Revisiting Public Enemy's 'Man Plans God Laughs' with Chuck-D

To celebrate Public Enemy releasing their thirteenth studio album Man Plans God Laughs 4 years ago this week, Fly Fidelity reflects and remembers the soundtrack to industrial resistance.

Chuck D (or Carlton Douglas Ridenhour depending on who you are) is what some would designate as a veteran and veterans are those that have put in their service and earned their stripes. Yet, that hasn’t stopped him from doing what he does best: make great music, perform, and mobilize minds toward resistance. And this resistance goes against anything anti-human. No matter the time of day, Chuck D make sure that he will always fight the powers that be.

The only problem with being a veteran is that, after a while, your accomplishments aren’t appreciate the same as they were in the past. This isn’t the late 80’s and early 90’s. This is 2019. And half of the rappers that are considered “hot” now may not even realize the brevity of Chuck D’s catalogue. Still, this matters not. Chuck D doesn’t care about being popular to kids; he cares about advancing his demonstration of microphone mastery. 

And that means being creative with his output and maximizing his time. This isn’t the 1980’s and 1990’s when Public Enemy would have people rushing to the record store. This is 2019 where vinyl has just become popular again with limited releases and streaming is regarded the way to “purchase” music. 

So, what is one of the interesting ways to adjust to the new climate Chuck D has considered? Something many others may need to look at: shorter songs. 

“I tried to set a template for somebody over 50 rhyming. You don't need to rhyme as much; make your words powerful and deliver that. The influence for 'Man Plans, God Laughs' came from me and Gary G-Wiz playing Run The Jewells but 10 years older. I'm trying to find new ways that make somebody my age heard and also that makes it easier for me to deliver. We wanted to make an album like The Ramones. We wanted to do a whole bunch of 90 second cuts and couldn't pull it off, so the closest we came was doing 2 minute cuts. The whole album clocks in at 29 minutes, which wasn't an easy goal”. 

To take things even further, Chuck reveals that having a shorter song format has always been in the back of his mind. 

“I recently said that, in most rap songs, the 3rd verse is excess, which was a statement that affected the creation of the album. I think new artists have to give their all and be complete, but I also think if you have a 20 plus career you should make more recordings, rather than making albums over 8 to 10 songs. Matter fact, I don't believe any albums should be over 8 to 10 songs anyway. I'm a believer like in the 60's, artists like the Doors who made albums with 7 tracks on it and when they wanted to make another album, they just made another album. It's like, you know when you go to a buffet and you stack your plate then you end up scraping your plate? Keep it on your plate and then go back for seconds.”

And even beyond the length of the song is the understanding of the qualities that music today possesses. Knowing that the world is now digital, Chuck D has an understanding of what it may take to stand out in the crowd.  

“Music today has 4 qualities: sight, story, style, and sound - style is the last! Sight is important. I'm all about what a projects artwork is going to be like and what the video is going to be like. When you go on to a site and see nothing but data files, it has to have some incredible cover art that signifies a statement.
With digital, you have to attack your art super seriously and attack the story. Everything has to be in synch. Kelvin Fonville has been our chief graphic designer for 20 years.

We designed RCS to be a store that's going to drag you in. iTunes wanted to do with that but they got away from certain things. They don't have the staff, personal or the time to curate the 1000s upon 1000s of music. There is no focus on hip hop and independent hip hop like there should be.” 

With what Chuck has understood about the new wave of digital music and shortened attention span of his present audience, 

“Less is more” is the nature of today's audience. They aren't staying anywhere longer than 6 minutes because they're getting distracted. We're in a conundrum right now and the conundrum is that you have new humans coming in to their teens and adulthood who only want to paraphrase in a 120 characters or less. But, they are also losing their ability to keep their attention span. A paragraph is too long for them. 

I wanted to graphically get across and still be able to explain during the ride of the momentum what is happening right now as far as communication. I have an affinity for emcees that are over 30 because I don't feel you really get started until you're 30 years old. at 19, or 22 or 25 , you can appeal to your demographic and be relevant but that's not an answer for me. 

What satisfies me is a combination of different things that is hard for an emcee at that age to do. I have respect for Kendrick Lamar but I'm not going to go home with Kendrick and say I got something out of this. I got nephews and kids of my own who spit at the same level. I kind of trust the 30 year old emcee, which is still like a teenager to me. They're seasoned and have an understanding. A teenager or somebody younger I can come in and coach and see the potential and talent. I don't want them to be anybody other than who they are at that time. 

It's no different than sports when you nurture somebody who is running fast as hell: somebody like Usain Bolt. You've got to coach them to make sure that they continue to do it to the best of their ability without getting hurt. A lot of emcees get hurt because they try to go in areas that they get themselves stuck in and then they cant get out of it. Art allows you to get out of it, but they feel that they cant get out of it.” 

Still, Chuck D knows what it takes to make it in this environment of music: self sustenance. During the earlier days, many musical groups worked to depend upon the label to do a lot of the dirty work. Those times of label dependence, and even artist and repertoire, are over. This era of depending on a label are over. In this day of social media presence, websites, and Al Gore’s internet, Chuck fully knows that the artist has to do for self. 

Everybody should work on having your .com's. Have your hub and tie your social media through there. Then you want to also make sure music has value. There was one beneficial time where it was like "alright, we got free downloads". Back when you relied on having a site to be visited, you had to give them a reason. I don't totally agree with Soundclown. I call Soundcloud soundclown, giving away all your music just so you can be put on. 

Right now the record industry is a desert, so I try to tell an artist to work with me. Try to be a cactus. Cactuses are in the desert and their green, but their root system go down into a deep reserve that most people can't see. People die in the desert and might not realise that the cactus retains water. Also in a desert , if you know what you're looking for then an oasis is an oasis. If you don't know what you're looking for then an oasis is a mirage. 

That's why cats feel like they can't sell their music. If they don't buy into you, they won't from you. The music business existing as mystery is over! It's all good having 100 true fans that buy into you, that's great. People are like "but yo, Kendrick did whatever number his first week". He's part of a machine. He doesn't sell records, the machine sells records. 

Artists now have to sell their music like an artist does in a gallery. An artist in a gallery has to be able to have a conversation, "yo, did you see that , I sat and made that in a studio, blah, blah blah”. I got a stack in the back but I cant sell that stack all at once, so I have to engage the person that comes into my art.

Curating is important . What you do is important because you curate, you write about something and people read the words about something and they are curious to get into whatever it is that takes it from being just product into being a piece of art that they feel they want to support. Man Plans God laughs is a statement to clear the way for what we do at Rapstation and Spit digital distribution. We encourage artists to be their own label 

There's only 2 major record labels left, Sony and Universal Records. One percent of all record companies are major records and major artists. They own 99 percent of the whole pot, revenue and everything. 99 percent of the record industry are all independents, sharing one percent"

What Chuck D does not do, however, is buy into the idea of putting out musical projects on a frequent basis. His ideals on putting out albums as Public Enemy has remained in a cyclical, yet extremely distant, formula. 

"We do it every 8 years: 1991 was Apocalypse, 1999 with There's a Poison Going On, 2007 with How You Sell Soul. Every 8 years, me and G Wiz get together to make a statement. When I do albums, I do them to try and establish our distribution circuit. We set up RCS music because we would rather pay 10 percent for a store, instead of iTunes who said 34 percent. iTunes, once upon a time, used to champion independence. I've worked close with iTunes but when Jimmy Iovine came in with Beats and all that shit, they fucked up turning the Apple scope. That's why we went with Spotify. Apple doesn't do anything for independent artists. 

At the end of the day, it's about protecting your art and knowing what you're doing with it. I'm in the business of trying to curate art. My dream is to be able to run a label and have them on tour, do the right thing and have other labels build an independent world and to be a formula on its own merit. You see it happen but its scattered"

Surprisingly, one of the biggest staples of hip hop during Public Enemy’s time (the remix) isn’t something Chuck D cares for at this point. And part of this is understandable. In this day and age, the remix does not hold the same weight as the remix during the 90’s. During that time, people could build a career and make a living due to the respect of a remix. Other times, the remix is so good that the original is forgotten about. This present era of music doesn’t hold the same effect for a remix to be as powerful. 

"I'm a firm believer that remixes are a waste of fucking time. I think the energy spent with a remix could be spent somewhere else on the making of a new composition. The remix doesn't help the remixer. The composition is the competition - its music and lyrics, right? We're the first guys that actually brought a remixer along to set the stage in hip hop and that was Pete Rock. It was a big record with London and New York, everywhere else was the original."

Yet and still, Chuck D has to remind us that he has always been a fighter against the power for the progress of the artist. In the end, it is about the artist reaping benefits from the music. Otherwise, what will be the point?

"We're one of the only structures in hip hop and independence that makes sense. When I was in the lawsuit to parade against Universal, it was actually to make sure that “per digital download” was a licence instead of a royalty, so automatically (with each download of a song) 50 percent goes to the songwriter, which is the publisher. Half of that is music and lyrics. He writes the lyrics if he gets together with the music writer, that's music writing. That doesn't mean music producer. Hip hop has twisted what a producer is. A producer is somebody who takes a song and marries it into being a record."  Written by Mark Anthony Harris (Darcwonn) Interview by Luke 'Menace' Bailey