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Who takes the rap?

Hip-hop star Chuck D says black artists must fight for control of their own music and the money it earns. Donald Harding talked to him

January 1, 1998
7 min read

‘I get up from having my ass kicked, therefore I get up to kick some ass,’ is how the book, Fight the Power – Rap, Race, and Reality, ends. It is an unusual ending, but this is no usual author.

Chuck D, front man of the controversial rap group, Public Enemy, is in Glasgow on a short UK tour to launch his book. ‘It’s a manifesto,’ he says, ‘it sure ain’t a passive introduction to this world, nor is it an autobiography. I’ve never stressed the importance of me. I am a man first and a black one to the core. If those facts offend some, fuck it. Fight the Power will ruffle.’ Eschewing the staple of pop stars’ books – sex and drugs and drugs and sex – this individualistic rapper has produced something more like a textbook.

Wearing a shiny track suit, trainers and a baseball cap, he is engaging and slightly avuncular. He dispels any stereotypes of Americans never getting off the tourist track on visits to the UK: ‘It’s good to be back. I’ve been in Glasgow a few times. Up in the Barrowlands we did some great shows, some of the longest shows ever, we really ripped some shit.’

Ripping shit and kicking ass are phrases that might sum-up hip-hop. It began in the US as response to the social destruction and deprivation wrought by Reagan and Bush. Their policies tore into the economic and political gains made by African-Americans in the previous two decades. In the 1980s, urban black youth grabbed the mike and began the fightback with a language of love and rage that has travelled the globe.

Covering everything from graffiti art to breakdancing, with rap music as its most dynamic voice, the vision and aspirations of the black working class found expression in the resistance culture of hip-hop. Public Enemy was the elite guard of this ‘blacklash’ and, after 10 years of rapping, scrapping and mapping across the globe, Chuck D has taken time out and swapped the microphone for a pen.

Born in Queens, New York City in 1960, he grew up in the inner city until he was 11. Then with his parents he moved to the suburbs of Roosevelt, Long Island. After graduating from Roosevelt High School in 1979 he studied graphic design at neighbouring Adelphi University. There he missed classes to work for the local DJ operation that developed his ability as a rapper and honed his hip-hop skills. In 1986 he formed Public Enemy. Now the group has an international following of more than 20 million fans.

He writes from the heart and shoots from the hip about black power, media manipulation, Africa, education and – his favourite – the moguls of American business or, as he calls, them ‘the corporate pimps of soul’.

Chuck D uses any medium necessary to get his message to the widest possible audience. As well as the book, he has multimedia projects on the internet and he works for Murdoch’s Fox TV as a roving reporter. ‘TV news is the last racist frontier. Sometimes you’ve got to work within the system to make advances,’ he says. And despite the censorial power of news executives he claims to ‘have 100 per cent editorial control, otherwise I wouldn’t do it.’

The stereotype of the thuggish, hard-core rapper is something that Chuck D fights against. He says he has never taken drugs or had a drink of alcohol in his life. ‘I’m offended that few know that my peers are worldly, engaging, entrepreneurial, have travelled, have families, have college degrees, and pay taxes like everybody else. I’m here to set the record straight,’ he says.

In Fight the Power, which draws heavily on his own experiences, he spins through issues, flipping easily from analysis to anecdote, from private to public. He pauses only to take two-footed swings at anything he sees as an obstacle to the development of a just and equal society for all Americans.

Referring to an education system that refused to acknowledge the heritage of African Americans, he writes, ‘I clearly remember having to read Ethan Frome and Great Expectations. Fuck Ethan Frome and fuck Miss Haversham. Why did I have to read that shit instead of some James Baldwin or Zora Neale Hurston?’

‘It’s blatantly clear,’ he argues, ‘that the majority of black and white see the world from diametrically opposed points of view.’ Using rap as the frame of reference, his street-talk offers a welcome inside view of US race politics. ‘In a way the world of rap could be seen as a microcosm of American race politics, there is a crisis in both,’ he says. ‘People have fallen into the trap where they think that everything is OK under Clinton. Successive American governments have pacified our youth, and people are readily susceptible to ignorant views perpetuated across the media.’

Listing ‘Contract with America’, the onslaught against affirmative action programs, the Welfare Reform Bill and the Crime Bill, he says that ‘an increasingly hostile climate has developed in America towards black people and their struggle.’ This should be coupled with the developments in rap music. Hip-hop has suffered from a corporate take-over in the last few years. A once exclusive avant-garde voice of rebellion has been largely adopted and adapted by the mainstream. It is a billion dollar business with white middle-class American kids accounting for as much as 85 per cent of sales. Yet according to Chuck D, ‘the power brokers of hip-hop, the majority of them are white.’

While African Americans have restricted access to producer roles, young and impressionable rappers are pumping out negative images of black people – what Chuck D calls ‘niggativity’ – under pressure from music executives who want to cash in on genres like gangsta rap with its propensity for bigotry. The media goes along for the ride, ignoring all other areas of the music. ‘Rap is being raped,’ he says. With big money involved, the corporations care nothing for the soul of hip-hop; their only concern is with profit.

There is nothing new there. But in this case, it is slightly different, with big business exploiting a radical movement. Rap’s schizophrenic nature means that it is both the voice of alienated and rebellious black youth as well as the marketing of social discontent by record companies and ad agencies. ‘The political economy of hip-hop – its capacity to open markets, maximise profits and commodify legitimate grief and unrest is the material basis that drives it forward. However, the nature of hip hop, its political soul, is to provoke and agitate,’ according to Clarence Lusane, writing in Race & Class.

Chuck D points to this dialectic, but does not highlight it. He sees the problem as one of exploitation and he identifies its racial aspect, yet his immediate solution is to maintain the same system and to replace white producers and executives with black ones. ‘This is the perfect chance for black people, especially young black people to organise and control [rap],’ he says.

Typically hands-on and pragmatic, this could result in less racial discrimination against African Americans, but some commentators suggest that the material exploitation of the artists would continue. ‘The commodification of black resistance is not the same as resistance to a society built on commodification,’ writes Clarence Lusane.

Chuck D’s approach is in tune with recent changes in the struggle. In the last few years, access to power through financial muscle has become a major aim in the African American community. Self determination via efforts to boost the black economy has made commercial rights the focus, rather than civil or legal rights. It may be that economic justice is as important as social justice.

Although he sees economic power for black people as extremely important, he does not see problems simply in racial terms. His vision goes beyond that, as he says, ‘We are thinking about coming up and whatever foot we perceive to be on our shoulder, that’s the foot we’re going to try to knock off even if it’s a black foot. Whatever the issue, it is always a case of the haves and have nots.’

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