Given the anger that seethes in the lyrics of seminal rap group Public Enemy, it’s with more than a bit of anxiety that I sit down with Carlton Douglas Ridenhour.
Better known by the handle Chuck D, the 49-year-old native New Yorker is about to headline the White Stage on the second day of the Fuji Rock Festival. With fellow frontmen Flavor Flav (now a reality TV star) and Professor Griff denied visas to Japan on the basis of their criminal records, the job of entertaining the expectant masses falls solely to Chuck D and his backing band.
But Ridenhour in person proves to be a gentle soul, showing little irritation at the difficulties encountered by his bandmates. “Japan is really strict on people who have prior records, and Flavor and Griff had passport issues,” he says simply. “I have to compensate without Griff and Flavor, but we’re happy to be part of the festival and want to play some good music—and I am the lead vocalist.”
Coincidentally, it’s 20 years since Public Enemy first performed in Japan, and 20 years on since the release of Spike Lee’s film depiction of a race riot, "Do the Right Thing," which featured the group’s incendiary track “Fight the Power.” What is Chuck’s view on the state of race relations now that an African-American occupies the Oval Office?
“When we go to different places as performers, people now look at the black man differently,” he says. “A black man is at the helm of one of the strongest nations in the planet, and therefore accountable and responsible for the planet. We walk not with a swagger, but we walk and talk with our heads up high, and also try to be accountable and try to make the world a better place.”
Chuck D’s stature as an African-American spokesman is evidenced in the way he’s often called upon to appear in the media as a commentator—as he was by the BBC for its U.S. presidential election coverage. But Public Enemy is also conscious of its role as entertainers. Recently performing at the Coachella and Pitchfork festivals, the group brought to Fuji Rock a DJ and live rhythm section as well as its trademark S1W dance crew.
“You got to be able to tell that story on stage and make the audience feel like they’re not wasting their time,” Chuck explains. “If you’re going to be out in front of all these people, you got to give them something visual as well as something they can hear and feel. You got to make them leave saying, ‘I could have done anything else in the world, but I’m really happy I checked these guys out.’”
Performing 1988’s landmark "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" in its entirety, Chuck D stalks the stage, setting a crowd of several thousand alight with brisk renditions of “Bring Tha Noise” and “Don’t Believe the Hype.” Memories apparently remain vivid among the Fuji Rock audience, and Public Enemy’s influence still seems stronger in Japan than most current hip-hop artists, with the exception, perhaps, of the Black Eyed Peas. As it turns out, the absence of Flavor Flav’s comic relief, while missed as it was at Summer Sonic three years ago, doesn't detract from the overall impact of the show.
On a Saturday night in which they face off against Scotland’s Franz Ferdinand on the Green Stage, Public Enemy’s febrile rap-rock sounds as compelling as it was 20 years ago—a time when many Fuji Rock festival-goers were still in diapers.
With sales of Western music in Japan down by over 50%, the role of Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic in bringing overseas artists to a Japanese audience seems only to have grown. Music fans may no longer buy CDs, but as the 123,000-strong crowd that attended this year’s 13th Fuji Rock Fest attests, they will still pay big for the live experience.
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today