Chuck D is one of the great storytellers of our time, and a true hip-hop OG with a scholarly knowledge of the genre. A polymath creative, Chuck first came on the scene in 1985 when he and fellow Long Islander Flava Flav formed Public Enemy, signing with Def Jam the following year, and releasing their critically acclaimed debut album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, in 1987.
Public Enemy would go on to release many important rap records with hard-hitting, poignant lyrics, like 1989’s "Fight The Power." Chuck has remained an active and uncompromising voice in hip-hop and social justice, offering his deeply resonant voice and far-reaching wisdom to rock and rap collaborations, documentaries, books and more.
In 2017, he shared his extensive expertise in his engaging rap bible, This Day In Rap And Hip-Hop History. Chuck's recently released debut fine art book, Livin' Loud: ARTitation, reveals another element of his creative power, with over 250 of his paintings, sketches and drawings along with a reflection on his creative journey.
Chuck also just dropped a four-part PBS and BBC docu-series called "Fight The Power: How Hip-Hop Changed The World," featuring interviews with a star-studded list of rappers, DJs, graffiti artists and more. The powerful series reexamines the history of hip-hop in the aftermath of the United States' racial and social justice movements of 2020, looking at injustice and resistance in the country through the experiences of its Black and Brown communities.
To celebrate the new documentary and book, Los Angeles' GRAMMY Museum held "An Evening With Chuck D," moderated by the GRAMMY Museum Education Coordinator Schyler O'Neal. The event opened with a screening of the first episode of "Fight The Power," which led into a conversation about the episode, series, and power of hip-hop and telling its stories thoughtfully, with Chuck and the show's Co-Executive Producer, Lorrie Boula. While Chuck dropped enough wisdom throughout the evening to fill another book, we've selected five big takeaways from the impactful and inspiring evening. The GRAMMY Museum conversation will be streamed online from Feb. 16 - 26, and tickets can be purchased here.
“Everybody has art in them, but not everybody can get art out of them. There’s no bad move, but you have to be able to get it out of you…today…people listen with their eyes,” Chuck said during the in-depth conversation, underscoring the importance of art in the visual age we live in. “Art is who you are. It’s your pulse. You have art in you, just be you. You can never get more perfect than a machine….The art is the human error, the mistake.”
Hip-Hop Was Born Out Of A Deeply Collaborative & Resilient Energy
The first episode of "Fight The Power: How Hip-Hop Changed The World" transports viewers back to New York City — the birthplace of hip-hop and its various cultural expressions — in the ‘60s through ‘80s, where challenging social and environmental factors proved to be fertile creative ground.
In 1975, New York was on the verge of bankruptcy. As quality of life declined, a sizable portion of the wealthier population fled to the suburbs, and more working-class people migrated to the Big Apple in search of opportunity. Residents of the Bronx, who were primarily people of color, suffered the worst from the city's qualms, including austerity cuts and harmful policies.
Amidst the dire circumstances, young people found ways to express themselves and come together. Because there were fewer cops patrolling the Bronx in the '70s, the city became the canvas for graffiti artists, and parties wouldn't get shut down. And this was how hip-hop was born; the early hip-hop parties were discos in the streets. "Hip-hop was disco's bastard child," one of the artists in the episode says with a laugh, explaining that turntables were the only instruments they had access to, since music programs were cut from schools.
“There were no constraints at this time, it was like a pot of cultural get down,” Chuck said of these foundational years of hip-hop, later adding, "As you see in episode one, it’s a collective movement…so we have more people than the usual suspects in our show.”.
Boula added that it was important to them to not only focus on the struggles, but to also show the side of the Bronx that wasn't televised. "We didn’t want to just focus on the oppression… You can try to oppress people, but they will find their f—ng joy. And we wanted to tell that story too."
Chuck D Was An Illustrator & Never Meant To Be A Rapper…
“1960, I was born and raised to make art,” Chuck said in one of many smile-inducing, mic drop moments. Chuck always drew, and entered the New York-wide student art contest every year — and always won or placed. He went to Adelphi University in Long Island to study design and brush up on his illustration skills, and was the school's political cartoonist as a freshman.
Unfortunately, he got kicked out of school because he only attended his art classes. He appealed, and got permission from all of his professors to take their classes again, and got the chance to give it another go. He said that the reason he stuck with it was because of his vision to run a hip-hop arts department. He was unimpressed by the art on most rap records, and wanted to be the one to change it. In fact, Chuck didn't write his first poem until he was 20 years old.
…But Rick Ruben Eventually Convinced Him To Rap With Def Jam
Chuck had a show at Adelphi’s radio station WBAU and rapped to fill the air time between records. In 1984, he recorded a promo tape with himself and Flavor Flav rapping, and it became a station favorite known as "Public Enemy No. 1." Rick Ruben heard the tape and spent two years trying to get Chuck to record with the then-new Def Jam Records.
Yet it was Def Jam's eye-catching logo that made Chuck actually take the offer seriously. “In 1986 I surrendered and signed my contract to become a damn recording artist,” Chuck said.
Chuck didn't make much visual art for the next 30 years, only revisiting it when his father passed away seven years ago. "The arts led me to cover up the silence [left by my father]."
"I have so much art coming out of me, but I don’t want to just do art for art's sake," he explained. "If I see something crazy, I’m going to illustrate it," he asserted.
A War Was Stopped For A Public Enemy & Ice-T Concert
When asked by O'Neal how hip-hop has changed the world, Chuck responded: “Hip-hop has made people change their languages around…to bring them together.” Hip-hop fashion over the years and rap vernacular continue to dominate pop culture, and rap music has become the most popular genre.
Chuck then told an incredible story about how fighting during the Balkans war in Eastern Europe was paused so that Public Enemy, Ice-T (who was in the audience), and Ice Cube could bring their AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted World Tour to war-torn Croatia. For one night in 1994, locals of different beliefs and religions came together to find solace at a hip-hop show. Once the rappers and their crew crossed the border, the bombing continued, but officials felt that the concert was important enough to call for a temporary cease fire.
Chuck D Is Launching A "TikTok For Hip-hop x35"
One of the highlights of the 2023 GRAMMY Awards was the epic GRAMMY Tribute to 50 Years of Hip-Hop, a powerhouse 15-minute medley featuring some of rap’s greatest, including Chuck and Flava, who performed Public Enemy’s "Rebel Without a Pause." When O'Neal asked how it happened, Chuck responded, "Questlove called everybody," which worked because "he's like the Quincy [Jones] of hip-hop."
Speaking about the magic of all those artists spending time together, Chuck noted that he built online mp3 depository RapStation in 2001 (before MySpace!) to expand listeners’ horizons and expose them to talented rappers. RapStation still exists, offering rap news and internet radio shows, but Chuck revealed]that he will be launching a new rap app called Bring The Noise, which he described as "TikTok for hip-hop x35."
Bringing together all his epic stories, threads and themes of the evening like only Chuck D can, he said: "We curate man. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do, curate art."
"We learn how to be spectacular. Spectacle gets you in the building, but spectacular keeps you in the building," Chuck said to close things out on an inspirational note, and to a standing ovation. "Spectacular keeps you coming back from more…so that when you disappear there’s a mark left that’s missed…so make your mark, take it seriously."
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