THE REBIRTH OF PUBLIC ENEMY WAS HINTED AT by their work for the He Got Game soundtrack, but it started in earnest last spring, when Chuck D went on a speaking tour of Internet and music conventions to discuss how the group planned to embrace the power of the Web. He used a funny metaphor in his speech: A record company is a guy on the corner selling M&Ms out of a sack for a dollar each; MP3 technology is a gaping hole in the bag. "You look at that corner now," said Chuck, "and all you see are bent backs."

The top story regarding Public Enemy's new There's a Poison Goin' On is that the group has "murdered" (as Chuck D put it) its contract with Def Jam to become an "online presence first." The CD can be ordered, or the album's contents downloaded, for eight bucks from the website (founded by Al Teller, who was a CBS Records executive back when the label bought Def Jam). And, as Chuck noted in a phone interview from his home in Atlanta, "If you're smart enough you can get it for free." That's big news, but even more important--and apparent, once Poison starts spinning--is the fact that the album slams. An unknown producer named Tom E. Hawk has given Public Enemy an intense new sound. And Chuck's remix of personality suits him. He went from being an uppity independent to a liberal-establishment elder, and now he's a liberal-establishment elder making a (rare!) conscious decision to retool his arguments, and revive the risk of making them, based on what he's learned. Chuck D is abandoning the role of "Leader" in order to actually lead.

The following is an edited transcript

of our conversation.

Adam Heimlich: Who is this producer Tom E. Hawk? I like his beats.

Chuck D: Tom E. Hawk is a guy who works on the Mountain. That's all I'm allowed to say.

Is it someone's pseudonym? Some famous producer? His sound is a bit familiar.

Beats are beats.

Is that how you feel?

It's like a different shot--you take a dunk or you take a three-pointer. Either way, you score. Too much emphasis is put on producers. We started that [with the Bomb Squad production team], but it's gotten out of hand. So we're ending it. Every time we put out an album it's [puts on a whiny voice] "whoproducedit? whoproducedit? whoproducedit?" I'm like, "Did you listen to the record?"

On this record you criticize the hiphop mainstream in no uncertain terms. Isn't that what's called "playa hating?"

I'm not hating the players, I'm hating the masters of the players. I think the masters of the players make the players do what they do. The balance favors corporations that push music the way a hubcap company pushes hubcaps.

Online distribution is a whole new ball game. Everyone's worried about how to keep people from getting music for free.

I'm not of the firm belief that you can own every inch of your intellectual property. Only an accountant or a lawyer would think that way. I believe in the Wendy's Combo theory: You buy the burger, you get the fries for free.

Um, so, is the music the burger, or is the Web the burger?

Say you have an apple stand and you're selling 'em for a dollar. Then someone comes up with a cup of 53 pennies. What are you gonna do? You gonna tell him to get the fuck out of here until he gets 47 more pennies? Or are you gonna say, "Good enough." That's business--but it's not business done the big way.

Give me your best and worse case scenarios for the future of online music.

I want There's a Poison Goin' On to enter the marketplace like shrapnel. The best case scenario is you end up with 500,000 labels, a million artists, a third alternative to the major/independent choice--[a place to] get art directly from the artist, direct to the public with very little of the middleman or the politics. Radio, retail, and the record companies--that's politics. Hopefully, now, that directness can be supplied around the world. The downside is that labels will co-opt it. They'll have talented artists, but won't build that talent into a level of skill that's worthwhile. You'll have heads saying the same thing, and a lack of diversity, [maybe] R&B beats, and not as much rock 'n' roll. You can't look at hiphop and say there's just one type of beat for a rhyme. People [must not] be afraid to take crazy chances, because sometimes the crazy chances are what end up being great.

I agree with you, but in the current hiphop climate it's taboo to disrespect the music all the kids love.

Kids think whatever's on the radio is hot! That's what they love. They love something that's in their face all the time. But it comes at a price.

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