Chuck D (2000)
Chuck D (2000) | Photo: Mika Väisänen via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0 (cropped)

Can Chuck D Speak? Rap, Race, and Rant

At Chuck D’s speech to U of Iowa students, he “preached” a gospel of pop music as a part of cultural history, a tool for understanding, and ultimately a vehicle for overcoming racial conflict.

Next to the familiar artistic controversies of the music business runs an equally venerable set of ideals surrounding music’s moral and political power. Live Aid, the enormous popularity of the album and documentary Buena Vista Social Club, Fugazi, and parental warning labels all inhabit a place in the ethical/musical matrix. More recently, the spate of post-9/11 benefit concerts and “eerily prescient” songs illustrate the role music is called upon to play in times of grief. While films like Zoolander digitally erased images of the WTC in an effort to provide an appropriately cinematic escape, musicians (Paul McCartney, Loudon Wainwright) were busy writing songs and organizing benefits directly addressing the tragedy. If aesthetics is the business of making value judgments about music (the Top Ten syndrome), the politics of music debate the ethical deployment of its considerable power for good or for evil. Because this power is considered particular – nonverbal, cross-cultural, and lyrical – the music and morality debate takes on its unique character.

Chuck D’s recent visit to the University of Iowa to deliver a talk entitled “Rap, Race, Reality and Technology”, has got me thinking about music and politics again. As the keynote speaker to what was to have been a conference on popular music (September 11 happened just days before the conference was scheduled), Chuck D came to Iowa not in the garb of a popular music celebrity but as a sort of hip-hop missionary. His gospel was pop music as a part of cultural history, a tool for understanding, and ultimately a vehicle for overcoming racial conflict.

It isn’t altogether surprising that Chuck D should take to the lecture circuit in his early middle age. Chuck D started Public Enemy in 1982 with the explicit intention of making it the youth-culture medium for an Afrocentric message. Groups like Run DMC might have been black and from the streets, but from the beginning Public Enemy put their music squarely in the same tradition as Elijah Mohammed and his Nation of Islam, and Malcom X “by any means necessary” black activism. Lyrics like “Farrakhan is a prophet and I think you ought to listen to what he can say to you. . . . black is back; all in, we’re gonna win” (from “Bring the Noise”) have made Public Enemy the bete noir for groups like the Jewish Defense League, who consider Farrakhan an anti-Semite. Whether or not this accusation can be fairly extended to Public Enemy, clearly the JDL and others feared the power that popular music could put behind this message, particularly in its ability to reach enormous numbers of young people.

As it turned out, rap became incredibly lucrative mainstream music. What critics call the corporate/gangsta period, 1992-1996, saw rap’s largest audience solidify as 10-15 year old suburban boys — these are not people who are likely to be galvanized by or even concerned with black activism. In what may be as arbitrary as any a symbol of rap’s wholesale integration into mainstream America, you can now go to any Toys R Us and buy little ’64 convertibles that do the “hydraulic hop” — just like the ones in the Snoop Doggy Dog videos. Though Public Enemy is recognized as one of rap’s most influential groups, few of their descendents (at least the ones who attained widespread success) have adopted their militancy or their intelligence. Mainstream hip-hop’s anthem, broadly categorized, bears closer resemblance these days to “The Thong Song” (Craig on Tour 2000. Sample lyric: “she’s got dumps / dumps / dumps like a truck”) than “Fight the Power”.

From Yo! MTV Raps on, rap and hip-hop became protagonists in that archetypal story in the history of popular music, the voyage from marginal to mainstream. Ten-odd years later, enter Chuck D: keynote speaker in an academic conference on popular music. He looked surprisingly small when he came out onto the stage of the Iowa Memorial Union second floor ballroom. He wore a black baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, a black jean jacket, and baggy pants. I went mostly out of curiosity than long time devotion: I was interested in what he would say, and how he would say it. I also wanted to check out the crowd.

Said assemblage surprised my expectations. For one thing, I thought the second floor ballroom would be packed, with standees spilling out into the stairwell. This had in fact been the scene on September 13, when a panel of academics took the stage to explain to a rapt and representative crowd (to my right, in that audience, was a tenured professor, to my left a platinum-ponytailed undergrad). The topic: “Why ‘they’ hate us so much.” At that event the people on the stage commanded an enormous presence.

This time I found a seat easily, even though I came rather late. The last eight to ten rows of chairs were empty, or occupied by a few isolated people, undoubtedly ready to bolt early if necessary. On the right side of the hall, I recognized quite a few faces from the Writers Workshop and other graduate programs, as well as several professors. This part of the crowd’s motivations most likely matched my own: curiosity, respect for Public Enemy in the most academic sense, and a vague hipster “see and be seen” aura (a vibe that reaches its spine-tingling height in this town not for multinational celebrities like Chuck D, but for the readings of certain ascendent but obscure poets, or the occasional appearance of a David Sedaris or Denis Johnson).

My nearest neighbors in Chuck D’s audience were mostly undergrad suburban DJ types; white or of some mixed ethnicity. They were very well dressed and remarkably well-behaved. I sensed a different sort of hipsterism at work with them; a sort of community solidarity that suggested attendance as representation. Most striking, however, on this sliding communitarian scale was the crowd of black undergraduates who occupied a front left portion of the hall in one uninterrupted block.

I note this confederation mostly because the population of the University of Iowa, grad and undergrad, is overwhelmingly white. I’ve been teaching three classes a year, 22-24 students apiece, for two years now, and I have yet to run across an African American student in my classes. I’ve had two Hispanic kids, both very assimilative in dress and attitude, and a handful of suburban Chicago Jews, also very assimilative. Otherwise, however, my students are mostly blonde kids with surnames like Riesselman, Meyermann, Holmes and McHugh, their fair heads like so many tasselled ears of corn. This demographic cross section dovetails with what I see of the general population around campus and in town. What black students I do see tend to stick together; many, judging from their enormous size (if they are male) and attire, participate in varsity sports. Many of my other students also participate in sports: this is a school where if one participates, it is in a highly structured group activity; be it athletics or the Greek system, the pom squad or the marching band. Even the elementary school down the street from my house has a marching band, whose whistles and beats punctuate my fall afternoons like clockwork.

What the suburban DJ types thought about Chuck D’s visit, I don’t know, although I sensed that they came out of musical fidelity rather than curiosity or fanaticism. In an uncomfortable reinactment of most descriptions of so-called “subaltern” populations, I found that the motivations of the sizeable cluster of African American students were most obscure to me. They did not, as the suburban DJ types did, broadcast their affiliation to the music industry through clothing and accessories. They were not, as many of the graduate students and professors were, old enough to remember Public Enemy’s heyday. Nor did they exhibit the traditional clothing often associated with the Nation of Islam (bow ties and suits) or other forms of organized Afrocentrism (traditional African clothing or hairstyle). They were dressed mostly in the same mix of Abercrombie and Fitch blandness and athletic boosterism common among all of my students.

But these students hadn’t packed the hall for Chuck D, and, at about half the size of the grad student/prof population, they were not even the best-represented group. I say all this because what happened that evening did not happen only to Chuck D or his audience, but what happened – or what was meant to happen – instead just snapped and slacked and fell in the air between us. For the first half hour or so, Chuck D seemed very nervous. His voice hadn’t any of the boom he brought to the mic with Public Enemy, and his body language was stiff and mannered. To overcome his jitters, he cracked several jokes about the Midwest and Iowa “Des Moines: Represent!” perhaps. This patter elicited a lot of laughter from people. I remember because it was the last time the audience would laugh with any comfort.

In other words, Chuck D was speaking about the politics of music and race to a crowd of people who are used to thinking that an overdose of politics ruins the purity of art; a crowd of people that is more impressed by John Ashberry than it is upset about John Ashcroft. He was speaking to people who are largely uncritical of mainstream institutions like fraternities or Big Ten sports, who, in fact, understand community life as primarily structured by such institutions. In class discussions, I notice my students are uncomfortable about voicing convictions they clearly expressed in the privacy of their writing assignments. Until I can bring them around to the idea that debate can be a constructive, consensus-building process, they tend to view it as inappropriate confrontation and divisiveness.

Chuck D spoke for upwards of three hours that cold and windy night — or that’s what I hear. I didn’t make it through to the end, for when the first of the Q&A questions, “Will Public Enemy reunite?” elicited a twenty-minute response that detoured into an extended rant on child pornography, I decided to call it quits and eat dinner. Indeed, at the two-hour mark many people began to trickle out by the sides; eventually this trickle became a stream pouring down the center aisle.

I don’t mean to suggest that Chuck D failed that night. He cracked many a potty-mouthed joke that garnered guffaws from parts of the audience, but he never invoked the cheering, fanatical unity that I expected for someone of such stature. My most consistent impression was that Chuck D was speaking over his audience’s head. Perhaps we expected a talk about the use of the n-word in rap music, or a discussion of hip-hop’s cultural meaning. To some degree we got that, but we also got a very critical (too critical, I think, for his audience) assessment of US foreign policy, a technological history of the recording industry, and a detailed portrait of Caribbean to New York migration patterns in the early seventies. We got an extended definition of rapping, rhyming, hip-hop, and “frontin”. We were also treated to an exegesis of New York public school funding in the late seventies and early eighties. Then we heard him claim that the terrorist attacks were the fault of our own arrogance.

His comments on the latter topic earned him stunned silence from all demographics represented that night. I suspect many people simply didn’t understand why Chuck D was talking politics and not repeating the usual “God Bless” and “Evil Doers” sloganeering we’d all gotten used to by then.

Similarly, in discussing the post-September 11 world, Chuck D often addressed the black students where they sat en masse before him. “Y’all better have Ph.D.s by the time I come back here,” he said, referring to the irony that in a recession, graduate school becomes an almost lucrative option, “But of course, even if you do, you’ll be managers at Best Buy or some shit.” This comment elicited nervous titters from a population which, I suspect, was not used to hearing itself explicitly named, let alone called to an awareness of a political interpretation of its situation.

Imitations of stereotypical black characters (this happened mostly in the discussion of “frontin” and sell-out hip-hop stars) got laughs from the other side of the room and my suburban DJ neighbors. I am sure that Chuck D, who impressed as expected with his sharpness of mind and tongue, did not miss the irony of a population laughing at the stereotypes it had been taught to recognize. But for the most part, the crowd came with an abundance of goodwill and attentiveness; in many cases, the vibe I got from the silence where Chuck D clearly expected a reaction was not disapproval or even misunderstanding. It was a sort of misplaced reverence, an insecurity about what might be an appropriate response. Unfortunately, the silence threw off his rhythm; the more people left, the more he started to sound desperate. He even called after the people who were leaving, taunting them, hurling rapid-fire rants at their backs.

In describing this scene to a friend more versed in African American pulpit culture than I, he pointed out that inspirational speakers often wear out an audience with fatigue and hunger literally. This conversation was my first inkling that what I had witnessed was not a singular case of a speaker disappointing its audience’s expectations (or just confusing them), but a tradition and a practice. I wondered what could have motivated Chuck D to speak as he did that night.

By the time I left, Chuck D monopolized the floor like a dictator who knows he’s soon to be toppled. I started to feel embarrassed for him, which made me sad. Waiting in the lobby for a cab (Chuck D had spoken so far into the night that I’d missed the last bus home in this early-to-bed town), I overheard another graduate student talking with a friend. “You could’ve played the song “Don’t Believe the Hype” five times over just in the time it took him to describe ‘frontin’. I clocked it!”

Would it have been more effective if Chuck D let the music speak for him? What happened to the mobilizing power the JDL feared? What were the specific goals in mind for speaking rather than rapping (although he did, as he pointed out, “occasionally rhyme”)? Certainly, Public Enemy does not have the mass popularity it once did; styles have changed, and when the media’s fickle gaze flicks elsewhere, it may become necessary to menace a room full of people with a long and exhausting harangue. It may be necessary to drill it into their heads.

In all fairness (and it’s not even that, because it’s true) I learned a lot that night from Chuck D. I was dazzled by rap and hip-hop’s rich history, from the Caribbean migration patterns to the budget cuts in the New York City public schools. He said hip-hop’s good fun, and it makes you want to bounce. But it is also the story of a people, of economic and political struggle, diaspora, and determination. In his best moments, Chuck D excavated the deep structure of a musical style we’ve come to take for granted in just 20 short years. He made me believe that this history was alive and moving through every commonplace of our cultural lives – every one of us, regardless of race.

But that movement, that life, that interconnectedness, wasn’t it already there in the music?