It turns out that Chuck D (Charles Ridenhour), the social activist and legendary rapper of Public Enemy fame, and more recently of the supergroup Prophets of Rage, is also a gifted visual artist (he earned a BFA in graphic design years ago). From around the start of COVID-19 in early 2000 to late 2022, Chuck D drew his way through those immensely challenging years. The result, STEWdio: The Naphic Grovel ARTrilogy of Chuck D, is three volumes of one-hundred-plus, one-page drawings. Each drawing is not only art but serves as part diary, part time capsule, and part activism.
The drawings are actual-sized 5″ x 8″, and often black-and-white but with color as well. Chuck D’s style can be described as neo-expressionistic, with images and text often intertwined (not entirely unlike famed graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, for example). Chuck D’s lines can be lively and kinetic, and sometimes frenetic. Starting with Public Enemy in the 1980s, Chuck D has been a major voice on social and political issues, and for Black Americans, especially. He has cut through a world of institutionalized racism, gaslighting, and a litany of other ongoing challenges and has long provided sanity, strength, and direction when things could otherwise seem overwhelming.
In a time when droves of pandemic deaths, lockdowns, mass shootings, MAGA and BLM fractures, and a world overheating by the day all became normalized, STEWdio serves a similar function. These could certainly be years one might try to forget about, but looking back can be helpful and even healing, and this is an immensely entertaining and artistic way to do that.
Each of the three volumes is taken from a block of time lasting a couple of months each, in which Chuck drew about his day-to-day life events, thoughts, and observations. There are personal moments, such as portraying himself driving alone at night as news breaks over the radio, and there are insights, including a puzzling and apparently temporary, sour stretch in his relationship with longtime friend and Public Enemy bandmate Flavor Flav.
The day-to-day stuff is interrupted in the way people became all too familiar with, as news stories of a dreaded virus and political dissension seemed to pile up. As COVID spread around the planet, Chuck D wrote: “The world still turns and the tragedy news is at every turn.”
Yet STEWdio is not a work of doom and gloom. Chuck D is an active guy; his day-to-day life is loaded with hip-hop history, new projects, and activism. He drops rhymes in on some of the images here and naturally loves to play with words (and “screenager” is a keeper).
The art is consistently good. Some standouts: there is a batch of individual portraits of the various friends and hip-hop legends that appeared on Public Enemy’s latest album, from “uncle” George Clinton to Questlove to rapper YG. There is an image of a seemingly alienated mass of commuters, where the only brightness and warmth seems to be coming from the screens of their cell phones, represented by small rectangles of shiny, white ink. And there is an homage to sports and the canceled games due to the COVID shutdown. In particular, his basketball figures wonderfully capture the intense physicality of an otherwise graceful sport.
Politically, it turns out that Chuck is not a fan of the 45th president of the United States, nor of, as he calls it, “Cult 45”. A dual, side-by-side portrait of Donald Trump and Joe “Bye Don” (Chuck’s words) Biden at a presidential debate, in which Trump’s mouth is grotesquely agape, and Biden is masked, may capture that campaign as well as anything.
One simple detail helps capture and summarize STEWdio. In Volume One, the page numbering has been turned into something interesting, with drawings of a small representation of the iconic Public Enemy crosshairs logo, the name of the volume as a tag, and each page number, thus: “[logo] There’s a poison going on! [page number].” It’s a cool touch. However, Volume Two references the month and year the drawings are from instead of page numbers.
Volume Three was created two full years into the blur of COVID lockdowns, remote work, and being planted in the same computer chair every day for meetings or, for Chuck D, media interviews. This volume does not even bother distinguishing one page from the next, and there is no page numbering at all. Like the days of COVID themselves—the pages in Volume Three blur together as time suddenly became a weird construct, and losing track of the day of the week could seem normal. Chuck D has long had a knack for finding order in the chaos and the chaos in what is supposed to be order. This serves him well in STEWdio.
In sum, this is a welcome new facet to a storied career. It is undoubtedly a must-have for serious fans of Chuck D and Public Enemy, and it can also be strongly recommended for anyone who wants to see interesting artwork from this period and through some fresh and unique eyes.