Last week Clutch and I had the lucky opportunity to sit in on a studio session with the legendary Public Enemy members Johnny Juice and Chuck D at Chuck’s house on Long Island. To say the absolute least, it was a mind-numbing experience comprised of keen insights into and wonderful recollections of the game, but it began very typically. From the outside, you’d never guess the crib was home to one of the dopest to ever grace a microphone, and you certainly wouldn’t think an off-white wooden shed in the backyard contained a state-of-the-art studio utilized by quite possibly the most underrated producer ever. These indications of humility would prove far more telling as the day progressed.
It’s Johnny Juice who really uses the studio. The booth is Chuck’s, but the studio is Johnny’s. Unbeknownst to most, Juice was the Bomb Squad member who executed the scratches on Public Enemy’s records, not Terminator X. It’s a common misconception that could easily be remedied by listening to Juice cut for just a few minutes: his style is unmistakable.
Johnny Juice Scratching An Entire Melody Note-For-Note from DJ Dizzy on Vimeo.
Within the first 10 minutes of being there, Juice had already detailed every piece of equipment companies sent him to beta-test (including some pretty cool Denon DN-S3700 Direct Drive Turntables and a Denon DN-X1800 four-channel mixer), outlined all his projects for the day, and ordered food from the freshest chicken spot near Roosevelt.
It was abundantly clear that Juice felt comfortable in his perfectly customized studio space; he moved at a lightning-fast speed, clicking furiously through projects, constantly crossing off bullet-points on his list of things to do, turning around every now and then to explain something he was working on:
1. How to separate track stems: bass, drums, vocals, etc. (he was separating stems for three PE tracks for a brand new PE Remix App on the iPhone).
2. How to punctuate a song rhythmically (he was finessing a Paul Dateh song with drum hits and cymbal splashes).
3. How to properly master a series of songs (he was mastering a three-song mix for one of DJ Whoo Kid’s artists named J Dot. J Dot came to the studio completely unprepared; Juice had to ask him several times about which songs he wanted in the mix, how he wanted the tracks to transition, and whether he wanted extraneous sound effects included in the cut. Johnny offered keen advice. “Write it down,” he told him. “Then I wouldn’t have to keep asking you.” He likened the young emcee’s musical career to a relationship with a girlfriend: “It’s the simple things, man. You have to do the dirty work. With a girl, man, if you do the simple things, she’ll always be with you. Your girl comes home from work and asks you to do the laundry, but you want to watch the game. If you’ve already done the laundry before she asks you, you can say, ‘Boom, already did that, baby,’ and kick your motherfucken feet up. If you haven’t, you’ll either miss the game or you’ll piss your girlfriend off,” to which J Dot responded blearily, “I’ve never done a girl’s a laundry, or my own.”)
Juice’s hands moved quickly, but it was clear his mind moved even faster. While he’d wait for a large file to load, he would step up to his turntables and cut with immaculate precision. During one such ‘break,’ Juice mimicked note-for-note the rhythmic qualities to an entire two-and-a-half minute-long smooth jazz melody (see the video above). Any musician or producer who thinks they can work efficiently and effectively would be put to shame by Johnny’s work ethic. His high energy and ability to multitask indelibly marked the Bomb Squad’s production style: rambunctious, abrasive in the best possible way, juggling a host of samples in just one track.
When Chuck (wearing shorts, Crocs, and a snap-back hat backwards) popped his head into the studio, he and Juice would slide into conversations ranging in topic from the Central Park show that capped off their Northeastern tour to the need to distinguish between the culture of hip-hop and the aesthetic of hip-hop (and the origins of each) when talking about the genre. Much of the conversation was split into contrasts: Herc vs. Hollywood, the parking lot vs. the club; Dame vs. Jay; single-tracked vocals vs. double-tracked vocals (Juice: “If you have the voice to do it once, why the fuck do motherfuckers need to do it twice?”); crews vs. solo artists; performing vs. recording.
Whereas Johnny provided a very clear window into the production side of their work nowadays, Chuck detailed the ins-and-outs of their other endeavors: PublicEnemy.com, HipHopGods.com, SlamJamz.com, S.H.E.Movement (Sisters in Hip-Hop Entertainment). Chuck D is cracking into specialized markets, providing a space for marginalized voices in hip-hop (women, old school hip-hop heads, etc.) to come together.We sat down with Chuck for what we thought was going to be ten or fifteen minutes, but in the blink of an eye it turned into a two-hour talk (interview coming tomorrow!).
Easy-going and intelligent, Chuck’s comfort in his own skin is infectious. He provided incisive insights into the rise and fall of the crew mentality, PE’s position in the game, domestic policy in the U.S., and the political climate in Haiti. Every now and then, Juice would come into the house to grab some water or food and jump into the conversation. At one point, we were talking about HOV when Juice chimed in: “Man, it’s like those two motherfuckers Dame and Jay walked into the label office and were told: ‘You motherfuckers can have everything you want in this world as long as you let us fuck you in the ass,’ and Dame was like, ‘Fuck that, I’m out,’ and walks out. Jay hangs around, and then all you hear is: zzzzzzzip!”
It was refreshing to hear these veterans, with worlds of experience and refined savvy in the game, talk so candidly about it. (Juice must have used motherfucker three times per sentence, but every single time he did it seemed integral to get his point across). The day was edifying in every way: musically, culturally, socially, politically.
Before we left, Johnny and Chuck hooked us up with some signed vinyl & CDs, literature, and drops for our own radio show. The two Public Enemy representatives are firmly grounded, humble, friendly, and generous, and they left us with enough inspiration to last a very long time. I should have known just by looking at the normalcy of Chuck’s crib, but I’ve learned repeatedly not to judge a book by its cover.