POP / Outraged of Atlanta, Georgia: Chuck D has become rap's unofficial ambassador from the 'hood. Michael Odell talks to Public Enemy's No 1

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Ding-dong] The Chuck D doorbell is a major surprise. It's a homely, suburban two-noter rather than an anonymous, inner-city buzzer. Answering it, Chuck is friendly, unhurried. He talks of the hyper, adversarial and typically charged 68 minutes of music which is the fifth Public Enemy album, Muse Sick N Hour Mess Age, a stentorian warning against black life as it shouldn't be.

'White people only think of blacks as living in the inner city with a car wreck here, a rat over there,' he says, warming to his theme straight away. 'I've moved to Atlanta because it's a black city. Black people are in control here. It's a slice of black life as it should be.'

Carlton Ridenhour was born in 1960; his mother was a secretary and his father was a shipping-clerk. He went to a suburban New York university where, via the college radio station, the Public Enemy triumvirate of Carlton (now Chuck), Flavor Flav and Terminator X was formed and signed to the Def Jam label. Their debut album in 1987, Yo] Bum Rush the Show, established their distinct sonic intensity and Chuck's pithy 'end is nigh' sloganeering. Unlike the gangsta rappers, P E have never traded in outrage, but in being outraged. Hence Chuck has become a kind of unofficial ambassador from the 'hood, lecturing at Harvard and Yale, interviewers routinely setting him geo-political puzzlers or whopping fiscal conundrums. (What is adequate reparation for the African-American holocaust? Chuck's answer: 'Two to three hundred years of tax exemption').

He has been described as the nearest thing rap has produced to a politician and even, when his comrade Jesse Jackson isn't looking, 'the new Jesse Jackson', a tag the real one almost agrees with. 'I have attended lectures with Chuck D,' Jackson says. 'He is among the most politically aware entertainers we have. But I think his use is best served where he is - mobilising our people to vote, to realise the power they have, rather than him entering politics full-time.'

But as a rapper, Chuck D suddenly has his work cut out. The music's sound and concerns have changed. The rap hybrid of the moment is G-funk, a slower, more playful, less political sound. Its newest star is Warren G, half-brother to Dr Dre and associate of Snoop Doggy Dogg. 'I respect Public Enemy for what they've stood for, not because I would listen to them,' says Warren G. 'They are like founding fathers, but . . . things move on.'

Muse Sick N Hour Mess Age bravely kicks against fashion, sampling Stax rather than George Clinton and taking an uncompromising moral line on drink, drugs, gang violence and even gangsta rap.

But against G-funk's low threshold of responsibility, Chuck D looks lonely. He has proclaimed the impending Apocalypse so many times you wonder whether its failure to materialise this time round will find him twiddling his thumbs in a bunker full of non-perishable pies and pamphlets entitled 'The End of the World: I Told You So'. Chuck is well-used to the charge that he is too serious for his own good. Does he ever go out and do, like, regular stuff, unaccompanied by four horsemen?

'Of course I do. I'm an average black man. I mow the lawn. I go to the laundromat, I laugh at originality. But my personal life is not important.'

If Chuck is all geo-political seriousness and millennial concern, his sidekick Flavor is where the party's at. The 36-year-old jester for whom the words 'You have the right to remain silent' have become increasingly familiar - if almost impossible to observe - has seriously undermined his partner twice in the last two years.

Last year, Flavor spent time in Betty Ford's celebrity detox unit following a shooting incident at his South Bronx apartment and an admitted drug problem. In July this year he had a night in the cells to reconsider his lyrics to P E's 1991 hit '911 is a Joke', in which he scorned the ineptitude of the New York emergency services. Flavor had called the cops to deal with a cab driver who'd hit his car, and was promptly arrested himself after they discovered 43 endorsements on his licence.

Chuck, who has founded his reputation on personal responsibility and who wants to see Islamic 'eye for an eye' capital punishment in the black community, forgets all this when it comes to Flavor.

'I wasn't happy with him . . . how could one be happy with it? But then again I know Flavor. I know the environment that he came out of. Flavor needs things to do. I wouldn't say I was fatherly towards him . . . more elder brotherly.'

For a man who has founded the biggest rap group in the world on his own lyrical skills, it comes as a shock to hear Chuck say Public Enemy exists for Flavor's convenience. 'It's there for him,' says Chuck. 'I wouldn't do it on my own: it wouldn't work. It's there as long as Flavor wants it.'

Their curious chemistry of opposites is safe for the moment, he says. While Flavor waits for the outcome of his 'aggravated unlicensed vehicle operation' rap, he's putting the finishing touches to a solo album Life Styles of the Rich & Flav. The DJ Terminator X is nursing a broken leg and foot, sustained falling off his motorbike. Chuck inevitably cops the major chore at hand - writing the group's memoirs.

'It's just a question of trying to remember all the things we've done, all the places we've been,' says Chuck. 'It'll be fun . . . but not too much.'

(Photograph omitted)