Music & clubs

Hank Shocklee: the definitive interview

King of Sampling and Bomb Squad mastermind Hank Shocklee unpicks hip hop ethics, music fads and Public Enemy's explosive success.

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“As a Jewish male from New York in his early forties, I’m your target audience,” I joked to Hank Shocklee, primary production mind of the Bomb Squad, the Politburo for rap revolutionaries Public Enemy who, at the turn the 1990s released the greatest long-playing one-two punch in hip hop history in 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and 1990’s Fear of a Black Planet (their other records aren’t too shabby, either).

Roughly covering the Bush I Depression, Shocklee reigned aesthetically supreme, producing, with the Bomb Squad, albums such as 1990’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Ice Cube’s finest. Rarely has music so uncompromising made it to the upper reaches of the charts. But after a couple of artistically excellent but financially negligible productions (Son of Bazerk’s 1991 Bazerk Bazerk Bazerk and Sister Souljah’s utterly avant-garde and Bill Clinton-baiting 1992 release 360 Degrees of Power), Shocklee’s profile dipped, while he moved into administration. Hip hop is full of great rappers such as Ice Cube and Queen Latifah neglecting their primary talents for acting or fashion design, while the producers move into A&R. Their gain is often our loss.

Shocklee has been slowly ramping up his profile of late. I caught up with him ahead of his doubleheader at Bar 25 (22:00) and Club Maria (23:30) on Friday, June 25. The interview is only lightly edited, so you can get a sense of Shocklee’s cadence: the man, as they say, has flow, and one wonders that if the bar hadn’t been set so high by Chuck D and Flava Flav, he wouldn’t have considered rapping, himself.

There was a period in the late 1980s, early 1990s when the Bomb Squad was pretty ubiquitous, and then you pulled a Phil Spector – you didn’t shoot anybody, but you became a mysterious presence. I can recall actually trying to set up an interview with you during the late 1990s and I think you had an office at Mercury?

Yeah, probably. Yeah.

But you weren’t releasing any material.

Well, yeah. You know something, I never got into the business to be, you know, like a record company or even a typical producer where you’re constantly putting out records and products, I only wanted to do what I feel and like. And if I have a burning desire to do something, then I go after it. But it was never — even coming out with Public Enemy, you know, I was offered to produce a lot of groups, you know, everywhere from Arrested Development to Soul II Soul and things of that nature, all these groups that were coming out. And if I feel like the group didn’t have a message that I wanted to communicate, I didn’t really, I didn’t have the impetus to, you know, get involved.

But it’s been 16 or 17 years.

Well, I’ve done some movie stuff, you know, so I’ve kind of like started doing movie things and different soundtracks and songs. So I’ve been, you know, staying, keeping my fingers in that area. And then I went into a record company and starting to become, I will say, more of an administrator. And I started doing some really cool things on the record company front, that we set up at Universal. Very instrumental in moving Universal from MCA to Universal. You know, setting up East Cost offices and things of that nature, bringing out groups like, you know, whether it be Rahsaan Patterson, or making sure that Patti LaBelle had her second gold album ever.

Did you like doing the administrative stuff?

You know something? I had some fun doing it. I did all the Mary J Blige records, I did the K-Ci & Jojo records.

But you weren’t producing on them.

No, no I hired producers, you know. And one of the things I thought that was cool was, you know, to be able to bring new producers into the fold. Because at the time, I thought that what was happening, especially with the record companies, I saw that everybody was kinda, like, not hiring new, talented people. And one of the things that got me going is, that if it wasn’t for [Def Jam founders] Russell [Simmons] and Rick [Rubin], who gave me the opportunity to go in the studio and produce, having no works out there, and really I had nobody vouching for me doing any sort of production – they let me go in the studio and produce Public Enemy. And so where were the Russells and Ricks now that would allow young producers, new talented guys to come in, who aren’t associated with anybody who’s famous?

It seems that the irony was in the late 1990s – and I don’t want to stay in the past too long…

It’s ok, man.

…groups that took inspiration from Public Enemy lyrically and in terms of ideas and politics were often conservative when it came to the actual music itself.

Ok, you’re talking more about more like the Commons, and the Talib[Kweli]s and Mos Defs and the Roots – you know, it’s funny because I brought Mos Def to Universal and also was responsible for bringing the Roots from Geffen to MCA, and I mean, I just mean that at the time, most of the groups have changed their tune because the music has changed, the way people have dealt with music has changed. And so, so I guess the attitude has changed, And I find that funny and ironic, because in a time right now where we have more things to be angry about, you know, the music business in its entirety have nothing to address that, and if you look back from the 1960s, the 1970s, you know, music always reflected what was going on in society, you know. You had artists, you know, that always even if they didn’t have a political point of view they might make one or two records that would be significant on a social, you know, or political front.

But now how do you even get a message out on the mass level anymore, with the way radio has been consolidated?

Well, but you know something, it’s funny: radio was the same back in the 1960s and the 1970s. Matter of fact, it was more consolidated because you only had one station playing any music that had any kind of rhythm, you know, so the politics was even deeper then. But I’m a fan of this, man: I think that good music is gonna find a home, I believe that. And it’s true in most senses, because look at all the great artists that we’ve come across – like, how did you find out about them? You don’t know!

One way is that hip hop music used to sample artists, which would send me crate-digging.

Well, we talked about that, in that one of the major things that happened, going into the sampling thing – I think one of the things that hurt the music, a lot of people are saying that artists aren’t making great records, But I don’t think that what happened was that the legality, and the political part of making a record has become so extreme that it really inhibits creativity. For example, our creative landscape, as time moves on – you know, we’re in 2010, so thus we have a history of music, or an embodiment of music, that’s extensive. And you’re talking about years, or decades I should say, of music. And we’ve been listening to it, and so music is our backdrop wherever we go. We can go into a restaurant, the theatre, the car – everywhere we go we’re hearing this music. So thus, the part of the creative, you know, impetus now of making music comes from listening to other people’s music. And getting inspiration and sampling pieces of that music.

Even back in the day when people who didn’t like hip hop were claiming that sampling isn’t real music, many musicians would develop their songs by jamming off of other songs.

Exactly. Everywhere. And because as musicians, at the time, we didn’t have this incredible pallet of technology that was available. You know, you had one radio station. If you had television it was, like, only five channels that was on. And television rarely played music, you know. So now we have all these avenues, you know, the Internet, podcasting, and we have mp3s and so many different ways of getting music now, that that whole back job of sampling is now part of our musical inspiration. So so so so, for example, me taking say, like, a Phil Collins snare sound, everyone that has been listening to Phil Collins is gonna identify that snare sound to a Phil Collins record. So now immediately, you’ve got an audience that listens to Phil Collins that’s listening to you.

And making connections between music that they wouldn’t normally make.

Exactly. So Kanye West, now is a huge artist, So why is Kanye West huge? Only because he has the “luxury”, alright, and I’m gonna put that in quotes, of being able to afford to be able to sample an artist that he truly admires. He can afford to pay a Ray Charles sample for a hook, he can afford to pay Daft Punk. And if you look, he’s the only artist that has that luxury, so thus his stock and credibility shoots up to the roof because of that, and so that’s a direct the reflection of the power of sampling and what it does. It immediately injects you into the fan base or the culture of that particular artist that you’ve taken from.

But I wonder if the flipside of that is that you couldn’t afford to make a record like Public Enemy’s 1990 masterpiece Fear of a Black Planet today.

You couldn’t. You couldn’t afford it. You couldn’t afford it.

How did you sort that out after the fact? Do samples get grandfathered?

No no no, (Laughs) Sampling is like murder; there’s no statue of limitations on it, So. I’ve just been lucky enough, there was people that did make claims, and then there were a bunch of people that just didn’t.

I imagine there are claims that could still be made.

Of course.

Twenty years later somebody’s lawyer kid listens to his kid’s record collection and smells money.

“Let me go after that”. You know, and so that’s always open, that’s open to every artist. And and and, but the thing is, that the sampling laws have been so extreme, that it almost prohibits you making sampling from someone else’s stuff. So now, what are we left up with? We’re left up with kids getting inspiration from where now? Because there’s not like they’re going to jam sessions and listening to other musicians, you know. We don’t have that community anymore. So now what you have is kids just hacking away at notes and throwing it out there, And what we hear now is music that basically has no connection to any particular situation.

Do you think this is one of the reasons that you don’t have rap groups anymore? You have rappers and you have producers.

Yeah, well, I think that has a lot to do with it, but I also think that the sheer economics of it — people have changed, When we were doing it back in the 1980s, you needed a group, you needed a crew. Because the task of getting your music heard and getting your music made and getting your music written, and marketed, and all that, was left on the artist, back in the days. Now we have these machines, that we can go to a marketing company, we can go to the publicity company, we can go to these people now. Back in the day, there was no such thing as a rap publicist, you know, [Public Enemy Minister of Information] Bill Adler was probably the only one that you knew of. But there was no such thing as a rap marketing company or street teams, so to speak, you know; those things were developed later. And so thus, as a group, you had to be all of that in one, You had to have your DJ with you, so your DJ had to be in the group, You had to have your MCs – they was in the group. And if you want, you had to have dancers, they were part of the group, as well (laughs). And and now, now your entourage is bigger, you know. And then you had to have a producer because, at that time, you know, the producer was separate from the group, And so now you could start to see, you’re developing this kinda, like, company if you would.

This is something that Russell Simmons was also talking about back then.


Was he giving you any direction?

Not really, not really. Russell was…you know, you have to understand something. If you wanna look at it from back in the days, we were all like kids finding our way through the dark. You know, there was no model for what we were doing. There was no leader for what we was doing, It was all based on instincts, so thus, you know, if you did something and it happened to work? Well, then everybody looked at you and go “Ohhhhhh, ok! Then let’s try that. But I’m gonna flip it so it works better for me.” So it was that kind of a thing, So teaching, there was no such thing as teaching, because who was an expert enough just to be able to teach, you know? And the beauty of it, and one of the things I started doing is, I started going back, teaching young kids because I saw a gap that happens. One of the things we always done, back in the 1980s was, we had what is known as, we would have these, we would call them ciphers, if you would, where we would just all sit in the room and discuss music. We would discuss music before we’d make music. And the reason why is that music is a communication, we have to figure out whether or not me and you are on the same wavelength.

And hip hop musicians, particularly samplers and diggers, are fans as much as artists.

Exactly. And and, you’re fan of each other! So now you’re looking at, you know, situations where you got, it’ll be LL Cool J, Chuck [D], Doug E Fresh, Jam Master Jay and Daddy-O from Stetsasonic, and we’ll would just sit here for hours discussing music, you know, whether it’d be beats, whether it’d be songs, whether it’d be who rocked the party hard, whether it’d be using the studio, you know – you heard this cat and he made a hot beat — whether it’d be the fact that you heard something in the movies that you thought was wrong because they took this record, or you saw something you read, something in print, and the information was inaccurate. You know, these were things that we would all sit around and discuss for hours.

Did you care that much about P.E. breaking big?

Nah, because first of all you have to understand that we had no idea that this music would ever make any money.

And, in retrospect, it’s admirable that the Bomb Squad was very savvy about marketing the music, but you didn’t make many, if any, aesthetic compromises toward commerciality.

But then that’s the beauty of it. And that’s what you, that’s what you, that’s what you strive for. And I think that you never – you want to get accepted on your own terms. And that, to me, is the true form of rebel. Being a rebel is, like, ok, I’m gonna stick to my guns, and you gonna have to accept me on my terms, or you’re not gonna accept me at all. But, guess what? I’m gonna build up my base so big that you’re gonna have to respect me one way or another. And that’s what rap was. You know, rap was that little guy in the corner that was, like, “Ok you’re not gonna let us in the party?” Or, you know, “The guest list is closed? We can’t get into the V.I.P. room?” Well OK, guess what we’re gonna go across the street and we’re gonna start our own party. And guess what now: everybody is in our party and now all of your people wanna come to our party and so you’re gonna have to let us come into your venue and get down.

It seems that whenever a type of music starts breaking big, the record companies don’t really know how to market it, so they just start throwing money at everyone, and that’s usually the period when the greatest creativity happens: the Golden Age. Then they figure out what sells best and the genre becomes codified.

Well that’s the big thing, that’s the one thing about hip hop right now. Hip hop is mainstream music now. Perhaps post-mainstream.

Well, well, I don’t know if its post-mainstream, as so much as it is pop mainstream right now. And and and the reason why I’m saying that is because it’s THE music of today, it’s the biggest form of music going right now. So thus there’s going to be an incredible amount of conservativeness that’s gonna go along with it: that’s natural, in any form of music. If the punk scene became the rock music scene, it’s gonna adopt those same principles. So that’s why you have to shed – you know, so many people, we still don’t wanna shed the fact that hip hop is not our music anymore, you know. We have to now move on and find new alternative music.

Which direction do you think that might be?

Well right now, I think the music is in the dub vibrations. And it’s between dub music, reggae music, dubstep, drum‘n’bass, glitch or whatever you want to call it, electro or whatever you want to call it, hard house.

Have you been listening to (dubstep pioneer) Applebim and Shackleton?

Yes, and I think that the reason why that’s that’s the new, because, first of all, that music was pretty much developed post-1999, alright? And so now you’re looking at a situation where the stuff is not getting on the radio, and the only way that it’s getting an audience, it’s getting an audience through the club scene, through raves, through underground parties…

And Europe has always been better at that than America.

Exactly. But it’s seeping over into America.

Because radio isn’t an outlet to hear music anymore.


In a way, it’s helped live music a lot.

Exactly. But but but but but, you see this is another thing that, you know, people bought. You know, the financial part is the cart before the horse. The first thing that has to happen is there has to be acceptance by our community, you know, and that’s what hip hop was, that’s why we never worried about the money off of hip hop. Because it was, like, “Shit, why are you looking for money when we’re trying to get an audience? If we get an audience, money will come.” And I think that that principle right there is what hasn’t been taught to the youth. It’s that now that the new cats that are coming up has been indoctrinated that the money is the goal, and the art is second.

I think that’s not just true in music, I think that’s the trend you see in American culture right now. Look at the art world.

OK, yeah and that’s why we’re in a financial crisis. Because we stopped being producers and started being consumers.

On credit.

Exactly. And consumers. And and and look at everything we are. We’re fans. And, you know, somebody told me that America produces entertainment — the cheap gross national product of America. And I said that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard in my life. It’s because nobody needs entertainment. You only look to entertainment after all your other needs are filled.

Plus if you have a sampling mentality you know how far in the past you can go to find things you haven’t even seen before. So then why aren’t you producing for the public right now?

Right now, I am back, I am doing more production, but the difference is, is I am producing records for myself now. Because I believe that now is when you can make an incredible impact, because music to me has to have some sort of impact. And the need has to be there, and the need now is — it’s in the same times as it was in early hip hop — was that there was, there was, there was no voice, there was nobody, there was no audience for that type of music. While now, there’s millions people that listen to music, but there’s nobody making the kind of music that’s impactful, that’s going to actually leave a stain on people’s brains so so that they can understand and and and inspire them to do other things.

So you’re view is you’re working more in the line of dubstep?

Yes, dub, bass, I’m gonna be doing, you know whether it’s gonna be techno or hard house…

Were you listening to drum and bass back in the day?

Oh yes, yeah.

But those elements never made it on any of your records.

[Smiles] Those guys stole the elements from my records to make their records, So, I mean, and so and when you’re making record music, the one thing people don’t understand is that there’s two types of brains:. One is, you’re making music and you’re not really listening to anything else, because as you’re making, you’re constantly giving your creative urges out. So you don’t have too much information coming in, it’s all coming out. And then you get to a point where you just gotta go,”All right, I’m not gonna go make, now I’m just gonna go listen.” And I believe that you have to have those periods, and I think that so many people think that music people have to keep this pedal to the medal 24/7, and they gotta constantly be putting out, when their their creative gas tank is on the E. I don’t believe in it, I believe your creative gas tank is on E, hey – take a break. Fill it up. And then go back out.

Is that what you felt?

Exactly. That’s what I did, you know. Because I don’t believe in just pushing a dead horse. If you’re not feeling it, then what are you gonna make? You gonna make music that’s uninspiring? And then what is that going to prove, you know? And trust me, it’s not gonna be successful.

You mean commercially?

Commercially successful. It’s not going to be successful at all. It doesn’t have to be commercially successful; it’s not even gonna find an audience. And so it’s unsuccessful on all fronts, you know. So so so, when you look back, one of the things you have to do is, you have to connect to an audience, ‘cause we’re all communicating, And the audience has to feel something from you – something. They wanna feel something genuine from you, something that that that that they haven’t felt from someone before, or they haven’t gotten in a long time. So so, if you’re not presenting that to them, then it’s time for you to just – you’re regurgitating what they already know: what good is that? And like I said before, that stuff is never gonna be anything. (Aside to his handler) We have to go? (To me) Anything you wanted to ask?

A few things.

I know (laughs, pointing at my notebook). You’re probably still at number one, right?

Are you still on good terms with the other Bomb Squad members? Public Enemy is still putting records out without you. Paris produced the last one…

But Paris is not a Bomb Squad member, neither, you know, and and it’s funny, because Chuck, you know, Chuck is great with his creativity – he just throws names out there. And he’ll put, like, Bomb Squad on his on his albums when knowing that there’s nobody producing that album that is in the Bomb Squad. Just because of the fact that it’s a brand name, and he just decides to throw it on the record.

You sound a little annoyed by that. Are you still friendly?

Yeah, we’re still friendly. Of course. But we’re also going to have creative differences. And the only reason why I get annoyed at it is because, I don’t think that you should ever communicate something that is not correct. Because the reason why I did PE in first place was communication purposes, I want to communicate ideas and thoughts that the public needed to hear. And and and and I wanted to make sure that the information that came out was as accurate as possible. Not every time we are going to be accurate – it’s like your job as the journalist. Your job is to get the most accurate information that you can get, Not all the time is that gonna happen. But shouldn’t that be your goal? When your goal becomes that you’re not really caring about the accuracy, now I’m gonna have a problem with that, And it’s not about Chuck, so to speak, in doing that with the Bomb Squad — it’s just in life, You know, I have a problem with with with anything that communicates…like, we were just talking about some things on Wikipedia that says that I produced certain records that I didn’t produce, you know. So, you know, I think that we, you know, that each and every one of us, we have a responsibility to portrait things as accurately as we possibly can. And that’s the only reason why you heard a little bit of angst in my voice about that.

OK, I think angst is a good place to end, I’ll let you go with that.