Chuck D: 25 Years Later, Still Fighting The Power

Chuck D at Salzer's Records for our AWOP Radio Interview

The opportunity came up out of the blue – The Hubby came home and the following conversation ensued:

The Hubby: Guess who’s coming to the store to do a signing at the store?

MP: (In my usual smart-ass style) Okay, I’ll bite. Who?

The Hubby: Chuck D! MP: (Stunned) No! Get out! Really???

The Hubby: Yep. He’s playing at the Ventura Theatre and is coming by the store  before the show to do autographs.

MP: THE Chuck D.? Public Enemy Chuck D? Unfiltered with Rachel Maddow and Lizz Winstead Chuck D? AirAmericaChuck D?

The Hubby: Yes, one and the same! You should come by and do an interview.

MP: I’m there! He didn’t have to tell me twice. And I know, you’re probably wondering, “Why on Earth would this middle-aged, white suburban mom care about Chuck D???”

Perhaps a little background info is in order. See, when Public Enemy first hit the scene, I was working in record stores – that was my previous, pre-teaching/blog/radio life, and where I met my husband, 25 years ago. We were working for a chain called Licorice Pizza, run by a man named Jim Greenwood.

Licorice Pizza had about 40 stores here in California, and were the coolest job in town. Licorice Pizza was a very employee-friendly company, and they had this benefit called the “borrow book,” everybody’s favorite perk. It was a binder, and as an employee, you could list in this book 10 pieces of product a week to check out – take ‘em home, listen to them…it was a brilliant way to get your employees to know the product, because you would take a chance on things that you might not normally listen to. That’s how I discovered all kinds of music: from big bands of the 40’s to the crooners of the 50’s and 60’s, girl groups, 12′ dance mixes, 45s, to the first CDs. From Public Enemy, to X and Dwight Yoakum, through my punk and country punk phases, to The Violent Femmes, Patsy Cline and REM, we got to hear it all. That was how I first heard Chuck D.

When “Yo! Bum Rush The Show!” came out, it was earth-shattering, revolutionary. It was during the Reagan – Bush years, and there was little music out there that was really speaking truth to power like that. And being a politically-minded kid and a bit of a rebel at the time, Public Enemy’s willingness to shake up the status quo was awesome. Seeing an artist use his voice for social change was powerful…and totally rocked. Add that to the fact that rap was something we white suburban kids had never heard before, and we were blown away.

So, when the opportunity arose to talk to Chuck D, of course I jumped at the chance. I took my daughter, Mo (formerly known as Tweenie, but she’s a full-fledged teen now…), and my iPhone, and we headed out. Jeff got us in early, and when Chuck D got there, I introduced myself, and asked if we could talk after the show. He was cordial and seemed happy to be there, and said he’d be happy to chat after the event.

So, we waited around, and watched Chuck interact with his fans. He seemed genuinely interested in what they had to say: their stories, the memorabilia folks brought in for him to sign. Someone brought  a cardboard CD box from back in the day when they used to put them in these long boxes that would fit in a CD bin, someone else brought a 12′ single mix of one of his songs, a kid even brought in a guitar to have Chuck sign. He took photos of some of the items, genuinely impressed with these early artifacts of his career. And he listened, a lot. He was thoughtful in his responses to people, and genuine – it was a lot of fun to watch. I was looking forward to having some time to ask a few questions after the signing was through.

But at the end, these three big guys – over 6 feet tall, big shoulders, they looked like linebackers – came in and walked up to Chuck, and I heard them say, “After you’re done, we want to do an interview.” What? Hold the phone! There are certain things that happen when you’re over 4o, and one is that your bullshit tolerance goes waaaaaay down. I stuck my head in, literally, and said, “Guys, there’s already one interview ahead of you, and that’s with ME.” I was not going to lose out on this – I knew Chuck had limited time, and wanted to be respectful of that. What bozos! You can’t just waltz in at the end of an event and ask for time.Yyou get there early, arrange the interview, and you wait until the artist is free. That’s the respectful thing to do. So, I stood my ground, and got us the interview. As Kathy Bates character says in Fried Green Tomatoes says, “Face it Girls, I’m older and I have more insurance!”

Chuck was great – easy to talk to, genuine, and smart. He’s really taken his work with the LA Community Action Network to a new level. When we sopke, it was the eve of the Occupy Skid Row concert: Chuck has organized other hip-hop and rap artists to help shine a light on the permanent encampment that has been the home to LA’s homeless for as long as I can remember. I was kidding Chuck in the interview about being the hardest working man in show business, the new James Brown: several events and two concerts in 72 hours. His leading the effort to give back in the music community is a grassroots effort and as genuine a campaign as you will find. Oh, and if he wasn’t busy enough, Chuck has two new albums coming out soon, too.

With no further ado, here’s the interview: (Sorry – too big a file to live here!)

In addition to all his hard work, Chuck D also runs several websites, most designed to giving new artists a shot and to getting the word out on issues that matter:  – Find his email under “contacts”  – All things hip-hop: news, music, great player with shuffle to discover new artists – Site for uploading shows and music that are socially/politically significant – Girl Power version of hip-hop-gods –events, artists, videos – fierce women and their music

I’m hoping that this is the year that Public Enemy gets inducted into the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame. It’s an honor long overdue. Thanks, Chuck, for being so generous with your time, for the interview, and for all that you still do, 25 years later, to Fight The Power.