Prittle-Prattle: A Conversation with Chuck D

The hard rhymer discusses music, race, and why he’ll never run for office.

The back of the room was lined with students protesting the start of war in Iraq. Chuck D stared right towards them as he began his lecture. “They told me that there might be ‘a disturbance’ here tonight. What did they think, that I was for this war? As a matter of fact, I’ll sit and watch y’all.”

Someone from the back yelled that the bombs had begun dropping and that President Bush had just taken to the airwaves to address the nation. “Wouldn’t you rather be listening to me than that asshole?” Chuck replied.

It wasn’t meant to be a joke, but it was meant to clear the air of any misconception that this would be a night for patriotic self-restraint or self-censorship. It’s the kind of reaction one might expect from the founder of Public Enemy, one of hip hop’s lasting icons. In the 80s and early 90s, Public Enemy’s politically-charged content delivered over a Molotov cocktail of sampling and production energized a generation and inspired artists as diverse as Trent Reznor, Ani Difranco, Rage Against the Machine, Black Star, Common, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

In the last few years, in addition to continued music and strident activism, Chuck has become a strong supporter of file-sharing technologies, like the now defunct Napster, which allow people to trade songs as easily as baseball cards. “For the first time,” says Chuck, “the public discovered the apparatus before the industry.” He has created a network of interwoven Web sites that host mp3s, promote underground artists, and deliver hip hop news and radio to the masses, all centered around and his independent online label, SLAMjamz.

Chuck has also become a popular lecturer at the nation’s universities. On this night he spoke to an enthusiastic crowd at Towson University about American arrogance (“Americans are soft, brainwashed, don’t know any other country exists in the world”), race (“the black community is being dictated by the board room”), rap music (“over the last eight years rap has been used as a hip hop COINTELPRO”) and a host of other topics during the course of three hours.

I caught up with Chuck backstage just before the lecture. He was tired after a delayed flight and a long drive through rush hour traffic from Washington to Baltimore, but his demeanor was pleasant and unassuming. He had no entourage, and his pre-lecture niceties consisted solely of a plate of fruit, most of which he gave away to those who came back to interview him, reassuring those who felt uneasy about sharing food with a celebrity by saying repeatedly, “Once I leave, it’s left.”

Dressed in full representation of his native New York with a Knicks shirt and backwards Mets ball cap, the “incredible rhyme animal” laid it on the line for me.

Jonathan Ratican: How did you first get involved with rap and Hip Hop culture?

Chuck D: I was a big fan of rap that was going around New York. But it wasn’t a recorded thing. It was a party thing. I was fascinated by the aspects of it … two turntables and a microphone. When I was in high school, there was really no such thing [as rap]. So if somebody had a crystal ball and has said that in my future, I would be a rap artist, a recording artist, I would have said, “You’re fucking crazy. How?” Recording was inconceivable. But it was the technical aspect that was really fascinating to me.

JR: Was it the rhythm that interested you in terms of the way it was coming together musically?

CD: No, it was a whole bunch of things. It was the aspect of dress. It was the rhythm … because, I mean, it was black music, primarily. It was more exposure to different types of music because we were in the middle of the disco craze. The DJs were trying to just keep funk alive. You were hearing great, great blending and selecting by the DJs.

JR: With the white audience now making up so much of the population that consumes rap music and guys like Eminem and Bubba Sparxx gaining prominence, is rap still “the CNN of the streets” as you said years ago, and is it still a viable voice for black culture?

CD: Rap music is almost like a worldwide cultural religion. When I said it was black America’s CNN, that’s what it was then. But it’s expanded past that. I said that back before “Yo! MTV Raps.” “Yo! MTV Raps” helped branch rap music into a clearer understanding to suburbia of what the black community was saying. From that point on, it went from rap records being the total voice into the interpretation of the rap records themselves, by video and record, over MTV, and then later on over Rap City and BET.

JR: Do you have kids?

CD (nodding): Mmm-hmm.

JR: How old are your kids?

CD: They’re teenagers.

JR: How do they feel about your music?

CD: They feel good because their friends will tell them. But they’ve always been around it, so … They have their favorites when they listen to the radio but then they end up finding out that their favorites’ favorites are, you know … I’m like their favorites’ favorites’ favorite.

JR: Given the current American political climate and the lockdown on power that the Democrats and Republicans have, how are young people or people in general best able to make political change, and do you see any positive voices in the current political structure?

CD: I think young people and people in general can make change over having a bigger voice by just not being corporatized. I think we should individualize as many people as possible. Everybody’s name has to be co-signed next to their statements. Not the organization but the individual. That would make people more accountable to the situation that they might by default cause.

JR: Will you still be rhyming 20 years from now?

CD: We got people playing the blues in their 80s. The reason that I never said that I would ever quit is because when I got into music I was 26, 27 years old, as far as a recording professional. So there’s no age barrier with me. I’m a musician, so I do music. I’m doing music from the soul. It’s not like sports, where your muscles wear down or a competitive thing like that. If you’re clear-minded, you’re good to go. You’re alright.

JR: Well, let me ask you something else that I just thought of in connection with that. Your records have obviously had bearing that’s lasted, at least …

CD: Yeah, I know, I never made records for kids. My records were made to be able to stand side by side with stuff like the Beatles, so …

JR: But when you look at something that’s a little more specific, looking at a specific period … What’s coming to mind here is the song “Son of a Bush.” It’s a wonderful song that gets me all sorts of riled up when I listen to it now, but in 15 years if I took that record and played it for my kids they’d be like, “What?”

CD: Well, that’s just Americans, you know. Americans are trained to deal with now …

JR: Unless there’s another Bush …

CD: Right, but everything has a time table to it sometimes. You make a statement for then and now, and then it’s a part of history. What makes “Son of a Bush” different from a newspaper article or a yearly encyclopedia that comes out and talks about the year in synopsis? That’s what music is for. You can’t say that Ike Turner‘s “Rocket 88” … you know, there aren’t any Rocket 88s on the road, but you can’t say that it’s not an insight into the feeling about that car at that time.

JR: Well, that’s true.

CD: Why do people watch old movies? I mean, I’m a big fan of the Beatles, but what the hell is a yellow submarine?

JR: Well they have the advantage of ambiguity there. … What’s your process when you write songs?

CD: Sometimes the words will come. I like to pick a topic and a title. Then once I pick a title, the process is a lot easier. Tracks and grooves … they’re all in the air anyway. Rhythms, they’re all in the air, so it’s not about isolating one until later, at least after the idea. The idea of a song is very important. More than ideas of songs that I’m trying to get across, I’m trying to actually break across the idea of songwriting to young songwriters when they actually make their music. A lot of them skip over the idea of the song, and they try to take the easy way out and grab onto a topic that somebody else grabbed onto. In their minds, they think they can actually do it better than the way that they heard it, but then the reality is that they might be doing no better … if not they’re doing worse.

These things have to be taught. There’s a lot of basics in musicianship that have to be taught back to black music. Because it leads to a law of diminishing return that people won’t be able to get out of. They get looped into saying, “Well, this is how it’s gotta be,” and anything outside that loop is wack. They have to get out of that because the diminishing return has lead to a point where a lot of cats … well, they hear music today. They don’t necessarily feel music. Topic-wise, they’re not feeling the topic. Music-wise, there’s nothing to feel as much as something in the past when real musicians in the 60s and the 70s played it.

So, when that law of diminishing return comes in, it doesn’t mean that it’s wack. It means that when they finish hearing it, it’s out of sight, out of mind. When you feel it, it’s like it stays with you, almost like a home-cooked plate of food from your parents as opposed to McDonald’s.

JR: So people are consuming music, rather than listening to it.

CD: A lot of people just buy the album because they have to buy the album. They only really care about track 13. To get track 13, they get the record.

JR: Is that part of why you think …

CD: People are downloading songs?

JR: Yeah, exactly.

CD: Of course. They want to hear one record and they really don’t want to hear the rest. So who knows if albums really have their place in society like they once had?

JR: What are some of your future plans?

CD: Change the world. We got people changing the world for the negative. And there’s only a handful of them. But going negative is like sliding down a water slide. Going positive is like climbing a mountain laced with grease while wearing roller skates.

JR: Okay, let me just ask you one more question real quick. Could you ever be convinced to run for office?

CD: Naw. Never.

JR: You know, I didn’t think so, but I thought I’d ask anyway.

CD: It would be the best day and the worst day for many. I would try to change the rules the first day I was in office, and that’s how they’d end up killing me. It would be bad. It would be ugly. And I would never be in one place long enough, anyway.

Article © 2003 by Jonathan Ratican