Chuck D speaks!

The Record Store Day Ambassador on the past and the future of independent music stores

For this year's April 19 Record Store Day celebration, Chuck D, co-founder and leader of the revolutionary hip-hop group Public Enemy, has taken on the role of Record Store Day Ambassador. Following in the footsteps of past RSD figureheads such as Jack White, Iggy Pop, and Ozzy Osbourne, Chuck D stands tall as the MC for the seventh annual celebration dedicated to the legacy of independent record stores as a cultural meeting place. As one of the most respected and hard-hitting figures in the history of hip-hop, he's a formidable ally in keeping power in the hands of small businesses. After unveiling the long list of RSD 2014 exclusive titles at Amoeba Records in Hollywood, Mistachuck took a pause to talk about his duties as ambassador, the cultural value of independent record stores, and how hip-hop needs to get its act together if it is going to raise its profile on Record Store Day.

What is the Record Store Day Ambassador's duty?

To spearhead discussions on the meaning of independent record stores, put forward the need for them in today's market place, and engage upon innovative ideas. The ambassador engages upon what record stores claim they want to do and puts vision into the totality of it all.

This is about more than vinyl. The current vinyl resurgence has hit people in a lot of different ways. To a large contingency of younger people record players are a new technology. Other people might not look at an album as something they play on a turntable — and there is a difference between turntables and record players. Someone might just get a record as a collectible — a sonic poster, so to speak.

Some people buy comic books, stamps, baseball cards. You can look at these things, but a record gives you an extra dimension. That 12 x 12-inches format is easy to get signed, it has the option of being played on a record player, or you can put it to work as an instrument on a turntable.

The record store of the future can be the marketer and promoter that says we have a product that has to be consumed. But why not have art that can be enjoyed? When corporate businesses take over art and culture they come with these quirky little things that don't fit with regular people. They come along and say, "We have this thing you've gotta buy." The ambassador says, "We understand, but can we change the language and the attitude?" Whenever you have the cultural extension of a record store you have to understand that there are those who look at records as more than just a product. If you go to Target with $14.49 and go to the register with the record you went there to get and it's for $14.99, the cashier ain't gonna cut you a break. You'll have to find 50 cent somewhere else — no Big Pun intended. It's the difference between chains when they assimilate music, art, and culture versus the stores that understand what it is that brought people there in the first place.

What is it that brought people to record stores in the first place?

Once upon a time there was a place in Atlanta on Ponce de Leon Avenue called Ponce de Leon Park. It's where the Atlanta Crackers and the Atlanta Black Crackers played. It was one of those ballparks that fit the environment and had an identity and a character that was its own. It was called a "ballpark" because it was a park that was made just for playing baseball. Then in 1966, you had these businesses come to the table and say, "It's not feasible for the Braves to come down from Milwaukee; we have to build a stadium that can be multipurpose." They built Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium as the answer. It was bigger, better, and could handle a tremendous amount of people coming to the game. This was true in some aspects, but the warmth and the character of the game, the team, and the fans was lost. There were a lot of these round, cookie-cutter, multiuse stadiums coming up around the country at the time, and they moved people further away from the heart of the game. After the Olympics came to Atlanta they made Turner Field to be more like an old ballpark.

It's the same thing with record stores. Best Buy and Target deliver CDs and DVDs, but how close are you to the warmth of the music? Independent record stores like Criminal Records are our ballparks. They aren't concrete stadiums, and more doesn't necessarily mean better. And for the local artists — they can't get into Target. But they'll be in Criminal Records. These relationships need to be nurtured. It's where music fans can participate, and where professional musicians get close to new talent.

One thing Record Store Day has lacked when it comes to new product is hip-hop. There are some safe, guaranteed sellers - GZA's Liquid Swords, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde as a 7-inch box. Aside from someone like Black Milk releasing his "Glitches in the Break" 12-inch, there isn't a lot of new hip-hop. Do you hope to raise hip-hop's presence on Record Store Day?

Hip-hop has to get itself together as a collaborative effort and art form. The contracts, lawyers, and corporate mentality divide hip-hop into all of these little factions. They call themselves hip-hop but there's no united anything. Not even in the area of performance. It's different from independent bands: If they're local, they're playing the same venues with each other. There used to be an area like that in hip-hop — there was such a live element to it. That's been calmed down by independent isolation in all kinds of different areas, and it needs to be acknowledged. So now you have artists like J-Live and Atmosphere asking, "Should we press this new 12-inch or just keep it online?" There is no end to justify the means. It might not be the answer on how to work it once they have it, but it's gotta come together as an art form to make its own path. If hip-hop doesn't come together how can you expect things to happen for it?

Public Enemy is reissuing It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back this year ...

Universal is doing that. I'm releasing the new Public Enemy album Evil Empire of Everything. We have what's called an uneasy truce with Universal. I won't diss my own record — It Takes a Nation of Millions is my 60-homerun, Babe Ruth season. I'm also not going to have Universal beat me out. Evil Empire of Everything has something new to offer: It's a double LP, this is the first time it's been pressed on vinyl in the States, and it comes with a calendar for the year. Every day has factual information on PE. Come Record Store Day, that's what I'm going to be holding up.