The benefits to musicians of having their videos available on YouTube go way beyond immediate promotion of new singles – that, at any rate, is the view of Public Enemy’s Chuck D, long one of digital music’s most outspoken proponents, as he explained recently to Distorted Loop.
“Public Enemy has been helped immensely by YouTube,” he explains, “because people have seen videos they’ve never seen before.”
The controversial group’s career was rejuvenated in 1999 when they split from their career-long label, Def Jam, after a row over online distribution. Chuck had made his feelings on digital distribution clear as early as 1994: a track on the band’s Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age album, Harry Allen’s Interactive Superhighway Phone Call to Chuck D, laid out a blueprint for a wired future years before any other musicians were thinking such thoughts. But it was the release of Swindlers Lust as an MP3 – in which Chuck berated Def Jam’s Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen for failing to grasp the opportunities of the new era – that made the band crusaders for net music activism. What happened in between helps explain why.
“My middle years at Def Jam, I was questioning,” he continues, explaining how artistic expression ended up way down the list of priorities beyond keeping networks and corporations on side. “Like ‘Why the fuck am I makin’ this video?’ If I make the video, I gotta appease Polygram, or Universal, and then we as a team gotta appease the programmers. We gotta take all the logos away, but everybody gotta have a MTV logo: who’s runnin’ what here?”
A key gripe was when the video for the 1992 song A Hazy Shade of Criminal was effectively censored. The single’s sleeve bore photographs of lynchings; PE got away with that, but when it came to the video, it was a different story. “With A Hazy Shade of Criminal, they was disturbed,” Chuck groans. “MTV said, ‘Oh no, you can’t use this footage in here.'”
It wasn’t just the broadcaster who was at fault, Chuck argues: just as problematic was the stance of the label, who, he says, took expensive steps to re-edit videos so they would comply with MTV’s wishes, rather than stand firm on a point of principle and risk having the videos not shown. “Who’s the one that’s most paranoid?” Chuck asks. “Your record company says. ‘No, don’t worry about it – we’ll spend the 40,000 dollars to fix it!’ Yeah – that’s <i>your<i> [the artist’s] 40,000 dollars! If I didn’t point that out, it woulda been figured in: recouped.”
Ice Cube is another artist who has voiced his support for YouTube. Speaking between songs during a gig at London’s Electric Ballroom this week (Monday 14th July), he praised YouTube while heavily criticising Viacom, the parent company of MTV and VH1, for being one of a number of corporations that have hijacked or co-opted hip hop and forced musicians to tone down their material or otherwise compromise their art in order to preserve their ability to connect with fans.
Incidentally, Chuck D and Snoop Dogg were this week declared to be the latest two Living Legends to take part in YouTube’s Living Legends series.