By the Time I Get to Austin

Q&A with FFFF headliner Chuck D of Public Enemy

By the Time I Get to Austin

What are you gonna do? Talk about Flavor of Love? This is Fun Fun Fun Fest Friday headliner Chuck D of Public Enemy, the guy who coined the term "Black CNN" for hip-hop. You can't talk about Flavor of Love. Hell, there's a decent chance Chuck doesn't even know what Flavor of Love is. But he does know a thing or two about making a music career.

"Artists need to know who they are, what they are, and what they're in the middle of," says Chuck midway through his 20-minute sermon concerning what modern artists are up against. "Learn the history. It'll help you with your direction, and it'll also alleviate the frustration that hinders a lot of artists throughout their careers."

Austin Chronicle: Chuck, how's it going?

Chuck D: Pretty good. I'm scrambling right now trying to do three things at once. I've got to pick up a box of lenses at the eye doctor, so that's that. But I'm getting on down.

AC: In 2007, you told this paper: "So the attitude is, 'Yesterday don't count; now counts, and tomorrow we'll wait for the next big thing, because today's not that great either.'" In 2011, are we better or worse off?

CD: Are we better or worse off, or are we just the same? I think President Obama is keeping things afloat with four or five holes in the boat. He's done a good job with a bad vehicle. I think it's a ridiculous notion that someone has to clean up the mess of his predecessor in order to be seen as having done a good job.

AC: What about in terms of the music industry?

CD: I think the music industry is very healthy. I think the record industry is fighting and doing everything to try to stay relevant. I can't even stand the fact that major labels think that they can operate this way, especially with messing hip-hop around like they do. They dominate radio, and radio partners with the major labels — I'm shaking my head.

There's tons of talent out there that can't even get heard in local areas; that's my biggest beef. Radio should be able to focus on an artists' community. You'll have artists in Austin that can't be heard in Austin 98 percent of the time. To me, that's the plight of black music. You can't be organic or homegrown and get support.

I like the fact that the Internet networks and online communities are working to get the word out there, because now an artist in Seattle can be heard in Alabama. But if they can have a buzz all over the place, they should also be able to make a living in their local area. Ninety-eight percent of the time, they can't.

AC: Are the pieces coming into place for artists to build their brands online?

CD: I think local is more important than national. Let's be frank here: If you're touring in a van or a car, gas is already $4 or $5 a gallon. It doesn't behoove an artist to try to do a gig 500 miles away when they can be playing 100 miles away or less. To me, that's what it's all about. It's a cost-effective thing. The Internet can allow you to be national and worldwide, but that should all feed back to your local existence.

AC: One issue in Austin is that artists perform too many times in their own town and their fans become saturated.

CD: Austin's special. It's a rare place. There aren't too many other places in this country that are like Austin, and that's special. It's a very supportive art community. But Texas is a country unto itself, and there are other methods for an artist to tour the states of Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana.

That's been how it is ever since the days of the Chitlin Circuit, but hip-hop artists don't have those 25 reliable areas that they can always go to.

AC: Is performing live the only viable option, or are there other ways for artists to keep their own identity and make their own choices and still make a career sustainable?

CD: An artist should definitely have their own website. A website should be a tentacle into areas like Twitter and Facebook. MySpace has been remarkably useful, although it's now passé as far as the public is concerned; it's an unhip social network. For artists, it can be used as a wonderful tool.

Live performance goes back to the origins of art. Most of the art we do as rap or R&B or rock & roll was originally meant to be performance art. Once you start getting into the habit that the recording comes first and the performance is the aftermath, you're going to run into a whole bunch of problems.

Recordings were originally presentations of an artist's live performance. You have to keep that in mind. Artists didn't make much money off recordings at the beginning. But it did help broadcast their abilities, and when people came to see them, what the audience heard was definitely a higher quality, because recordings at that time weren't the highest quality of what a person could see or hear.

When you're realistic about what you're in and what you do, you have the ability to shake off anything that comes your way. You know that your performance is the name of the game. People want to go and be entertained. When they venture off from their mundane existence, they want something that will give them a good time.

AC: What's the most important thing for an artist to focus on these days?

CD: You just need to tell a lot of artists that the time they're doing their art in is the time to excel. People get romantic about the days ahead, but you have to be cognizant of the time that you're in and be clear about the people you're talking to - or against - in your music. When somebody writes a record that slams the government, you're not expecting the government to buy the record.

But you're saying something that needs to be said. In the past, people would rely on the unknown factor for their support. Now, too many people are dealing with the corporate way of quantity over quality. People should be able to look at artistry and say, "Look, I have one fan out there. How do I become the number one fan of my number one fan?" I want the quality in people that follow me.

People look down on what they have and spend too much time trying to find more, or trying to find what they don't have. Remember Eminem's record "Stan"? I think the artists of 2012 should be asking how to stalk "Stan."

Record companies were getting such big numbers that they never really cared about building relationships with fans. Families have been Boston Red Sox fans for generations. There's something to that.

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Chuck D, Public Enemy, Eminem, Obama, Chitlun Circuit

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