Chuck D Talks Soul, Hip-Hop & Politics

A Paste Q&A

Music Features Chuck D
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Chuck D is a legend in his own right. As leader and co-founder of Public Enemy, he pioneered an intelligent, thoughtful brand of hip-hop that pulled no punches. But last year—when famed Memphis record label Stax held a star-studded concert commemorating the opening of its Museum of American Soul Music—Chuck got to share the stage with some of his childhood heroes. In front of a hyped Orpheum Theatre crowd, he joined Otis Redding’s former backing band, the Bar-Kays, rapping on their classic, “Soul Finger.” It was a fitting tribute to Stax by an artist whose music, while often groundbreaking, has always been conscious of its roots. Chuck’s performance, and many others from the night, are now available on the DVD, Soul Comes Home. Somewhere between Denver, Colo. and Laramie, Wyo.—as he barrels down the highway under a vast expanse of Western sky—Chuck D takes some time to share his thoughts with Paste via cell phone.

PASTE: What was it like for you to perform with The Bar-Kays and share the bill with soul artists like Isaac Hayes, Al Green and Mavis Staples?

CHUCK: It was an unbelievable thrill to rap on “Soul Finger.” This is a record I remember from when I was 6, 7 years-old. And I remember kids on the record, and—especially back then—when kids heard kids on a record, like on “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” or “Soul Finger” you automatically took to it. Sitting in the studio and working on it with Larry Dodson and James Alexander—who was in both sets of Bar-Kays—was just a thrill. And to be accepted by David Porter and Isaac Hayes, when they pulled me aside and called me a ‘soul man,’ I mean, what can get better than that?

P: How did you become involved with the Stax concert?

C: I’m a musicologist of sorts and a student. I’m always looking deeper and deeper into the realms of black music and music theory. I’m big into the works of the great labels. I did a project based on Chess [Records] music … after reading Spinning Blues Into Gold by Nadine Cohodas and I’m a big fan of Rob Bowman, who writes the liner notes for Stax and wrote the book Soulsville. So me and him developed a rapport. From that connection one thing led to another.

P: Can you characterize the impact Soul and R&B like the ’60s and ’70s Stax material had on hip hop?

C: Hip-hop has a way that people dig in and find beats and find grooves. The thing that’s disturbing is—as producers and DJs understand the importance of the meanings of these labels, grooves and beats—the public gets further and further ignorant of the fact. There has to be a connection between the two. The public should know that when you hear Wu-Tang [Clan’s] “C.R.E.A.M.” that it was a Stax record. “Whatta Man” by Salt-N-Pepa, that was a Stax record. Both of them written by Isaac Hayes. I’ve always made a commitment to try to connect the dots and bring the past together to be recognized.

P: What do you think the integration in the studio at Stax said to segregated 1960s America?

C: People who were musicians to their heart came together to see what they could do. And also, living in that distribution, that melting pot of Memphis—though it was segregated, people were so tightly wound in Memphis at the time that it was no surprise music could bring people together in ways it probably didn’t back when Elvis decided to do black music. So you still had that continuum there, but they just reversed it the other way. Black and white involvement in music wasn’t totally rare in Memphis. [Al Green’s producer] Willie Mitchell took over the ownership of Hi Records from Joe Coughi, who owned Popular Tunes, the record store. And they worked together for years. So you had this black-and-white interaction in business at the top level as well. Al Bell moved in and took over the ownership of Stax with Jim Stewart. So a lot of things were done for the first time, music-business-wise, in Memphis.

P: What’s your opinion on the state of hip-hop today?

C: I think the corporate control of mainstream “narrowcast” [programming] has to be eliminated in order for it to be a healthy art form. But even Jay-z said, ‘the record business is in trouble, but the music business is not’… What do you think?

P: It’s difficult to find good hip-hop with quality lyrics in the mainstream…

C: So why would a group like Dave Matthews Band be revered for music and lyrics and somebody like, say, Black Eyed Peas—when they try to do experimental things—don’t get the same type of recognition? Do you think that’s racially biased?’

P: I think there’s some racial bias. There’s a lot of groups out there that should be getting more attention. I don’t know how you feel about Outkast—not that they aren’t getting attention—but the last record was really experimental and I hope it opens people up to different kinds of music…

C: Outkast is my favorite group, I just think right now they’re experiencing—and this happens—bandwagon-ism, where people like them and they don’t really know why. But I’ve always been an Outkast fan because they always took different approaches and didn’t care what people thought. But I heard “I Like The Way You Move” and I’m saying ‘okay, Outkast did this but it sounds like Earth Wind & Fire.’ If Earth, Wind & Fire actually delivered a record like this to radio, you think it would get played? And it’s the same record. It’s the way of America, I guess.

P: In this election year, what do you think are the most important issues we face as a nation?

C: America should recognize the rest of the world instead of thinking—arrogantly—it’s above it. It needs to concentrate on foreign policy that fits into the rest of the world, one that’s a lot healthier than it is now.

P: How important is music to social change?

C: You can’t have music be one-dimensional. It’s got to be able to grow and take on all different aspects of life. Social change is something people shouldn’t be afraid to touch upon. If there’s an element out there that wants to socially change up their environment with their records, then people need to be open to that and artists need to understand they shouldn’t twist their point-of-view just for the sake of staying with a record company.