"Hello, this is Chuck D," the booming, resonant voice on the other line answered.
He hardly needed to identify himself. As the driving force behind the incendiary Public Enemy, Chuck's trademark vocals have become a hip-hop institution and a significant force in American popular culture. I spoke with the MC via phone a few days ahead of Public Enemy's appearance at the Vogue to discuss how the group has used music as a powerful tool in the struggle for social justice.
NUVO: Years ago, you had a famous quote labeling hip-hop as the "black CNN." Do you still feel hip-hop fills that role?
Chuck D: Hip-hop is now a worldwide cult religion, I've been saying that since the turn of the century. It's woven into society. The listeners aren't just the youth anymore - we have a range of listeners from age zero to fifty. That's a big range of people who say they identify with hip-hop and respect it as a culture.
NUVO: Do you feel hip-hop is still an important voice of rebellion?
Chuck D: Yes, of course. You got to write songs about something and hip-hop goes right to the point on topics that are relevant. The level of exposure is different now though, because radio and television are so coroporatized. That's a topic I want to open up even further.
NUVO: Is that what your Occupy the Airwaves project is about?
Chuck D: Yes, I believe that local artists should be heard on their local airwaves. Instead the stations spend all their time playing music from artists who are not from that area. I believe 40 percent of the airwaves should support local artists and local activities ... so they can make a living in their own community.
NUVO: Do you think artists have a responsibility to address social justice issues?
Chuck D: I think the media has a responsibility to show the positive side of what artists are bringing to the table, instead of just trying to capitalize on making profits.
But I think if an artist doesn't want to say anything about anything, they should at least have the accountability to appoint someone who does. They don't have to deliver the message themselves, they can point their audience to people who do. That's what I did on my records. I always thought Minister Louis Farrakhan did a lot of great things for black people, so I always pointed my audience to him. I pointed to many other figures, some historical, that I believed had great aspects of leadership. So that's the artist's responsibility, to point to something beyond themselves that's beneficial to their audience.
NUVO: Looking back at your career as an artist, can you see places where your work influenced social change in the United States?
Chuck D: I can see that I participated in things that brought change. I believe you can participate in growth, or you can participate in demise. I try to leave decay alone.
NUVO: In 1991 you recorded "By the Time I Get to Arizona" about Arizona governor Evan Mecham's refusal to recognize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a national holiday. Recently this song has taken on a different meaning to a new generation of activists fighting Arizona's implementation of racist anti-immigrant laws. What are your thoughts on the struggle of undocumented people?
Chuck D: I actually wrote about that on our new album The Evil Empire of Everything. We did a song called "Icebreaker," which addresses I.C.E., the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (Quotes lyrics) "I know a silent nation in dislocation / Frustration from legislation led to a demographic in isolation / Another participation in decapitation / Anti-immigration against brown skin ..."
NUVO: In 1989 Public Enemy came under scrutiny for comments made regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Professor Griff left the group over the ensuing controversy. What are your thoughts on the current situation?
Chuck D: This struggle has been going on so long it's ridiculous for rappers not to talk about it. Because U.S. politicians have avoided having a precise conversation about it and the media has always steered clear of being balanced in their conversations of this issue. So, there needs to be dialogue.
Each edition of A Cultural Manifesto features a mix from Kyle Long, spotlighting music from around the globe. This week's selection features classic tracks from Public Enemy.
You can download and subscribe to the Cultural Manifesto podcast on Itunes here.
1. Public Enemy - Bring the Noise
2. Public Enemy - Rebel Without a Pause
3. Public Enemy - Shut 'Em Down
4. Public Enemy - Can't Truss It
5. Public Enemy - Fight the Power
6. Public Enemy - 911 is a Joke
7. Public Enemy - Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos
8. Public Enemy - Don't Believe the Hype
9. Public Enemy - Prophets of Rage