Chuck D. talks of hype and hope
NEW YORK — The driving force behind today’s rap music is not the power of the word but the promise of a payoff, says one of the foremost rap artists of his time.
“There is a pirating of our culture. Record companies are saying, ‘We can’t sell songs that don’t play into the role of gangsters.’ Intelligence is being downplayed,” said Public Enemy frontman Chuck D. at the First Amendment Center May 18 during a taping of the weekly television show “Speaking Freely.”
Chuck D. believes rap artists today are being forced just to sell an image by the companies who control them. He cited Tupac Shakur as an example of a “brilliant artist” who played at being a thug and ultimately died as a result of that image. The gangsta rapper was shot and killed by unknown assailants in 1996 on his way to a charity event in Las Vegas.
“I’m really angry about his death,” Chuck D. said. “Record companies are selling black existence that is unbalanced.”
The rap star, who rose to prominence with political hip-hop that promoted the black consciousness, pointed out that Viacom, one of the largest distributors of rap videos and music, is controlled by a few white men.
“For the companies, it’s about marketing of this music,” he said.
And how does this play to the listeners?
“Young people are having a hard time with what’s reality and what’s fantasy these days,” he said. “It’s dangerous to the [black] community.
“It is a different time in rap than when Public Enemy started,” he added. “Today, in 2001, we have a mass of media and information and that causes overflow in the minds of young people.”
The auditorium for the taping was packed with fans and friends of the popular artist, who today gives lectures around the country on racism, music and black culture and also helps run a music Web site called www.rapstation.com. There were more than a hundred people present, and the discussion continued for two hours after the taping ended.
Public Enemy, which Chuck D. co-founded, debuted on Long Island in 1987 and was known for forcing the issues of racism, poverty and class anger to the forefront while bringing hip-hop culture into the mainstream. Chuck D., whose real name is Carlton Riderhouse, and Flavor Flav, born William Drayton, released hits like “Bring in the Noise” in 1987 and “Fight the Power” in 1989.
“We created discussion,” he said. “It wasn’t to create controversy for sale’s sake, but rather it was my obligation to use the medium for discussion. [Artists] need to look out for the community and the kids.”
Then he added, “Course now is a different time.”
Today’s gangsta rap is a “different breed,” he said, citing lyrics and voices that concentrate only on the negative aspects of street life.
The artist advised parents to listen to their kids’ music. “Today’s parents have got to have an awareness of what their kids are listening to,” he said.
He also addressed the dangers of music that sells street culture through a “gangsta” image of guys with guns, women and drugs.
“I tell people when they are seeing these videos, they aren’t real. When the director yells cut, the [hot] cars go back to their owners, and the girls go home. It’s not real,” he said.
The portrayal of women in particular bothers him, Chuck D. said, and again he blames the marketing.
“[Hip-hop diva] Eve does many different things on albums, but the record companies choose what is released. Hip-hop artists should look to [superstar and Grammy winner] Lauryn Hill as an example,” he said.
But above all, Chuck D. said, Don’t Believe the Hype. It’s a phrase he coined, but now he urged his audience: Don’t just not believe it, but get out there and question it.
“We’ve got to fight for better education and teach respect for fellow human beings and your planet,” he said. “We’ve got to bring dialogue to the table and deal with situations” like racism, sexism and classism.
“[These days] nobody’s discussing the grown-up topics; they are faking and fronting,” he added. “And the companies that sign these young artists have a responsibility to develop them.”