David Remnick: Staff writer Kelefa Sanneh covers a lot of subjects for us. He writes about politics and sports and music. A lot of music. Recently, he met up with a legendary figure in hip-hop, the frontman and MC of Public Enemy, Chuck D.
Kelefa Sanneh: I met Chuck D for the first time at this bar called the Ivy Lounge in Manhattan. It was empty, it was during the day, they'd cleared it out for us. I think I was expecting a slightly more stern person than the guy who walked in. Hi, how are you doing? I'm K.
Chuck D: Hey, K. How are you doing?
Kelefa Sanneh: Good to meet you.
Chuck D: Good to see you again. I've seen you somewhere.
Kelefa Sanneh: You've seen me at maybe-- I'm so excited to sit down with you. I hope you--
Kelefa Sanneh: Like a lot of people, I saw the Fight the Power video from 1989 directed by Spike Lee. Chuck D and Flavor Flav and the other members of Public Enemy leading a march through Brooklyn.
1989 the number another summer (get down)
Kelefa Sanneh: Chuck D was 26 when the first Public Enemy album comes out. Almost from the beginning, he seemed like an elder statesman. He seemed like a big brother.
Swinging while I'm singing
Giving whatcha getting
Knowing what I know
While the Black bands sweating
And the rhythm rhymes rolling
Kelefa Sanneh: He has this new documentary called Fight the Power, How Hip Hop Changed the World. It's all about the connections between hip-hop and the world around it, the culture around it, the politics around it.
Chuck D: The ingenuity of DJ Kool Herc was the spark that ignited this beautiful art form called hip-hop.
Kelefa Sanneh: When I listen to Public Enemy now, I hear it as protest music in a double sense. I hear it as protest music against the state of the world, but also that there's an internal protest, a sense that Public Enemy is protesting what's going on with hip-hop. One thing that I noticed when I watched the documentary and even more when I talk to him, he seemed to be more focused on potential. What he mainly sees is the hope of all the things that hip hop might yet still become. Do you remember when you first got a sense in New York City that something's happening, something new is happening, these kids are doing some sort of new music, this thing called hip-hop is bubbling?
Chuck D: Yes, of course, the technical aspect. I thought, "Why they need two turntables? In case one breaks down?" When I heard it's, "Okay, you got mixers, what the hell is a mixer?" I know what a cake mixer is. You know what I'm saying? I, like anybody else, was naive. This person I saw on the microphone is doing a little bit like the presenters do on AM radios playing Black music. WBLS on the FM dial, before that WWRL played all the Black music in the city and the surrounding metropolitan area. There was a small 1600 bandwidth station at the end of the dial and would be like, "Gary Byrd, 1600 on the WWRL dial, come on, this is LTD." You'd be like, "Wow, man." You know what I'm saying?
Gary Byrd: Nine o'clock in the City, from WWRL New York. Progressive AM in the Apple. I'm Gary Byrd from the GB Experience.
Chuck D: Gary Byrd was a person that I grew up with twice. Growing up with him playing music on WWRL. Later on, Gary Byrd hooks up with Stevie Wonder, they end up being friends. Stevie Wonder produces a song for Gary Byrd called The Crown where Gary Byrd is actually like 16-minute dropping bars about our brilliance as human beings and as Black folk. Well, Stevie Wonder does that, and it's a Motown rap record in 1982. Never gets talked about, so we'll talk about it right here.
People of the world wherever you be
Welcome to Cosmic YOUniversity
Where life is the journey and love is the trip
And the study of them will make you hip
I'm professor of the rap and when I speak
I guarantee that my lines will not be weak
They say a mind is a terrible thing to waste
That's why I'm here and on the case
Rapping up every mind
Chuck D: At that particular time, hip-hop was emulating all this with the great voices, playing great music, going from the ones and twos, being able to bring that noise to the people. I came up in all that.
Kelefa Sanneh: It's a four-part hip-hop documentary on PBS, Fight the Power, How Hip Hop Changed the World. Why is that important for you for that to be your focus, how hip-hop changed the world?
Chuck D: Most important word in that is 'world'. I've been to 116 countries over 38 years, so I see the changes. I have people coming to me with different languages, although I can't interpret not one other than the King's English, unfortunately, which is my biggest regret, but people have made their way and they say, "Chuck, this is what this art form has meant to me in all continents," except for Antarctica and parts of the Arctic.
Kelefa Sanneh: There's a quote from you in the documentary you say, "The pioneers in the beginning, they could have easily rapped about the real things that's right in front of them. Guns, drugs, infiltrating New York City in '78, '79, and they said, you know what? It's no way that's going to be popular. We want to keep the party going."
Chuck D: Yes, not that they wanted to commodify it into something that's going to just quickly just like, "It's got to be popular so I could get money." Yes, they wanted to make money to get up out of there, but I think it was one of those things, it's like, "Okay, everybody knows them damn stories, what's our escape route? We want to have escapism. We want to take this spaceship up out of here. Beat me up, Scotty, fast."
Kelefa Sanneh: Did you feel like you wanted to join this hip-hop movement that was happening, or did you feel like you wanted to redirect this hip-hop movement?
Chuck D: I wanted to curate, present, navigate, teach, and lead the hip-hop art as making it something that people will revere, just like Grant Wood. [chuckles] You know what I'm saying? I was educated in the arts ever since I was a little kid. My mother started Roosevelt Community Theater in 1973 in Roosevelt. I was under Frank Frazier's tutelage as a art teacher in 1972 in Roosevelt. I go to Adelphi University to become a commercial artist, but as what? I had no idea.
I definitely wasn't going to go into architecture and I wanted to become a renderer. The music led me to the point, even after I got kicked out my first year at the freshman year at Adelphi, I actually got back in because, all of a sudden, hip-hop records came out and I said, "Wow, I could be in the music business as a hip-hop illustrator, art department. Album jackets, advertising, wow, okay." It got me through the rest of the Adelphi where I graduated Dean's List of 1984. Hip-hop, as an idea, got me through college.
We've got to fight the powers that be
Elvis was a hero to most
Elvis was a hero to most
Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant s- to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Mother f- him and John Wayne
'Cause I'm Black and I'm proud
I'm ready and hyped plus I'm amped
Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps
Sample a look back you look and find
Nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check
Don't worry be happy
Was a number one jam
Damn if I say it you can slap me right here
Kelefa Sanneh: I think a lot of people nowadays might not realize just how radical Public Enemy was when you came out.
Chuck D: Why would I count them? If they don't realize it, it's like--
Kelefa Sanneh: I don't just mean radical compared to America, I mean radical compared to what else was happening in hip-hop at that moment.
Chuck D: You have to take a long survey of what was happening in hip-hop to make a comparison. It's not a art form that could be really easily thrown to you in four-part series and you get it all. If we were able to repeat the context of Public Enemy, how could you talk about being in the middle of a decade where communities are destroyed by R&B, it's Reagan and Bush, COINTELPRO, crack and guns, you know what I'm saying? Drugs and guns.
At that time when we started out, Nelson Mandela was in prison in South Africa, Margaret Thatcher was running the UK, and Gorbachev's Soviet Union was teetering on the brink of disaster politically, worldwide, and this was trickling down and like, "Damn, can we actually be humans, too?" Public Enemy was like, "Okay, I'm making records, I am the voice in the middle of this, but at the same time, I'm bringing a community with me." That was my role to actually lead a whole community, even a community that's juxtaposed and not getting along with each other. Being able to be that voice of maybe some reason.
I got a letter from the government
The other day, I opened and read it
It said they were suckers
They wanted me for their army or whatever
Picture me given' a damn, I said never
Here is a land that never gave a damn
About a brother like me and myself
Because they never did
Chuck D: See, number one, rap was able to use more words in the shorter distance of time. I'm bad on lyrics, I still don't know what the hell a lot of songs are saying. I can't make out the lyrics. Nobody seemed to ever say that, "Well, everything else in popular music is unintelligible because they happen to sing their words instead of speak their words." Well, hip-hop and rap happens to damn near speak their words.
Kelefa Sanneh: Yes, and there's a justification thing that happens in hip-hop where there's this sense of, "Who are you? Who are you to be talking to me?" Rappers would say, "This is who I am. Let me tell you who I am."
Chuck D: It's the first rejection of the slave name. It's like, "I can't call myself Malcolm X, but you know what? I'm Chuck D," that type of a thing. You know what I'm saying? "I'm KRS-One, I'm not Kris Parker." The rejection of the slave name was really the sociopolitical thing that white folks in America, when you tell them that, they're like, "I didn't even know that. I didn't even think of it that way." Number one, you didn't have to, but if you want to understand the page of where we're coming from, being called somebody else is number one on our brains or something that we trying to change. When I call myself something else, you find difficulty in it.
Kelefa Sanneh: In 1997 in your book, you wrote, "Right now, rap is being used in a way that's negative to the existence of Black people." Why did you feel that way?
Chuck D: Because the curators were failing and they was dropping the ball explaining what it could do and actually put things in the right context in place. I'm 37 at the time, and I saw people say, "We could grab the lowest-hanging fruit just to get the eyeballs in order for me to make a living with it." I'm like, "Damn." I have a firm belief, it's like, spectacle gets you interested and gets you in the building, it don't keep you there.
Spectacular keeps you there. Matter of fact, spectacular keeps you coming back for more. The rock guys understand that. I was with Prophets of Rage four years, every night we got a standing ovation, and rocked hard as hell. I'm not saying it never happened in the rap world, it's just that it's been groomed differently. In the rock world, man, people come back and back and back and back. The promoters take it seriously. The Black thing, the promoters always felt, "Yes, if we could get a lot of money for it, we don't know how long it's going to last. We'll take this headache money and if it burns out, it burns out. It's disposable. Cool. We'll get the next one and replace it." I think that's been a disservice to the art form. I said that at 37 years old in 1997, and clearly we've seen.
Kelefa Sanneh: It's also, if you go back and when I think about the mid to late '90s, I think of that as another golden age for hip-hop. I think of that as the Jay-Z--
Chuck D: The golden corporate age.
Kelefa Sanneh: I think of that as the Jay-Z era, the Missy Elliott era, the OutKast era.
Chuck D: With the exception of OutKast, you're giving me a whole bunch of individuals. Around the turn in the '90s, the record companies and corporations felt they could reduce the culture's elements down to one, which is the MC'ing on a record. You removed the other elements. DJ'ing, that was removed. The dance element was removed. The art element was removed. You got MC'ing, okay, they make the records.
The biggest change is when they seen that the downsizing from collectives into solo acts is what probably was the biggest change. Because that wasn't handled or managed correctly, hip-hop became a whole bunch of soloists in the '90s because it was easier to 're-negrotiate' with one person than a group. Therefore, if you name your best groups out of 2000, you're naming individuals. You name your best groups out of the '80s, you're naming groups. Destroy a collective.
Kelefa Sanneh: Part of that I think is because rapping is so powerful. When I think about Public Enemy, there's so much going on, but I think about you and your voice, and Flavor Flav's voice, and these incredible tracks [crosstalk].
Chuck D: Yes, okay. You're sitting home and thinking, but if you saw us performing, which is, performance is always the extension of art anyway, you ain't just seeing me stand on a mic and fucking spitting bars. I think this documentary raises the bar over the bars. Hip-hop is all the panoramic elements and motion. You've got sight, style, sound and story. Those things, when they circulate, that's when you have something that people say, "I'll come back to hear for years and years." One MC spitting bars over beats, man, that's when it comes down to a point where anybody could do it. You got it right in the studio, you practice that. The studio's going to make it right before it leaves and they go out to perform it.
I'm like, "Well, they've got to go through a right of passage just because they're a star without proving it." The first thing I look for is, "Are they're going to run out of breath? They're not going to be able to do what they recorded." All right, they're on a tour, they're going to lose their voice after the first three days because they're trying too hard, and then you be like, "Ah." In the rock world, you rehearse and your first night, you better get it right and you better not have any mishaps on the whole thing.
Kelefa Sanneh: To go back to the question that's implied in the documentary about how hip-hop changed the world, how did hip-hop change the world, and did it change the world for the better?
Chuck D: For the last 30 years, hip-hop's been in Africa and they've surpassed the natural skillset that we're accustomed to in the United States of America. That's always the case. [chuckles] If you pay attention to Africa, the whole key is-- To make yourself feel better or superior is, all you got to do is pay Africa no mind like it don't exist. You know what? It might have started over there, but we not acknowledging it until it starts in the United States. That's derogatory to the Black diaspora. You cannot separate the Black diaspora from Black creativity in the future.
I've seen hip-hop changed the world many times over in places that's not just reduced to people under the construct of dark skin. In Yugoslavia, ourselves and Ice-T saw a war stopped as we're doing a concert there, in the ice arena. They stopped the war for one day in the Yugoslavian conflict between Croatia and Serbia and Monte Negro and Slovenia. Next day, they tell Public Enemy and Ice-T, "All right, it's time for y'all to raise up out here because we're going to war tomorrow." Sure enough, we left. Over the borderline, "Boom," bombing over here. Wow.
Hip-hop has changed the world because they would look at Fight the Power and 6 in the Mornin' as far as anti-authority conversation and applied it to their life, their language, their whole situation and say, "Yes, we got another guide map based on Black people in the United States music and vibe to actually apply to ourselves and our movement."
Kelefa Sanneh: Isn't it interesting how things have flipped, how hip-hop used to be so divisive and polarizing? Some people loved it, some people hated it. Radio stations would say, "We play all the hits and no rap." Now, here we are and you're talking about the divisions in America, and sometimes it seems like hip-hop is one of the only things that just about everyone seems to like.
Chuck D: It's a evolution. How can you not study evolution? Revolution starts out, evolution is what it evolves into. Kurtis Blow is revolutionary. Jay-Z is evolution. He's the evolution, the culmination of all these things that led up to him doing the great things that he does. Will there be evolution after Jay-Z? Sure, there will be. Is this thing going to be called hip-hop or does it get termed something else? Probably. We had jazz. Before, everything was jazz.
Kelefa Sanneh: That's what we expect, is that things are going to change and the era is not going to last forever, so how has the hip-hop era managed to last for half a century?
Chuck D: 50 years is not long in real life. 50 years is long in cultural life-
Kelefa Sanneh: Yes, very long.
Chuck D: -but in real life, it's like, yes.
Kelefa Sanneh: Do you think 50 years from now, two people might be sitting in a rooftop bar in a hotel talking about, "How did hip-hop manage to last a hundred years?"
Chuck D: Shit, you better be hope 50 years from now, people will be sitting. [laughs] Really. Let's go 10 years at a time. I'd like to take 10 more years of people understanding that they've got to take care of the next generations, teach them, take care of the planet, and I think hip hop, it is going to be there, it's going to ride regardless. I don't think hip-hop's a thing that you ask could be around. We want to ask for human beings to be around. We want to ask for the way of life, peace, love, sharing to be around.
Fight the power.
Fight the power.
Fight the power.
David Remnick: Chuck D of Public Enemy. He's a creator along with his producing partner, Lorrie Boula of Fight The Power, How Hip Hop Changed the World. It's a documentary series now on PBS. You can find Kelefa Sanneh's writing on hip-hop and a wide range of other musical subjects and more at www.newyorker.com.
What we got to say?
Fight the power.
What we got to say?
Fight the power.
What we got to say?
Fight the power.
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