The immense scope of Chuck D’s influence on hip-hop is as unwavering as it is undeniable. As a founding member of Public Enemy, rap’s most dangerously outspoken group, the emcee has used his platform for decades to speak out about social injustices that affect people of color at disproportionately higher rates. His other musical supergroup, Prophets of Rage, came together just last year and continues to use the elements of rap (in addition to rock) to address political issues with the same type of incendiary fervor.
In this instance, however, Chuck D is reveling in something that isn’t as familiar to him: releasing a book. Chuck D Presents This Day In Rap And Hip-Hop History came out just last week and in it, the legendary lyricist chronicles the genre from 1973 until present day, leaving not one event, artist or song left behind.
Chuck sat with VIBE briefly to talk about why it was time for him to immortalize the history of hip-hop.
VIBE: As a founding member of Public Enemy with a career spanning 30 years, and now as a crucial part of Prophets of Rage, you’re the literal embodiment of socially and politically charged hip-hop. How did you know it was time for you to use your status as a legend in the game to write about the history of it?
Chuck D: It was a long time coming. Ultimately, my goal and vision artistically in the form of rap music and hip hop has always been: how can I be of service? And with this book, it was how can I be of service to artists and play up their achievements when the music has always been looked down upon and the media continues to lend itself to the stereotyping?
Hip-hop has a lot of great things; this book could have easily been 3,000 pages long. I tried to do my best to eradicate negative urban myths that once upon a time floated to the top of magazine pages and blogs and papers and on the radio. Whatever happened in rap and hip-hop was categorized as a catastrophe. It was necessary to curate something that acknowledged and appreciated the art form as well as the process behind it.
I’m eager to hear how you juxtapose politics with hip-hop culture. As your book and your career prove, rap is influential, transcendent and powerful. But like Public Enemy warned us from the very first record, the people who make it are still suffering from institutional racism, discrimination, police brutality and poverty. How do you continue to express this message to your fans?
You have to be clear on two things: who you are and what you are trying to say. This book is very clear on just saying that there are a lot of accomplishments attained by people who have grown up with hip-hop, who have then grown with it and continue to grow older with it. They are still doing the music and the art—both should be upheld. When Eminem did the BET cypher, people kept asking me what I think. I believe he is one of the greatest emcees of all time, but it also showed that white people need to speak up, too.
No progress can be made if their ears are wide shut to the narrative of where black people are in this country, which is hard to ignore with the Black Lives Matter movement speaking so true to our reality. Having the platform of a book is so important because it freezes both time and images…making it different from other apparatuses we’re used to. It’s out of sight, out of mind when it’s moving on you, but a book doesn’t move on you. It stays still. We’re trying to get the correct information out to people in the form of a foundation instead of a freestyle. Freestyles are great, but you can’t freestyle facts.
Throughout the book, you use portraits of the artists you discuss and not actual photos of them. What was the reasoning behind that?
Some of the best books I’ve seen recently simply use the art of illustrators and the text of people who write. I just thought that this is art, it’s part of rap music, it’s part of rap’s elements. I also wanted to encapsulate the creation of dance and graffiti from back in the day. Why not make it come full circle and have a team that doesn’t come from a traditional art background work on this book? We worked with a virtual team of illustrators that could turn around a graphic in a quick second that’s still crisp and dope. I wanted to combine the sights, the sounds and the style with the story and it was difficult to mix photos and illustrations the way I would have liked.
Is your book a counter to the monetization of hip-hop? It wasn’t too long ago that Kendall and Kylie Jenner were putting Biggie’s face on their t-shirt line, and that a white couple did that A, B to Jay Z book children’s book. Is This Day In Rap a statement of what authenticity of the culture is supposed to be?
People think anybody can do it and yet [hip-hop] always comes with such negative connotations and circumstances. But when someone wins the lottery or saves a cat from a tree, there’s no mention of them being an aspiring rapper the way there would be if they rob a gas station. It’s always the lowest hanging, attention grabbing fruit. It’s become typical to use black people’s demise as a selling point. This book was important to me because you can celebrate these great accomplishments now and not have to wait for the worst thing to happen—that these people are still making music and art. I want hip-hop artists with longevity to be talked about the way The Rolling Stones or Earth, Wind and Fire are still being talked about.
But hip-hop and rap isn’t something anyone can do at any time. Yes, you can contribute to it and do at a level where you can continue to grow. But people of The United States of America don’t know the history of the genre. Whenever you take away people having their organic right to just be involved in an art and knowing what it’s about, they then have to be taught the art and that’s where commodification comes in. And really, the best corporate packaging wins.
What keeps you hopeful and optimistic about hip-hop?
This is what I do. I’ve been a professional at it for the last 31 years. I’ve played to millions and millions of people throughout my career, and I’ve played to millions and millions of people just in the last year with Prophets of Rage. I have this thing inside me that just wants to see it revered as much as possible.