Chuck D talks Writing Process, Bomb Squad, Artists Leaving Major Record Labels


Nick Huff Barili of Hard Knock TV, in collaboration with www.GRAMMY.com sits down with the legendary Chuck D for in-depth interview. In part 1, Chuck talks writing process, bomb squad, artists leaving major record labels + More. Transcript below:

Nick Huff Barili:

There’s a lot of talk these days about major artists leaving record labels, but you’re actually one of the first to do it, in the late ’90s when you left Def Jam. Can you talk about why it was important for you to do so?

CHUCK D:

In 1998, it was just time. Time to leave. Rick Ruben had left in ’89 and Russell and everybody had ventured off to somewhere else, and we saw no way to grow and also be part of the new phase, which is, the internet. We started PublicEnemy.com in 1998, the longest-running internet situation for a rap artist. Beastie Boys started before us, and I think that’s it. You can do something innovative, but if you don’t have people on the other side to be able to present it and catch it with the technology, then you could be, you know, on you mark get set go, but you’re in the desert, so to make that long story short, we left Def Jam in 1998, but we put things in place to ease us into the transition of the millennium and knew that the big companies would try to seize that, ’cause they felt that it cannibalized their industry, and now it’s, you know, it’s, it’s an afterthought when people say, oh, yeah, I’m gonna get online and, I’m part of this thing and I’m with iTunes and all of that and, so it’s just, like, second-nature, especially artists that have grown up in it.

But with us, we had to figure out, where we were gonna be, where we came from and how would that also gel with the thing that we do, and that’s physically being live in front of an audience. At the end of the day, your recording is a business card for your performance. It has to advertise who you are. So we are not gonna be defined by a recording. We’re gonna be defined by us making the recordings, and that’s one thing we had to totally flip into after 1999. We will make this recording. This recording won’t make us, but we had 10 years under our belt, too, in our favor.

Nick Huff BariliL

I heard that, your writing process starts with you thinking of the title of the song and then create (a song). Can you, elaborate a little bit more about the process of writing a song is for you?

CHUCK D:

(laugh) You just said it. (interviewer laughs) You know, come up with a title. It’s like a road map. You know your destination. See, sometimes it might work where you say, oh, I’ve got this idea, but I don’t know what this idea is, so I’m gonna write. I don’t waste words. There’s not a lot on the cutting room floor when you come up with a title. You should talk about a song before you write it.

Can we have a conversation of what the hell you’re talking about, and then can you put it into words, and then can you put it into a song? And then if there’s–it’s truncating and editing, ’cause, you know, sometimes you might have an idea and this is why it’s key to work together with producers and work together with somebody who is gonna have the governing, um, authority to make a song out of it. You’ve got to make a song out of the lyrics and music, then, uh, so that’s where it starts.

It starts from the idea. Sometimes you could write aimlessly and end up in a place, but that’s a waste of time to me. It’s, like, wow. We’re gonna talk about this, find a great title and let’s try to, figure out how you bread crumb people into listening. Uh, you know.

Nick Huff Barili:

One of my favorite, lines of yours is, I don’t rhyme for the sake of riddling.

CHUCK D:

Um-hum.

Nick Huff Barili:

Can you speak about writing with purpose?

CHUCK D:

Well, I feel that when you’re writing a song, you better write about something. I’m not opposed to people that make singles, because a single is what hits your mind, so you’re gonna go about it. If you’re commissioned to make an album, you can’t talk about the same thing over eight songs. I mean, you can, and you have artists that do it, but just because you can get away with it doesn’t mean you should do it, ’cause it’s lazy and it’s gonna cut into your artistry.

Some people could get away with it. Very few could get away with it. Most people can’t. So when it comes down to, writing a song that means something, I think every song should be able to nail its subject, even if you’re writing about, shoot, you’re writing about booty, be good at writing it. (interviewer laughs) I mean, yeah, I mean, (laugh) it’s–doing it over 10 songs, you better be a connoisseur, you know? (laugh)

But, you know, you’ve got to write about something. I mean, especially a rap. You’ve got to really seriously fill your words with something. You’ve got to say something. Because I ask people this all the time. They tell me, well, I’m into this because I like the beat, so the words don’t mean anything. No, not really. So would you mind hearing it in French? No. I don’t want to hear it in–you don’t want to hear it in another language, ’cause they spit in other languages, too? No. Why? You said the words didn’t matter. Well, you know, I’ve got to hear something. So people don’t really, you know, so you’ve got to really kind of, like, in the language they listen to, make it riveting so they’d be, like, okay. Yeah, yeah. Okay. That touched me. That’s my philosophy.

Nick Huff Barili:

Can you talk a little bit about Hank Shockley and the Bomb Squad and how that was critical to crafting the sound of PE?

CHUCK D:

The whole thing with the Bomb Squad is trying to do something that nobody else was doing. See, we come from DJ culture and we came from radio shows, so we knew what people weren’t doing, and then we were also commissioned to make albums. So you’re gonna make an album, you better make sure your subjects are varied and spread apart. You can’t deliver the same song all the time.

So we reached into certain sonic forays because we had–we felt we had the available time to dare and do anything, ’cause you got 12 tracks to try it, and all of us knew music, and Hank is a sonic genius, and so when it came down to being able to figure out where we’re gonna go, Hank, Eric, myself, Keith, later on Gary G-Wiz, Flavor, Terminator, Bill Stephanie, and later on people like Kerwood Young and Paul Sebastian.

You know, everybody had a great body of knowledge on sonics behind them. Nobody came in saying, okay. I’m a rap fan, and the only thing I know is rap music. No. Everybody was a fan of music, so when I saw John Densmore today, it’s, like, wow, okay. You know, yeah, I’m a geek like that into the sonics of it, into the doors.

I’m old like that, number one, and a geek like that because I was able to comprehend it with the age that I’m at. See, I’m born in 1960, so I remember when The Doors came out, when I was seven or eight years old. It’s different than somebody, like, wow, that was way before I was born. That doesn’t mean that they can’t get into the vibe, but when you actually remember as a kid when they came out, I mean, as a kid, I remember when the Rolling Stones came out with, Satisfaction.

As a kid, I remember when we were running around the house and the Beatles, I Want to Hold your Hand, and we all used to sing that as kids, so, I mean, that’s a whole different thing than let me go into reading back how the vibe was. So it’s a little bit of a combination, and then we’re gonna make rap records, too? So those combinations all came out, ’cause we added a little edge on being older, and we had a little edge on working together, too, ’cause it was a bunch of us.

So we were able to have ideas, and then at the end of the day, Hank was always able to make a perfect mix of it, of the noise. It wasn’t just throw noise on top of a (laugh) no. It had to be–Eric would make sure it was in tune. Sometimes we had to fight and make sure maybe it was out of tune purposely, so the bomb squad, exactly, was what it was.

It was the assembly line that people talk about with Motown. It was the assembly line on Hip Hop production, when it wasn’t like that before.

Nick Huff Barili:

The Bomb Squad crafted a sample-heavy sound. Do you think, with all the sampling-clearing legalities of today’s music, do you think that could survive in today’s, music landscape?

CHUCK D:

Yeah, even more so than then, because now, most music is under the radar, and you won’t have people coming around trying to suck them dry. (laugh) You know, I mean, they come out with all these clever ways to try to prevent sounds from going out there, like, you have somebody who’s a geek. Then the government does the same thing. It’s, like, if you’re good at coming up with counterfeit money that can’t be detected, then they find you.

Like, they’re come, go with me, that movie. (laugh) It’s, like, they get you. Like, oh, this guy, you know, he’s dodging all our, you know, our security, um, options, so we’re gonna arrest him, threaten his life, and he’ll end up working for us to bust all these other people out there. Same thing in music. It’s, all right. We’ll get them.

Pay them a lot of money, this kid that was good at pirating, work for Google or YouTube and then come up with a fingerprint system that’s able to detect sound. I mean, so it’s a game. So if you’re gonna sample, make sure that you always had to make sure you was clever. I mean, Public Enemy and The Bomb Squad, we knew the game that we was in, so it wasn’t just like–everything wasn’t blatant like that.

You just you know, after we did sampling, cutting bit and pieces and playing music, then people thought that sampling was just taking everything, and I’m, like, well, you know, this was a combination of different factors that made this track, not just taking the dope track and rhyming over it, which worked for a lot of people, too. Yeah, I took this and I rhymed with it. Give me my money. (laugh) So obviously you’re gonna have people gonna try to get their money.

Tune in next week for part 2 with Chuck D!

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