Hip-hop legend Charles Douglas Ridenhour has come a long way since the release of his first album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, as the MC of Public Enemy. Still, Chuck D has never stopped sharing his opinions on race, politics and the evolving world of hip-hop music, whilst trying to educate those who will listen.
For those who don’t know, Chuck D is and has always been the guy in Public Enemy that doesn’t wear a bunch of clocks around his neck. He’s coined such inspirational terms as “Fight the Power” and gave popular rapper Busta Rhymes his moniker.
Chuck D has also been lecturing at universities around the world for 19 years and his message is still as relevant today as it was in the late eighties.
Speaking on the subjects of race, rap and reality, Chuck D stressed the importance of education, not hiding his pride of being a college graduate. “We’re at a time in this world, where intelligence is not getting its due credit – gun mentality has punked out the intelligence.”
According to him, if you say you love music but don’t know that the first musical recording was “Mary had a Little Lamb” by Thomas Edison in 1877, then you’re only dabbling with it.
“Be a nerd at what you do and be a nerd at what you love,” stressed Chuck D, not only in terms of formal education, but also in terms of educating yourself in all the important aspects of your life.
If you’re privileged enough to go to school then you have to take advantage of it, he added. “You pay for your education and you don’t want to get ripped off right? It’s like paying for a luxury car and getting a rusty bike; you got ripped off. Don’t leave university with a rusty bike GPA.”
It’s a positive message that he sends to university students as he speaks to them on their home turf throughout the country. “Don’t you dare say you’re a thug in university; thug life and college is an oxymoron,” said Chuck D. “And if we talk about governments, thug life starts at the top.”
Thug life and governments are the two other topics Chuck D touches on during his lectures.
His allegiance in the upcoming American election lies with Barack Obama. “Barack is actually going to get to work. McCain would just chill out and wait a couple months before he gets to work.”
Regardless of whom he will vote for, Chuck D is most concerned with the media’s coverage of the elections. He likens the extensive coverage to entertainment shows like Entertainment Tonight, and refers to it as the “weapon of mass distraction.” “We can’t let the weapons of mass distraction lead us to thinking that there’s nothing but celebrity as the drug of America.”
Chuck D obviously feels most at home when it comes to talking about the current state and future of hip-hop. Public Enemy is known for writing socially and politically charged lyrics. He states that at this point in his music-making career, his music is geared towards an older crowd and doesn’t mind that his message doesn’t get through directly to the younger generations.
The message he conveys in his music also has relevance to younger generations, but falls on deaf ears, since teens are more concerned with sexually charged music videos than educational hip-hop. His message however, can be passed on from the people he lectures to. “I talk to the 30-year-olds. They can talk to the 20-year-olds who can talk to the teenagers, and so on.”
The current state of rap music is based on making money for the most part, not necessarily for the artists, but for the suits upstairs. It’s all about selling the music and bringing in the profits. “It’s easy to sell a 14-year-old on clubs and sex,” said Chuck D. But that’s just not what he’s about. “I could fool them and pimp them. An older cat can always pimp somebody and misguide them, but I think it’s a modern crime.”
It takes a lot of energy and dedication to devote so many years to such an intricate craft. “A lot of things have changed [since Public Enemy started], but a lot of things have remained the same,” Chuck D said, while clearing up a statement that quoted him as saying that nothing has changed for African-Americans in North America since Public Enemy’s beginnings. At this point, it doesn’t seem like he’ll stop until everything has changed for the better.
Five questions with Chuck D
Q: What is the state of hip-hop music, as you see it in 2008?
A: Digital. All over the place, needs to be organized. But I think artistically, it’s
always been great. I think the effort could be greater as well as the knowledge of what it is. But artists will always bring a standard to the table that needs to be checked out.
Q: Are you concerned with the direction of rap culture?
A: Always. It’s where I come from. I think it needs to be well balanced and diverse.
Q: Have you always sought to educate youth with politics through your hip-hop records?
A: I make records to try to educate the masses and see through the hype. It just so happens that people kind of misconstrued rap as being music that only talked to youth.
Q: What are you trying to accomplish?
A: Being the hip-hop version of Leonardo Da Vinci, the everything-man.
Q: What influenced you at a young age?
A: James Brown. James Brown was the beginning of it all.
INTERVIEW BY ADAM BEMMA