Chuck D was one of hip hop’s elder statesmen even before the genre was old enough to have them: born in 1960, he witnessed its birth in the boroughs of New York in 1973, released his first album as a founding member of incendiary group Public Enemy at age 27, and has presided over its evolution with a perspective and erudition shared by few in rap, before or since. His insights and attitudes both shaped hip hop on wax and commented upon it in popular culture, burnishing the legitimacy of an art form driven by people of color even as it became commercially supported, even co-opted by mainstream, majority-white consumers.
His impact, and his importance, is reiterated in “Fight the Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World,” a four-part documentary he developed and executive produced for PBS which bears the name of one of Public Enemy’s biggest and most influential hit singles. On June 21, Chuck D appeared on a panel in Los Angeles to discuss the creation of the documentary alongside Gil Vazquez, President of the Keith Haring Foundation; Jean-Michel Basquiat’s sister Lisane, appearing on behalf of his King Pleasure exhibit at the Broad Museum; and “Fight the Power” coproducer Lorrie Boula. Before the panel, he spoke to Variety about the four elements — DJing, MCing, break dancing and graffiti — that for 50 years now have formed hip hop’s foundational pillars, the changing tastes and techniques artists use to create work (and get it seen), and the advantages for him of getting old in a genre steadily supported by youth.
Just to get started, can you just talk about the significance of being a part of the PBS series “Fight the Power,” and telling the story of hip hop in the way that you have?
It’s full circle. I mean, I’ve lived a 62-year existence, full of a lot of art, music, life, culture. That’s how I was raised. I come from a household that was in the middle of New York, which is a cultural melting pot just on [general practice]. So I was really an artist from day zero and encouraged be so, and then the music bug bit me. But I came back, I went to university, I did all the requirements and still did it from an aspect of the streets.
You have always been an academic in assessing this art’s role in culture. I remember your characterization of hip hop as the “CNN of this community.“
You missed the unbelievable, colliding era of the fifties and most of all, the sixties. I missed the fifties, but I was there in all the sixties as a child. And you had the meshings of art, culture, defiance, questions, lack of answers, technology. All these things came to a colliding cultural point — socio, political, musical — in the sixties, and then sprouted into fragments from there. And I was fortunate to be at the right place at the right time, and the right person. And believe me, the right place happened to be New York for at least a 25-year period. The first 25 years of my life.
You talk about all the cultural effects that led to hip hop. But once we start talking about hip hop as a history of an art form, is it easier to create that narrative spine for a docuseries like this?
I think so, because I never grew up in awe of it. I was 13 years older than it, and I knew exactly where it came from. Hip hop’s elements of DJing, MCing, and break dancing and graffiti come from elements that already had been very communicable, transferable, even when we didn’t have a voice as a people. And DJing was simply what? Musicianship. MCing was vocalization. Graffiti was art expression. And B-Boy was dance. So art, dance, vocals, music, had for long been the things that really compensated for the lack of a political social voice that we had as black folks. And it was very loud — we are very loud in all those aspects. Very loud in our music, very loud in our vocals, very loud in our dance, very loud in our artistic expression. And it became pretty much the model and context for a society that was trying to give its people answers when they was asking a lot of questions.
Is there a way that this PBS series and conversations like this set the story of hip hop apart from other documentaries and series made about those four elements?
I’ve always disputed the fact that hip hop would be an infantile, adolescent low-art thing. I always thought it was as high-art as anything else, way before its time. Why would I wait for a critical body to acknowledge whether it’s high or low art? The reason I disputed that is because I went to university, I studied everybody, so not only did I understand the Caravaggios, I understood the Basquiats on the street. And I think those combinations should be able to be delivered to a public who wrap themselves in art, knowing that art is short for “artificial. It’s a facsimile of the life being expressed through the medium of a bunch of different things.
Why do you think there is a renaissance of storytelling about hip hop now, especially documentaries about individual artists?
People today listen with their eyes, and you have sight, sound, story and style all woven up into one. So people are going to come out with podcasts, they’re going to come out with documentaries. Books are still very important because they freeze the information and the word on your time. And you can store it and stock it, whether you put it on your iPad or you’re carrying a book with you. It’s very important. The printed word is a thing that you ease and enjoy the information into you. It’s not on somebody else’s or something else’s speed. The documentaries that come out, I think they’re great seeds. If you are working with one hour, it’s really not one hour, it’s 60 minutes of data times 60 seconds in a minute. And that’s helpful, but you always need curators, you always need people that’s able to tell you how do you best absorb it and make it work for everybody.
What do you feel like has been the barometer for hip hop to be taken seriously as an art form?
Well, a body of works. A body of works always helps when you are able to have the diversity and the extremes, and also to figure out like, wow this all makes hip hop. I think it’s beautiful when you have a road and you have a path that forms because of the volume of the bodies of work. For years I developed Public Enemy almost like a well-oiled Lamborghini machine, but you can’t run it on a swamp. And then it’s in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame because it’s been able to jump onto another highway with Rage Against the Machine and Anthrax and Sonic Youth and people like that. But in its own realm, it’s very important that we come up with some kind of solid ground for which our vehicles could travel and also get people to ride as artistic passengers.
Are there artists or people within the industry now who share the activist instinct of your heyday? Or have we succumbed to an era of mega aspirational wealth that overshadows any element of social consciousness or insight?
Well, like Quincy Jones said, “Once money talks, God walks out the room.” I think that this craft has a certain power to it that means that balance has always got to be requested. And there’s a lot of artists… RapStation, I’ve been doing for 14 years and we have 11 channel network where people can engage on as much diversity in hip hop as they ever could find anywhere else. But you want to do it naturally without thinking that you’ve got to lead the horse to water to make them drink it. Because it is art, it’s subjective. You don’t want to force it down people’s throat, but you can also inform people about it and tell them it’s a great alternative to their time and day.
Can you think off the top of your head of artists that you feel like musically or artistically are carrying forward the torch that Public Enemy created in the nineties?
Well, Public Enemy is a group, so it’s very hard to duplicate Public Enemy because we had different dynamics and dimensions, coming from the Bomb Squad to Flavor [Flav] to [Professor] Griff to Terminator X, to later on with DJ Lord and Davy DMX and myself. So when you say “something could be like Public Enemy,” nothing could supply the dynamics that are so diverse. But I would say that the march for independent artistry and doing it your way is because the industry is splintered into soloists. The last collective that made a lot of new noise, was sadly disrupted if not disintegrated with Takeoff and Migos. But everything else past the Millennium, has been “let’s sign this soloist to a deal and talk to the soloist about their life, like they’re Jack Kerouac.” I think when you start talking about a group, you have a dynamic that really comes up out of the alchemy that you can’t predict. But the independent state of mind is the thing that’s mirrored into an aspect of what Public Enemy did. And even socially, social change might not come out of a rapper as much as it might come out of a YouTube creator.
Does getting older make it easier for you to absorb the way you watch the industry or this art form change?
Of course. Getting older makes everything easier. Because you can always tell a young head “I’ve been there and you ain’t been where I’m at.” Getting older is the greatest thing ever. The thing is, people haven’t figured out how to take care of themselves. Back in the day you used to have like, “Oh man I got a rock and roll lifestyle.” Well, good luck with that one. Because the whole thing about life is it’s a thing you’ve got to dance with. You can’t tackle your own life.
You have a remarkably peaceful attitude about hip hop today.
You want to see a peaceful attitude, talk to me about AI. That’s the one that’s getting the furor out of everybody. For me, AI is a dance.
What is it that enables you to maintain a sense of optimism or at least peace to look at this art form, particularly as part of a generation who may not be able to adapt with the times to it as a listener?
The thing that keeps me always energized is the timeline of art. There’s more stuff behind us than is in front of us. When I study something from the 1600s — like right now, I’m just freaking out at Edward Hopper’s work — when you are really into it, then you go backlogging and you look at not only the works of the artists, but you study and live the life of the artist, which kind of runs us back into museums. But the discovery is the thing that keeps me going. Discovery, man, makes sparks, bro. And social media is damning, but there’s uses of technology that [allows things that] were impossible to achieve before. I could just go to YouTube and I’m watching a documentary on the artist that I never ever heard of from the 1800s. We can access it on our phone and be like, “Wow, this is kind of dope.” But also I’m old enough to understand that it’s dope. When you’re young, you’re waiting for something to hit you. Me, I know what to grab, I can’t grab everything in time. That’s the difference. Is when you’re older, and as far as hip hop, I’ve always been that older person. But discovery comes in when you know what to look for, as opposed to getting hit out of left field. You get a little batty and dizzy from that.
Is there any artist you’ve recently discovered that gets you excited like that?
I’m amazed at artificial intelligence and Chat GPT. But the most important thing that you have to keep in art? Keep your mistakes. Everything in artificial intelligence is about making it perfect. So when you talk about art, it’s about how you can step away from something that’s trying to be perfect, and dance with it to come up with another combination. Our mistakes in art is all we have, man. Our style is our pulse. The long answer to that dope question is, there’s always some art that’s going to turn me on. I mean, I’ve curated hip hop records every week for 14 years in a row on “And You Don’t Stop” and I’m always amazed. I could name a hundred from Skyzoo to Crew Grrl Order down in Charlotte. Now, the beauty is that I know what I’m not, which is the hardest thing to tell a young person. Learn who you are, but also try to figure out what you’re not. It’ll keep you from scrambling.
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