As a founding member of Public Enemy, Hank Shocklee is one of the most influential hip hop producers of all time. Next year will see the long-awaited return of the Bomb Squad, the production team of Hank and his brother Keith Shocklee, with their first ever album and first ever tour. On the phone from the Shocklee Entertainment office on Fifth Avenue in New York, Hank told me about his new projects, his musical roots, his love of dubstep, and his frustration with modern hip hop stars like Timbaland and Lil Wayne. He's also provided DazedDigital.com with an exclusive mix of heavy dubstep from the Bomb Squad - download it here.
Dazed Digital: What are you working on at the moment?
Hank Shocklee: My brother and I are working on a Bomb Squad record, but this time we’re taking more from reggae than from hip hop. It’s got that dub vibration. We’re putting out the EP by the end of the year.
DD: How often do you work with your brother?
HS: This is the first time in ten years. It’s good to work someone who gets it. We’ve got the right chemistry and the right rhythm.
DD: Have you always been into reggae?
HS: My family is West Indian so I grew up on reggae and soca and then jazz, and then after that I moved into r’n’b and early funk. And as you get older, some of the things from your background start to come into the foreground, because you have a newfound love for them. When I was doing the Public Enemy records, my jazz background started to creep in, and that’s when you get an avant garde kind of sound. And now what’s started into my new sound is my reggae background. I’ve also studied a few years of piano because my mother’s a classical pianist, so I learnt a lot from her. My background is pretty dense.
DD: You DJed at DMZ in London last year. How did that come about?
HS: Me and Mala and Loefah are really good friends. I met them about four years ago at the second Dub War party in New York City and I love the vibrations that they have. Also, the way they started out really reminded me of the way we started out in Public Enemy, going back to our radio days, our mobile DJ days. It was like a parallel culture, a timewarp. Except that they’re in this new digital era where you can put out your own records. If we could have put out our own records in the 80s, we would have done that.
DD: From a London perspective, dubstep is in a little bit of a slump right now.
HS: I think the opposite – I think it’s going through a boom. You’ve got a slew of artists coming from LA, Baltimore, Miami, San Francisco, San Diego, Toronto, Vancouver, even down south in Kingston. Sure, if you’ve been into it for eight years deep, you might get a little jaded when you see how it’s permeating. You may see the creative spin that these new guys are putting on its, and say that’s not really what it is. But who’s to say? If you listen to a lot of the reggae hits, they think that dubstep is killing reggae! One thing I’m against, and the same thing goes for hip hop, is the purist attitude. Who defines where something needs to be for somebody else to enjoy it?
DD: You’re also writing a book. What’s it about?
HS: It’s taken on different vibrations. It started off being about the creation of It Takes A Nation… but it’s moved on to the philosophical development of Public Enemy. And through that, I’m taking about the development of myself as an artist, and about having the faith to stick through certain situations, and about being creative. So it’s going to be a good learning aid for somebody who doesn’t understand the music business, and has heard a lot of crazy stories about it, but still wants to get into it.
DD: How does it compare to being in the studio?
HS: Writing a book is a lot slower, but you’ve still got to keep people’s attention – you’ve got to be visual so that people can relive what you’re telling them. It’s funny, because I’ve done so many things. I’ve not only scored movies, but I did all the early Public Enemy videos, I did all the marketing, I’ve run record companies – so when you look at what I’ve done, it’s 360 degrees, and writing a book is the last piece of the puzzle. It allows me to share my knowledge and wisdom and understanding that I’ve developed working with so many incredibly talented people.
DD: You’ve worked on a lot of films, from Do The Right Thing to American Gangster. Have you spent much time in Hollywood?
HS: Most of the time, I do it from New York. I don’t do it as a living. If I did, I have to be in Hollywood. I only do something I really believe in.
DD: What’s the movie business like?
HS: It’s a very demanding, stressful situation. Doing music for films, you’re always the lowest person on the totem pole, even though, as an individual, you’re responsible for the highest amount of output. Sound is 50% of the ball game, but it doesn’t get the 50% treatment, it gets the 5% treatment. Sound should be treated as a lot more important than that. They spend most of the time and energy on the visual side, but if they spent more time on the sound, there are so many things they could do to play with that.
DD: One often hears that Hollywood people are crazy.
HS: I know too much to say they’re crazy. I understand their constraints. You’re talking about people who are putting millions of dollars into something even though they have no idea whether it’s going to work or not. So everybody spends an inordinate amount of time second-guessing themselves, just to feel confident that their first impulse is correct. Instead of delivering one thing and it’s the greatest thing in the world, they’re having to deliver ten other things just to go back and keep what they had in the first place. So it’s not that they’re crazy, it’s just a heightened level of paranoia. They have to make sure that everything is correct, and the only way they know how to make sure of that is by endless duplication.
DD: What do you think of hip hop these days?
HS: It’s too mainstream. It used to be the bastard child that everybody was scorning, but it’s not underground any more. It has no rebel appeal. Now you hear it on the radio right next to Mariah Carey and Celine Dion.
DD: Surely some hip hop producers are still creative – what about, say, Timbaland?
HS: Listen, I know Timbaland from way back. I was one of the first Timbaland supporters before he even did the first Aaliyah album, when he was up in Rochester trying to put together a group called Girl with Missy Elliott. But the stuff he’s doing now, he’s just regurgitating. He’s an assembly line, just cranking it out. He’s just taking a loop, putting it on a tape and putting a vocal on it. Musically, almost everybody’s taking a step backwards today.
DD: What about rappers - Lil Wayne?
HS: I give Lil Wayne credit because he’s been able to stay the course. He’s reaching a new audience that doesn’t remember him from back in the day. But I don’t think that’s innovation. Innovation is where you push the envelope to the point where you create a new sound or a new persona. It should make you say, “Who is this? I never heard this before.” But you hear Lil Wayne, and you just say, “That must be Lil Wayne.” Everything sounds the same by default. But I’m not criticisng the new stuff – going back to the 60s and 70s, it’s never been pop music that’s innovative, it’s always the alternative music.
Let’s take Bob Marley. He’s probably one of the greatest conscious artists that we have. But everyone time you hear a Bob Marley record, it’s because someone’s said, “OK, now it’s the time when we want to give some respect to the reggae culture. We going to play a Bob Marley song.” And what do they always play? “One Love”. The weakest, most diluted song in his entire catalogue. Whenever you have anyone speaking about their political consciousness, their popularity goes down.
You not only have to be middle of the road in terms of your content, but also your consciousness. If you project any status outside of that, your pop status is struck off. The pop culture business is monitored all the way round. Look at hip hop – it’s not saying anything any more. Hip hop used to be the voice of people. Who are the stars and what are they really talking about? I’m quite sure Lil Wayne is just as much of a rebel as he wants to be. He’s a rebel in every other aspect of his life – why is he not on record? Jay Z is a big icon, but at the same time, why are his records so safe? There are so many artists I could mention. In their real lives, there’ll be drugs involved, shootings and gun-running and all type of stuff, but the one thing they do manage is to make a safe record. Why don’t we hold up the artists that are talking about something real but got a clean background? If that doesn’t show the music industry is monitored, what does?