Thursday, August 12, 2010

To the Edge of Panic

“Yo Chuck, tell me again what you worried about.” Flavor Flav tugged on the vertical explosion of hair on top of his head. He looked like a carrot.

“OK Flav, one more time.” Chuck D took off his gray Los Angeles Raiders cap, placed it on the mixing board, and rubbed his head. “This lawsuit could put us out of business. No more Public Enemy, not like we been doin’.”

“That’s some wack shit man. Nobody gonna put us out business.” Flav was really animated now, hopping up and down, waving his arms wildly.

It was most definitely some wack shit. That damn fool Biz Markie always clowning. It’s not so funny now that he’s getting sued for sampling. And who was this white motherfucker, what was it, Gilbert O’Sullivan, suing Biz for some lame ass tune, “Alone Again (Naturally)?” From what Chuck had heard, Biz’ label had asked for permission. That was bullshit, man. Just take what you need, aight. See what happens when you ask the white business world for permission? Fuck that shit!

“They could, Flav, they could. And if we have to pay for every sample we use, you think The Bomb Squad’s gonna be able to make our records the same way?"

“Listen to Flav, man, The Bomb Squad are the most incrediblest people. They’ll be able to produce the dopest records for us.”

Chuck hung his head. Flav just didn’t get it. You can’t make a song with 10 different samples if you gotta pay for each one. We’re through if the judge decides against Biz.

“Chuck. Hey boy! This ain’t no graveyard party, stop actin’ like a tombstone!” Chuck smiled. Flav could always cheer him up. As they sat in Chuck’s recording studio at his house in Roosevelt, Long Island, he thought back to the rise of Public Enemy, how they led the way, never selling their soul. Even when Professor Griff put them through some serious shit a couple of years back, they hung tough. Griff’s anti-Semitic riffing back in ’89, that was something else to deal with. Griff said Jews were responsible for “the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe.” Now why’d he have to say that? It put Chuck in a bad spot, having to fire Griff’s black ass, then bring him back, then disband the group, then bring it back. Chuck thought that was the worst threat to Public Enemy, but when Griff dissed his posse, saying they were all full of shit, well, Chuck had no choice but to get rid of Griff for good. But they survived.

This lawsuit, though, that really scared him. If they couldn’t use all those samples anymore, what would they do? Back at Adelphi, when Chuck was still just Carlton Ridenour, a graphics design major, he’d met a couple of homies at the school radio station and those nights with Hank Shocklee and Bill Stephney, were where Public Enemy’s sound was born. Shocklee would cram those motherfucking samples into PE songs and really create something special. Hank was the leader of The Bomb Squad now. Could he do something different if he had to?

Flav watched Chuck quietly thinking. He rattled the chain holding the giant clock that dangled from his neck, pulled off his oversized orange glasses and hollered.

“Yo Chuck. Isn’t Dre using just one sample over and over again? He ain’t no sample king.”

“Aw man that’s West Coast shit. That’s not us. We’re East Coast all the way,” said Chuck adamantly.

They were. When Rick Rubin heard their first tapes he went wild and signed them up at Def Jam Records right away. Rick was good to them and, even though he left the label a few years back, he stayed in touch, keeping Chuck in the loop with whatever the important happenings. Rick was another dude from Strong Island. Hell, he started Def Jam out of his dorm room at NYU.

“Naw, Dre lays down some phat beats. You wrong about that Chuck. Word up.”

It was hard to listen to Flav’s silliness with this lawsuit on his mind. Man, he should have his own TV show. People would eat that shit up! We all better be thinking about new careers. Figures, the white establishment looking for any way to shut us up, the real voice of the ‘hood. They just want minstrels, old timey Toms saying “Yassuh,” Nosuh.” Not prophets, not strong black men, telling it like it is. Shut ‘em down! That’ s justice right? That’s the legal system – it’s a joke, an anti-nigger machine. Fight that power? You can’t win.

Flav was still chattering when the phone rang.

“Yo, what’s up?” asked Chuck.

“Chuck, it’s Rick.”

“Hey, man, how you doin’?”

“Not as good as you. Did you hear the judge ruled in the Biz case?”

“Nuh uh. What’s it gonna be?” Chuck asked nervously.

“The judge said that the company suing Biz didn’t even own the damn copyright. Business as usual man, business as usual.”

“Thanks Rick, you the man!”

Now all smiles, Chuck faced Flav. “We’re cool, man, we’re cool. Wonder what Griff would say about these Jewish lawyers now!” He placed his Raiders cap back on his head.

Flavor Flav leapt from his seat, hiked up his baggy reddish orange pants and, flashing a mouth full of gold teeth, yelled “We cold lampin’ now boy!”

Grand Upright Music, Ltd v. Warner Bros. Records Inc., was decided on December 17, 1991. While the U.S. District Court ruled that all samples needed to be cleared, the judge noted that Grand Upright did not own the copyright to “Alone Again (Naturally).” Still, Warner Brothers asking Grand Upright for permission indicated that they knew they were violating the law. The ruling changed rap forever, making it financially prohibitive to make records using multiple samples, the hallmark of Public Enemy’s sound. 1991's Apocalypse 91...The Enemy Strikes Black was the last great Public Enemy record. They would go on hiatus during 1993, then, after negative reviews greeted 1994’s Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age, Chuck D retired Public Enemy from touring.

(Cold lamping - To hang out next to a streetlamp)

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