Chuck D, Slug and Brother Ali Current Fakebook Series Fitzgerald Theater, April 18 Review by Peter S. Scholtes Photos by Jon Behm
What's so cool about Chuck D? Start with the first Public Enemy lyrics I ever heard--which, it turns out, were also the first Public Enemy lyrics that Minneapolis rapper Slug ever heard. "You go ooh and ahh when I jump in my car/People treat me like Kareem Abdul Jabbar," Chuck rapped on "Timebomb," a Meters-sampling track on a Def Jam label sampler that turned up shortly before PE's 1987 debut. At the Fitzgerald in St. Paul Saturday, sitting onstage with Chuck D and Current Fakebook hostess Mary Lucia, Slug rapped those lines to try to describe something that you can hear more easily than explain: the instant authority of Chuck's vocal delivery. To paraphrase Slug, Run-DMC yelled at you to say they were cooler than you; Public Enemy yelled to say, "Shut up, I've got something to say to you."
Onstage, and in the 2007 documentary that screened Friday night at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival (Public Enemy: Welcome to the Terrordome), Chuck credited his father with inspiration for that spine-tingling vocal boom--and I flashed back to my own dad's get down here now yell. Chuck is a pops of teenagers himself--"Be confident in your age and corniness," he said--and amply demonstrates his lung force simply by talking (he also took questions after the film Friday, and spoke at Central High School Saturday afternoon). His true genius, however, is rhythm. Though it's hard to tell from just reading those "Time Bomb" lyrics (which I copied, adding italics, from Chuck's 2007 paperback Lyrics of a Rap Revolutionary on Offda Books), there's an almost basketball-like hesitation-before-shooting in his phrases. Only five of the 22 syllables in "You go ooh and ahh when I jump in my car/People treat me like Kareem Abdul Jabbar" fall squarely on 4/4 beats--"Ooh," "jump," "treat," and the second syllables of "Kareem" and "Abdul." (Notice that the emphasis is natural with those last two.) Everything else falls on swing beats that any drummer would tell you define funk.
Of course rappers were funky from the start, but I'm not sure many were ever as funky as Chuck D--and I'm not sure many are today. In the case of Minneapolis artist Brother Ali, Slug's Rhymesayers label-mate, who opened the Fakebook show at the Fitz with "Uncle Sam Goddamn" ("This is dedicated to Reverend Wright," he said), it's one of the few comparisons where the younger rapper comes up short. Ali performed "Letter From the Government," a song based on the opening lines of PE's "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos," paying homage to PE rhythm while deepening PE rhetoric. Still, even as that tune finds Ali getting looser, closer to the permanent swivel of Public Enemy noise, the cadences seem to be playing catch-up with the ideas rather than stamping them into your head. There's a quality about Chuck D's greatest lyrics where he seems to have been waiting his whole life to say what he's saying. And when he says it, the words, not the beats, make you want to dance. (Ali, who wore a t-shirt of Mount Rushmore with skulls for heads, has something like that kind of impact on a new song told from the point of view of a Palestinian suicide-murderer.)
Slug performed as well--without beats or DJ, but with longtime collaborator Nate Collis on acoustic guitar--and I'll write more about his new Bruce Springsteen-writing-from-within-other-working-class-people's-lives songwriting direction in a City Pages appreciation one week from Wednesday. Thankfully, Slug told the long, amusing, and somewhat beside-the-point story of how Tom Waits ended up beatboxing on his new Atmosphere album (which comes out at midnight tonight, Monday night, at Fifth Element) so I don't have to. But to summarize: Slug is a Tom Waits fan. Waits's son Casey Waits is an Atmosphere fan. Slug and Casey became friends. After six years, Slug said, "Have I known you long enough to ask you to hook me up with your dad?" Said hook-up happened over the phone. Waits asked for a four-track tape of a song, and returned it with the three other tracks filled, though Slug wasn't sure they were, at first: On one track, Tom Waits played a shaker; on another, a guitar. On the third track, he beatboxed. "When he's ready for me to rap one of his joints," said Slug to the Fitz audience, "He'll send it to me, and I'll play the flute on it."
Chuck D never performed Saturday--Slug and Ali freestyled together at the end with Chuck nodding along from his couch, his smile genuine and fatherly as Ali got the biggest cheers of the night with a line about representing Minnesota "like Morris Day." (Did Chuck's "you can throw me a bone" remark--basically signaling his willingness to join in--get lost in the confusion?) But Chuck was the star of the show all night anyway. Mary Lucia seemed truly nervous for a change before her interview, and deferentially refrained from interrupting Chuck's rambles, which were long but very funny. Like the documentary, Lucia avoided controversy. She never brought up the overwhelming whiteness of Public Enemy's live audience, or of the one that night. Perhaps she, or her interviewee, was wary of a subject that can be (and no doubt has been) used to score cheap irony points against artist and audience both.
But it's not particularly ironic that a black nationalist "follower" of Louis Farrakhan, perhaps more than any other black rapper, would be the one to galvanize the most young whites before hip hop became teenage America's default party music. This particular white boy's impression (living at the time, '88 to '90, in the mostly African American city of Washington, D.C.) was that Farrakhan was more of a badge of black provocation toward whites (particularly on campuses) and toward the white media than an emblem of solidarity among blacks, Muslim or otherwise, much less of anti-Semitism. In other words, Chuck set his sights on exactly what would provoke white liberals, what would piss them off, and what would ultimately persuade them. (Whose "fear"? Theirs.) Onstage at the Fitz, he spoke about his envy of heavy metal for being able to fill large stadiums where hip hop could not. He cited Charles Schulz as a "big influence." Founding his group with a born reality-star (there were long, hilarious passages of the documentary showing Flavor Flav and Chuck bickering over Flav's apparent lack of seriousness), Chuck D was a peacemaker in military gear. "There was nothing pretty about us," he said at the Fitz.
Chuck was so quotable that I'm picking and choosing now, but here are some other highlights: He stressed the importance of paying respect "to everyone in front of the stage, and everyone behind the stage" (a generosity he showed both Friday and Saturday by staying later than promised--plus it's apparent he just likes to talk); he told a story about how Eddie Murphy tried to date his sister when they were kids, about lying to Murphy, having to say she wasn't home; he related how It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was recorded after touring with Stetsasonic (with Prince Paul) and absorbing their influence; he remembered how Stetsa's Daddy-O was a prophet of hip-hop globalism; he said of Atmosphere and Brother Ali, "This was our dream: That rap could come from anywhere"; he added, "Celebrity is the drug of America," and "corporations want you to be a consumer only"; he revealed that his wife used to live here in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and that he named Busta Rhymes after a football player who lives here now.
Speaking of spouses, amid the improv rapping at the end, Brother Ali communicated that his pregnant wife was at the hospital "right now" getting ready to give birth. When he and Slug were done, Mary Lucia, that subtle maestro, seemed happy to have just been there: "Thank you all for a dream come true." -- Peter S. Scholtes