Public Enemy's Chuck D still fighting the power

Fri Mar 12, 2010 10:02pm EST
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By Gail Mitchell

LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - At the end of "Pirate Radio" -- the 2009 feature film about a '60s illegal rock 'n' roll radio station in Europe's North Sea -- an array of albums is displayed: iconic symbols of musical independence that bucked the status quo. Among the albums on display is Public Enemy's 1990 treatise, "Fear of a Black Planet."

In a country still wrestling with the election of its first black president and ongoing racial tension, economic strife and war, "Fear" remains just as relevant 20 years after its release, alongside its three seminal singles: "Fight the Power" (immortalized in the Spike Lee film "Do the Right Thing"), "Welcome to the Terrordome" and "911 Is a Joke." And still sounding that clarion call is Public Enemy and its dedicated frontman, Chuck D.

Embarking on what will be its 69th, 70th and 71st tours this year, the pioneering rap group is as busy as ever. Through its SLAMjamz digital label (, Public Enemy recently released the benefit album "Kombit pou Haiti," with proceeds donated to the Lambi Fund in Haiti. Coming in the spring: a "Welcome to the Terrordome" three-CD/three-DVD boxed set encompassing live tracks, videos and documentaries from the past 12 years of PE's work; a Chuck D solo album, "Mistachuck: Don't Rhyme for the Sake of Riddlin'"; and "It's Back to a Million of Us to Hold a Nation," by PE backing band the baNNed. The forthcoming instrumental set reinterprets PE's 1988 classic, "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back."

That's not counting a radio show launched in November on -- "AndYouDontStop!" -- with plans to expand across the Pacifica Radio network and as a podcast on iTunes. Also in the works are three key ventures: SellaBand, a Web site where the general public can invest in artists (PE has raised more than $57,000 for its next album from investments in $25 increments); the Chuck D and Gary "G-Wiz" Rinaldo-created Web site, an archive site focusing on the history of classic rap; and, a nonprofit company established by Chuck D to continue to fight for artists' rights in terms of publishing, copyright and masters ownership.

In an interview with Billboard, Chuck D reflected on the creative climate that spawned "Fear," PE's early involvement in the Internet revolution and the evolution of rap and hip-hop.

Billboard: In terms of rap itself, who were your contemporaries when "Fear of a Black Planet" was born 20 years ago?

Chuck D: It was the golden age of hip-hop in terms of diversity and balance. Queen Latifah, N.W.A, Big Daddy Kane had all made their mark during what was probably the most diverse three- to five-year period. Artists carved their own niches, strove to be different from one another by creating their own molds. They weren't affected by the marketing and promotional protocol of record labels that said, "In order for you to make the charts and get on TV, you have to be similar."

When we toured in 1990 it was with Kid 'N Play, Heavy D & the Boyz, Digital Underground, EPMD. Groups toured with each other who didn't necessarily line up in their philosophies. It was the total extreme between one another. Then acts like Naughty by Nature came out in 1991 as introduced by Queen Latifah; Ice Cube's solo record comes out in 1990 as he leaves N.W.A, so it was a turning point into the '90s.   Continued...

<p>Musician Carlton "Chuck D" Ridenhour performs with "Public Enemy" during the Rock The Bells Festival in New York in this July 28, 2007 file photo. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson</p>