The Chuck D of Public Enemy Interview: Soul and Sports Part 1
Just so you know, this entire week is dedicated to Martin Luther King on The Starting Five. We don’t do the one day thing…April 4th is just as important because it documents the true struggle of Blacks. I won’t belabor you with an extensive lede on the accomplishments of Chuck D and Public Enemy. We all have recited his lyrics at one time or another on the site, so just see this as a P.E. discussion continuum. Part II tomorrow.
Michael Tillery: Chuck, what’s going on with Public Enemy?
Chuck D: We just completed our twentieth year. That’s 60 tours, 60 countries. We rapped up with two dynamite concerts in New York–we planned it that way. Welcome to the Terrordome, a film documentary on the 20 years of P.E. aired at the Director’s Guild of America. The comparison would be Led Zepplin’s The Song Remains the Same. It’s in film festival release. It’s gonna be a must see.
MT: There’s a level of consciousness pervading our site. Remember when we did the first interview and spoke of this time coming and here it is. I’m sure there’s more, but I know of our blog and other’s similar. It seems it’s us against the world. There’s Temple 3, SOMM, Black My-story, Cosellout, Black Fives, Sportaphile and others (my bad for leaving anyone out) or are cutting out a presence and getting some exposure. I’m honored to be a part of all this.
Chuck D: Well you know I love the Muhammad Ali logo.
MT: Wow that’s the synergy I’ve spoken to you about before. In Can’t Truss It, you said, “Beware of the hand when it’s comin’ from the left.” In the picture above, Muhammad is throwing a left. The line has always resonated with me after your interview with Curt Loder of MTV back in the day. So, I say all this just to say I was actually apprehensive to get that pic in the logo. I’ve always wanted to ask you this. What did you mean when you spit that line?
Chuck D: Sometimes when people come and want to color themselves liberal or Democrat, they think they are in your best interest. You gotta keep your stance, because you never know where that hand is coming from. Friends and also enemies obviously come in all shapes, sizes, colors and all directions. You have to recognize yourself before you recognize who is an ally and who is an adversary.
MT: Every Friday, we throw up a couple questions called Friday Fire. One that I didn’t think got much run was How do you want your sports reporting? Mistaken, or blurrrrred? Gilbert Arenas’ picture from his NBA.com blog accompanied the question. We’re starting to see a trend shaping with athletes putting their own voices to words. Your thoughts?
Chuck D: It’s been a long time coming. The 60’s brought in a new state of athletic mind–which was influential to me since I was a kid. When I was around ten or eleven, there was a period between ’67 and ’72 where Black athletes would make statements because they didn’t have accessibility to the mic. They would make statements by changing their names. I remember this very clearly. Every sport had an athlete changing their name to make a statement. These would not just be religious statements, but statements of athletes letting us know they were thinking a little bit differently than the status quo. Of course we know about Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali and Lew Alcindor and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. There was Walt Hazzard and Mahdi Abdul-Rahman. I remember Wally Jones writing a book with a bunch of political theory. Keith Wilkes becoming Jamaal Wilkes. There was Bobby Moore becoming Ahmad Rashad.
I didn’t know the exact details, but I know this had a profound affect on me. Wally Jones–guard for the Sixers wrote a book on some political tip. When athletes starting writing books based on their point of view, I thought that was heavy. The media at large did not like that shit at all man. They didn’t want these athletes turning into little Eldridge Cleavers. I also see these people being pushed out and ostracized because once this point of view was given a buzz on the mic, equipped with knowledge and could take the interview to a whole another place? These cats were presenting a change to America–whether they wrote or spoke.
I also remember very clearly the announcer talking to Dwayne Thomas, who had just tore shit up after the Cowboys won Super Bowl V, and Thomas simply responding with “Evidently”. It was a stain in my brain man. The only time we saw Black men on TV were as athletes. We didn’t really see Black men in entertainment. We had to wait for the Ed Sullivan show, or American Bandstand, or Don Cornelius…
(Bet you all haven’t seen this)
…talking to artists. You just didn’t see it–especially giving athletes the mic. So that was a long answer to a short question. Now with athletes and blogs, .coms and always having pocket gadgets like I-pods, phones or PDA’s, they can go across the world from their own pocket while they are waiting for a flight. Those words are ringing much louder than a journalist who might not be equipped to ask pertinent questions of what’s on an athlete’s mind. They are having the same conversation over and over and over and over again. No one asks questions that lead up to a particular game and shapes the outcome.
Athletes can get the word out quicker than an interview.
MT: From my experiences, I see how national news is shaped on the local level. A lot of these cats don’t have a vast amount of knowledge on the subject because it’s not what they see everyday. This is how fan’s opinions are shaped–which is a shame.
Chuck D: Do you think Black journalists have access to get the true story?
MT: I know when I’m in front of someone I’m possibly not going to come across again–at least for awhile–I’m going to get the best answer I can. A lot of these guys are on the beat, so they don’t dig deep. They want the story and get out. It’s a time thing. I have different luxury. I think I add something different to a press conference because my objective is different. I do see athletes or coaches focusing in on me because of familiarity. I’m also asking them real shit. I have to do research and try to get into an athletes head and get the best story possible.
Another Friday Fire question that was popular was This is the Difference Between Jason Whitlock and Bill Cosby. People have their opinions of Mr. Cosby, but being from the Philly area, he’s always in the city. He’s always there–whether it be with Men United, or on his own accord, at least he is there.
Chuck D: And he’s been there Mike for most of people’s lives.
MT: This is how the media shapes our minds. You have a national media member at a Bill Cosby event and the reporting gets a superficial spin, so even Black folk’s opinion of Bill gets skewered.
Chuck D: Because of that portal from that one national reporter at the event who is there wanting to put his own spin on the event.
MT: Exactly. I grew up with Bill Cosby–and not just Fat Albert or the Cosby Show–because again, I’m from the Philly area. We have a totally different view of him here. I’ve seen him in the ‘hood my entire life. Regardless of what he’s saying, I find it hard to have a bad opinion of him because of his presence in the inner city.
Chuck D: As opposed to Jason Whitlock coming from his spot in the Midwest where they value his contribution. I guess to each his own huh?
We talked about Jamaal Tinsley after the incident with him went down. Is there any right or wrong way for athletes to go about their daily business without getting jacked?
Chuck D: I wrote something on my Terrordome blog saying that athletes today–like entertainers–are usually treated like cattle from their accountants, lawyers and agents. They are not given enough development tools of how to fit in with the environment. You have to look at yourself different. You have to do more fittin’ in than fittin’ out. The game, and the people who are handling you are always going to fit you out of your environment. You have to figure out what kind of public relations you have to learn to get yourself back into your surroundings. Athletes, artists and entertainers today don’t have it because it’s just not set up to teach them the necessary tools.
Before it used to come from coaches and their managers. There was never such a big gap between athletes and entertainers in the neighborhoods. The neighborhood had a structure and a principle to it. The structure and principle has eroded. The only structure and principle they see is on the field or court. The two have not been connected for quite some time. The piece was called The Ability to Shine down. When that shine is bright in your surroundings that are hungry? There is no defense for that. You have to look within and find out how to turn that shine down.
NBA athletes? They have to work a little harder. They are six foot six walking into a club. It might take them not having the flashiest jewelry or the fanciest car. I’ve been living in Roosevelt Long Island for damn near most of my life. I can’t have a Lamborghini in the driveway. I can’t walk around with diamond encrusted jewelry around my neck. I could, based on the people knowing me and my principles, but why even go there?
Somebody might say: “Yo man, why do I have to change my ways?” Well you might not have to use an umbrella when it’s raining, but the weather precipitates you doing something to not get wet.
In this country they put so much of a big space between celebrities and fans, what happens when the two connect? Where are the teachers of diplomacy? Where’s the learning platform for a person stepping into a crowd of thirty people asking for autographs, a piece of their time or a conversation? This has to be taught. It can’t be something where it’s being avoided by having three thick bodyguards dealing with two people telling everyone to move out of the way. That does not work. In times of a recession, it will continue to work less. You are going to see more jackings and you’ll see more athletes become targets. People think they can rob them and get money.
MT: It seemed like Jemele Hill and I were battling some of the readers of our blog because I spoke of my experiences as a bouncer. Having guns to my head. Seeing people get shot all because people are profiling at 3:40 in the morning. What do you say to folks who say I’m making millions of dollars, so this is my right and I should be able to do whatever I want to do?
Chuck D: I would say they aren’t being realistic. Freedom is also walking in the jungle and daring the lions to jump at your head (Chuck and I laugh). You have a right and freedom to walk almost anywhere on Earth, but you have to be cognizant of your surroundings. The surroundings are not conducive to for you to think you have the right to walk or drive down the street with the richest car when everyone in your surroundings are A: Starving. B: Jealous. C: Totally uninformed of your reality. Something has to connect the two.
What needs to happen in sports is a serious conversation on creating a developmental program that reattaches athletes back into the hood instead of having public relations tell the Black athlete to be supportive of making the fans feel comfortable with the athlete filling the seats.
Public relations is making White America feel safe and good about paying their money to see this cat.
Just like in basketball, you can’t move your pivot foot. Athletes have their pivot foot in the hood and also in other places. Don’t get caught traveling now. Keep your pivot foot planted. Don’t lift that foot up. One you pick it up and try to bring it back in, you are going to have to reaffirm your position.
This is something that has to be taught in all sports. The way athletes can figure out plays, they are going to have to figure out plays and judge their life accordingly.
We know the obvious man. The prison complex is thick. The economy and the environment young Black men are coming up in now in the next twenty years is looking bleak. They don’t have any trade. Any answer to the deficiencies that Black men have. The jails are being built to handle one or two million more people than they are handling right now. There are already people predestined to go into jail right now for committing some kind of crime. Included in those crimes will be jackings. They are building the spots for the warm bodies to come in and keep the inmates warm.
With our young kids, there’s no standard of principles they are able to attach themselves to. There’s a lack of teaching for them to travel the road of the new millennium. Some of them can’t travel the same old road of the seventies and the eighties. Growing up, I thought all athletes were Teflon. I thought that no one would shoot or kill and athlete. When it’s done, you start to think about how vulnerable a Black athlete or entertainer really is. In the same piece I mentioned above I write about Lyman Bostock. He was an outfielder for the California Angels. He’d just had an unbelievable season–I think in ’77. He learned a lot of technique from Rod Carew. He was killin’ em. He’d signed with the Angels as a free agent–one of the first big young guys to do so. The first year of him making this money, the Angels played the White Sox. He was from the Chicago area and went over to Gary, Indiana (when playing Chicago, he had grown accustomed to staying there). It remains unclear, but he got shot and killed in the back of somebody’s car. When the news hit, I was totally stunned. There’s been incidents along those lines–in rap and ball. I thought something like this wasn’t possible, but now it’s become a reality.
These histories have to be taught, but also how to handle yourself when you are in that crowd or surroundings.
I’ve been in different countries Mike, where cats with money need an army to keep people from getting in their cribs. Some have these little mansions in the middle of the poorest of areas. They have high walls with barbed wire to keep people from the village from climbing up into the rich area. They also have about twenty people doing on call watch just to keep their families comfortable. They know that kidnapping is rampant. They know robbery is rampant. They know most people around them have nothing. We need to learn from zones like that. You best believe that baseball players from the Dominican Republic have to find a way. The soccer players getting money going home in Peru and Argentina have to find a way. This is new to the United States because now cats have to figure another way out. The other way is figuring out how to deal with your people. It boils down to what service are you lending to your people that makes you teflon.
Stephon Marbury–albeit in the middle of having a bad season and also dealing with the unfortunate passing of his father–has made more sacrifices in the past couple of years than many athletes I’ve heard of. He provides affordable gear and went into the Coney Island area and bought up all the barber shops so kids can get free hair cuts.
I’ve never heard anything as incredible as that. Stephon Marbury can walk threw Coney Island and has an aura. People know he’s looked out. Nobody will touch him in the hood. His cousin Sebastian Telfair doesn’t have the same ring to him. He hasn’t earned it. He hasn’t done anything for the people as of yet. He might come from it, but needs to get that pivot foot there. Stephon has a lifelong investment there and is protected. Stephon Marbury can step into a club and people will say “He’s us”. Some of the guys just don’t have that.
MT: Ron Artest does a lot as well. I learned a lot about what he does in the hood. He’s a great interview.
Chuck D: Ron Artest is another one. Even the year he was suspended he spent a lot of time going to high schools, handing out sports gear and talking to a lot of young people. He has that same aura that he’s good people.
MT: You know how I do our interviews Chuck. I want them long so people can not take things out of context. With Artest, I let him speak on whatever came to his mind. I receive emails all the time regarding that interview. I don’t think the questions were anything special, it’s just the way they were asked. It’s confusing to me why corporate interests want to paint athletes in a less than genuine way. I’m talking about any athlete here. There is then this notoriety in public the athletes couldn’t possibly live up to.
Chuck D: A good testament to someone is how they work and live in their environment. It’s one thing for someone to come 50/50 with someone out of their environment, but can they follow a person in their environment for more than a day? You may have a different take on it after that.
If you are a professional from the hood, you have to leave the hood. You gotta leave the hood. You can live wherever you want, but that doesn’t absolve you from coming back to the hood and maintaining that presence. That gets lost in the mix.
MT: Not asking for your political affiliation here Chuck. Some are beginning to, but why aren’t Black folk throwing their support behind Barack Obama?
Chuck D: They feel Barack Obama hasn’t talked to Black people enough. Black people are also smart enough to say just because you have a Black face doesn’t mean you get automatic love. We are at a time where words have to ring with some sort of style and substance over appearance. If I were to look at Barack Obama real quick, I would think he was somebody from the Nation of Islam. That’s alright with me, but what comes out of his mouth is something where he’s trying to straddle some sort of line that he’s not a thug to White folk. People behind Barack Obama–even Oprah–are just giving it their best shot to make sure America feels comfortable with him not to be president, but that he can be a running mate to Hilary Clinton so people can still vote for her. He’s got a presidential investment to make America feel comfortable with him as a vice president.
That’s probably what it takes for a Black face to get up into those high ranks.
MT: So he’s the pioneer.
Chuck D: Yeah and coming in at the top is just too much for America and probably too much for him being he’s inexperienced.
MT: That’s what I’m hearing from a lot of White folk I talk to that he’s unqualified…
Chuck D: Well coming into a position like that, his job is three fold. A White guy goes in there his job is one fold–get the country back on track.
Barack Obama gets in there and he has to get the country back on track, prove that you are a safe Black man and you love us all and meanwhile be able to have an international discussion to prove he’s the best human being possible and make sure America steps in line with everybody else instead of thinking they are hovering above everybody.
Hilary has a two fold job. Get the country back on track and prove that she can be as good or better than she is now.
The bottom line is and people always say “Chuck why do you always talk about race?”
Race is one of these things if you ever look at the statistics, not only have you had a White man as president unanimously since 1790, but the man who has lost to the man has been a White man (We laugh). What does that say?
Those mothafuckas are like UCLA’s winning streak!
UCLA never lost until Elvin Hayes beat ’em. That was the shock of the world.
Maybe Barack Obama can be the Elvin Hayes of presidential elections.
MT: Crazy, but when you called after I left the Wachovia Center, I’m driving home and see this big ass truck with the biggest rebel flag flying like it’s 1861 all over again.
Chuck D: Probably with rap music coming out (Chuck and I laugh).
MT: I was blaring my own rap music so. I actually was playing revolution at the time to get ready for this interview, so the moment was surreal.
Are we regressing in terms of race relations? Are we going through a racial redevelopment?
Chuck D: Yeah, because America is not glued into the rest of the world. Classism and racism is going around the world and are things the world has continued to try to figure out and not get crumbled by it, but it’s a worldwide effort to put it in check. You have many creeds, tones, colors–whatever–so race is a funny game.
In the United States when it detaches itself from the rest of the world, ignorance is homegrown based on it’s limitations. If you never understood how silly the concept of racism is anyway, it kind of builds a platform that even becomes more ridiculous by believing there is such a thing. All of this has influenced all the maladies we’re currently experiencing.
MT: Is racism our biggest problem, or it’s all about the money?
Chuck D: You best believe that when America sees Barack Obama they are saying, “Well there’s a Black man.” Right there is something that’s based on appearance. That just changes the whole thing. Maybe it would be a different thing if dude was like seven hundred pounds right and said he was running for president. The first thing people would say is “Damn this is a big mothafucka!” (Chuck and I are cracking up)
The same thing with Hilary Clinton. People see a woman. Again, based on appearance. We’re crippled by our first mode of communication–eyesight. Our visibility is not based on what they say, it’s what they look like. That’s some second grade shit. It is what it is.
Classism hovers very close where people can throw it to the side at first and deal with the nilks and crannies of what’s really affecting, but most can’t get past race.
Racism helped create the fucked up structure of classism. Some class is higher and then levels of people of color. Black people are totally out.
Racism was like steroids to classism and we still haven’t gotten out of it.
MT: Speaking of steroids…sup with the Mitchell Report?
Chuck D: Mike, let me tell you man…First let me say that I’ve been going around cursing Roger Clemens. The reason why I’ve been cursing Roger Clemens–and I don’t give a damn if Roger Clemens did steroids or not–is because I’ve been saying for a long time he’s been making a mockery of the game by switching and flipping teams. Roger Clemens has been more of a disgrace to baseball than Pete Rose.
How the fuck are you gonna say “I’ll think I’ll play with Houston…nah I’ll play with the Yankees.”? You can’t flip flop teams. Free agency messed the fans faith up. The fans can’t say nothing because this is thirty years later. Once upon a time fans felt sorry for the ballplayers because the owners were making all the money. Now it’s flipped the whole other way.
The ballplayers have no loyalty to the game–just to the money.
People say, “That’s the way sports is.” So. I don’t have to connect myself with that.
Before you even talk about steroids with him, you gotta talk about the damage he’s done to the game. So all that talk about Barry Bonds going to jail–not only getting him on steroids, but getting him because he lied to the court? That’s some bullshit man.
You have players that steroids didn’t do a damn thing for. Steroids didn’t do a damn thing for Andy Pettitte. Matter of fact, if it was up to me…take some more of them shits until you pitch right! (Laughter)
You know, reading books like Jim Bouton’s Ball Four growing up talking about greenies and all kinds of other shit all in the dressing room. How can I look at steroids being a threat? Once this brotha like Barry Bonds ever got a hold of them–rubbing in the creme–then all of the sudden it’s “Oh, your not fair”. They were saying it anyway because he’s been better than anyone else for years.
How come they don’t have steroids testing in basketball?
In the mid ’90’s there were some cats diesel like they were hitting something. I’m not even going to name any names…
MT: I’m not either.
Chuck D: It wouldn’t make you a better player, but may help you get position when boxing out.
Do athletes need to draw a line on substance abuse? Yeah, just like with any substance abuse. I just don’t think we need to get into the substance making them better.
Did coke make it better or worse? David Thompson did coke and it just fucked him up and David Thompson could do anything.
Not just about basketball either ’cause Lyle Alzado was probably shooting horse steroids into his head (sarcasm). I remember they were saying, “Yeah he’s coming back, he’s coming back!” and he came back ripped! Remember?
Chuck D: He didn’t make the team. I think he tore a ligament or something. The next thing you know he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated saying not to do steroids and he had shrunken down and shriveled up.
MT: With the bandanna on his head.
Chuck D: Yeah, that’ll keep a person off steroids.
MT: I’ve heard that eventually HGH might help us live longer and I’m speaking with ignorance here. There needs to be a lot more research obviously but if it’s proven over time to hels baseball players heal, then go for it. They play 162 games!
Chuck D: Yeah like you said you have to starting looking at what’s what and stop looking back so much. Mike you know I know more baseball than I need to know. We can’t go back too far because once we start going back past 1946 there’s a bunch of question marks. You let Cap Anson in the Hall of Fame when this cat said Black ballplayers should never be on the field? Do you put an asterisk on the first forty plus years of MLB’s existence?
This is the problem I have with some White folks. How far do you wanna go back? You ask that question of most Blacks and they don’t wanna go back.
How far do you wanna go back? It’s all about convenience. Let bygones be bygones.