Chuck D is humble about his contributions to Fight the Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World — the expansive, four-part PBS and BBC series where he joins other hip-hop icons from Melle Mel to Eminem, as well as executives, journalists, and academics, in unspooling rap’s history as a social movement. “My work is as an initiator and giving the platform,” says the Public Enemy MC, who executive produced the project. “I know how to cut, edit, and design audio, but when it comes to film and TV…”
Still, his voice and perspective are unmistakable as Fight the Power, which premiers Jan. 31, explores the symbiotic relationship between hip-hop and the sociopolitical struggles of the past 50 years. He was even more hands-on in crafting his first coffee-table book of fine art and personal stories. Every painting (more than 250 of them) in the weighty volume Livin’ Loud is his. “I think I was born to train as an artist, and I would also say that you make art for nobody but yourself,” Chuck says. “The arts have set me free.”
Where did Fight the Power start for you?
Well, a lot of things in the narrative about hip-hop [have] usually been covered from adolescents’ perspective, and I always railed against that. I first got involved in hip-hop at 27, so it was always a grown-folks dialogue to me. I wasn’t a kid and I wasn’t speaking to kids. When you look at the main narrative of hip-hop and rap music over the past 50 years, it’s always about what the kids are listening to. And I’m like, “Nah.” This is music, like anything else. It’s music for past, present, and future; for ages as young as single digits up to 70 years old. The participants cover that timeline.
I’m a big Ken Burns fan. I just liked the way he told his story. So I was like, “Why couldn’t hip-hop follow in the same form?” My managing partner on this, Lorrie Boula, is in that world. I’m not in the TV and film world. She manages a great deal of things that I do. I say [to her], “Hey, you can do these things and make these connects, and I have the integrity of hip-hop.”
I think the greatest hip-hop documentary ever made was Ice T’s The Art of Rap. This is an extension of that, into what it’s done, into how it ties the historical timeline of a people.
How did you envision that historical timeline rolling out?
You have a lot of books out there. You have a lot of documentaries that have already been done. Hip-hop needed its own narrative and voice. [For Fight the Power], it was important to have the people that people have seen, speak; people have seen Ice-T, MC Lyte, and KRS-One speak. But the fact that we have a Fat Joe, Grandmaster Caz, Eminem…People haven’t heard that these artists really know what they’re talking about, sociopolitically. Usually in the past we’ve seen somebody speak for them.
This four-part documentary also salutes scholarship. And I think in the United States, [because of] the dumbing down of culture and the anti-intellectualism — even from the government, when you had the president before this one — we wanted to be able to say, “Listen man, don’t make a mockery out of somebody who takes the time to read the stuff that you don’t want to read.” The least we could do is corral a narrative about hip-hop and rap music that’s solid and concise.
How were the artists in the film approached to participate?
“Chuck is doing a very important film on hip-hop and the forwardness sociopolitically, and we’d like to have your voice on it.” [Laughs.]
So, it was real simple.
Mm-hmm. And also, let me tell you, the most important hip-hop song ever is “The Message” [by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five], and then “Fight the Power” [by Public Enemy] would probably come second in my mind. But also, there’s music that’s never been talked about that has been influential. Like Gary Byrd and Stevie Wonder, in 1983 for Motown, did a song called “The Crown.” “The Crown” also came around the same time as “The Message.”
You’re saying there are songs and artists in other genres that were dealing with the same sorts of issues as rappers?
Right, and we should always make note that these efforts were done before: Last Poets, Watts Prophets, Gil Scott-Heron, Nina Simone.
You like to emphasize that hip-hop is a global phenomenon. Is that why it was important to you to partner with the BBC?
I’ve been to 116 countries, and to me, hip-hop is more about the world than about one little place in the United States. I think people in the United States seem to overblow themselves out of proportion. Hip-hop is more embracing the collective of what we are. The thing about culture, it brings human beings together. It knocks the differences to the side. That’s diametrically opposed to what governments do. Governments like to split, divide, categorize; hip-hop and rap music is as connecting as our blood.
Do you want to work on a documentary series on global hip-hop next? Nigerian rap is so incredible, so is South African rap.
I could see myself being involved. I have a 10-station rap network that’s been running for 13 years. We have a station that’s well-run, probably the most well-run station on the internet. It’s called Planet Earth Planet Rap. It’s by a sister by the name of Amkelwa Mbekeni, she’s from South Africa, and Mikko Kapanen, who is from Finland. They’ve been doing it for 12 years. So if anything internationally with hip-hop was to be involved, I would have them come along.
Was there anything that you found challenging in bringing this docuseries to life?
The greatest challenge is when they made the final edits, it’s going to be people and situations cut out. I wasn’t part of the editing process, but it’s something that I have to deal with because if these people came to the table because of me, it’s imperative that I try to smooth out what was cut out. That’s why I, in the past, never really wanted to deal with the politics of this particular world of television and filming.
So you didn’t have input in the cuts?
No, I chose to not have input in the cuts. I mean, I’m part of other things, like for example, the hip-hop box set with the Smithsonian. I was influential in starting that process. But when they started to pick [cuts], I ran out the room. I’m not good at making what should be cut in, what should be cut out.
Among some people, and in some circles, there is a notion that political or conscious rap, as it’s described in the series, is not prevalent anymore. That it’s been diminished. How do you feel about that idea?
You can’t waste time with people that don’t get it. There’s a lot of chasing in society: “I need you, I’m going to try to appeal to you.” It’s like when people walk outside after they looked in the mirror and they ask a person how they look. It’s like, Yo man, you don’t know how you looked after you’ve been in the mirror? You’re showing that you don’t have enough confidence. If you got a couple of people that don’t get it, you got to make them go, “Oh, I get it now.“ But you don’t cater to them. You went to college or whatever?
Did they care about catering to a fourth grader? Like teaching in a way that a fourth grader could understand? No. You were a student in college and they were teaching you at that level. That’s how it got to be in a lot of areas of the arts.
Another perspective is that political rap is everywhere, because of the origins of hip-hop, because of the people who predominantly make hip-hop, because of the conditions in which hip-hop artists live —
I used to have a simple saying when they used to say N.W.A was street, and KRS-One is political. I said, “Well, political is knowing who runs the streets.”
That’s kind of where I’m going. I’m more of the belief that all rap is telling you something about sociopolitical conditions. Even if it’s not like, “This is what we need to do,” in big bold print.
You can’t market everything. You can market some of the story and then the individual has to figure out where it applies to their life. The whole key with any kind of education or information, it’s like, “OK, but can you comprehend it? And how do you apply it to yourself?” [People say,] “I love hip-hop, but I don’t know enough about it.” So I tell people, I say, “Well, if you love something, you try to figure it out along the way. There’s no rush.” Figure out why you love it. And then what does it do for you? If a simple answer is like, “Yo man, I just got to hear it to make myself feel good, to go into escapism” — that’s good. Or “It gives me ideas.” Well, yeah. It’s culture.
Are there artists or scenes in hip-hop today that you either just enjoy, find inspiring, or both?
You go to rapstation.com, on my radio network. We’ve serviced 100,000 artists over the last decade and nobody is better than us… It’s really for 35-and-over hip-hop, but it’s not uninviting to 35-and-under.
OK, looking at the “HipHopGods Radio Top 20” at rapstation.com, I see artists called the One Chadio, Kingz From Queen, and RJ Payne in the Top Three. This is very different from, say, what Billboard’s Top 20 is for rap, right?
Yeah, nobody’s thorough like us. It’s almost like when you watch basketball. Everybody’s on a high school or college level — we’re the NBA.
Interesting. So is there not a more mainstream act that inspires you or that you just enjoy a lot?
No, I mean, listen, you might have a semi-OG who’s just moved into OG rank, somebody like a J. Cole. You might get great new music, like when 21 Savage and Nas got together, there’s a bridge there, and they just did a track. Cats are making songs every week.
Now, when things start getting into a little bit of craziness, like a cat want to go at somebody or they want to drill rap… That’s when it comes outside of the culture and it turns into something else that will even itself out. Bobby Shmurda, at 15, he was in the middle of that mix, but at 28, he’s trying to slide out of that into, “I want to really be an artist for a while. I don’t want to be in the middle of that.”
Listen, take the phones and computers away from everybody, then you got the recording industry, where you had to go in the studio and make a record. It’s no longer that. Now anybody could be on their phone and make a record or a video. You got to take that into consideration, Where’s the standard at? You got to have a standard. I mean, I might buy a LeBron James jersey, that don’t make me LeBron James.
It’s the same thing with rap music and hip-hop. Everybody got art in them. It’s different standards on getting that art out of you. And it’s more than just who it appeals to. It’s like food. You know there’s bad food out there, but you like the taste.
You did mention drill, and drill is such a huge phenomenon in rap right now.
I think it’s big in some places, it’s big with some ages. Is it all around the world? I think [there are] more women in hip-hop around the world than maybe just drill rappers in a couple cities. If you take London, Chicago, and New York, and you take women in hip-hop around the world, I think you have high numbers.
OK, so for example, Ghana has Asakaa, which is their version of drill. Kenya has their own version of drill. The U.K., of course, has their own version of drill. I talked to an Italian white guy who made drill once. So there is a global presence.
Well, drill is bringing the collective back in a way. One of the worst things I think to ever happen to hip-hop is they got rid of the groups. In the Nineties, they promoted the individual, because it was easy for the recording contracts and it’s easy to lead one person as opposed to a group. But drill has been this thing of like, “I really can’t rap, but I’m part of the crew.” That’s the essence of drill. There’s always one or two good dudes; they all not equally good. It’s bringing the posse back. Now, I’m not going to get into the texture of what they’re saying. That’s a social angle that needs to be answered socially. But culturally, it’s about coming together and writing some music. Drill has evolved out of young people not getting answers for their questions.
You were about 25 when you first started Public Enemy. What advice would you give a 25-year-old rapper now?
Don’t do it alone. Collectives win. Strength is [in] the numbers. I don’t believe in the individual. I mean, in the arts you could make an individual painting. It still takes a team to be able to get your art across to other people, if you’re interested in that.
I think gadgets and Twitter and social media’s been perfect for the arts, ’cause if I do a piece of art and I can put it up on Twitter or social media or whatever, then immediately I got people coming to it. It’s an individual effort, but with the help of Twitter. People don’t follow me. They follow Twitter, and I’m on it while they’re on it. That’s where we got to kind of reframe what we say instead of these broad statements like, “Oh yeah, I got so-and-so followers.” It’s like, no, man, you don’t have one million followers. Instagram has one million followers. You have followers on those apparatuses. They got followers.
Look, here’s a simple question: Why do you dig what you dig?
Musically or culturally?
There are different layers to it. Of course I’m moved by rhythm, by tempo. Sounds elicit an emotional reaction. But also, I got into music journalism because we all engage with the arts and entertainment so deeply, and I think that the things that are presented here are a microcosm of sociopolitical issues. I think you bring more people to the conversation if you start it from a place that they already are. Everybody watches movies, everybody listens to music.
And don’t you see artificial intelligence filling that out, picking out the algorithms and directing people where to go? We’re heading into the era of ChatGPT. It’s the next realm of artificial intelligence in the social media realm, where it’s actually a super-brain that is an extension of your personality. The danger is when it gets refined: “Give me the voice of Usher, with a little bit of Tupac in it, with beats from Dre and Timberland.” And boom, all of a sudden, nobody could tell the difference. Like wow, is this person SZA or who is this person? Think six months ahead, then a year ahead — and you’re going to get to where the average person is fooled. Artificial intelligence ain’t going to ever get dumber.