INTERVIEW: Chuck D talks race wars and rap

We know he’s old school, but who knew rapper Chuck D would be a completely different breed of gangster? Voice cracking after two and a half hours of public speaking, Chuck is lively and excited as he works his way around a post-performance reception. Making sure to shake everyone’s hand, he makes small talk with students and industry types alike, listening attentively as each person speaks.

After 20 years in the rap game, Chuck looks a bit old. He’s traded do-rags for a cap, a nod to his slightly receding hairline. He has three children and has conquered the rap game, along with other artistic mediums. For Chuck, though, it is not enough to be successful and make money. Chuck is interested in strengthening black culture and facilitating diversity. He talks about the glorification of the thug lifestyle and the corporate strong hold on the music and film industries. Instead of traveling the country giving concerts or promoting albums, he travels the country lecturing at universities, high schools and prisons hoping to motivate his audiences to do something positive with their lives.

From 1987 to 1992 Chuck was the leader of the cutting edge hip-hop group Public Enemy. Their eight albums focused strongly on issues of race and inequality. Chuck, a leading proponent for free Internet music sharing, frequently appears on television and in public to debate the issue. He is also the Webmaster for the official Public Enemy Web site and his own rap Web site that distributes free music in mp3 format. He is currently working on a soul album with his new group, Confrontation Camp, called “How can you sell soul to a soulless people who sold their soul?”

After his talk at Lisner Auditorium on Monday night, Chuck sat down with The Hatchet to talk about his background as an activist, how he connects with his audience after 20 years of music and tips for getting the most out of your education.

Hatchet: I read that your parents were big activists. What kind of inspiration did that give you? Did you draw on that? What kind of activism was there when you were growing up?

Chuck D: Well it was the ’60s. When you see something wrong, you speak on it. That’s the background that I knew when I was growing up as an independent thinker.

H: Is it possible to capture that spirit still?

CD: I use my upbringing to try to capture that spirit as a recording artist. A bit of it was reflected in a five-year period from ’87 to ’92. That is Public Enemy. Eighty-seven to ’92 is a reflection, to me, of ’66 to ’71.

H: I was born in 1982 and the first Public Enemy album was in 1987, so I was five. How do last for 20 years in the music business?

CD: I’ve always been surrounded by young heads and intermediate heads that will explain to you and let you know what they like. Once you get those commonalties, you can look at the two and figure out the parallels. It’s still black music. A lot of black music is born out of the environment. A lot of the topics are still saying pretty much the same things …

H: How do you tailor your message to an audience like GW? This is an upper class and a very white audience. Do you feel like you can get a message across?

CD: Of course. You can talk directly to a black constituency, from black areas and talk to different colors and backgrounds on another tangent and still say the same thing to the same crowd. You can say ‘This is for you right now … just think about it.’

H: You talked about how students, particularly people of color, need to go to college and get an education. You also talked about how students need to make the most of their college experience. What do you recommend from your years in school?

CD: I recommend that you might go for six years.

H: For one degree?

CD: For one degree. You can take some time off and retool and regroup yourself. By the time you become a senior or a junior you might have a greater understanding of how you need to refine your skill to the point where it will work for you.

H: Where did you go to school?

CD: I went to Adelphi, up on Long Island.

H: Did you take time off to go abroad or something?

CD: No, I got kicked out. I had too many incompletes from hanging out with the girls my freshman year. I got reinstated in ’81. I made up all of my incompletes. It was great for me. I had to write letters to the dean specifically to get me re-enlisted. I damn near begged him to let me back in.

H: How did you keep yourself going? What did you hold onto?

CD: The music turned me on to go forward. I came from being an architectural phenom in high school. I had this goal to be a commercial artist, but I really had no direction of exactly what. When hip-hop started putting out records as a music industry, I said, ‘hell, I want to make album jackets. I want to do artwork and apply it to hip-hop and rap.’ That really motivated me to go back to school.

H: You talked some tonight about the thug image. Do you think there are rappers who should represent that image or do you think it is something that should be eradicated?

CD: I think it’s cool, but it gets out of whack and everyone feels like they have to do that. It needs to come around full-circle. If they say they represent thug life and all, I think, ‘okay what’s the benefit?’ Can you go to jails and speak to the people in the jails or the youth in the juvenile centers and tell people how to come up out of that? OK, yeah you’re thug, now what are you going to do with your thugisms? Are you going to actually build and try to get your cats out of the gutter?

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