Darryl “DMC” McDaniels of Run-D.M.C. once told me, “Personally, I thought Public Enemy was way, way better than us.”
That should come as no surprise, even coming from one of the kings from Queens, seeing as how Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Professor Griff, the S1W, and Terminator X turned the world on its ear with their seminal albums in the late 80s and early 90s as Public Enemy. They are widely regarded as one of the best and most important acts in Hip-Hop history. In addition to brilliant production work by The Bomb Squad, P.E.’s use of rap as a platform for social and political commentary remains unrivaled. This is due largely in part to the intellect, ability, and insight of the group’s aforementioned front man, Chuck D.
And while Chuck puts more substance in a single verse than most emcees do in an entire album, he still has extended his reach into book writing, speaking engagements, radio hosting, and being a spokesperson for a variety of organizations.
On January 21, 2014, Chuck D gave a lecture at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, as one of the school’s events to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After Chuck addressed students and faculty in the Sneden auditorium, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee spoke with AllHipHop.com about Dr. King’s dream, what America can learn from the rest of the world, and, of course, music.
Chuck D is one of Hip-Hop’s greatest teachers; here is some of the knowledge that he was graciously willing to share.
AllHipHop.com: In what ways has Dr. King’s dream been realized? In what ways has it not yet?
Chuck D: I think in the way that people dealt from the inside, from the inside as far as relating to people a lot more. The content of character is at least starting with people relating to each other by their likemindedness instead of just their characteristics a lot more in the millennium. The quality of the content (of character) has not been reached. It has not been manifested yet, so I think the accountability that Dr. King exemplified at 26, 27- he didn’t use youth as an excuse. Today, we have used youth too much as an excuse for not doing or not being. That’s the big difference from when Dr. King was actually living.
Young adults who were Dr. King’s age, (he himself) was a doctor and made a whole lot of positive movement at such a young age that it was never an excuse. Like I said (of how Dr. King’s dream has been realized), the positive aspect is that at least more people have dropped their obvious segregated ways [and found ways] to relate to each other. We can work on the reasons- everybody just being multi-color at a party, but with the derogatory [content] to Black history and legacy going on in the party and in the music is something that seriously needs to be looked at.
AllHipHop.com: You’ve obviously traveled the world many times and seen how other countries deal with things like race and equality. What do you think America could learn, for better or for worse, from the rest of the world in regards to those matters?
Chuck D: America can learn from the rest of the world that this effort that’s made upon not having people chastised for who they are and not having their histories and legacies be looked upon frivolously. The rest of the world tries to work on equality of its populations and America says it, but really keeps everything segregated because it’s such a big place. So the segregation actually is still in effect because it works in many ways.
AllHipHop.com: Just a little more subliminally than it was at one time?
Chuck D: Yeah. America could learn so many things, or the United States I should say. We could learn more about geography. We could learn about where people are at dealing with their histories and dealing with their climates. The United States can really learn so much from the rest of North America- Canada, the Caribbean and Central and South America. We’ve just got to take the time to re-enforce that.
AllHipHop.com: How do you think Hip-Hop culture has benefited the most from the legacy of Dr. King?
Chuck D: Dr. King was never afraid. I think Hip-Hop has benefited off of the boldness. Hip-Hop artists in the 80s and early 90s, they had a boldness. But they also had an accountable boldness too, so its (Hip-Hop) benefited off of that. Wether it’s actually fulfilled that? I don’t think it’s been truthful and bold for all the right reasons.
AllHipHop.com: You were obviously talking about how music can affect people in a way that nothing else can (in your lecture). Keeping that in mind, what were your thoughts when you first heard LL Cool J and Brad Paisley’s “Accidental Racist” song?
Chuck D: I understood the angle that LL and Brad Paisley took to try to bring worlds together and kind of drop some differences, but explain the differences. It’s a misstep, but no different than the misstep where you have people out there screaming the N-word and telling everybody it’s popular culture. And everybody seems to sanction it and say, ‘Yeah, it’s real.” Both of them are wrong, but LL came from the other direction with it.
You can definitely have this printed: the whole thing of using the word to desensitize and make it less impactful is some bulls**t. Who said that? ‘If we keep using the word ‘ni**a’ that means in a while it’ll be used so much that it loses impact.’ But who told you that? Who came up with that one? And nobody ever seems to find the ubiquitous “they,” but they said… who’s “they”? Nobody ever seems to find this person that says, “From this day on…” When people started coming down on LL, I knew they were also coming down on the bitter themselves. There’s a lot of things to be called out as well with that, that should’ve led a trail of people being called out for letting the N-word and the B-word slide so easily through popular culture.
[Davenport University’s Dr. Andre Perry then speaks up after some encouragement from Chuck.]
Dr. Perry: The most offensive thing in Hip-Hop to me in recent time was the whole Jay Z / Harry Belafonte thing. From this regard, Harry Belafonte and his entire clique at that time, they risked it all. I think as men and women we’re equivalent and Harry Belafonte is no better than Jay. But it’s one of those respect things. I was like, ‘Wow, you (Jay) are going to disrespect a true leader.’
Chuck D: In the entertainment business, if we had to say pecking order, honor your mother and father. You honor them. Harry Belafonte is the first multi-faceted – the movie, the platinum-selling record. And then he said with all that I’m still going to go out there and make better in the marches with our leader and go hand-by-hand with him, not just plug in, plug out. You’ve got to honor that and you’ve got to honor it with some kind of activity.
AllHipHop.com: Hip-Hop recently turned 40. What does it need to do to remain relevant for another 40 years?
Chuck D: Hip Hop turned 40. It needs to be relevant when this country embraces itself to the world of Hip-Hop, then it’ll probably step up right. Local artists must be supported. There’s so many local artists that have been part of Hip-Hop. Their communities can’t be afraid to support them. Also, the global impact of Hip-Hop is not being respected. Also, groups (and collectives) have to take place in Hip-Hop more. Also, women as groups and individuals need to be included in Hip-Hop. If none of these things take place, then it’s defeating its purpose of how it began and where its gotta go.
For the recorded interview of everything above and more, give this audio a listen.