Foreword By Nate LeBlanc
At ten, the thing I noticed was the voice– a commanding instrument that demanded my attention. As a kid, a hip-hop novice, I respected and almost feared Chuck D. His presence dominated my Public Enemy tapes, though he was saying things I couldn’t understand. However, now I know why John Connor sported a PE shirt; not Flav’s borderline gibberish, not the Bomb Squad’s revolutionary layering, or the S1W’s simulated militancy, but Chuck and his thunderous, brilliant rhymes.
Flash forward ten years. Campus was abuzz with the news that the most recent lecture tour would bring the legendary Chuck D to our little corner of the world. Would he rhyme? Talk music? Literally lecture us in the style of some of his more didactic verses? I bought my tickets, waited in a long line, and found my answers in a poorly-lit dining hall. He talked to us like the not-quite-adults that we were. He was by far the realest dude in the room. My most vivid memory is of his palpable consternation that college-educated people all over the world were striking thug poses in deference to prevailing hip-hop trends. He relayed to us, in no uncertain terms, that we should act like what we were—educated people. Good advice.
Ten more years, I’m more or less grown, a man in the world struggling to make ends meet. I appreciate Chuck and his artistry more than ever. There was a time when I didn’t rate Chuck very highly as an MC, but I was using all the wrong criteria. I underestimated what he said and how he said it. As brilliant as the ideas contained in his rhymes may have been, people would not have been as receptive to them if it weren’t for his iconic delivery. More than anything else, I appreciate the fact that he is out there in the world, making himself available to students, news organizations, and independent journalists like David in order to provide reasoned commentary from a hip-hop perspective. He is an absolutely brilliant speaker, an underrated musician, and the best example I can possibly think of for up-and-coming cats to model themselves on—as is readily apparent in the following interview.
Why do you think your messages in PE’s songs have stayed relevant for all these years? Talk about your writing a bit.
I’m someone who was born in 1960. I was at the right age at the right stage when I started writing. I spoke from the perspective of a cat that was born in the ‘60s. I was a curious kid, as I think most kids are, and I always wanted to find answers in my own particular way. I wrote about what I knew about; history, you know, Vietnam and Dr. King, Black Panthers and stuff. Actually as a child, I was always privy to those things. And I mean, from a purely writing standpoint—–you gotta write about somethin’!
Recent political rap hasn’t been particularly memorable, even with the boost it’s gotten from the recent election. Why has hip-hop lost it punch when it comes to politics?
Because rappers don’t know, or don’t care to know, about their history. You gotta have principles and know your history. That’s the only way you’re gonna raise the standard. Regardless of what kind of music you make. I mean, Rock & Roll has an understanding of their culture and background.
What is rock doing right that rap’s doing wrong?
Other genres don’t rank and file themselves. You got people like Bruce Springstein and Bono involved in the inauguration events, and rightfully so. These cats come to the table and understand that Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones have come before them. And these guys are smart because they understand and acknowledge that the riffs they’re using are from Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Bo Diddley. But a lot of hip-hop artists don’t know any standards or even their own history—everything’s been too scattered for too long.
Let’s move onto your own history. We’ve heard people talk about Bomb Squad’s production, how layered and ahead of its time it was. As the dude who rapped over those monstrous beats—why do you think you and those beats meshed so well?
I think everything worked well with me because we love all music and all genres. I think we all wanted to make music with a meaning, with a purpose. We were saying lots of things from different vantage points that we felt needed to be said and even they, as the producers, knew what needed to be done to come across like we did.
You feel like you guys had some sort of musical acumen when it came to production?
Maybe. I mean, I feel like the Bomb Squad had a high level of understanding of the records they used and we could feel the magic of those recordings. We took music that was already open-minded and mashed up in many ways already, and further mashed them together. It was a simple thing actually. I think we aligned a lot of things together, not only musically, but philosophically as well.
Talk a bit more about the music that were sampled and utilized. What are your feelings about the funk and soul records PE used?
We had the utmost greatest respect for recorded music. Plus, we especially liked music from the ‘60s and ‘70s. I mean, we’ve been doing music, all of us, for the last three decades, so we know. And if someone came up to you and asked you when the best music was recorded, you gotta say the 60s and 70s if you have any sense in you! George Clinton told me that.
Why do you think the ‘60s and ‘70s produced the music it did?
It’s because of the exposure of different musical genres that began to happen a lot in the ‘60s and ‘70s. You had bands and musicians that respected music, and the music of others, and so you had genres fragmenting into different styles because musicians were respecting other musicians. Plus, musicians back then not only played with one another, but also against one another. They were actively in competition, and sure enough, the high level raised the game. You had togetherness and competition, that’s why the funk and soul of the ’60 and ‘70s were so good.
Do you have a personal favorite PE song?
“Rebel Without a Pause”. It’s the only record we’ve ever done that I walked away from after and felt like I could have died and it’d be alright because we recorded what needed to be recorded. The process was a combination of all kinds of events.
Talk about the process a bit more.
I actually couldn’t cut the record the first time I tried. I was unsuccessful because I was trying to do too much and wasn’t tempered. The next day I came in a cut it right. The feeling was there on the second try, and we all felt it.
Who do you think the best rapper right now is?
I think, Barack Obama is the ultimate rapper [laughs]! I’m serious though. He’s from the hip-hop generation. And whether people consider him to be or not doesn’t matter. He doesn’t need to say that he’s listened to hip-hop or that he’s read Malcolm because you can see it in his presentation. Those who know, know.
As one of the most powerful speakers ever; what do you think it is about Obama’s style that makes him so effective?
I would say that he speaks with a distinct and powerful voice. He has an unbelievable way of putting words together and making people feel the words. He has a point of view that’s really engaging. He draws emotion out of those he speaks to. And now that he’s in the Whitehouse? He’s also backed by a posse that can’t be fucked with [laughs].
Interview by David Ma, Foreword by Nate LeBlanc. Photo (top) by the one and only Janette Beckman.
To hear some of Chuck’s most poignant verses…CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD DJ ELEVEN’S EXCLUSIVE PUBLIC ENEMY MINI-MIX!!!
For more information on Chuck D, please visit the Public Enemy site.