Chuck D remains one of Hip Hop’s most important voices. When he talks, people listen. Especially to his poignant words regarding wisdom, race, politics, music, and life. As the frontman for Public Enemy, he has been tirelessly spreading his messages on understanding the impact of race and the power of the African-American musical tradition. Since the group’s emergence in 1987 with their debut album Yo! Bum Rush The Show, Public Enemy has been widely compared to the legendary, politically conscious English punk rock band The Clash. Thus, Public Enemy has proven that they should be revered as “the only rap band that matters.”
Chuck D has been a long-standing guard and flagbearer for justice while being on the frontline’s for Hip Hop since he dubbed rap as “the CNN for black people” in the early nineties. But with his prophetic rage displayed on albums since as It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, and now twenty-five years removed from the initial impact of Fear Of A Black Planet, Chuck has made the Hip Hop audience and political activists alike collectively bear witness to the government officials that need to be caught for their oversights and premeditated decisions to racially and socioeconomically stratify minorities and the majority of the poor.
In this exclusive interview with HipHopDX, we spoke with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inducted vocalist about his views on leadership in Hip Hop and the black community, his reluctance to deem himself as a sole leader in his political activism or movement, his thoughts on the recent snubs of the award-winning film Selma at the Oscar nominations and racism in the hierarchal structure of the film industry, supporting his rhetoric about Hot 97 and its annual Summer Jam concert, and the current trend of old school rap formatting on FM stations across the country.
Chuck D Addresses Play, Selma, And Awards Shows
HipHopDX: Public Enemy is still touring non-stop to this day. After twenty-seven years, how do you maintain your energy to push forward like you do as a frontman?
Chuck D: I’m very, very busy (laughs). People should understand how difficult it is about, you know, like learning a song? I have a three-year old child, and I got a busy schedule when it comes down to it. And I can’t memorize fast. You know what I mean?
HipHopDX: Spike Lee recently threw shade at the Academy for the snubbing the film Selma in the Best Director and Best Actor categories. Do you agree with Spike, or have you not seen the movie yet?
Chuck D: No, I’m going to see it though. Like I said, I got a three-year old so I been looking at more things like I went to the one with the penguins recently (laughs). But I’m a big supporter of Ava (DuVernay), and then we got our song in the film that she put in it. But everyone in my family has seen it. But I’ve been away from the world mentally for a minute trying to learn these songs. So I’m totally oblivious about the Academy Awards. I’m not in the film business so I wouldn’t even know anything about what they do and how they do it. I know how the Grammys operate because I’m in the music field. With the Academy Awards I don’t understand how they get out their awards. I don’t even understand the Golden Globes because they usually vote on movies before they really get out. So I don’t understand what it’s about. You gotta inform me. I don’t even know if I know enough to get upset. All I know is what I go over with Spike. If Spike is upset, and that’s his business and that’s his thing, then it’s a good enough reason for me.
Chuck D Addresses The Academy Awards & Racism’s Impact
HipHopDX: Your music has been in other Academy Award-nominated movies in the past too.
Chuck D: Yeah that’s been the major focus of Public Enemy since the radio ain’t never gonna play our shit. We’re always having our music somewhere else. But I haven’t really been privy or exactly what the process is because I got enough feeling in the world that we already have. People making death threats to people on social media. You know, trying to keep that world sane. When it comes down to the movies, I don’t know how they do it, and I don’t know what they do. I know it’s a well put-together structure, and you can’t go in the film area and think that you’re going to come in with your own set of rules. Puff did it, but I think everyone else falls into whatever that structure contains. And it’s expected. They don’t let the film industry get away from them like the music industry. Streaming took the music industry down six notches. In the film industry, although what’s different is they don’t let people come in and let people dictate to them how their industry is going to go. And so it’s a bittersweet respect because I respect that. And at the same time I know they have some, I would say racist aspects embedded into their platform. That’s the best I can say on it. I don’t act, and I don’t seek out to act. I would like to get our music in as many films as possible. No matter what they are, voiceovers and stuff like that. So I do end up dealing with the film industry as a provider, not as someone who is going to star in some film. So my [hat] goes off to filmmakers and especially people like Ava DuVernay, a black woman who actually spent her time, effort and money to make a statement. I’m also unfamiliar with things like the how people end up with NAACP Awards and they’re like closed environments, you know? I don’t know if I’m even making sense being that I’m ill-equipped to speak on it
HipHopDX: Speaking of the NAACP, why do you think there was a lack of mainstream news media coverage of the recent NAACP bombing in Colorado versus the Mike Brown and Eric Garner media blitzes for them being slain by police?
Chuck D: Because it doesn’t sell, and it’s not important to the United States of America. Also, it’s not a priority saving young black lives. Not a priority. Never has been. Black folks would have to make a lot of noise to be heard in the so-called woods. That’s just the truth to the matter. When it comes down to something that really affects us, we make a little noise about it. Then we have to accept like when we get that “Aww, you’re making it a racial thing. Everything’s not about race, is it?” We have to be informative to let people know it’s always been a racial thing. And then be able to be tough enough to take what’s going to come our way about it.
HipHopDX: It’s that notion of pulling the race card, right?
Chuck D: It’s better pulling a race card than it is pulling a gun.
Chuck D Talks The Value Of Black Lives
HipHopDX: When you say that its not a priority for America to save young black lives, it relates to the lyrics “Day to day, America eats it’s young” that you said on the song “Revolutionary Generation” on Fear Of A Black Planet twenty-five years ago. It seems just as relevant today.
Chuck D: Well, it really wasn’t that long ago. It’s long ago in like entertainment years, which are like dog years. You know what I’m saying? It’s not long ago so it’s not that farfetched. So you shouldn’t be surprised that some of these things still exist. They existed at the turn of the century; in the eighties; and you have some aspects of the seventies. Why should we be surprised when there was really no time at all considering that it’s been something in a 300-year span concerning the dynamics of race in the United States of America? It’s only new to people who are new. If you’re born in 1994, it’s new to you because this is something that’s going to affect you as a person of color as you go forward. Even if you choose to ignore it, there’s going to be some cause and effect that affects your day. And that’s what happened in Ferguson, is that young people who had been hearing about racism all the time weren’t able to process it totally affects them in the context of their everyday lives. They definitely felt it. They felt something, but they weren’t able to process it like “Yo, this is real!” Then you add their emotion, and then it’s like the people were emotionally bent on something. How do you process that into movement? So none of this new, it’s just that the people are new.
HipHopDX: How does it make you feel seeing new generations of black faces in Ferguson destroying property and businesses in their own neighborhoods upon the Mike Brown decision?
Chuck D: When you don’t know the history, then you’re absent from the same things so you’re always going to make the same mistakes. You need words of wisdom from the old guard. The old guard doesn’t have to be on the frontline. They shouldn’t be on the front line. But their words of wisdom are useful to propel you and keep you from doing dumb ass shit. (Laughs) You know, coaches ain’t out there with shorts. I mean in football, they’re not taking the hits. You need coaches in [a] movement, too. You need leaders in [a] movement, and it’s very easy for some young cat to come along and defy their coach. They like to defy their coach when they’re playing ball, but at the end of the day the coaching is what’s going to bring the best out of you and your team. And you gotta recognize that you’re a team in your community. That’s the first problem: if you don’t pay attention to your team, you know damn well you’re not going to pay attention to your coaches. You always are going to be doubting leadership. I put this in a sports way because we’re in a country that’s in an ESPN-state of mind. They know of what’s going on with Florida State over the Secretary of State. Or, Florida State as opposed to the state of Florida (laughs).
Chuck D Discusses The Old Guard In Activism & Who The New “Coaches” Are
HipHopDX: Who would you say should be the appointed coaches of this generation of Hip Hop in?
Chuck D: Well, really I don’t know. There’s a huge rejection of the old guard like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and there shouldn’t be. The fact is they don’t need to be on the frontline, but their words are valid. We don’t need half-baked information like, “Yo, I heard you was snitching!” They need to take the fuckin’ Hip Hop out of logic and put the logic in Hip Hop. You know half the information, which means youy don’t have the full information, which makes you have an emotional trigger. You know, justify your apathy or why you ain’t feeling something.
And I know that it’s young people’s world. Thirty and under, you have to assume the world. But you only assume the world because you can handle the ball well for when people come after you. To kick that shit out of bounds, you’re just saying “fuck it, then.” When you say “fuck it, then,” there’s a twelve-year old looking at you saying “fuck it, then.” I tell this to everybody: anyone can lead. You know, everybody can talk to somebody. If you got a fourteen year-old that can’t talk to an eleven year-old, then they’re doing the same that was done to them. But, also, when people look at leadership as faulty, then I say you’re not looking into the leader in yourself. If you’re not looking to the leader in yourself, you definitely can’t look at the OG’s a little closely and say “Well, fuck it then.” No, you take what they’ve done, and you treat it like fish, you eat what’s edible to you, and you throw the rest of the bones away.
What I think in leadership, when it comes to Ferguson, with people asking me a million questions of like what I was gonna do, I’m like “Yo man, shit. I’m 54 years old. You got a bunch of grown people out there that you’re not paying attention to.” Killer Mike was out there making noise. Rosa Clemente. Talib Kweli. They went out there and made noise, and it’s our responsibility to be accountable to illuminating their efforts. Dead prez has always done great things. The world can’t always be what you want it to be, but dead prez can be found in Botswana with people. Like as if they’re not black, or don’t count too? So my biggest thing is this, and this connects with culture and arts as well. If we don’t reconnect as a people into the diaspora of creators and history of our people, then we’ll always be chained to slavery in America, no matter what we say or think.
Chuck D Addresses His “Distaste” With Hot 97
HipHopDX: Hot 97 in New York just added the legendary Kool DJ Red Alert back in their roster of personalities after fourteen years since he last aired on the station. You had your distaste with that station not long ago.
Chuck D: I had my distaste with them because they tried to make excuses for stupid shit. It wasn’t an individual thing, or Rosenberg, or anything like that. It’s that you can’t have a Summer Jam where everyone is yelling “nigga.” And half of them are white folks in a stadium where everyone is yelling “nigga” as well. I mean, what’s the difference between that and a (Ku Klux) Klan rally?
HipHopDX: Would you say the return of DJ Red Alert to the station is a positive step in the right direction for Hot 97?
Chuck D: It’s always a step in the right direction, but you can tally on another dynamic on how they’re going to treat it. They gotta pay attention to the stats and the surveys as far as what they’re doing that’s showing up in the business circles and paperwork as a backlash. Because the misnomer is that Hip Hop is strictly a young person’s music. Younger than what, you know? You got adult themes, so telling it to a twelve-year old is gonna be easy to do your press. What happens in the next twenty years of your programming where somebody is 20 and now is 40 ? And they don’t count? Of course they’re not going to be around calling the radio station up so they can hear A$AP Mob, you know? They’re gonna be like “Alright, I’m at my job, and I got it on. I do like Hip Hop, but what the fuck? I’m not going to respond to their survey. I don’t have the time.” Somebody who’s 14 is online twenty hours a day, Instagramming their friends. A lot of these things that we do don’t turn up in the stats, when we actually have an accumulation of people saying, “This shit is wack.” They hear the echoes and the business echo reverb. That’s why there’s this interest in the “old school.” Because it’s an understood structure of balance. At least they know they need to have something fresher because they haven’t been exploding in ratings. It was cute when it was shocking, maybe twelve to fifteen years ago. But it’s played, and it’s tired. People are looking for a new energy. And I’m not saying they need to have only legends on their air, but there comes in a balance with a new wave of artists, and that combo with leaders in our community. And that will make it practical for not only what they community wants, but what the community needs.