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Chuck D of Public Enemy and Prophets of Rage on Rap’s Past, Present and Future

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Public Enemy’s Chuck D is on a mission. As one of the godfathers of modern hip hop, he’s has taken on the mantle of elder statesman of the genre, in an effort to ensure that it’s now 40-plus year history is held in the same esteem as that of rock and roll, country, jazz and the blues.

“Rap is a truly American art form that’s been around now for almost half a century, but it’s not taken all that seriously,” he tells Rock Cellar. “I think that needs to change, and I’m going to do what I can to make that happen.”

Rock Cellar: Before we started you were telling me how, back in the day, fans like you and me would pour over liner notes, and we knew everyone who played on the albums we loved, who did what, etc. and that you feel that’s been lost. You’re trying to set the record straight, but talk to me a little bit about why?

Chuck D: Well, why not? ESPN can’t just have one station. We’re all so obsessed. Sports has taken the place of music. Music fans have dropped the ball. Liner notes are gone, but the information that’s important is available to us 24 hours a day. You know, even down in school programs, it’s the football team, it’s the basketball team … Where is the arts? Where is the theatre? Where’s the music program in the school culture?

So we … as a “famous” person in the genre that I have been involved in, and that I’m passionate about – because I have a real love of music – you know, I thought that taking on promoting the history of rap and hip hop is necessary, so that there’s some basic foundation of facts.

Rock Cellar: While you were answering, I was remembering back when I was a kid, listening to WBAI or WNYC or BLS – there was a real explosion of the arts. Do you feel there’s that same vitality in the arts that there was then, or are you saying that there isn’t that vitality, because we’ve taken our eye off the ball?

Chuck D: Kids still do it today. They do it from a bunch of different vantage points. But you know if you don’t manage it, it just goes into the ether. They’re not managing it; they’re not curating it. And people aren’t responsible for an art form, then of course the bottom can fall out. I think that’s what happened. You know, artists right now are making great new music everyday, and they’re making it attainable. But, you know, when it comes down to who’s keeping score, or who’s monitoring it? It’s like a baseball team that has a field, but they don’t have the outfield fixed, or bases or even a ball or a bat. I’ve been fortunate, and I know how much the curation of sports has made big. So I’m committing to doing that for the curation of music, and especially hip hop.

Rock Cellar: There are definitely big names who have transcended the genre, and who have become the sort of Beatles of rap. Run DMC, or the Beasties, or even Tupac, Biggie, or nowadays Kendrick Lamar and Chance — people who have become bigger than just hip-hop or rap. But there are a lot of other artists that were significant, and should be remembered: Grandmaster Flash, Kurtis Blow, Big Daddy Kane.

Chuck D: It’s about the detail. I want to tell the story so folks can use it as a foundation and will begin to take this thing a little more seriously than how people take it now.

Rock Cellar: Well, why do you think, using The Beatles analogy: There, let’s call them, lesser bands, like The Kinks or The Zombies, who people know about, and know their histories, whereas artists like Big Daddy Kane have been a little bit lost?

Chuck D: People don’t know, and there’s a reason they don’t know: The death of radio. Back in the day, radio delivered all these nuances about music that people loved. It told them the story over and over till they knew it by heart, whether they were diehard fans or casual fans. But the business of radio took over, and so there were more commercials, and less music and much less talk.

Rock Cellar: Rock and roll fans have their favorite eras, as do rap and hip hop fans.

Chuck D: It’s like baseball! People have their favorite rock and roll eras, and they make them part of their identities. They have discussions and discussions. That’s what makes the other 23 hours of a day, while an actual performance by their favorite artist might only be an hour or so. So yeah, whether it’s an album or it’s a performance or whether it’s a song, which can take place in a minute or hour, the discussion is what makes it go round.

Rock Cellar: I think what’s interesting to me, though, is that rap has continually evolved, in a way that rock hasn’t, at least in a very long time. Rock kind of stopped evolving after the 70s, whereas rap from the mid-70s is totally different to rap in the 80s, and that’s totally different to rap in the 90s, or in the 2000s and this decade. It keeps evolving, whether you like that it’s more braggy and less about the culture, as you and I discussed before we started, it has continued to change and evolve. It’s a really vital art form. Do you think that because there hasn’t been enough talk about its history, that is maybe why we are missing that evolution?

Chuck D: Everything needs to be taught. Everything needs to be talked about. It can’t just be, like, you know, “for years it rained and snowed” and all that, so why would you need a weather report? My thing is, I’m a fan, and I want to be able to be a fan through and through.

I want to be a fan, and I want to know about the history of this art form that I love.

You can’t just throw a record at somebody with no background. The first thing they’re going to ask is, “Who is this?” The next thing they’re going to wonder is where the artist came from. “I like this particular style. I like this music.” Rap is vocal music. That’s why it’s never gone away. It’s vocal. It can go on to all kinds of different areas. It’s very liquid. So it’s very hard to try and eradicate, or get rid of, because it’s always in the air, both vocally and musically, when you think about it.

You know, you might be right that rock might have not evolved like it should have, but you’re always going to get evolution because the combination of its participants is always mean those new artists are going to come up with something new. If you take a bass player, a guitar player, a drummer, on top of a keyboardist, and then vocals, you know, you are always going to come up with something new and different, because the combinations are always going to create things that are kind of previously unimagined. So in that same way, rap music cannot be reduced to simply a vocal, even though that is probably its signature.

The combination of vocals with the music that is out there being developed? It’s going to evolve just the way a rock band would deal with those same traits.

Rock Cellar: Technology, too, has aided its evolution. People being able to make music — especially rap music — on a laptop; or beats or a laptop or computer or whatever. There are a lot of kids making records in their bedrooms with an acoustic guitar, but there are fewer and fewer bands. Whereas with rap, that technology has given almost everyone the ability to create near master recordings in any environment. That has really helped it, I think.

Chuck D: Yeah, it helped. DJs evolved out of that. But it’s still got to grow from that, because the advantages are also the disadvantages. You can create all these exotic elements, and have a track wrapped around a vocal, but the disadvantage is that, in a band, not only do they play with each other, they play against each other, which creates a different kind of magic. Often, when somebody creates their music the way you’re describing, they hit a wall. Like, “where do I go from here?”

Right now, hip hop and rap are four elements: Sight, sound, story and style. The sight and the sound are what make up a record with a visual. Those things are always in orbit. But you have to have style and story. When you’re playing with a band, it’s about building up your folklore and spreading that story. And the sound, of course. But the sight often came later. When video came on the scene, a lot of times, you had artists that people knew, but they didn’t know anything about their sound. The pieces didn’t go together. Not focusing on all four elements, that hurt those artists.

Rock Cellar: You’ve become known as part of the resistance on Twitter, and you often talk about being socially conscious, at a time when many artists are avoiding ruffling feathers.

Chuck D: I think Twitter is the ultimate entity work in. You have to be quick with it. It’s like a rapper work out.

Rock Cellar: Do you ever hesitate to say what’s on your mind? A lot of artists seem hesitant to put their feelings out there, for fear of offending their audience or their sponsors, I guess, but you’re pretty opinionated.

Chuck D: Of course I hesitate. Plenty of times. Sometimes things get personal. But there’s always a better way of saying things without making it sound personal. I try not to get personal when it comes to social media. I try to stay out of that. But the state of the world is fair game, I think. But the boundaries of Twitter – the character limit – it’s good to learn to work withing that framework.

Personally, I believe anyone over 50 needs to limit their social media down to one.

Rock Cellar: Why do you say that?

Chuck D: Because you’ve got a life to live – or you should — and it can be consuming. A 20 year old person, or an 18 year old kid, who’s jumping from Instagram to Snapchat to Twitter — you know, Twitter, they say, it’s for the older people, and Facebook, too – they can handle that. That’s part of their lives. But older folks should limit themselves. It’s not their world anymore. It’s not their medium.

Rock Cellar Tell me a little about what projects you have coming up.

Chuck D: Well, we released a Public Enemy album. It’s kind of ridiculous, but it’s our 30th year, so we gave it away for free. But it’s a great piece of work. With Prophets of Rage, we’ve already played for 2.7 million people without having an album out. We did it backwards. We were like, “We’re going to perform for the world first and then we’ll release an album.” That was unusual.

Rock Cellar: Whether it’s Prophets Of Rage or Public Enemy, what do you feel you have left to still say to your audience? Because a lot of legacy artists, you know, they work on retreads, but you’re still out there in the trenches, and still have a fresh point of view. You said you’re trying to teach and mentor younger artists; is that what’s most important to you right now, in this crazy political era we live in?

Chuck D: Well, we have been licensed to carry the gift of music, but you really have to hold your ground, and you really have to believe in what you do, because there are a lot of people checking you out who really want to look to you as an example, so you have to always be at the top of your game, I think.

And that’s what I try to do.

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