• Feature

A Conversation with Chuck D

I was able to meet up and interview the legendary Chuck D before his Words & Music Lecture at The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. The interview took place at The Mercantile Library which was originally slated to host the event, “overwhelming response and interest in the lecture resulted in the change of venues.”

Chuck D arrived to the library alone and took great interest in the library’s books, architecture and overall charm. The Mercantile Library is no stranger to hosting big names; the likes of Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William M. Thackeray, and Ralph Waldo Emerson are some of the prominent speakers who have addressed the Library.

After taking in the views and meeting the library’s staff I was able to sit and chat one and one with the author, producer, publisher, radio host, political activist and oh yeah… Rock and Roll Hall of Fame rapper Mr. Chuck D

Aaron Paschal:Welcome to Cincinnati and thank you for doing this interview with me and CincyMusic!

Chuck D:Thank you for having me. I’m happy to be here.

AP:So you have a song (Tired of 45) which was released not that long ago. The song compares “basketball legend and Ohio native” - LeBron James focusing his time and money to build schools against President Trump’s campaign to fund and build a border wall between the United States and Mexico.

It’s pretty simple to see where the views come from but what sprung you into action to actually take those thoughts and concerns and make a song about it?

CD:I was a participant on LeBron James’s (Shut Up and Dribble) documentary on Showtime. We were scoring the music for it and adding songs so I just thought in my mind that it was the perfect song to deal directly with that comment - “Shut Up and Dribble.” I wanted to talk about all of the great things that LeBron has done that transcends the game of basketball. 

LeBron is like a throwback to the athletes that I grew up watching. He steps outside of the world of sports to speak on topics that are important to him and he stands by his comments. He doesn’t worry about them kicking him out of the league or any other type of backlash. He’s accomplished so much on the court and he uses that platform and power to inspire change. With LeBron you don’t get the sense that he’s in it just to stack as much money as he can. You feel that he would come out of his bag to say something and still know that he will be the number one guy in the league. He’s like “you can’t stop me, I’m so much more than just this game.”

AP:I want to piggyback off of that. As an artist and public figure, you know that there’s a certain line that you approach and that once you decide to cross that line it may alienate you from a certain fan base or even have a negative impact on endorsement deals and earning potential. I feel like I already know the answer to this but were you ever hesitant to cross that line or did that push you even further across it?

CD:It pushes me even further across the line because the one thing that helped me as an artist is that we were able to get out of the country, (laughs.) So if it doesn’t work in one place it’s going to work somewhere else. So you don’t want to be offensive but what you want to do is question the authorities if they are unjust. You want to be able to say what people feel. A lot of times people may feel that they want to say something but they may not have the language to convey their emotions. We as artists, wordsmiths, writers… if we don’t have the language on deck we’re supposed to find it. Find the language that makes me feel like what you’re saying.

AP:When you look over your career and all of the songs in your catalog, is there a specific song that you’re most proud of or one that you think best defines your legacy?

CD: As far as Public Enemy’s overall discography as well as the general public (Fight the Power) is the one and I often have to remind them that it’s the second (Fight the Power) because we can’t forget Cincinnati’s own Isley Brothers made the first one. The Isley Brothers’ (Fight the Power) inspired me as a kid. So (Fight the Power) is the song that everyone would say so that’s the song I think you have to go with but for me personally it’s (Welcome to the Terrordome.)

And let me just say that when you talk about Ohio, Ohio is the under acknowledged state of all music. Whether it’s funk, R&B, whatever!  You have King Records right here in Cincinnati. Ohio does not get it’s due nationally and so here recently they’ve started to celebrate themselves. Taking on the attitude that “if you’re not gonna give us are props we will lift our own selves up!” From the top of the state all the way down to the bottom – when it comes to music Ohio is overlooked.

AP:You mentioned that your father passed away three years ago; how has that affected you personally and has it had any impact on you as an artist?

CD:It put me on a trajectory. The silence is the thing that gets me. The fact that there is no more communication with him. 

Being a songwriter throughout the years is an outlet itself.  When my father passed of course I already had music but somehow I began to use visual arts as another outlet. My art ended up being therapeutic. It wasn’t like I was going to crack open a bottle or go to an alley and weed up all day so I used art as my outlet. One day I did 70 drawings in one hour and they were just coming out of my hands and I haven’t stopped since. I’m not going to figure out or explain why that happened I’m just receiving them and keeping things happening. It’s been a joyous excursion for me. 

My art is something I started out with for my first 25 years and then I went into rap for the next 30 years and then I came back to the art and so now I’m doing both. Life happens and it happens fast. After 50 it’s like a speed rail. Art slows time down and it keeps you present. Art takes you to the future and it also reflects your past. You can escape the present in your art as well, so art definitely inspires art.

It’s impossible to speak with Chuck D and not come away motivated. His passion for knowledge and understanding is infectious. His willingness to give into his imagination is inspiring. Always willing to grow and try new things. Never shy with words. His ability to intelligently speak on subjects from hip-hop, politics, world history, current events and sports is something to behold.

Chuck D graduated from Aldelphia University with a BFA in Graphic Design. While in school he designed flyers for local hip-hop events and drew a cartoon called (Tales of the Skind) for the student newspaper (The Delphian.) Chuck D also designed the Public Enemy logo which is one of the most iconic logos in all of music let alone hip-hop. 

Last year Chuck D had his first art exhibit (Artmageddon) which featured his original works in watercolor and pencil which gave viewers a glimpse into his perspective into the world of music, politics, culture and sports.

You can keep up with Chuck D on twitter: @MrChuckD and on instagram: @MrChuckD_PE and be sure to stay up to date with The Mercantile Library at mercantilelibrary.com.