If it wasn’t for The Clash, then Public Enemy may have never become the collective they did, and this was down to Chuck D seeing through the British punk pioneers that it was OK to be political.
Although he couldn’t directly relate to the world that Joe Strummer described in songs by The Clash, the rapper understands the message behind his work and the place where they derived. However, it wasn’t love at first sight, and it took Chuck D a while to understand the brilliance of the British punks.
He explained to the BBC: “I thought they were a bunch of people with brand new music that were whining about their existence. I didn’t think their problems were as severe as black people’s problems, but oppression is oppression and abuse is abuse. At that age I didn’t know how much their pain was. I do now.”
While Chuck D might not be seen as the natural heir to Joe Strummer’s throne, there is more that aligns their brands of artistry than separates them. The Public Enemy founder even hosted an eight-part podcast series, Stay Free: The Story of The Clash, for BBC Sounds in 2019, and he was the perfect person for the role.
Before the series was commissioned, Chuck would use any opportunity that arose to mention the group, and he once revealed his love of The Clash was the reason why Public Enemy chose to have a political edge. While it would have been easier for both groups to have not addressed these issues, that wasn’t in their DNA.
“They talked about important subjects, so therefore journalists printed what they said, which was very pointed,” the rapper told NBC. “We took that from the Clash, because we were very similar in that regard. Public Enemy just did it ten years later.”
Bill Stephney from Def Jam saw the similarity between the two groups and convinced Chuck D to become hip-hop’s Joe Strummer, which Stephney knew he was capable of being. Speaking to Hip-Hop DX, Chuck explained: “Bill worked with an alternative music station in Long Island, which was influential in bringing The Clash to New York. And so it was Bill’s idea to see if Public Enemy could be The Clash of hip-hop.
“So that’s how we got with Stephney. In an area where music seemed to kind of lose itself to affluence … well, it just got in a content level of marketed decadence. The Clash survived all that. They were like this is no longer for the people, so we’re gonna have to make music for the people. I think that’s where The Clash came out to be totally different than anything else ever before.”
The Clash and Public Enemy changed the face of music for the better in their respective fields thanks to their straight-talking approach. They may have come from other sides of the Atlantic and existed in different eras, but their aim was the same.