I probably should have figured that two hours wasn’t long enough to compellingly cover rap, race, reality and technology, the four subjects of a lecture hosted by Webster University on Monday night. But it didn’t matter at the time, because the lecturer was the lyricist and main vocalist of Public Enemy, Chuck D.
I grew up with Chuck D. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was stuffed under my mattress with two other (albeit more innocuous) tapes I later possessed and similarly hid: Salt-n-Pepa’s Blacks’ Magic, and M.C. Hammer’s Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em. My parents’ strong disapproval of this “type” of music was unrelated to lyrical content -- and in spite of their differences, those albums would have had the same destiny if they’d been discovered: the trash.
But even as a tween I was a “pleaser,” and me liking this music was unrelated to my parents’ disapproval. (I hadn’t yet discerned the nature of that particular brand of disapproval.) I liked Public Enemy because they were good. That goodness (at least for Millions) had unbeknownst to me, already been precisely defined by Alternative Press as “revolutionary.” It was true that I liked Millions because it was unlike anything I’d ever heard, but I hadn’t heard much before that. And I had no handle on the content, which isn’t required to appreciate the sound of a raw, angry rhyme. But lyrical content is inextricably tied to the revolution of Millions, and is the most likely reason that it found its way into the Sony Walkmen of an awed small-town white girl at 10:00 p.m. on a school night.
Chuck D, who is now in his late forties, is neither raw nor angry in person. But disappointingly, he didn’t speak with apparent conviction about the broad range of topics he covered that night -- which included the importance of obtaining a college education and "challenging information" (especially media portrayal of black culture); holding hip-hop artists politically accountable; and understanding hip-hop and the word “nigger” from a historical and political perspective.
In terms of today’s political culture, he talked about the insanity of John McCain; the diametric opposition of government to culture; the robbery of Africa; and what he referred to as the “Grand Theft Oil” of Halliburton under the Bush administration. He opined that young people should get a passport (“It’s cheaper than rims”) and expressed growing concern at what he called the state of “prison industrial complexes” in China and the United States -- the occurrence of prisoners who are used for free labor. Related to this, he reminded the audience that our country should have learned from slavery that “just because something is profitable doesn’t make it good.”
While Chuck D held the rapt (and considering the topic matter, not undeserved) attention of the young, mostly black, collegiate audience around me, I had trouble overcoming my sadness at the effect of having so many loosely defined topics so casually delivered. And as the evening progressed, it became clear to me that it was probably rap, more than hip-hop culture, that provided the needed focus for Public Enemy’s revolutionary lyrical content. Chuck D made the distinction in his lecture, “rap is vocal application to music, a voiceover,” while hip-hop is “creativity [derived] from black culture.” I can say that I left this lecture with a deeper appreciation of rap’s ability to bring hip-hop culture, including political activism, to the mainstream. And Chuck D is living what he says other hip-hop artists should be: temporarily taking the bus and taking a vocal stance on the issues that matter to him.
-- Kristy Wendt