As told to Alison Fensterstock
In my neighborhood, a punk was kind of like a nuisance, you know what I'm saying? It was a nuisance and some sort of bad-boy attitude that you didn't really want around you. You were a punk. That was before the music and the culture of it was heard about.
Then there was New York [punk] and the movement that was coming out of the city and also internationally – by some white kids. As a teenager, we saw the music and the culture being white, coming from the punks in New York City. I grew up on Long Island, went to a white high school, so I knew already they were rebelling about against their parents. And a lot of that, “I hate my parents’ shit” was based on different things – some of those were legit, and some were like, dude, I don't know what that's about, you know? You know, “My dad didn't let me have the car this weekend.”
So when you found out what they were all crying about, half of it was like, ugh, please, give me a break. And the other half of it was like, okay. They're finally talking about what black people have been talking about for a fucking hundred years. As a 19, 20 year old, that's what struck me. And then as a 22, 23 year-old, in my final years of college, I was like, well there is some alliance in here that y'all are getting at – that once again, we've been hearing about all our lives.
But [punk] is an our lives type of thing. When it first struck me it didn't strike me as I'm anti that – it's like, okay, welcome aboard, but, you know, the water's like three feet deep. You’re just wading in, and that shit's always been over my head.
When I was a teenager, to me, punk was somebody saying I'm disenfranchised, and I'm not part of the family. Well, [African Americans,] we were damn sure that we weren’t part of the family. We were knocking on the doors of white civilization saying, “Accept us, although we look different.” But that's different from a family discussion when somebody says, “Hey, I look like you, I sound like you, but I'm ostracized because of my beliefs or what I think.” The punk movement was like: I'm gonna dress myself up to show that I'm defiant to conforming. But we already defied conformity just by having dark-ass skin in America.
I was fortunate to be a New Yorker. Growing up in Long Island and having parents from Harlem, being born in Queens. New York is the melting pot. My cultural understanding came from parents who were young enough in the ‘50s to be radical in thinking that we should be as independent as possible. There was AM radio, where the radio DJs weren't afraid to say something. There was the music that wasn't afraid to say something. Then there was just generations of people living in the community who weren't afraid to say something, and also talk directly to young people about what they thought. So I grew up in an unafraid time of people saying what they really wanted to say, or what needed to be said.
When rap happened, it totally hit a new vibe because it wasn't recorded, and I was like, “Why isn't this music heard on the radio stations that I like?” There was no such thing as a rap record at first. I was like, how come we can't just hear that on the radio? It just wasn't to be yet. I'm from New York and this thing is happening right in my backyard, and I don't hear it when I want to hear it. So yeah, definitely hip-hop struck me in 1976 with that curiosity. I was totally blown away by it.
I think that hip-hop got mainstream like creamed spinach, but punk kept this radical edge by just being ugly enough, but attractive enough, to keep certain folks away. Kept some of the stink on it. One of the best things about punk and hip-hop at that particular time is you couldn't go out and just buy it. Couldn't slide yourself into punk. You had to kind of get creative.
I traveled to the UK in the beginnings of Public Enemy. I enjoyed watching people do weird-ass shit with Public Enemy logos and records and album jackets, and cutting their hair and stuff like that, so it was interesting coming ten years after the Clash into London, and doing a reverse London invasion. [Def Jam label executive] Bill Stephney used that [comparing Public Enemy to the Clash] as a selling point. We went to Def Jam and ended up being part of the same system that the Clash used. Public Enemy came in ‘87. The Clash was ‘77. The commonality between the two is that we used much of the same [label] personnel around the world that the Clash had ten years before. So that was ground-breaking. We would say things that we didn't want to be denied. He wanted people to think that we were the ultimate voice for the voiceless.
They finally heard a black voice, a black male's voice, especially one as strong as I had in 1987 as a young student. It was one of those things – you could not go away saying “I did not hear this dude.” I was gonna be heard. Even if I didn't have a style, even if I was wack, I would be heard. That equated to whatever punk that the Clash was, that movement from ten years before.
I think punk is always relevant. The terminology will dance around, but the idea is speak out against what is kicking you in the fucking head. And you might have to kick back sometimes just for survival. The idea of punk is always relevant. If you don't have that, you got sheep. When your blood races and you’re up, you gotta match your energy.
You know the saying: Either you do the song, or the song will do you? You get run over by a punk song if you don't do it right.