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Chuck D and Nile Rodgers are what you’d call “old school” in the music industry. But they’re teaching us new lessons about music and technology. Chuck D, 41, the charismatic front man for the groundbreaking, politically and socially outspoken hip-hop group Public Enemy, began promoting hip-hop acts in New York City in 1979. Nile Rodgers, 49, started his career at 16 making music on Sesame Street before heading up the musical group Chic and later producing hits for artists such as Madonna, Sister Sledge, Diana Ross, and David Bowie. Chuck and Nile share a vision of what the industry should be, and they are using technology to realize that vision.
Both artists are banking on the success of their online ventures: Chuck (photo above right) heads up Rapstation.com and SlamJamz.com, and Nile launched the Nile Rodgers MP3 Dance Club (www.mp3danceclub.com) last year. Their companies use MP3 (Motion Picture Experts Group, audio layer three) file-sharing technology, a format used for compressing audio to transmit as files at near-CD quality over the Internet. Everyday millions of people upload, download, and share MP3 files, but most big record labels have not embraced the technology for fear of Napster-like situations–the widespread distribution of copyrighted materials without the company’s (or the artist’s) consent. Granted, the labels do have a point. At its height, Napster had more than 1.5 million users distributing nearly 3 billion MP3 files without paying for any of it. And there are many other sites like Napster waiting in the wings. But while neither Chuck nor Nile advocate piracy, they don’t view file sharing as a negative. Rather, they see it as a way for artists to control the distribution of their work and put more of those dollars in their own pockets, not those of their labels. So, yes, Chuck and Nile see things differently.
Why take on the music industry? The son of political activists, Chuck says he remembers the impact that his parents’ ideals had on him. “[They] inspired me to be independent and always go against the grain if the grain was not helpful to the whole cause.” Known for his candid, if not bold, statements, Chuck is quick to add, “I don’t go against the grain for the grain’s sake. I go against the grain because I see right now there may be a BLACK ENTERPRISE magazine where you’re encouraging people to go into the market and to have control. The reality is that big business smashes that foundation.”
When Public Enemy parted ways with their label, Def Jam, in 1999 after disputes about digital distribution (Public Enemy was the first major group to release an album online–1998’s There’s a Poison Going On), Chuck decided it was time to take charge. He is an outspoken advocate of the artist’s right to release music online, independent of the label, thereby retaining control of his or her career.
“One of the most frustrating things about big business [is] the cost of marketing and promoting hip-hop and rap music through the traditional venues