the basic state of R&B today, which is basically nothing. I loved Motown in the '60s and early '70s . . . the song structure and content of the songs. But nothing new is happening in R&B today.

"A lot of people accuse rap of talking about the same thing over and over, but rap is far more broad than R&B is right now. Every R&B song is about love. Rap talks about everything. . . . I'm interested in politics and social commentary."

Like Run-D.M.C. and most other rap stars, Chuck D (his real name is Carlton Ridenhour) came from a lower-middle to middle-class background in the New York suburbs. His interest in politics was sparked, he believes, by his mother, who was an activist in the '60s. His parents sent him during summers to a study program where some of the teachers were former Black Panther Party members, he said. The emphasis was an intense examination of black culture.

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