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Chuck D: "Jay-Z is the best rapper of all time"

Chuck D
November 21, 2006
at Berklee Performance Center

Chuck D – legendary MC, Public Enemy founder, hip-hop philospher, activist, rap spokesmodel, all-round genius – was at Berklee last week to speak to a packed auditorium of high school and college students. Since it wasn’t open to the public, and since almost everything that comes out of his mouth is interesting, I hoofed it down on a press pass. "Jay-Z is the best rapper of all time," Chuck digressed, in the middle of a synopsis on the history of music, "but I'll get into more on that later."

A lecture by Chuck D is mostly a series of digressions; he bounces from subject to subject, and opinion to opinion, holding nothing back. It was much less a lecture in any traditional sense, and more of a dispersal of  knowledge jewels mined from his 25 years of experience in the music industry. In Chuck-speak, the music industry is entirely distinct from what he calls the "record industry." "The record industry is in trouble," he likes to say, "but the music industry is not."

Chuck began his talk by analyzing the fall of the record industry, tracing this decline to the days of disco and of record execs who misspent their money on questionable marketing techniques – basically, bribing radio and club DJs with a popular powdery white narcotic. Marketing costs and distribution costs rose – shipping large amounts of heavy vinyl 12" singles wasn’t cheap. Profits fell and labels failed. The surviving labels hired a lawyers and accountants – corporate professionals with little allegiance to the labels’ creative mission -- to come in and clean up the mess. After the corporate pros resuscitated the record industry, they were kept on staff and gradually rose to exalted status in positions that morphed from "legal counsel" and "accountant" to "president" and "director of this-and-that." It’s an oft-told tale, but one that takes on the weight of gospel in the oral telling of a rap godfather, the money-lenders overrunning the temple of pop music.

It’s also a story that Chuck clearly feels a duty to tell, especially when in speaking in the presence of young, would-be musicians and music execs. He ran down the scheme the industry devised in the ‘80s: keeping its sale prices high in the face of changing technology. As technology progressed, the costs of manufacturing and distribution dropped but product prices rose – CDs were retailed at higher prices than LPs, even though they are far cheaper to produce. By the time the first Public Enemy compact disc came out, Chuck recalled, it was listed as $17.99 at your local Strawberry's. (This particular figure might not quite live up to scrutiny, although the gist of his narrative is dead-on.) And, as Chuck D freely admitted, "I wouldn't pay for that."

Like the indie-rockers of the early ’90s, Chuck maintains a special distrust for those true believers who have strayed from the path of the righteous. He underlined his distaste for people like Antonio "LA" Reid, now an executive at Universal Music Group, who was a founder of the formerly independent LaFace Records. In mid-November, UMG announced a lawsuit against MySpace for allegedly "leaking copyrighted music”; in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Reid had singled out the leak of Jay-Z’s new album. In Chuck's parlance this is seditious on Reid’s part – Reid and his LaFace business partner Babyface were once artists in their own right, fighting the power of corporate conglomerates. Now, Chuck believes, they are swept up in the machinations of corporate power, and, more significantly, have forgotten where they came from.

Like many old-school vets, Chuck has little patience for contemporary hip-hop – but unlike those contemporaries, Chuck tempers his nostalgia for rap’s pioneering years with the belief that a new golden age is inevitable. Hip-hop, he says, has not yet hit its peak. If the Roots are hip-hop's preeminent live band -- and in Chuck’s mind they are -- then who is in second place? "Why is there no second Roots band?” he asked. At one point, Chuck asked the students and aficionados in the room to name five all-female rap groups; the crowd could name but one or two. "Hip-hop is like a dude's nasty college dorm room," Chuck said: there's empty soda cans, stained carpets, crumbs, dirt, and girly mags strewn about, so when a female walks in there, of course she's disgusted, and can't hang out for long.

With the excepti on of a hallowed few, namely Jay-Z and Nas, rap has few true superstars, Chuck lamented. "The audience has lost it's 'awe'," he said, and then drew up a sports comparison. "It's like, when you go to a sporting event, and see Michael Jordan play, you're like, 'Damn, I could never do that in a million years.' You should have that same feeling when you go to a live concert."  Instead, he said, it’s more common that fans pay $40 to see a performer at the TD Banknorth Garden, and there's a guy up on stage cussin' at everyone, and at least half the dudes in the audience should be saying to themselves, "Shit, I could do that."

"Never stop doing your music," the aged rapper motivated the young musical minds, while heaping the highest praise and enthusiasm for websites like YouTube and Myspace.  He emphasized, these portals help up-and-coming filmmakers, writers, and musicians get their work out to the masses in a cheap and efficient way.  Through this, we can be our own marketing department and establish and populate new communities of fans, collaborators, and like-minded souls.  "The artist Prince said it best," Chuck relayed to us, "Be on top of technology, or else it will be on top of you."

-- Mac Carroll

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