Carolinian – Campus News
Issue: 2/17/03

Chuck D packs the house at Guilford College
By Joe Killian

Rap Legend Chuck D brought his brand of stand-up philosophy to Greensboro Wednesday, holding what he called a “vibe session” on, among other things, the state of Hip-Hop in America, and why rap went wrong.

“Most people don’t understand the difference between rap and hip-hop,” said the leader of groundbreaking political rap group Public Enemy. “But worse than that, they don’t understand what any of it’s really supposed to be about.”

The rapper, author and activist, born Carlton Ridenhour, spoke for four hours to a standing-room-only crowd at Guilford College’s Dana Auditorium.

Chuck D said he knew that at a college the average audience member is a rap fan who was in grade school when he was touring the world with Public Enemy – but that he still had something to say to each of them.

“It’s true I once called rap music the black CNN,” said Chuck D, rehashing one of his most famous quotes. “But today it’s a lot more likely for it to be like the Cartoon Network.”

The rapper said he was there for the beginning of hip-hop, and has seen it grow from a small NY street scene to a multi-billion dollar industry. Somewhere along the way, he said, it lost its soul.

“A lot of rap music today is not just insulting to black people, it’s just insulting,” he said. “It’s what I call Nigga-tivity.”

“Nigga-tivity,” he explained, is a culture where luxury cars and jewelry are more important than a rapper actually saying anything. The rapper said he feels the constant saturation by radio, MTV and BET of a violent, materialistic lifestyle convinces young people – and especially young black people – that that’s all they can hope for.

“You won’t see me rolling in a Hummer,” he said. “I got a ’94 Montero. I tell people that and they laugh, or they say, ‘Don’t tell me that, Chuck.’ But you know what? I’m not paying notes on my car. I’m not paying $40,000 for my vehicle. That’s just illogical.”

Chuck D said he’d seen rappers with watches covered in diamonds that couldn’t even tell time.

“You best believe that if I’m wearing a watch it’s a step down from the wrist it’s on,” he said. “Everything I wear is a step down from who’s wearing it.”

The rapper said he’d seen too many college students trying to be “collegiate thugs,” imitating rappers they see on television.

“That’s just illogic taking over,” he said. “You can gang bang and sell drugs and strut around on a street corner. You come to college for something better than that.”

In the late 80’s and early 90’s Public Enemy released best selling, critically acclaimed albums like IT TAKES A NATION OF MILLIONS TO HOLD US BACK and FEAR OF A BLACK PLANET and wrote “Fight The Power” as the theme for Spike Lee’s 1988 film “Do The Right Thing.”

Their politically radical hardcore rap mixed with heavy metal gave birth to platinum selling groups like Rage Against The Machine and System of A Down.

As one of a handful of innovators in the relatively young genre of rap music, Chuck D said he’s come to see mainstream rap, co-opted by corporations, as a way of further oppressing black Americans.

“The black community in America is sick,” he said. “It’s almost like we’ve got a terminal disease, like we’re determined to get rid of ourselves first, and rap music is now being used as a one dimensional tool to promote violence and illogic.”

Young people in America don’t understand what hip hop is, he said, and so they’ve confused it with what they see on TV and what they can buy at the mall.

“Rap music is a way of expression somewhere between speaking and singing,” he said. “Hip-hop is a term for black creativity over the last 30 years. But black people have always been creative, and if hip-hop were to disappear, we would be creative still.”

The rapper said he was scared and disappointed to see violent rappers like 50 Cent getting heavy press coverage and selling millions of albums.

“I’m not mad at 50 Cent,” he said. “I’m mad at [record executive] Jimmy Iovine at Interscope Records, who’s been playing this blood game for years.”

Chuck D said Iovine and other executives have been promoting violent rap for years without considering the consequences – and it’s lead to a lot of death in the black community.

“Jimmy Iovine has still got blood on his hands from Death Row, from Tupac and Biggie,” he said.

Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. were feuding multimillion selling rappers who were gunned down within weeks of one another, what many consider to be the low point of the violent “Gangsta Rap” movement. Death Row” was the name of the most popular Gangsta Rap label, distributed by Interscope.

“For the 15 years I’ve been in rap music there have been all kinds of murders,” said Chuck D. ” From Scott LaRock [of Boogie Down Productions] all the way to Jam Master Jay [of Run DMC] this year. And they’ve never found one killer. But when [designed Gianni Versace] was killed, they caught that little cat who did that right away, on a houseboat.”

The rapper said it’s up to young Americans to reclaim hip-hop and remember not to abandon their intelligence for style.

“It doesn’t have to be like that,” said the rapper. “You can be intelligent and be hip-hop. You can be white and be hip-hop. You don’t have to buy into ‘dumbasssed-ness’ to be hip-hop. That’s not what it’s about. It’s not drug culture and it’s not gun culture.”

Taking questions from the audience after two hours of speaking, the rapper advised aspiring rappers look to the Internet and new technology as their ticket into the industry.

“The best way for a young man to get [into rap music] is to get a web site,” he said. “In two years this is going to be common knowledge, this is going to be the way it gets done.”

No longer a full time rapper, Chuck D has for years been a vocal advocate of music downloading and record industry reform.

“Young artists have a real gift,” he said. “Because the Internet is making it possible for everybody to get their music out there. It’s not a shame when music is downloaded because artists don’t get paid for it. It’s a shame when a rapper from Greensboro can’t even get on Greensboro radio.”

After exhausting questions from the audience, Chuck D sat on the edge of the stage without an entourage or barrier to sign autographs and talk with fans and friends. He gave his e-mail address to aspiring artists and encouraged them to send him MP3’s of their work.

It’s the hands on, personal part of a lecture tour he enjoys most, he said.

To one nervous fan who said the rapper didn’t have to sign his autograph to anyone personally, Chuck D laughed.

“Of course I sign everything to [the fans] personally,” he said. ‘If I wasn’t going to do that I’d just have a ‘Chuck D’ stamp. I do everything personally.”