Q&A: Chuck D talks rap's rise through 'Fight the Power' doc

Jonathan Landrum Jr.
Associated Press

Los Angeles — Hip-hop became a cultural phenomenon against the backdrop of American history, and now Public Enemy’s Chuck D has committed himself to explore the artform's origins.

Chuck D rounded up several rap greats — including Ice-T, Run DMC and MC Lyte — who offered their firsthand accounts ahead of this year's 50th anniversary of hip-hop. Their reflections are explored in the four-part docuseries “Fight the Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World,” that aired on PBS and is available to stream on its platforms and YouTube with a premium subscription.

Chuck D, of Public Enemy, appears at the 65th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on Feb. 5, 2023. Chuck D rounded up several rap greats - including Ice-T, Run DMC and MC Lyte – who offered their firsthand accounts about the anthology of hip-hop in a four-part series “Fight the Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World,” which is currently streaming on PBS platforms through Thursday.

The series delves into the history of hip-hop including the genre’s radical rise from the New York City streets, creating a platform for political expression and being a leading voice for social justice

“Fight the Power” touches on how the hip-hop has played an impactful role in speaking up against injustice in the aftermath of America’s racial and political reckoning in 2020 after George Floyd's killing by Minneapolis police. The series, executive produced by Chuck D, features archival footage and insightful interviews from of rap’s most integral figures including Fat Joe, Lupe Fiasco, Grandmaster Caz, B-Real of Cypress Hill, Melle Mel, will.i.am, John Forte, Roxanne Shanté and Abiodun Oyewole of The Last Poets.

In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Chuck D talked about hip-hop’s cultural growth in 50 years, the genre being the backbone for Black men’s voices and how rap could last for another half century.

Remarks have been edited for clarity and bravery.

The rap group Run-DMC, from left, Joseph "Run" Simmons, Darryl "DMC" McDaniels, and Jason Mizell "Jam Master Jay," poses at the 31st annual Grammy Awards in New York, on March 2, 1988.

AP: You mentioned in your docuseries that hip-hop was a catalyst for the Black Lives Matter movement. How so?

CHUCK D: It’s a collective where people felt the same way. It spoke politically to the injustice regarding George Floyd and was a spark that connected around the world. Hip-hop has done the same thing. Hip-hop ties human beings for their similarities and knocks the differences to the side. It’s a movement, when you talk about collective people feeling similar, enact upon something and still even stay within the constraints of the law. Younger people say, “OK, listen, we’re going to speak truth to power right now. We’re going to protest march. We're going to show you numbers that you ain’t seen in a long time about something you probably didn’t care about." That’s hip-hop, right?

AP: During the birth of hip-hop, how do it help encourage Black voices?

CHUCK D: Black men didn’t have a voice. You might’ve sung records for people who were fortunate to become recording artists. Our music has always been code. Hip-hop is the term for our creativity, maybe for the last 50 years. But before that, we always was creative and musicianship, vocalization, arts and craft, and also the movement of dance. Just that the elements had gotten refined in another period in the '70s out of another Big Bang Theory of socio political environments. That’s where that voice came out and it came out culturally. It still speaks loudly, culturally.

AP: How does your documentary amplify that notion?

CHUCK D: Some people like to deal with hip-hop where they first started. I think what this documentary series says is “Nah, this is where it started.” You might have picked up on it after you were born in the 1990s and picked up maybe 2000, but it started before you.

AP: What do you want people to take away from your documentary?

CHUCK D: I don’t want people to do what they don’t want to do. If you say you love hip-hop, then you should be able to know about what you love. You don’t have to love hip-hop. I used to ask people straight out, “Do you love hip-hop?” They would respond “Oh yeah. I love it.” Then I was ask, “Do you love Black people?” They would say “What’s that got to do with it?” I’m here to tell you that the culture and the music comes out of the people. Sometimes your love of it got to infuse and give something back to the people. That’s the cycle.

Ice-T, of Body Count, performs at the 60th annual Grammy Awards at Madison Square Garden.

AP: How do you feel about hip-hop being misinterpreted at times?

CHUCK D: I’m 12 years older than hip-hop, so I’m not in awe of it. I’ve seen the trajectory and my involvement in it was to see if I can make it go head-to-head, stand shoulders and shoulders next to everything else that gets bragged and talked about. I’m a big sports fan. You know, a lot of people in New York broke up because the Giants lost. That’s how they tied into their loyalty for something that they say that they love. Well, people love music, too. They seem to know less about it than they know about sports, because sports make sure you’re not stupid. Stephen A. Smith now is a superstar journalist who makes sure that if you come in the room, you’re not stupid about sports. You can’t go off the top of your head and freestyle what you think when it’s fact. This four-part series at least deals with facts, especially in this misinformation age. Facts are important. Facts is not opinion, bro.

AP: How have you seen hip-hop transcend?

CHUCK D: Africa is the future of hip-hop. It’s 54 African nations. Not only are they spitting like crazy, but they’re also braiding languages. Hip-hop is going to like 3.0 when you talk about Africa. Hip-hop is there. So that’s the sustaining power if you want to pay attention to it.

AP: Do you feel like rappers can still be commercially successful while being socially conscious?

CHUCK D: Depends on where they are and who they’re talking to. If you’re in France, it might work for you. Each level that you get into it, you got to go deeper because you build a fan base that’s three times harder than you. If you’re an activist, you’re going to bring on activists that's really doing this. You as an artist could engage on it and group them together.

Now, as far as what’s going to make that artists keep a light on or go out and get the Lamborghini, that’s a personal thing. Money is relative. There’s pressure put on the arts. That’s an illusion. It’s a little unfair to any art — which is not supposed to bring you an industry. It’s supposed to be able to bring a canvas to the world.

AP: What’s it going to take for hip-hop to live for another 50 years?

CHUCK D: Commitment collective, people recognizing that this is a part of us and recognizing more parts of us that have been part of our cultural history around the world. We got to recognize the world, too.