Chuck D, the iconic head man of Public Enemy, has been called the God Father of Hip Hop. His powerful voice is one honed…in part...emulating legendary sportscaster Marv Albert. His continued hard work as well as his concern for Hip Hop’s well being will forever resonate in the unapologetic consciousness of the currently much misunderstood genre. Public Enemy has done its collective part and it’s up to every individual associated with the game to give Hip Hop’s current on life support voice back to the community where it rightfully belongs.
Recently (March 13th, 2006), I had the pleasure of being his guest at one of PE’s Tour 57 stops at Baltimore’s Ram’s Head Live. Hard to believe that it’s been twenty years and PE still gives a powerful spirit uplifting as well as head nodding performance. The crowd in attendance fortunately was made up of every race imaginable–which was not the case twenty years ago.
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is the greatest Hip Hop album of all time; anyone who listened intently to the soul beat of the album’s lyrics has a stronger heart and an even braver conscience. Chuck D is simply one of the deepest brothas alive and the rap game is much richer with the history of empowerment he and Public Enemy has helped it achieve. His knowledge of sports transcends his thirst for helping to give Hip Hop a proper perspective in an age where unfortunately, negativity sells.
Everything is not Hip Hop.
This is Part One of Three (links follow)
Michael Tillery: Over the years you have referenced athletes in your lyrics, why so?
Chuck D: There’s a parallel between athletics and entertainment that has been hinted at by society. When you actually look into the realm, we come from the same community–more often than not–and go through the same obstacles. One of the things that has to be different is the structure of music. They’ve grabbed the reigns of the ubiquitous band–those that feel they have an interest–and are controlling the business aspect of it. The vein that controls sports corrals different behavior, but the vein that controls music let’s that same behavior run amuck.
So when it came time to put down a rhyme, I’ve always thought we were one in the same. I’ll also tell you this Mike, a lot of the early rappers were frustrated ball players. I couldn’t make my baseball team, so I wanted to get into sports casting. I was able to realize early where my talents lie.
MT: What are some of your thoughts currently in terms of athletic salaries?
Chuck D: Well you look at the world of sports in terms of the dynamic of who controls what. I don’t care how many black faces you see on the court, the field or the back of the sports pages, it’s largely white men that make up the rules and give the orders. So it doesn’t matter how much an athlete makes, it’s based on a hierarchy that is outside of the black community. Mike, I would tell athletes all the time that wanted to get into music, that they need to stay in sports. You have a company paying you as a high priced employee. Once you get into music, you are basically in business for yourself. You have to factor in your expenses–which in sports are taken care of by the respective teams–and if you don’t properly take care of your expenses, you can go under with the quickness. In music, you can spend a billion dollars and it still wouldn’t guarantee success if you don’t know where you are putting it.
The money we see for the athletes is a result of a well calculated business–a structured business–and a well paying job. Athletes have jobs. Musicians have their own businesses, but they don’t realize it.
MT: What encourages, as well as discourages you about sports?
Chuck D: I’ve never liked discussions about money in sports. It’s one of the biggest turnoffs. I can’t stand when I read a column and instead of talking about the most important aspect–the actual athletics–it almost always turns to money. If I wanted to read about money, I would have read the Wall Street Journal or Nasdaq. Then, while I’m looking at a game or a sport that is going to talk about money, they talk about raising the prices in something that already looks as if they are making crazy amounts of money. It’s hard for me to support and be a fan when I see these things happening.
I wanna see the athlete or my particular team give the best effort.
Winning or losing is not the bottom line. It’s money. It’s hard to watch–no matter if I’m home or in the stands.
I also see this attitude filtering into music. Even in Hip Hop, it seems the bigger the money, the less effort put into the performance.
It has a lot to do with others fearing that this individual thing of “I” over “we”.
It’s something that will help a few, but will hurt many.
The structure of sports is encouraging. How it’s molded. The powers that be will not let the game spiral out of control to the point where the fan gets less awe struck of the performance of the player from the fan. For example: You can say this ball player ain’t jack or whatever and you can criticize that. The reality is different than that. The closer you get the court, field or whatever, you have no choice but to be awestruck of their talent and the organization of their game. The closer you get to the court, you have to dig in your pocket to pull out money or status to get to the court. That really puts you back in check and say to yourself that you can’t do what they (the athletes) can do.
That’s what’s happening in rap and hip hop right now. A lot of the awe has left the audience. People realize that the closer they get to the stage, they can be just as good–if not better than the performer. The performer has been indoctrinated to give less effort. When you have 75% of the crowd feeling they can do better than the performer, you are going to have attendance problems.
Sports hasn’t reached that point because the great way it’s packaged.
Even the last player on the bench gets hounded for his autograph.
Athletes have been trained from an early age to hone their craft, by the time they get into their twenties, it’s perfected. That’s why they make the major green.
Getting back to rap, we have people coming off the street that have been trained by the streets, but don’t have a resume and still get a major contract. You just can’t come from nowhere and all the sudden be on the top of the pile. Jay-Z said recently that rapper Jim Jones (who has been dissing Jay-Z) shouldn’t be given any credibility because he hasn’t done anything in the rap game. Jay-Z asked, “Who is this dude?” “What’s his background?” Laughing him off.
It’s akin to the tenth player coming out and saying Jordan sucks! It’s like when LaBradford Smith of the Bullets–who one game scored 37 on the Bulls–was talking all kinds of trash to Mike. That was the worse thing he could do. I think Mike put him out of the league the next time they played–Mike scored 36 in the first half. You just don’t do that without expecting some deserved punishment, because it’s coming.
The pecking order, the rights of passage and the training in sports needs to be checked by other aspects of society.
Hip Hop also needs to follow the structure of sports to regain it’s relevance in the community.
MT: Speaking of Jay-Z, he made an appearance on Monday Night football last season. That’s something that was unheard of in Hip Hop. Speak about the mainstream power of Hip Hop–translating to franchise minority ownership–through the likes of Usher, Nelly and of course Jay-Z.
Chuck D: I think anything that Jay-Z does widens the roads of availability for anyone who is smart to say wow, I can do this. Jay-Z is actually a pioneer. He realizes he can’t have everything for himself, but he makes inroads so even I can drive my vehicle down the path he’s blazed. I’m proud of what he’s accomplished–touring and other avenues–to get to that level.
I think he’s the greatest MC of all time.
MT: Wow! Big statement–especially coming from someone like you. Really?
Chuck D: He is the greatest of all time because he recognized the embodiment of everything involved–legends before him–and put his game on an entirely different level of anyone past or present. Jay-Z is the embodiment of Kool Mo Dee, Rakim, KRS1, Pac, Biggie and anyone else that has ever been on the mic. Similar to Jordan, he was the right dude at the right time. He just didn’t sit on his talent. He sought other aspects of business to conquer. It’s not just about how much fame on top of fame you can get. He’s special. From the outside looking in, people might say he’s stuffing himself. No, he’s widening the road for other cats to follow. Now if cats get on the road and crash their vehicles, that’s their problem. He’s added a business structure to the game that hasn’t been seen, taking Hip Hop to the board room, Madison Avenue and giving it a legitimate voice. My respect for Jay-Z went to a higher level when he did the Hard Knock Life Tour in 1999–performing after DMX! Making records and having skill is cool, but when you can take it to the stage and give the fans a great show, I’m tipping my hat to you. When I saw him doing that every night–going on after DMX is very difficult–I knew he was the one. I’m not saying at all that he was beating out DMX, but he held the fort down.
A lot of people don’t agree with me, but I’ve been there, so I know what kind of effort you have to give across the board. He’s phenomenal. When cats were calling Biggie the greatest of all time, I had problems with that. He came in and put out 1 1/2 records and people were judging him unfairly. There was no way he was the best.
The most feared rapper of all time was KRS-1. No one wanted to rap around the dude.
Jay-Z is Jordan. KRS-1 is Bill Russell–swatting everything in his path. LL Cool J is Abdul-Jabbar for longevity. Kool Moe Dee and I play this game of comparing athletes to rappers. His list would definitely be different than mine.
Chuck D: Kool Moe Dee. Like Doc, Mo Dee came out the box already on a high level. He instituted the highlight reel dunk into the rap game.
MT: I was watching Beatstreet recently. The scene at the Christmas party when Mo Dee was spittin’ and Doug E. Fresh was beatboxin’ took me way back. I forgot how sick the Treacherous Three was.
Chuck D: Yes they were. Speaking of Beatstreet. Melly Mel was Wilt Chamberlain. When Melly Mel came out, second place was far. I’m speaking from my perspective in ’76 and ’77. Melly Mel was so far ahead of everyone else that he was by himself. Second place was like looking at people from the top of a high rise building. His lyrics were strong, he had a powerful voice. Your voice was the denominator because it had to be heard–Melly Mel was definitely heard. He was deep, he was precise, always on time and had the best assist in Grand Master Flash.
MT: What athlete would typify you?
Chuck D: Barkley! Undersized and forever coming up with amazing dunks that people just didn’t expect. How is a man six four-six five going to grab twelve hundred rebounds in a season? Triple doubles–I mean sick triple doubles with 40 plus points, 20 plus rebounds and 13 plus assists. Barkley was a bad man. Jordan is the best ever because he recognized the rites of passage of not only Magic, Isiah and Bird, but also Julius, Elgin, Wilt and all those other cats who were great. He transformed the game by taking this and that from everyone–especially Bill Russell’s desire to win. Bill Russell is the Lord of the Rings. Jordan’s desire took out, Barkley, Ewing, Malone and Stockton, Payton, Magic, Bird–to name a few.
MT: What team past or present embodied the vibe and energy of Public Enemy at its peak?
Chuck D: The 88′ to 90′ Detroit Pistons.
MT: The fact that this interview is taking this type of turn is cool.
Chuck D: Me and Moe talk about this. In order to have a conscious discussion about sports, you have to know that you have someone to quickly receive the point so the conversation has a flow. You do that with your interviews. It’s like being on the mic and give the fans a simile or a metaphor in a rhyme. If the listening audience isn’t getting it then how are you going to get your point across. I used to say, “My metaphors be passin’ ya ass like taxi cabs.” If you are too dumb to figure it out, whose fault is that? People are lazy, they want everything done for them and packaged all pretty so they don’t have to think. What is that? It’s like one of my guys–he’s a comedian–Zoo Man, he’s a funny cat. He says a lot of political things..he says “My jokes are DSL. I have high speed DSL jokes, so you might not get them.” This is a good conversation. It’s complex, but simple at the same time because we’re speaking in a way that people can understand.
MT: What athlete today gives you a sense of consciousness that transcends his athletic ability?
Chuck D: I like what Stephon Marbury has lately done with his sneaker deal–I’m working with him–to make shoes affordable in the community. (Chuck wore Marbury’s shoe on stage during a recent concert in (Baltimore) Part of what I’ve been able to do as a rapper and performer is because of the admiration I have for Roberto Clemente. Roberto Clemente lives in me. He’s the epitome of what an athlete should be–along with Muhammad Ali. I’ve always thought the sharpest cat in sports today is Shaq. His wit outshines anyone. I think he’s close to being a genius. People say he’s big, he’s dark he’s lumbering, but you just have to get it when he speaks. He’s funny as hell.
MT: How do you characterize his lyrical talent?
Chuck D: The best that’s ever come from sport. The fact that a seven footer can B-Boy is unprecedented. Allen Iverson lived the life, but you can’t say the things he was trying to say and be in the NBA. It’s when athletics and Hip Hop arrive on the wrong street. Kobe Bryant has a deft voice. Another thing, out of all the athletes I’ve met, Kobe unquestionably has the most manners. You can tell that he was raised right and coached right.
MT: Similar to Griffey Jr. and Roberto and Sandy Alomar, he was raised in the game. His father played with Doc and wore number 23, so the emulation of Michael was natural. I hope to see Kobe Bryant do some things that we’ve never seen before. I think he’s definitely the most talented player in the league.
Chuck D: No question. I love his game. I also love LeBron’s game. I love his commercials. I know there’s a lot of marketing behind him, but it takes a lot for a man to laugh at himself. It’s inside of him.
He’s come along for the Jordan ride. When I initially heard of him in high school, I have to admit I was against him entering the NBA because I thought the NBA wasn’t a good climate fit. He was able to come in, observe his surroundings and listen a lot. He has a good head on his shoulders. You really can’t explain why someone so young has it all, but it is what it is. I’m proud of him being able to do the things he’s doing with intelligence that transcends his ability.
MT: Do you see the lines of sports and entertainment blurring?
Chuck D: Yes! There’s too much dough. I don’t think sports is totally entertainment. I also don’t think entertainment should be totally sports. When the lines begin to overlap, you say to yourself, “What is this?” I was looking at ball players wearing shorts way below their knees. I would say, “Who is this dude?” It got to the point where it was stupid and you needed someone like David Stern to scale some things back.
I wish there was a David Stern in Hip Hop.
I’m speaking about the NBA at length because the NBA is attempting to get like the NFL. The NFL is the best run organization on the planet–as far as a league. It’s still a team game. The way the game is, you can be like Donovan McNabb and gone for the year. So individually you have to hold it down and hold yourself accountable for your actions or you will be gone. You don’t necessarily have to be humble in the NBA. You can be paid very well and play for a long time.
In the NFL you can make money, but it’s short lived. The NBA is run by individuals. It makes the game, but it also creates the disorder.
One thing. Since Magic Johnson announced he had HIV and leaving the sport he has had a bigger impact in business than most athletes will ever have.
MT: Getting back to baggy shorts. Do you think Michigan’s Fab Five was good for the culture of basketball? Crazy to think that Webber might win a title with Detroit this year after all he’s been through.
Chuck D: Yup. I have mixed feelings about the Fab Five. I have a lot of roots in Michigan. If it wasn’t Michigan there was no way those five talented ball players end up there. They were all great individual entities and Steve Fisher knew that, so he had to incorporate them into the team aspect. I was nodding my head saying these dudes are Hip Hop for real! They changed the game. I have mixed feelings because they didn’t win the championship. One team wins the championship, so the Fab Five lost twice. They introduced the And-1 way of life. It helped market the game, but it also took from the sanity of it. It’s spiraled out of control. People want to look at
And-1 may not want to watch the NBA.
They might say the NBA is corny.