Chuck D Tells Kool Moe Dee That Spike Lee Did For Public Enemy What Radio Wouldn’t (Video)
Kool Moe Dee is one of the first Hip-Hop solo stars. As Public Enemy’s Chuck D points out, Kool Moe Dee went from one third of the Treacherous 3 MCs to a Jive Records soloist, complete with hits, battle beefs, and a career that went from the 1970s into the 1990s, and today. Moe Dee has a new series, Behind The Rhyme. The long-form show analyzes the creative pursuits of great songwriters and MCs. The first guest is the Public Enemy front man.
Just after the 20:00 mark, Kool Moe Dee asks about Public Enemy’s late 1980s rise, despite a lack of support at radio. Chuck D points to a filmmaker for doing what radio and video would not. “It doesn’t happen without Spike Lee,” Chuck D says of Public Enemy’s platinum certifications. “Just to make a long story short, and a short one shorter, Spike Lee was the portal that we never had. Our first record that made a movie was actually [in] Tougher Than Leather [a film starring] Run-D.M.C. I remember just buggin’ out hearing [it]. ‘Terminator X To The Edge Of Panic’ was in there during the scene where D.M.C…I’m like whoa. We kinda said, ‘You know what? Radio’s never gonna play us. What other portals can we actually get our music into?’ That holds true for us to this day. Yeah, we love radio; [Flavor Flav and I began our careers at radio], and matter of fact, we’re competitive against what we call ‘stupid radio.’ We want to destroy it. But when that happened, I think the next film that Spike did was School Daze. I think Kadeem Hardison was wearing a Public Enemy shirt. So that’s sight and sound in a whole different area.” “1989, Spike says, ‘I got a movie.’ He came to us in ’88 and said, ‘I need an anthem.’ The thing that made ‘Fight The Power’ work in Do The Right Thing was not that it was in Do The Right Thing, [it was that] Spike had it played a trillion times. I’m like, ‘Who does that? What?'”
Chuck D recounts the moment he realized just how much his song would be used in the 1989 film. “Matter of fact, when we delivered the [rough cut] to Spike ’cause he [needed it for timing]. We had a version that was nowhere near [as great]. But he needed it. So I went to go check [the film out] in Brooklyn with Hank [Shocklee]. You’re hearing the version that’s like the crude version, and I kept sinking deeper into my seat, ‘Aw man, he’s putting it in that much? We better make this record hot.’ [Laughs] So that was the song, in the movie. Then, when the movie first came out, it wasn’t Public Enemy, it was like clips from the movie with Rosie Perez [dancing]. So it helped [there] being distinct voices in it.”
Notably, the MC says he feels the anthem is not as aggressive as the film may have positioned it. “We had a core that expected hard, un-listenable music…which we were cool with. But ‘Fight The Power’ is a little bit mainstream: it was funky, it was danceable, it was nice. It wasn’t one of our [militant grunt] records that put an ugly look on your face. ‘Cause I always tried to make records that my girlfriend wouldn’t like. I said, ‘If I’m makin’ a record that she don’t like, I’m good. [Laughs]” Chuck comes back to Spike, who would work with Chuck again a decade later for a whole He Got Game soundtrack. “It was Spike! Spike put it in the movie a million times. We had another video, with the clip. Then, when he shot the video of us gettin’ together in Brooklyn, it was the third punch. Boom. Boom. Boom.” Chuck adds that while Public Enemy is from Long Island, the Brooklyn-based music video gave a forgotten, downtrodden borough in the eyes of social justice an anthem for change.
Despite a truly legendary discography, Public Enemy has had one song enter the Pop Top 40 (1994’s “Give It Up”). 1988’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back would be certified platinum in August of 1989, one month after Do The Right Thing premiered in theaters. 1990’s Fear Of A Black Planet and 1991’s Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Back would also go on to sell more than one million units.
At 35:00 in, Kool Moe Dee opines further on radio, as it pertains to Public Enemy. The platinum MC deduces, “From 1989 to 1991, Public Enemy didn’t get radio play. By not getting radio play and still selling millions of records, it completely upset the apple cart. Because [before], you could kind of predict who would sell what, based on who got a certain amount of airplay, so to speak. And y’all completely obliterated that paradigm. My personal opinion is nothing on the radio at that time was on the radio without being paid for; payola was very, very big in this business. So for you guys to sell records without [payola], it got to a space where Conservative America got very, very intimidated by Public Enemy’s brand of Hip-Hop. And [radio] immediately went from condemning Rap to supporting certain parts of it.”
Moe Dee contends that this was when the music distributed through mainstream channels changed. “Within two years [radio] was playing Gangsta Rap, and editing the profanity out. Somebody paid for that to happen. So we went from this so-called conscious space into the gangsta space because it was like, ‘we’d rather deal with the lesser of two evils. If we’re gonna deal with these artists ’cause we’re gonna make money on it, then let’s make money on them killin’ each other as opposed to “Elvin was a hero to most but he never meant sh*t to me!“‘”
Chuck D responds that radio was uncomfortable by the figures of conscious Hip-Hop. “You possibly could’ve had Wise Intelligent from Poor Righteous Teachers or X-Clan comin’ up to your office,” he says of Rap peers. “They were like, ‘Man, we don’t want them up in our offices like that,’ so yeah, [you make] a point.”
Elsewhere in the interview Chuck calls Kool Moe Dee’s verse on Self Destruction’s “Stop The Violence” one of the greatest ever. Chuck opens up about the name change from Spectrum City to Public Enemy, and some of the group dynamics over the years.
Additional Reporting by El Scribes.