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A Conversation With Chuck D At The Grammy Museum, Tuesday February 7th 2023

Chuck D
Chuck D

Chuck D was on double duty last night at the Grammy Museum, and he couldn’t stop talking to the delight of the audience. He came to talk about a new four-part series about the impact of Hip Hop culture “Fight the Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World,” but he was also there for the launch of his new book, “Livin’ Loud, ARTitation by Chuck D & the near Def Experience.” The evening was a full affair, all around Hip Hop and art expression and the rap icon was in an excellent and very talkative mood. Before anything, we got to watch the first episode of “Fight the Power,” a terrific history lesson on the origin of hip hop, a genre from the Bronx, a NY borough ravaged by poverty and repeatedly ignored by US presidents, decades after decades. I haven’t seen the rest of the series that is currently airing on PBS, but I will certainly look for the other episodes on my local station. The series focuses on the political impact of Hip Hop with plenty of interviews from well-known and far lesser-known pioneers of the genre. In the first episode, we learn about the Black vocal group The 5th Dimension and their 1969 hit “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” which became an anthem for a call to action, or about Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman who ran for president of the United States. “That was the first time we were watching a Black woman on TV who wasn’t singing,” says someone in the documentary. After President Reagan’s dismantling of social services – despite his campaign promises – then Robert Moses’ displacement of entire Black neighborhoods, hip hop’s lyrics, and attitude became a tool for Black Liberation. The episode does a great job at showing the joy of breakdancing in the streets despite surroundings destroyed by extreme poverty. Hip Hop was born in NYC’s melting pot during a turbulent decade (the ‘60s) and started with the civil rights movement, a timeline very familiar to Chuck D who was born in 1960. The other episodes of the series are supposed to cover Hip Hop and 50 years of social activism including the Black Lives Matter movement of these recent years… as a matter of fact, episode one opens with Killer Mike’s moving 2020 speech in Atlanta with his now famous “now it’s time to plot, plan, strategize, organize and mobilize.” We realize that little has changed since the ‘60s, and we have to wonder whether Hip Hop has really changed the world.

After the screening, producer Lorrie Boula, an Italian girl who grew up in the Bronx, joined Chuck D (also a producer of the series) to discuss “Fight the Power” and she told us that they “didn’t want to just focus on the oppression and the deaths and the gangs,” but also “wanted to show the joy.” “I had an amazing childhood, there was tons of violence but there was literally music in the street, there was music everywhere all the time,” she said. “If Hip Hop weren’t born there [in the Bronx], it would have been born elsewhere, maybe it would have been Johannesburg or somewhere else because you can try to oppress people and of course, it works to some degree, but people will always find their fucking joy, it just doesn’t matter, people will go on,” she added.

“We invented everything out of the concrete,” Chuck D said. “We don’t have a government voice, we got to speak with this music”… “And we need to tell the story correctly” he added. Chuck D is a very passionate speaker who thinks history matters. He also recognizes his early inspiration, like the Isley Brothers who wrote the first “Fight the Power” song, a very funky number from the mid-’70s which made a big impression on the young Chuck D. During the discussion, he didn’t miss to allude to LeBron James “who is ready to break the all-time record” next door… The Grammy Museum is located next to the Crypto Arena where the famous NBA star was playing at the same moment that the discussion was happening.  When it was over, I found myself in the middle of a basketball fiesta outside the museum, with tons of people celebrating in the streets and selling yellow and purple merchandise. The Crypto Arena was also the site of the Grammy Awards last weekend where Chuck D took part in a massive Hip Hop tribute with more than 20 of the genre’s biggest artists. “Quest Love is like the Quincy of today,” says Chuck D to explain how this could have been made possible… “He makes the calls.”

However, Hip Hop has evolved a lot, and this is very certainly addressed later on in the series as we come through the present day, we have to wonder how this evolution could still reflect the message of the origin of the genre, a genre labeled by Chuck D “The CNN of Black America.” “I don’t care if it’s Cardi B for you,” Lorrie Boula added while I noticed a grin on Chuck D’s face, “whatever but it’s much deeper and richer than that and that’s what we wanted to show, we really wanted to show how Hip Hop is still speaking truth to power.” I just wonder how the series addresses the big shift when the genre ceased to advocate for civil rights and systemic reforms but became a vector for individual wealth and sexual prowess. This is obviously not Chuck D’s world, and this is not the artist he is.

“I was born and raised to be an artist,” he told us several times during the second part of the discussion while talking about his new book “Livin’ Loud,” a 240-page volume collecting illustrations, portraits, and short texts. ”I’m an artist and I do music too.” Interestingly, he put visual art first, before music, as if this was the most important part of his journey as an artist. Chuck speaks about art beautifully, insisting on its ability to capture the human dimension, something especially true at a time when A.I. begins to show its head everywhere.

“There’s no bad move in art but you got to be able to get it out of yourself”… “it’s about style and it’s important now because today the world is about sight, and images. People listen with their eyes.” “Trying to be perfect… you’re not going to get perfect, especially in the era of artificial intelligence! You cannot get more perfect than the machine”… “Art is who you are, it’s your pulse.” I really liked how he managed to define art in this polished-image era: “Art is the human flaw, the human error, the mistake, the soul that’s going to define human beings these next 10 years, it’s not the perfection but the mistake.” …. “But not everybody deserves a mic, not everybody did deserve a can,” he joked while talking about NYC graffiti.

Chuck D is inexhaustible, he talked and laughed for more than an hour: “I’m 62, I got nothing but godamn stories.” He got very personal with stories of his childhood, the death of his father a few years ago, and his experience with DMT, a hallucinogenic drug he took following the advice of Rage Against the Machine bassist, Tim Commerford; the experience let him produce more than 70 illustrations in 4 hours.

Creating visual art has become an intimate part of his life and when he is on tour, his hotel room is turned into an art studio, an idea he got from Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones, who has the habit to draw sketches of every hotel room he is in. It’s therapeutic and keeps you busy during a long tour, but it’s also an efficient way to communicate: “a picture means 1,000,000 words so a lot of times when I’m on social media or this cultural media bring noise and I see something crazy I’m going to illustrate it and then put it on the wire,” he explained.

His book is filled with stories, portraits of friends and historic personalities, and meeting with famous characters (“Prince was always from the future” comes to mind) all captured with energetic traits. “I don’t know how long I can speak about art because art speaks for itself,” he said while keeping on talking about the conception of Public Enemy’s logo – “Can I actually draw something that has no font, no letters, but you know exactly what it says?”

Before anything else Chuck D sounds like a very humble and down-to-earth character with a mission he doesn’t want to quit, “I’m the service person, this is my military, this is my worldwide religion.” He is also very aware of his legacy and mortality: ”You have to figure out how to ride and dance with gravity because gravity is going to take your fucking down anyway,” and he has one piece of advice: “Learn how to be spectacular. Spectacle gets you in the building, that’s what all these companies want to create, spectacles to pack up a place. Spectacle? I’m interested for five seconds. Spectacular keeps you coming back for more. Be spectacular!”


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