Without a doubt, Chuck D is one of hip-hop’s most vocal spokespersons. For the past three decades, as a member of Public Enemy, his socially and politically-charged lyrics have challenged music lovers to “fight the power that be” while reminding them about the dangers of complacency.
Outside of the music arena, Chuck D has also found a welcome home in lecture halls across the United States—stretching (and challenging) the minds of countless college students. Nonetheless, his central message rings clear: “Don’t believe the hype.”
In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked Public Enemy as #44 on its Immortals list, which highlighted the 100 greatest artists of all time.
Upon the release of the Public Enemy’s forthcoming album, Chuck D managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry—reflecting on the past, present and future of hip-hop.
Although you are a pioneer in the music industry, you have made a lot of valuable contributions outside the field as well. Several months ago, you wrote the foreword for The Love Ethic: The Reason Why You Can’t Find and Keep Beautiful Black Love. How did you become attached to that project?
The Love Ethic was conceived by Akilah Watkins. We’re from the same hometown and we have done a lot of community activism together. She had gotten married recently, and her husband wanted to put out a book, so I said I would help them.
There's a line in the foreword that I would like to focus on: “Something has been poured in the waters of the Black community that has made hate and animosity more understood than love itself…” Would you mind expounding on that a bit?
Yes. When black folks see ourselves, like on TV, it's always showing our dysfunctionality and never our appreciation of each other. When that pours into the water, people pay attention to more of those things instead of the reality of themselves.
You are well-known for proclaiming that “rap music is black America’s CNN.” Do you still feel that way?
Well, rap music is worldwide. This is the 30th year anniversary of rap records, to this month. So when I said it was black America's CNN, that was 1988. Right here in 2009, it's almost a worldwide, cultural religion. We need to pay attention to that. But if you don't know how the rest of the world is operating, and if you don't see the rest of the world, how would you know?
Over these thirty years, what do you consider to be the good and the bad of hip-hop’s global dominance?
The good aspect is that it's all over the world. The bad aspect is that, in the beginning, the music was the product of artists and the community. Now, it seems to still have its largest definition from corporations that want to decide what it is. And that's not the truth, but it's convinced people in America that whatever comes through major-corporation TV, major-corporation radio, and major-corporation companies, that's what it is. No company can own a culture. Only the people in the community can, so that's the schism.
When you look out not only at just the music industry, but within our country as a whole, what do you think it is going to take to bring social and political consciousness back?
Regardless of whether it's the music, whether it's hip-hop or if it's just social structure – the rest of the world is less distracted by the whippings of mass distraction. They're paying attention. I think most Americans should get a passport, because that really opens your mind up.
Two decades removed from It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, “Don't Believe the Hype” is still as relevant today as when it was released in 1988. After all these years, why do you think that song maintained a high degree of relevancy?
Today, news comes from ninety different sources. What do you believe? Who do you believe? I tell people really simply that the cheapest price you can pay is attention.
I'm not trying to age you… [laughing] …but next year you'll be celebrating your 50th birthday.
You can age me! [laughing] Age is a stage and we should appreciate that. When God takes years away, everybody's sad.
When you look back on your life, what long-term goals still remain in focus?
My goals are to try to extend the arts and try to liberate the arts and the freedoms within the artists so they can do their thing and make their own decisions. That's one of the things I really fought for. I was taught that by my mom, to be able to understand that the art is something that you share. You share the art. People talk about sharing. You share what you know, and you share the art. You share money, but everybody might not have that opinion. And we're in the time of greed. That's just this thing that's taking people into building up their characteristics instead of their character.
Unfortunately, men and women aren’t given manuals on how to build character. Several years ago, you contributed to the soundtrack of He Got Game, which featured Ray Allen as a young student that was heading to college on a basketball scholarship. And as you know, director Spike Lee’s college, Morehouse, has recently made headlines for implementing a mandatory dress-code for its all-male campus. A few years ago, the NBA also instituted a mandatory dress code for its players. What is your take on the issue?
Well, I'm a believer in dress codes if you're supposed to be less of an individual. I think we're in some very highly individualized times. You can warrant that if everybody has a goal of community and accountability and responsibility in mind. But there's so much individuality in going for self on there — when somebody goes to Morehouse, the whole key is that the Morehouse student was that of someone who was connected with each other as being a benchmark for black colleges. I think Morehouse is trying to make a statement that individuality is good, but in this case it can't hurt by you realizing that there was something here before you. I'm a big fan of dress codes – especially in high schools and middle schools – because when you don't have your insides designed, people put a lot of emphasis on your outside. So it's almost like somebody should just get that up and out of the way so people can concentrate on their inner character.
Why do you think we have gotten to a point where dress codes are even necessary? Where do you think the breakdown occurred? With individuals? Parents? The community?
It's all of the above. Every snowflake pleads, “Not guilty.” Avalanche, right? It's one of these things that has to build up. In order to sometimes fix a problem, you have to take small steps without pointing the finger at anything entirely, because it's not one thing. I think the disturbing thing is you start seeing people protesting against these small moves to try to fix some thing that's larger than that.
If you had the chance to speak with President Obama, what larger issues would you want him to focus on?
I wouldn't even ask him to focus on any issues. I would just ask him how he stays active. I don't have any excuse to say, “I'm tired,” because I've got to imagine what he's going through. He's trying to juggle eight or ten different things. The only thing I would say is, “Try to get some proper rest.”
You are a busy man as well. How do you keep your spiritual and social life balanced?
Traveling the world. When you travel the world you see many things. You see many people. You have conversations with many people in different areas. You continue to be in awe, because you say, “Well, this is something that's really great.” But you have to recognize the greatness in everything.
Is there a particular conversation that really stands out?
Everybody has something to say. I'm usually the one who's asking questions. I think as more people ask, more people question – regardless of where they were at, what status they were at. I think it would be a much better world of respect.
Next year, you’ll be releasing an album in collaboration with SellaBrand. What direction are you going into, and what topics do you plan to address?
My topics are wrath, rage, reality and technology. This is my nineteenth year of lectures at colleges and universities. Usually everybody has some kind of concern around each one of those topics, which are expanding by the day.
Why is it so important for you to reach out, especially on these college campuses?
Because that's the minds of America. And as far as black students, we have to remind them that they are our leaders. Fortunately, those who have put time into studying and those who have put time into learning have not been rewarded through the portals of this celebrity culture that we're looking at today. This culture's rewarded dysfunctionally. It's not rewarding those that are trying to get their education. That's why you have somebody in the third or fourth grade – happening now for the last ten, fifteen years – they've got an answer and they're afraid to raise their hand because they don't want to appear smart to everybody in the class. That's crazy.
In your most recent press release and on your Facebook page, you discuss the global impact of the Internet on music distribution. How do you see the Internet affecting the traditional music company and the marketing and development of the artist?
Well, people can start their own companies themselves, and at least development is at a beginning stage. Now the end result should be like if you were in a situation that could do better than you're doing yourself, well at least you should understand what you're getting into and develop those small attributes before you get into it fully. The problem before is that artists used to just jump into this gigantic lake and not even know how to swim in it.
What kind of benchmark would you like to see yourself set for SellaBand?
Our benchmark is to be able to take a worldwide audience and tell them that this is a model of actually involving themselves as fans, participants and investors in something that they already know as proven. But also I like to see that on smaller levels you might have X that set their standards somewhere even lower, but they're able to concentrate on their local activity. I think local is a very important part of the beginning of bands and groups and artists. And that's been eradicated for this whole sake of going national or going international, even. I think you have to go local before you actually go global.
With the recent passing of Michael Jackson, I wonder if the world will ever see another artist of his stature. In the months following his death, his music and image have been heavily commercialized, but what do you hope the end result will be, in terms of his legacy and where he will be placed in the musical canon?
Michael Jackson comes from black people, so you don't want people to totally skew the whole history of what Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 represented to us as a people.
And as far as your legacy, the current generation is too young to have experienced your records in full. Since we live in the age of iTunes, what would you tell them to listen to, in order to get a crash course on Public Enemy?
Well, I'd tell them simply to go to publicenemy.com. That will lead them into what you used to, probably, listen to. If there's one song that does this, it's “Fight the Power.”
For more information on Public Enemy, visit the group’s official website.