“The minute they see me, fear me /
I’m the epitome, of public enemy /
Used, abused, without clues
I refuse to blow a fuse /
They even had it on the news” –
Don’t Believe the Hype – Public Enemy
Those of you who know me, have likely heard me retell this story on a loop. I’m always worried that I will forget a detail, or on some level, take it for granted. I don’t want to let that happen. In many ways it’s the beginning of the past four years of my artistic life, and I want to chronicle it here.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Public Enemy dominated a Hip-Hop scene that craved a conscious voice and meaningful messages. The group and its bombastic music had listeners asking important societal questions, challenging norms, and educating the US citizenry on its own history. Being an impressionable young suburbanite, I was fascinated by music that made me rethink my own biases, expanded my global outlook, and sounded like nothing I had ever heard.
One night, in the the late 1980s, the song Bring the Noise was introduced to me, as my friend Mike O’Leary and I drove around our hometown. He said, “I saw this movie, Less Than Zero. There’s a scene with this song playing in the background.” It was fast track that had initially incomprehensible lyrics. I was fascinated by the sound of Chuck D’s deep voice and confident, authoritative delivery. I was instantly hooked, and earnestly began deciphering each word. I wanted to learn more about this group, and in particular their MC.
In early 2012, we were ecstatic to learn the Beastie Boys had been formally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The ceremony was to take place at the Public Auditorium in Cleveland, Ohio, and a bunch of us immediately made plans to get there. Our hopes of obtaining tickets were cut short, when the on-line site for ordering crashed. Only our friends Tom and Victoria managed to score a pair of tickets. We would not be joining them.
Serendipitously, we received a call in early April. “Hey, we have a lot of upcoming bills, and our car needs new tires. Do you still want tickets to the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony?”. Just like that, we would be making the pilgrimage to Cleveland.
We made plans to stay with our friends Tom and Beth. They had moved out to Cleveland a few years before, and they’d let us crash for a few nights. Just before we drove out, we heard that the Beastie Boys would be inducted by their peers – LL Cool J and Chuck D from Public Enemy.
The night in Cleveland was bittersweet. Before the concert ceremony, we walked around downtown. There was a buzz in the streets, as there were musical dignitaries around every corner. As we walked up 4th Street, towards our dinner destination, we almost literally bumped into AdRock from the Beastie Boys. He was standing outside of the restaurant where we would be eating! As we walked past and into the bar area, I made eye contact with Adam. “Congratulations!”, I said. “Thank you”, he quickly replied. Once inside, we realized that he would likely be having dinner here as well. No sooner had this thought crossed my mind, when he walked in and went downstairs to the private dining areas. A few minutes later, he emerged, followed by a taller, lankier figure. Could it be…? Yes. It was Mike D! The two Beastie Boys made their way back outside, and stopped to have a conversation away from the larger group. I wondered aloud if MCA was also in the building. Admittedly, I was flipping out. After all, this is why we were here. We snapped a few pictures, but otherwise let them be. They were holding a small folded piece of paper. We realized later, that it was Adam Yauch’s note to the audience.
The ceremony was a thrilling barrage of music and iconic personalities. I felt very fortunate to be in attendance, as we witnessed performances from Guns ‘n’ Roses, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and The Roots. However, the absence of Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch, during the Beastie Boys acceptance speech, signaled a huge cause for concern. We later learned that he had been readmitted to the hospital. He passed away a few weeks later.
Being in the same space as Chuck D, LL Cool J, and the Beastie Boys was a dream realized. Here is the shaky video that I shot that night: Chuck D and LL Cool J induct the Beastie Boys into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame I was really moved by the speeches and the performances. It really felt like history being made. (Full transcript of Chuck D’s speech)
“Back, caught you looking for the same thing /
It’s a new thing / check out this I bring” –
Don’t Believe the Hype – Public Enemy
The next morning, standing in Tom and Beth’s kitchen, I said, “One day, I’d really like to meet Chuck D. Not just shake his hand and say hi, but really talk to him.” I’m not really sure why I felt the need to verbalize my plan, but after that night, I decided to make it my goal.
The next few months were spent immersed in my emerging Hip-Hop project. I was drawing and painting the artists who were coming through the Baltimore/DC area, and seeking them out. I received news that Public Enemy would be playing at the 9:30 Club in Washington. Although I was late to the game, I started to enthusiastically use Twitter to put my art out into the Hip-Hop community. I began to realize the scope and power of the medium, when I’d connect with those artists whose music had inspired me to make my art. I decided to render a Chuck D portrait, and bring it to the show. This might be a significant opportunity to meet him.
In the weeks leading up to the 9:30 Club show, I earnestly continued to post lyrics and the progress on my new portrait. Each time, I would cram a quintessential PE line into the one hundred-forty character limit, while including my art. Over and over again – lyrics, art, 9:30 Club, lyrics, art, 9:30 Club. Interestingly, I realized that you could tag whoever you’d like. I began including Chuck D on each tweet, giving him the opportunity to ignore or perpetuate the message.
A few days before the show, I was sitting on my couch, watching TV. My phone vibrated, and I checked the screen. What I saw, caused my heart to skip a beat. It was a message from Chuck D: “Hey bro, DM me”. I wasn’t sure what to do. Was he upset that I was tagging him? Was it a ‘cease and desist’ conversation? I was mortified to think that in celebrating these songs and this group, that I had inadvertently annoyed the man at the helm. What did ‘DM’ mean? What have I done?!
After collecting myself, I sent @MrChuckD a DM; a direct message. I introduced myself, and I asked what I could do for him? He quickly replied that he wanted to put me on the guest list for the show. He had a proposition for me, and he wanted to talk it over. After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I responded that “I was looking forward to it” – The understatement of the millenium.
As I prepared to go to the show, I wondered how it would feel to walk up to the box office and simply give my name. Would they really just let me in? I was relieved that I wouldn’t be going alone, when my buddy Keith said that he’d join me.
In what would later become a pattern, I got to the venue entirely too early. I found parking, and walked around U Street for a little while. Keith met me just before the show in the back parking lot. Together, we walked up to the ticket window, and I asked if I was on the guest list. I was NOT. Thankfully, I had bought a ticket weeks ago. Still, I was disappointed as I expected to feel some jolt of excitement seeing my name on a special list. I didn’t know what that would mean, but I was anxious to find out. Instead, Keith and I went to the attached bar/restaurant to catch up. It would be about an hour until the doors officially opened.
While we chatted, Keith could tell I was disappointed. He changed the subject and we fell into an easy conversation. I was still looking forward to a great show.
Just then, a few members of the Public Enemy crew walked through the bar doors. I recognized one of them as DJ Lord, as we had become connected on Twitter. I surprised myself by calling out to him. I quickly introduced myself, and showed him my folder containing the portrait of Chuck. He reassured me that I’d get a chance to show Chuck the artwork, and that he’d see me inside. I was reenergized, and getting a bit antsy. We paid our check, went outside, and headed for the doors at the front of the venue. As we walked down the sidewalk that ran along the side of the building, we found ourselves heading towards the tour bus. It had pulled up while we were inside. Just as we reached the front of the bus, someone stepped out of the vehicle directly into our path. It was Mr. Chuck D – The Rhyme Animal – The Hard Rhymer – Carlton Ridenhour. I was awestruck. “Uh…hey, Chuck.”, I managed. “Hey guys.” he said, without recognition. “I’m Andy Katz.” “Oh, hey, Andy, c’mon let’s go.” “This is Keith.” “Hey, Keith!”. Not knowing what to say or do, I offered to help him with his bag. He had a backpack, and a small suitcase on wheels. “No, I’m alright. Where’s the door?” As he found his bearings, people started to gather and take notice. He stopped a few times; saying hello and shaking a few hands. We followed closely, not fully understanding our next steps. The three of us rounded the corner and found ourselves at the turnstiles lined up at the entrance. The doorway was flanked by two menacing-looking bouncers, and I slowed my gait. Chuck confidently strode through the gap between two turnstiles, knowing that the talent doesn’t count towards the audience numbers. “These two guys are with me.” he said, as he jerked his thumb in our direction. Keith and I dutifully, walked through the gates, while I made an unsuccessful attempt to stifle a grin. Could this really be happening? Were we walking in to a Public Enemy show, with Chuck D? Chuck turned, and said “Do you guys know this place? I’m not sure where I’m supposed to go?” We walked into the floor area, and he saw a door across the way. It was a backstage area, and we decided it would be best not to follow him. We were inside, and we were brought there by the Rhyme Animal himself.
“I got so much trouble on my mind /
Refuse to lose / Here’s your ticket /
Hear the drummer get wicked”-
Welcome to the Terrordome – Public Enemy
The show started, and I moved around trying to obtain a good vantage point. This was the Hip-Hop Gods tour, and it featured many different acts. It seemed that Chuck was positioned as a true emcee, walking on stage between each performance to formally introduce each group. It was great to see Son of Bazerk, Monie Love, Awesome Dre, Leaders of the New School, Wise Intelligent (PRT), Davy DMX and Johnny Juice. It was a revue of many strong performers, with Public Enemy serving as an exclamation point.
Each time Chuck introduced a new act, he would watch the performance from the visible wings of the stage. He would walk down a few steps, and lean in to hear and see. I thought these moments during the concert would be a good opportunity to show him the portrait. I took a few pictures, and if you can believe it, the security guards told me to stop. Incredibly, the were trying to enforce rules that have since been obliterated by hand-held technologies. I snapped a few more, but basically respected their request. I began walking over towards Chuck, pushing past a large speaker that served as a barrier. Just then, a security guard put his hands up and said “Sir, you have to stop.” I guess he didn’t see me walk in the venue with Chuck, shoulder to shoulder. Damn. I pulled out the portrait, and held it up so that it was facing the side stage area. People behind me wouldn’t be able to tell what I was doing, If Chuck were to look in my direction, he’d see the drawing. As if on cue, he glanced in my direction. He smiled, and waved me over. It was very loud, with beats and rhymes pulsating from the large speakers. I mouthed the words “They won’t let me back!”, and he understood. He quickly got the attention of the guard who had thwarted my attempts to move closer, and motioned to him to let me approach. It was that easy. I walked the ten paces towards the man; embarrassingly giddy with excitement. It was almost impossible to hear, but I extended my hand to introduce myself again. He shook my hand, and spun me ninety degrees. He threw his arm around me and, while motioning towards the drawing, said loudly into my ear “What do you want me to write on it!?” Having thought about this all day, and recently hearing an interview where he shared his favorite line, I shouted “I don’t rhyme for the sake of riddlin’!” He took my pen, and scrawled the famous lyrics. He took his time, and signed his name; followed by a quick drawing of the iconic Public Enemy crosshairs logo. It was more than I could’ve imagined.
Over the loud music, Chuck shouted “We still need to talk!” “I’d like that!”, I screamed. “You comin’ to Fairfield?” “What!?” “Fairfield?”, he repeated. I had no idea what he was talking about, but, not wanting to look like an idiot, I nodded in agreement. Fairfield? What was that? I thanked him profusely, and walked back towards the crowded floor. Fairfield? What does that mean? Is that the next stop on the tour? Why had I agreed? Oh, man, I AM an idiot! It’s too late. No picture, no meeting, no end to the story.
I quickly decided to run back to Keith and tell him what happened. We both thought it would be best to put my new prized possession in the car, and I ran outside to do just that. I was delirious with adrenaline, and started towards the car. The air felt cold and provided an unexpected relief from the steamy crowd. I put my portfolio case in the car, and hustled back inside. I didn’t want to miss a second of PE’s performance.
The concert was amazing, and I was happily pressed up against the far right side of the stage for the duration. The presence of the group is that of a formidable posse. They command the room with booming beats and powerful lyrics. Although they possess an expansive catalog, they performed everything I wanted to hear – Terrordome, Bring the Noise, Rebel Without a Pause, Fight the Power, I Shall Not Be Moved – I was in my glory.
The show, as all shows do, ended. I began to strategize a way to say thanks to Chuck, and ask for a picture with both of us holding the portrait. I realized that might mean a late night, but I was all in. I had taken the next day off of work; the first and last time I would miss time to attend a show (This is a rule I instituted after that day/night).
I walked outside, and went to get my drawing. Keith and I met up by the tour bus, and the crowd began to disperse. I wasn’t too worried about waiting a long time, and I figured I was in the right place to cross paths with Chuck again. Keith decided to head out, and I was left with a few others waiting on the sidewalk. It felt like a scene out of the movie Almost Famous, and I began to feel a bit like a stalker. I always want to pay tribute to my musical heroes, but I never want to create an awkward situation. There’s a fine line.
It was not a long wait, but it was beginning to get late; or early, depending on the way you look at it. It was after 1:00 a.m. when Chuck emerged from the side door onto the dark sidewalk. He walked to the bus, saying hello to the few people who remained. I said, “Hey, thanks for signing the drawing. Do you think we could get a photo with it?” He said, “Yeah, but I thought you were coming back to Fairfield.” I confessed that I didn’t know what he meant. “Farfield Inn. It’s where we’re staying.” With that, he shook my hand, and climbed aboard the bus.
Which Fairfield? Apparently, there are at least two in Washington D.C., one downtown, and one on New York Avenue. I guessed that I should head to the one on New York. If I was wrong, at least I’d be pointed in the direction of home. I scurried to the car, and as I pulled out of the lot, the bus hissed, groaned, and slowly began to move. I followed the huge transport, as it turned onto Florida Avenue, with the music of the night still ringing in my ears. I decided I better call home.
“Hello?” Lisa said groggily. “What time is it?
“It’s after one”, I replied.
“What?! Where are you?”
“I’m behind the PE bus on Florida Avenue. They’re going about ten miles an hour.”
“You’re where? Are you stalking them!?”
“Ha! No Chuck invited me back to their hotel.
I’ll be home in a little while. Go back to sleep.”
When we reached the hotel parking lot, the bus swung around, and sidled up to the front entrance. The huge vehicle barely fit under the awning, and it blocked the driveway, but provided the shortest distance to the lobby for the occupants. I, on the other hand, noticed that the parking lot was filled to capacity. I drove towards the back of the building, only needing to find the smallest space in which to leave my car. After searching for what seemed like an eternity, I wedged it between two sleeping semis. I jumped out, and hot-footed it to the entrance, about a hundred yards away.
Unfortunately, about ten minutes had elapsed while I had toured the unwelcoming parking facility. When I breathlessly arrived in the artificially lit lobby, soft Muzak was playing, and there were a few people milling about. No sign of Chuck. I would have thought I was in the wrong hotel, but surreally I noticed Professor Griff was working on a computer at a lobby kiosk. I began to lose hope, and my adrenaline was wearing off. I realized that I missed my chance. I sat down on a bench, and muttered a few curse words under my breath.
I stayed for about ten more minutes, but it was clear that the adventure had come to an end. I trudged back to my car, and started for home.
“You go ooh and ahh, when I jump in my car /
People treat me like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar /
No matter who you are, when I’m up to par /
I betcha go hip hop, hurray or hurrah” –
Timebomb – Public Enemy
I was about ten minutes down the dark highway, when my phone lit up. It was a message from Chuck! “I looked for you, but didn’t see you. Are you around tomorrow? We don’t leave until 10:00.” Immediately, I began formulating a plan to get back down to DC.
The next morning (really a few hours later), my family quietly left for school and work. They were giving me the day to sleep, as they were unaware of the open-ended invitation I had received a few hours ago.
I arrived at the hotel, much the same way I had left; unsure of what to expect. This time, the lobby was abuzz with activity and conversation. People were coming and going, but there seemed to be a larger group of people just past a central column, in the continental breakfast area. I headed for a small table, on which to set up camp. I figured I’d be here for a while, although it was nearing ten o’clock. As I rounded the corner, I saw what was capturing everyone’s attention. It was Flavor Flav. He was amidst a semi-circle of people, and apparently conversing with all of them. He was loud and jovial; yelling about the breakfast offerings and taking pictures with everyone who asked. Even the hotel staff was waiting patiently for their turn. To Flav’s credit, he hugged each person, and took his time with each fan. Although my thoughts were on my meeting with Chuck, I pulled out my vinyl copy of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Once Flavor Flav had finished with everyone else, and shouted “I’m going to McDonalds for some mother-fuckin hashbrowns!”, I decided to ask him to sign my favorite Hip-Hop album of all-time.
I went up to him sheepishly, and said, “Would you sign this?” He didn’t say anything, but took the pen out of my hand and tagged the album sleeve. I followed up with, “I saw your show last night. It was great! I love you guys!” He stopped, handed the record back to me, and said “YOOOO! You were there last night?! I love YOUU!”. He gave me a giant bear hug, laughed, and off he went.
After Flav left, almost everyone else cleared out. I noticed that the bus from last night, had pulled up to the front doors. I guessed they were getting ready to get on the road. I pulled the drawing out, propped it up beside the table, and sat in view of the elevator doors. Although, I had been invited, I began to feel a bit awkward about my being there. Just then, a guy with long dreadlocks and a MLB fitted Yankees hat came towards me and my drawing. I recognized him from the Public Enemy entourage, as he had given me a CD at show a few years earlier. He gestured to my drawing, and said “Did you do that?”. “Yes! I’m hoping to show it to Chuck. He signed it last night.” “Man, my mother would love that!” “Your mother?” I asked. “Yeah, Chuck’s my brother. I’m Eric.” “Oh, wow! Hey Eric!” “Yeah, he’ll be down in a little while”
He made his way to the bus, as did a few other people that I didn’t recognize. The lobby got progressively more empty, and I saw only hotel employees at this point. Just then, the bus pulled away. Had I missed him again? Oh shit! I sat there, and realized that I was alone. To add insult to injury, a member of the custodial staff began vacuuming the floor around me. I lifted my feet so they could get under the table where I sat.
I started packing up. I was embarrassed and annoyed that I had spent my time sitting alone in a hotel lobby, when a woman approached me. Judging by her logo-adorned name tag, she was an employee of the hotel. She said, “Are you waiting for Chuck D? Don’t worry, he’s still here. He never takes the bus. He likes to drive himself. If you take a picture of me with him, I’ll take a picture of you. What do you think?” I never thought to ask how she knew all of these details, but it didn’t matter. I was back in business!
A few minutes later, the elevator doors opened, and Chuck D emerged. He was walking with the same backpack and suitcase-on-wheels that I saw him with the previous night. He walked directly towards me, and gently shook his head. “Man, Andy, I’m sorry to keep you waiting”. I shook his hand again, surprised to hear my name, and assured him that everything was fine. I was beside myself with excitement, and I couldn’t get my mind around the fact that this was finally happening. He signed my album, and the Madina Golden-Era poster. He posed for a picture with me and the drawing. Then, we took a seat at the table.
I sat across the table from him, my mind racing with questions. He began digging in his small bag, every so often, tossing a concert flier or ear buds onto the table. He began carefully rolling up the wires of his headphones, when he asked, “So, you’re the one who has been posting all the lyrics on Twitter?” “Yes.” “And all of that art is work that you’ve made?” “Yes.” “Would you want to do that for PE…post pictures and lyrics on Twitter?” “Uh, yeah. I already do it a lot.” As the conversation proceeded, my brain started formulating questions I had always wanted ask. “You wear a Pittsburgh Pirates hat, but you’re a Mets fan, right?” “Yeah, the P on the hat is for Public Enemy, and I always admired Roberto Clemente, but I’m a Mets fan”. “I was going to bring you a Baltimore Orioles hat as a gift, but I didn’t know your size.” “Ha! You know, I was wearing an Oriole hat when I met my wife”. I had never heard that. Chuck asked me if I had a pen. “Here’s my phone number. Text me whenever you want, but never call. I don’t really use the phone, and I never answer.” I jotted down the number on the back of an old business card. “I just saw the Iconoclasts documentary with you and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It was great. Remember how you felt when you met him; one of your heroes? Well I wanted to tell you that’s about how I feel right now.” I’m glad I said it, but I didn’t want to change the dynamic of the conversation. We talked a bit about art, Twitter, the tour format, and family. I mentioned that I’m a teacher, and he suggested that he could come and visit the school sometime. All told, we had about twenty minutes together. Malik Farrakhan, Public Enemy’s head of security had appeared, signaling that it was, indeed, time to hit the road. Together, we walked towards the front of the lobby. Once we got near enough, the automatic doors parted. In the space between the two sets of doors, a woman was on her way into the building. She saw Chuck, stopped, smiled, and spread her arms for an embrace. Without skipping a beat, Chuck gave her a squeeze, an made some amiable small talk. Obviously, he had made her day, and it dawned on me that she was a perfect stranger. This is what it’s like to be a living legend. People feel like they know you, and that you should know them too. A feeling of gratitude washed over me, as we went out to the curbside. Chuck pointed to a little mini-van, and said “This is me. I like to drive.” For good measure, I shook hands one last time, and told them to stay safe. I thanked Chuck over and over again, assuring him that I was up to any task he’d throw my way. I waved goodbye, and headed towards my car.
As I drove home, I had music playing. I listened to each of the songs that I had experienced live the night before. Inevitably, I began asking myself questions: Why had Chuck picked me? Was I really up to any task? How could I rise to the challenge? Did I form complete sentences? Did I make any sense when I spoke to him?
I decided to put those ideas on hold, and to instead enjoy the drive home. I turned up the volume and I cued up Bring the Noise. I sang every word, and pondered what was to come.
Thanks, Chuck! – AK