What it looked like to rap pioneer Chuck D, who way back became convinced that digital music would be the next big wave, was the record industry’s panicked fat cats lighting down to see what they might scavenge. Their attendance at the annual MidemNet conference had more than doubled since last year, Chuck D said, making an educated eyewitness guesstimate of how those execs fanned out over that conference hall in Cannes. Their ears were pitched toward all the talk of how to make a buck off tunes being downloaded, to the fat cats chagrin, for free.
Known for his politicized performance poetics and no-holds-barred inveighing against the powers that be, Chuck D had this to say about those circling music industry CEOs and their sidemen: “They were hovering around like buzzards trying to figure out how they can dominate the space.”
He was giving the play-by-play a day after returning from MidemNet’s January confab. Conference organizers had again picked up his travel tab in exchange for hearing what Chuck D had to say. He had been the keynote speaker at MidemNet’s inaugural gathering three years ago, so he revisited some points, rallying and repeating his cry of resistance and for taking back what has been stolen by those few industry executives from the many who want unharnessed music delivered to them at lower costs and higher volume. Let’s slam this down the throats of those fat cats, Chuck D said, in so many words. Aren’t you tired of the same, sad 17 songs being pumped ad nauseam by the DJ’s and spin doctors of local radio? Their playlists are slimmed down, snapped tight, dictated by industry titans who think the Paris Hiltons of the world are actual talents.
“That’s no standard,” Chuck D said. Neither does the bankability of Russell Simmons, P. Diddy, Jay-Z and other behemoths in the world of rap music signify any ultimate fact except that they’ve grown rich peddling whatever they think might sell, stupid or salient.
“We are two different types of people,” Chuck D told me, separating himself from that pack. “I doubt if they got a flat they’d know how to change their own tire. It’s no knock against them. But you’ve got to know who you are in this business.”
If Chuck D had been Jay-Z, stepping down as Jay-Z did the other day as head of Def Jam records - which launched Public Enemy but later veered somewhat off course - he would have insisted that the higher-ups fill that vacancy. A chart-buster extraordinaire has that much juice, even if he opts not to make a ruckus about Def Jam seemingly being allowed to go under.
“It’s really disappointing that Universal (Def Jam’s owner) decided not to replace the vacated Def Jam job,” Chuck D wrote in his official public statement about what he sees as a debacle and imprudent move. “It’s sort of expected, and a primary reason why the music business has collapsed ... It’s quite clear that these folks could care less. The same thing that happened to Motown is Def Jam’s fate.”
Later, he tells me personally, “The higher-ups at Universal are happy with their standard of Negro.” The avaricious let the lords of industry cast them as the village idiot, shuffling and grinning and standing on one’s head for a price.
These offenses keep Chuck D hunkered down in his office and Slam Jamz recording studio, chipping away at what is, and steering a diversity of mainly 25-and-older new artists - 36 of the 50 individuals and ensembles are in digital-only distribution - who know that a first step toward climbing the charts is getting schooled in the business of making-music and the proper approaches for this era.
“This music is not about having your CDs pressed and doing it in a 1980s-1990s kind of way. We’re not an over-the-counter operation,” said Chuck D, named in January to the advisory board of San Francisco-based Music Intelligence Solutions, a digitally-focused global company. “Our barometer for success is based on having to create more at a low cost ... and seeing what comes in as a result of that. Simply wanting to get rich is the wrong road for us to take.”