Poisoning the public

By Darby Sawchuk

A deep, hoarse voice quietly introduces itself through the receiver. Its tone ready to crumble at the slightest quake, it is familiar but weary. Shouldn’t it be louder than a bomb? Shouldn’t it assail its listener without a pause? Perhaps it is saving energy for the rebellion that has made it so familiar.

The booming baritone voice of Chuck D, founder, front man and lead vocalist of rap innovators Public Enemy, echoes in the head of any youth who ever gave any attention to rap. Perhaps the rigour of the band’s 40th tour is catching up with the throat of the politician/musician/author/activist. As though he had roused himself from sleep only seconds before, Chuck D slowly orients himself to the situation. The realization hits him–he will soon lead his band to Calgary for the first time ever to play the MacEwan Hall Ballroom next week.

Known for his political awareness and ability to concentrate a social statement into a few minutes of energetic rap, Chuck D almost inevitably brings a political edge to a conversation. In discussing Public Enemy’s past, Chuck D recognizes that his words have made a difference.

"We’ve been able to be multicultural and international," he states calmly. "Small things are quite significant, like being able to see kids who only spoke one language be able to speak another language because of rap music. Also, [we’ve helped make] people understand that there’s more cultures that exist than just the one that’s dominating their particular society. Through rap music, I was able to expose a different point of view."

Expressing different points of view, however, has earned few friends among the conservative. While some controversies surrounding the band have been regrettable (e.g. Professor Griff’s expulsion from the band after making anti-Semitic comments, and Flavor Flav’s run-ins with the law), Public Enemy most frequently generates criticism from the intolerant.

Criticisms of government and its institutions, messages of the elimination of racial oppression and attacks on materialism in both society and the entertainment industry have frequently rankled the closed minded.

From their inception in the late ’80s to the present, Public Enemy’s main philosophy has remained relatively constant.

"If 12 years ago I said something like ‘Don’t believe the hype,’ I think the point I was talking about was not allowing yourself to be programmed–being active and seeking and challenging information as opposed to being programmed. We live in very fast technological times. It’s best to try to master the technologies and the processes before they master you," states Chuck D matter-of-factly.

Without hypocrisy, Chuck D takes his own advice. Many of his most recent endeavours involve the evolving technologies of the Internet. The construction of <<www.public-enemy.com>> and on-line rap radio stations and information centres <<www.bringthenoise.com>> and <<www.rapstation.com>> are examples of Chuck D’s work in the new medium.

Enamoured with the possibilities for information exchange on the Internet, Chuck D frequently returns to the subject of the new medium.

"I’m involved with the Internet especially as far as entertainment and information content accessibility," he says deliberately, but enthusiastically. "If you want to talk about information accessibility, people want to be able to micro-focus on certain aspects of society that might relate more to them than come from the mainstream. It has a profound effect on society because I think it might be closer to the human spirit to be interactive with information as opposed to just sitting there and waiting for somebody to tell you that you have a freedom of choice, but they only give you two choices."

Just as they helped to revolutionize the genre of rap, Public Enemy are now attempting to cut a new swath on the Internet. Their latest release, There’s a Poison Goin’ On, is the first full album from a multi-platinum artist to be available for download on the Internet. Available at <<www.atomicpop.com>>, Poison represents striking possibilities for artists hoping to free themselves from major labels and seize control of their own destinies.

"Just in the music business, we would have to go through traditional areas to get a point of view to the public–radio, television, retail and the old setup. The big five major corporations would have their own clique rule which is to bypass and de-emphasize [alternative content]–not eradicate it, just de-emphasize it. [The Internet] has allowed our art, our content to go directly to the public with little intervention. That middleman totally depends on the people being naive, [and] the artists or the content of art being naive," he claims.

With the progression of the technology and the increase in availability, Chuck D is optimistic about the spread of information through the Internet.

"Americans have bought more computers than televisions in the last two years. That pattern is resonating around the planet. Access is inevitable," he asserts almost prophetically.

Public Enemy play the MacEwan Hall Ballroom on Oct. 27 with Michie Mee and Calgary’s Beatmatrix. Tickets are available from the Campus Ticket Centre, Feroshus and the Source. It is a licensed event.

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