During Public Enemy's recent Toronto show, frontman Chuck D spoke out against the language of modern rap music, calling hip-hop "an art and a craft, not a hustle." When you call hip-hop a hustle, according to D, you're using the language of "scavengers," not artists. In private, he adds that hip-hop isn't just an art and a craft, it's also a public service.
"I'm a servant. I'm just here to serve the people," Chuck D told Spinner after the show. "Hip-hop is like my military."
The man who famously called rap music "the black CNN" says that artists are obliged to say something meaningful in their lyrics, and that too many MCs fall short of that mark.
"You have to say something in your lyrics," he says. "Sure, you can make it entertaining, and it should be entertaining. But you have to be saying something."
The PE frontman may come across as the angry old man of rap, but it's a refreshingly rare point of view. He said he "doesn't get" Watch the Throne wonder duo Jay-Z and Kanye West. And also rather boldly turned down a chance to play the Jay-z-curated Made In America festival.
While he's more that willing to criticize artists who don't say enough, he says that there's still a decent sized contingent of MCs who are following his example by putting a focus on the message and treating hip-hop as a force for the public good.
"There are a lot of Canadian artists," he says. "K-os, K'naan, those are guys who put a lot of thought into representing their cultures and where they're from. In the United States, we have artists like Brother Ali and Saigon, so there are some."
D says the business side of the music industry is one of the things that can prevent MCs from focusing on serious issues. When speaking to a group of young artists backstage following the show, he repeatedly tells them to "be your own record label." It's a topic he knows a thing or two about.
In 2012, when unsigned rappers play sold-out shows off the strength of free-to-web mixtapes and seemingly every successful MC has set up his own boutique sub-label, this sort of advice makes perfect sense and borders on the obvious, but when Public Enemy first left Def Jam to go independent in the late '90s, it was anything but.
"We were the first group to walk away from that million-dollar deal back in 1998," he says. "We did it for There's a Poison Goin' On and we never looked back."
D adds that, rather than inhibiting the group's career, the choice to move to an Internet-centric, independent recording model long before it was a regular occurrence, is what helped keep the group relevant three decades after they were founded.
"It liberated us, not just in terms of our music and what we could say, but our visuals, the way we wanted our videos to look, the way we toured," he says.
This idea of service spills over to D's attitude towards commercial success, as well. For the first time in a decade-and-a-half, PE have a song in the charts. "Harder Than You Think" was originally released in 2007, but received new life when it was used in a commercial, called "Meet the Superhumans," to promote this year's London Paralympic Games on British television network Channel 4.
As a result, the song currently sits at number four in the British charts, making it Public Enemy's all-time best-selling single in the UK. D says he doesn't really pay attention to charts, but says he's pleased with the song's path to popularity."It was great for [Channel 4 creative director] Tom [Tagholm] to use our music like that," he says. "To represent these superhumans."