Fight the Presets: Public Enemy's Chuck D on the Power of Hip-Hop Guitar

By Prasad, Anil | Guitar Player, July 2006 | Go to article overview

Fight the Presets: Public Enemy's Chuck D on the Power of Hip-Hop Guitar


Prasad, Anil, Guitar Player


CONTROVERSY AND CONFRONTATION ARE SYNONYMOUS WITH PUBLIC ENEMY'S incendiary brand of hip-hop. Devoid of gangsta cliches and pop-rap treacle, the group's full-frontal lyrical and aural assault is designed to challenge social and sonic complacency. Public Enemy's core line-up--iconic rapper, writer, and producer Chuck D, and rappers Flavor Flay and Professor Griff--always infuses its music with charged messages about demolishing social inequity, racism, and government corruption. Most importantly, the group encourages African-Americans to empower themselves, as Malcolm X once said, "by any means necessary."

Musically speaking, Public Enemy represents the hip-hop world's equivalent of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, with layer upon layer of samples and pounding rhythms, as well as live rock instrumentation. Now in its 20th year, Public Enemy has just released Rebirth of a Nation [Guerilla Funk], the second in a trilogy of CDs that offers bold commentary on the chaotic state of global affairs, as well as the sound of electric guitars--which is an element rarely found in today's hip-hop tracks.

"Most hip-hop is now keyboard driven, because the majority of hip-hop workstations have loops and patches that enable somebody with marginal skills to put tracks together," says Paris, a prominent hip-hop artist who also served as the writer, producer, and arranger of Rebirth of a Nation. "Unfortunately, most hip-hop artists gravitated towards the path of least resistance by relying on these pre-set patches. As a result, electric guitar and real musicians became devalued, and a lot of hip-hop now sounds the same."

In contrast, Public Enemy remains committed to going against the grain by incorporating a more organic approach into its music. Since 2002, the group has worked with a core group of musicians, including guitarist Khari Wynn, bassist Brian Hardgroove, drummer Mike Faulkner, and turntablist DJ Lord.

"When I'm onstage with the band, I take an almost James Brown-like role," says Chuck D. "I signal to people when to come in, when to lay out, and when a player should be given more room. I'm pretty good at navigating the stage."

Taking a short break from running his Slam Jamz label--and railing against the politics of radio and television in his lecture tours and media work--Chuck D spoke with GP about racist "bubbles," musical education, and the glories of the electric guitar.

Describe the significance of electric guitar in Public Enemy's music.

We've used live guitarists since our first record, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, in 1987, which had Vernon Reid on it. Public Enemy has always included electric guitar in its music in some way. Some guitar elements are played, and others are sampled. We got involved with electric guitar because we were educated with a sense of what good music was. When I grew up in the '70s, I would listen to AM radio and hear stuff like Steely Dan's "Reelin' in the Years," the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction," and James Brown's "Doing it to Death," which all start off with some great guitar licks. We appreciate guitarists, because we have always stayed true to the original spirit of hip-hop--which means respecting the records we use to make our music. We know the musicians, sessions, and labels involved with the great records of the past. Having that knowledge allows us to best take advantage of the realm of samples, because you need to know exactly what to look for, how to look for it, and where those sonic elements will sit in the mix.

Who were your favorite guitarists to sample?

We never went wrong with Albert King, because he brought some really funky guitar to the table on those classic Stax records. We also liked to use James Brown's guitarists--like Jimmy Nolan--because of their great rhythms and freedom of expression. Then we'd use '70s guitar riffs from people like Leslie West and Billy Squier. They had a big beat happening, and the guitar was never that far away from it. …

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