Chuck D Schools Harvard


As it turns out, Boston and Cambridge have a thriving hip-hop academic overclass to which I don’t belong. It’s probably because I spend my time in the actual rap community and at underground shows.

Nevertheless, I won’t complain when the boom bap intelligentsia flies an idol of mine into town. Plus - Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute scholars Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Marcyliena Morgan have definitely done plenty to support the genre outside the classroom, so I’m willing to suspend my skepticism about hip-hop discourse.

Last night’s guest - and one of several featured in this week’s “Hip-Hop Worldwide” conference - was Public Enemy front man and Air America host Chuck D. As expected, dude brought noise regardless of the fireside chat format, melting Morgan’s questions into tangents and responding with perspectives that only true practitioners (and neither professors nor reporters) can offer.   

Artists don’t come cooler than Chuck D. On his way in he shook hands and chatted with everybody sitting on the back wall - including yours truly. How do I know he wasn’t humoring by saying that my name rang bells? Easy - this dude doesn’t rhyme for the sake of riddlin’.

And he doesn’t speak for the sake of it either. Chuck swung a wrecking ball at Viacom and Clear Channel, spelled “MTV” “EMPTYV” and “The Masses” “Them Asses,” and dropped this ringer: “Consumers have the audacity to think consumption starts with them.”

As for history, Chuck explained how difficult it was to first conceive of recording hip-hop, which was originally more of a multifaceted four-hour jamboree than an actual genre. “It was like someone telling you to go record the circus,” he said.

On people suggesting that Flavor Flav’s whore parade contradicts what Public Enemy stands for: “Anyone who says that obviously doesn’t know what Public Enemy was about in the first place…The point is to not have two Flavor Flavs.”

I was also tickled by his saying there has never been a rap fever like the one that swept New York from June through October of 1979. That, of course, was the summer I was born in Queens.    

Of all the points that Chuck made, I felt the most important addressed his decision to design Public Enemy as a morally responsible outfit. While they could have glorified senseless violence for sales, he decided: “Just because it works didn’t mean we should use it.” In other words: selling units does not justify rhyming about murder.

I’m glad that Chuck makes academic rounds. While campus hip-hop programs mostly began as legitimate efforts to study essential artists like KRS, Ice Cube, and Tupac, I’m afraid they’ve devolved into negotiating the “didactic value” of Lil Wayne and Young Joc lyrics. Chuck doesn’t get caught up with such nonsense though; on the subject of Soulja Boy he simply dismissed the puke as a fad beyond the pale of hip-hop.

About halfway through the two-hour event, I was alarmed by one question posed by Marcyliena Morgan, who asked Chuck how he thought about popular academic theories that global hip-hop movements are no longer based in African-American traditions.

Chuck’s reaction - beyond his clear astonishment that sport-jacketed professors have enough balls to make such reckless claims - was mixed; while on one hand he believes hip-hop is evolving faster beyond our borders, on the other Chuck stresses that we must “respect our architects.”

My answer, however, is much simpler: those academics can suck a fat dick, and so can anyone else who over-thinks still-existing cultures to which they can’t subjectively relate. Show me a single MC in France who wasn’t influenced by Rakim and Nas - or a German DJ who didn’t borrow from Qbert, or a Japanese b-boy who wasn’t bred on Crazy Legs - and I’ll show you a perpetrator.        

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