As hip-hop turns 50, Chuck D praises its power as "a worldwide cultural experience and religion"

The legendary rapper on politics, his Top 5 songs and PBS series "Fight The Power: How Hip-Hop Changed The World"

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published January 31, 2023 3:01PM (EST)

Chuck D (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/The1point8/Rolling Stone/Penske Media/Crdjan)
Chuck D (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/The1point8/Rolling Stone/Penske Media/Crdjan)

"You only play that old stuff!" a kid named DJ I had mentored yelled from the passenger side of my car some years back. At the time he was a high schooler and infatuated with the song "Thugz Mansion," by west coast rappers Mozzy and YG that he had just introduced to me. 

I took a pause and then laughed, thinking about all of the times that I had got into arguments with older dudes who listened to the dated music of my era and never took the opportunity to understand my generation and the sounds we chose. Everything we liked was dumb and watered down in their opinion, even though they never tried to listen. I never wanted to be that grumpy dude who's so lost in the past that I couldn't even dream of the future. 

"Look here, young fella," I said, pulling into an empty parking spot. "I used to have the same arguments and conversations back when I was your age, but I learned to respect the music that came before me, which ultimately helped me to better understand why I was listening to what I was listening to. Everything influences everything." 

DJ shot me a confused look – before telling me that he was constantly immersed in rap music, but clearly never gave too much thought to the genre's history. "You know DJ," I continued, "I love this version of 'Thugz Mansion.' It's mean, but I also loved the version made by Nas in the early 2000s and the version made by Tupac in '90s."

DJ's eyes stretched across his forehead as I pulled out my phone and punched in the earlier versions. We nodded; DJ even played the Tupac original three times in a row and said, "I need to update my playlist!" 

There is an easy fix to the disconnect between our generations, our taste in hip-hop and the silly old versus new exchanges – real conversations. We aren't talking enough, but when we do­­ – the likenesses, similar political climates, culture, love of the art form and multiple gems dropped from both generations all bring us closer together. In that car ride, old me learned as much about hip-hop from young DJ as he learned from me.

I talked to hip-hop pioneer Chuck D about expanding these kinds of conversations across generations and an appreciation for the history of hip-hop, which is part of his new PBS documentary series "Fight The Power: How Hip Hop Changed The World," premiering Jan. 31.

In the docuseries, Chuck D, the founder of the legendary revolutionary hip-hop group Public Enemy, Rock n Roll Hall of Fame inductee, and Grammy Award-nominated artist is working to not only trying to bridge the gap between the different generations, but also highlight the power of women in the culture, the music's political influence and how an art form created by the most vulnerable young people in the Bronx went on to change the world. 

Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Chuck D here or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about how the genre has grown over 50 years and his Top 5 songs of all time. 

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Mr. Chuck D, how you doing today?

It's good to see you, D.

Your song "Fight the Power" is one of the most strongest songs in hip-hop history. Take us to the beginning of your "Fight the Power" docuseries on PBS and what made you want to put it out right now?

Real simple is I've always thought that that hip-hop and rap music was always high elevation to me. I grew up in the time – I'm 12 years older than hip-hop and rap, so I never was in all awe of it. I wasn't born in the middle of it. So when I see it came about, I said, "This is something that could rank and bust ass on the rock that was around us," even the R&B. We had respect for all that because we, in New York we listened to radio that played everything. And when hip-hop and rap came along, it was a power of technology with the DJs that played the music loud, that we heard bands play. And it was in New York City in a broader metropolitan area. It was infectious man. It was a feeling before it even became records.

It was always on the top of my mind that saying that the curate, caretake and being able to speak for the art form at a higher level, I thought there was always room for that. Fifty years into hip-hop's existence as an official title of the art form, the biggest question is how do we make importance great or greater than popularity?

"I became a service person—hip-hop was my military. Hip-hop to me is a worldwide cultural experience and religion."

Because popularity, when that pops in and you have all kinds of mythologies pumping in, and the narrative could skid away from the people who created it.

In "Fight the Power: How Hip-Hop Changed the World," it's like the key was the last word "world" because we've seen this metastasized over 50 years. And also the key was seeing great people who'd done hip-hop in high scholarship, from a Roxanne Shante to an Eminem, speaking differently to different questions that they wouldn't necessarily have the answers aired. Because a lot of times people were like, well, I'm not going to ask Grandmaster Caz a question about the socio-political situation. We're going to talk about something else. You wrote the first rhymes, the Sugarhill Gang, what happened with that? And they kind of stopped right there.

These people have so much detail and so much depth in their breath. I thought that this film could answer that, and also be a seeded, sprouted sequel to what I consider the greatest hip-hop documentary about the craft. And that was Ice T's "The Art of Rap." This built on that and took it to another level. This came up with answers.

A big turning point for me was when "The Message" dropped.

Yeah, but at the same time, there are some things that we didn't cover in the film because we had to truncate. Gary Byrd is a person I grew up with. He was a DJ, and still is a DJ in New York City that plays music on the end of the dial AM station, WWRL. And what I'm saying is that the DJs on those stations that played Black music, they gave you everything. They gave you more. They gave a reflection of where you was living life. 

Later on, Gary Byrd helped institute talk radio on WLIB in the city, which was the premise of when you saw in "Do the Right Thing" in Samuel L. Jackson's character. And "Fight the Power" comes up out of that. Full cycle, man, it's like he made a song with Stevie Wonder, a rap song, in 1982, '83 called "The Crown." No one ever talks about it. And he's talking, I mean, I think he's got like 500 bars in it, and going back to the root of where we come from as a people. You have "The Message" on one hand, but then you have so many undercover hidden gems that have been so beneficial that have been lost in the narration.

There is a disconnect from where the culture is now, when you talk about the history.

There's a disconnect in our history though. The culture is going to follow pretty much social reasons, ramifications, although the culture has been that license to go further and cut through people quicker, but then let us not ignore the fact that we have some ills in society that can't be answered quickly and easily, but they got to get dealt with.

It's one thing to talk about how Takeoff got killed, but then you got to trace that to, well, United States of America have been crazy with the gun and has a serious problem. We just had two mass murders in the last 24 hours. Hip-hop has been the intro point. Is there a sophisticated conversation deeper than that? Is there depth in that breadth?

America has a gun problem across the board. That's an American problem.

We get a little arrogant by saying, "America." Yes, it's an American problem, but it's a United States of America problem. We are not all of the Americas. There's the America at the top, north America, they ain't got a gun problem, bro. That's still America. But we call ourselves America because we get arrogant with it. It's like you're from Maryland. You know when a New Yorker walks in the room. To the point of, "Yo, tone that New York down." That's how the world feels when the USA walks in the room. They, "Yo, we from America, what?" And people like, "You know what? There's a world here." 

The same thing with hip-hop and globalization. We know it's spawned from here because the conditions help create something out of nothing. You got to roll the technology with that, the turntables, the microphone. It's just a different way of doing things and it's connected to a whole lot of things. But worldwide, hip-hop as a culture underneath a people and a culture has been significant.

"The Message" was a song that was able to voice the struggles of a whole lot of people. Like, it got to us. What I think you do great with the film is just that — the intersection between politics and streets and art form.

Well, I think praise, due, that you got Melle Mel speaking for himself. Nobody's speaking for Mel. Mel, he's the original hip-hop guy on the mic. To tell you the difference in the context of time, which we also kind of lose in history, and especially hip-hop and rap history, where there's a lot of things all over the floor that need to get picked up and shine. Melle Mel was like Wilt Chamberlain. Melle Mel is prowess in 1981, '82, '80, '79, '83. It's like Wilt Chamberlain in a gym full of midgets.

It was like Melle Mel [is up here] and the second MC was way down here. Never has there been a time where it was a gap between the best and the second best with Melle. That's why you call Melle Mel, probably the GOAT of GOATS because cats that later on would probably get a higher position, I think Billboard charted Melle Mel, 48. But how could you compare somebody? You got to bring the context of time. In Melle Mel's time he dominated like nobody else ever dominated. You can't rank somebody who was born 20 years later because they wasn't there 20 years before. They couldn't talk. They wasn't there, couldn't crawl. Melle Mel was the dominant of his particular time like few others.

When I'm talking to younger people and we are talking about hip-hop, culture and different things that happened in regards to dealing with our communities, something that blows their minds is how terrible Ronald Reagan was. I don't know how, if it was because of Bush and Iraq or this Trump s**t, I don't know what happened in their lifetime that this person just slips out of the conversation. And I'm like, "Duh."

My first year I was eligible to vote for a president was 1980. And I used my vote for Angela Davis. But then I started to understand there was a trick bag in that. I should have voted for Jimmy Carter because every vote for anybody else other than Jimmy Carter, that was a vote for Reagan. Then we got what we call 12 years of R&B, Reagan and Bush.

It completely devastated and wiped out Black communities, east to west, south to north. I seen it in front of my own eyes and life. So out this became a reason that "The Message" spoke for what it seemed in New York City at the time, and what Public Enemy was able to see across the map of the USA when we were privileged to be able to travel to these places because of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Kool Moe Dee, Treacherous Three, the Sequence, Funky Four Plus One More, Run D.M.C., Whodini, Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew. That's where we came from.

During that time could you envision hip-hop being what it is now?

Of course because I wasn't a kid. As a kid you're fascinated because you feel that you really can't reach these things. But I was a grown man in the '80s, so I would turn around and see rock hair bands and I'm like, "Wow. They play in arenas and stadium, but so is Run. So I'm pulling for Run." And they play the same place, let's say Baltimore Civic Center. They'll have White Snake and Bon Jovi in there. But the next night Run D.M.C. and Whodini. That's when I said, "This thing is going head-to-head for real." I became a service person, hip-hop was my military. Today, hip-hop to me is a worldwide cultural experience and religion.

Obama was the first hip-hop president.

Him and the First Lady, Michelle Obama, their first date, they went to see, "Do the Right Thing." So when somebody says, "Yo, does President Obama, listen to Public Enemy?" I'm like, "He ain't supposed to say that." Because a lot of times during the Obama Administration, I should say it properly, the President Obama Administration, people were like, "Yo man, yo Obama's not even putting P in this list." I'm like, "Yo, he's not supposed to because we know a lot of our stuff. We question and challenge the government. He's at the top of the government, but he's throwing behind-the-back no-look passes. You got to catch it when it's like he's like . . ." 

Everybody all of a sudden want to be a one-week conspiracy theory person, like, "Oh yeah, he's colored balls, he's in with them." It's like, "Dude, he's president of the United States of America. He's not going to make transmitted passes to you like that. He is no longer representing the Black community in the world. What we have to do is take advantage." I thought we could take advantage of the time while he's in there because if we take advantage of the time when he's out of there, we know we will have something stockpiled as far as our mentality, our standing. What we need to do is independent. 

There was a lot of opportunities during the Obama Administration, but you had to see it with the third eye. The third eye, feels it out, and then you're able to find these situations. It's not going to be like, "Here, Black opportunity." Never going to be like that.

But he did. Obama did a lot. One of the biggest knocks on his administration is there was a storytelling problem because the other guy that came after him would write his name on the paper and he would wave it around like this, like "Oh look, I wrote my name." Not even know what he just signed. But Obama, they wouldn't talk about it.

That's the privilege that white male presidents have. How many white male presidents have we had? Every single other one of them. So they got their own thing. Obama had to come in and kind of figure out, "Damn, how do I freestyle some rules up in here? They already throwing a defense." And I'm not a President Obama apologist, but you understand the Public Enemy's first records said, "The governments responsible," governments plural. You got to understand government. 

I've been to places [to perform], and they say, "Do your songs, don't talk to the people." Most United States of Americans are limited with their knowledge of the world. You're told what you are to know and you're fed what you are to believe, and don't question anything else. Our only saving grace for Black folks in America is the diaspora. If we don't connect to the diaspora for, forever being a 2,000 by 3,000-mile lower 48 state box. You've got to reach to your numbers instead of saying, "Well, we going to do it by ourselves." Outnumbered. That's the most ridiculous theory anywhere. If you in a room you trying to get out, you want specialized focus to get out of that room. You don't want to just be fighting with your population.

"Music and culture took a higher order to communicate to the rest of the planet about what we saw and what we felt and how we just wanted to be accepted, too."

We were in such a place when Obama was elected. He served for eight years and he was out. Huge segments of the community just moved away from the conversation.

You got to take advantage of the time that you got. You know that "Third World," a song written by Gamble and Huff? Later on, done by my good friend, Heavy D. "Now that you found love, what you going to do with it?" This is the beautiful thing about the documentary "Fight the Power: How Hip-Hop Changed the World." It's like, you know what? You ain't got to love hip-hop. You ain't got to like it. I know people that don't like sports, they be like, "Yo man, I don't even follow sports." And you got to kind of divert the conversation somewhere else. Well, be honest and say, "Yeah, hip-hop, I don't really dig hip-hop." Then you could be wherever you want with it.

The thing is, when you say you love it, then, "OK, what do you love about it?" A lot of times when people say they love hip-hop, I say, "Well, do you love Black people?" They're like, "What's that got to do with it?" It has a lot to do with it because our expression has come out of the fact that we weren't able to express ourselves, so therefore music and culture took a higher order to communicate to the rest of the planet about what we saw and what we felt and how we just wanted to be accepted too. Sometimes by asking, other times by demanding.

The Miss C. Delores Tucker segment in the series was done so well. While so many people understood what she was trying to say, it was the other side of, "What do you love about the culture?" And then let's have a whole conversation to bring both generations together for people. Like, let's have a real conversation instead of starting off from a place of, "This music has no place."

Well, aunties do what aunties do. I remember when she was going on attack, and also recently deceased, rest in peace, Reverend Calvin Butts, they were going in on the record companies here in New York, so they was making a corporate attack. And most people don't know that there's battles that are higher up over your heads that are done every second. It's like, it's not what you see. It's not what you hear all the time. It's really sometimes on what you feel based on your research and documentation of it. 

If we would've did this [interview] 10 years ago, it would've been on the phone and then it would've been text and read. I think that the advantage is that with the "Fight the Power" documentary, we took a higher order of comprehension in the PBS and also BBC, not just having a podcast or whatever. No knock on, no shade on, none of that. But today people listen with their eyes, and that's a problem. People like, "Oh yeah, it is a good look." But is it a good read? Is it a good listen? Is it a good talk? Is it a good conversation? Is it a good learn? And we forgetting those other goods as we got a good look. 

We have four parts in this documentary series that we felt that it is very clear that this music could be a spectacle, but always it's entertainment, it's art and music. It could be whoop whoop, bells, whistles, ha ha, whatever. But one thing about the musics, there are other musics have proven to be, they got to also be spectacular. And spectacular keeps you in the room and also brings you back for a second and third time.

A lot of time with hip-hop and rap, they throw it, and even the promoters that done this for years, it's like, "I'm just worrying about who gets in the room. I'm going to get their money. And whatever happens afterwards is whatever happens afterwards."

You think we're of a space right now with music where there's too much focus on capitalism?

It was born in capitalism, but that has nothing to do with the art. Art's in everybody. The key is like, "Can you get the art out on you?" And then the art could be to yourself. If you want to engage and try to make you put pressure on it and say like, "You know what? I want to live off my art." That's a whole nother category. That's a whole nother pressure. We like to play sports, we like to play ball. "I want to live off of my ball game." Now you inviting yourself into industry. That's the system. 

You could go to different parts of the world where the arts and entertainment is sanctioned by the government, that's your choice. But we should at least know the choices. So is it overwrought by too much capitalism? That's the frame of mind that likes to look at the art form as just being eyeballs. And I think that with art sometimes the taste got to go beyond the base, but also I just think we got to judge things by the quality instead of always the quantity.

Really, you could have 10,000 numbers of people that don't mean nothing, as opposed to 500 focused people. So that's where the dynamics of things online and portal, I mean, podcasts and followers and YouTube numbers and all that – that's where it gets crazy. A young kid could do some crazy s**t in the bathtub and get a million followers. That doesn't mean you compare it to 10,000 people watching some serious study on Dr. John Hendrick Clark who studied scholarship till he was blind. There's no comparison in the numbers.

"We got to judge things by the quality instead of always the quantity."

Also, this is why the comprehensive nature of the documentary on the higher forms of television was important because once you get down into the middle ranks of transmission, you start to compare things where you might have a 45-year-old and a 15-year-old in the same digital space. And that's just not real. Seriously, if you doing your grown thing, you don't want a bunch of 15-year-olds around this, unless you're teaching them and schooling them. And after you teach them and schooling, then you like, "Yo, I got to get onto my regular 45-year-old life."

I would like to see that universal space where we can share these stories and share language.

But you ain't living, sleeping, drinking in that space every minute. Matter of fact, in real life, those are concerns. You look at Black Urban Radio, when they went from Black Radio, they took the responsibility and accountability away and they turn it urban. What does urban mean? Then they play songs on there. So you have a 30-year-old singing the song, but a 13-year-old loving it, so you already got digital pedophilia going on. So you need some kind of like navigation, curation, presenting, and it's time and place, man. There's a time and place for everything, but not for everybody at the same time.

What's Chuck D's favorite three songs of all time, if you had to pick three?

Well, that changed with the iPod. I have Rap Station. Everybody can go to It's a 10-station channel network and we do the best charts in the world. It's 24-hour stations. We've been doing it 15 years. And I'm getting ready to create an app that's going to change the world because it's cultural media, which is greater than social media. 

The top songs, I always got songs swimming in my head from all different genres. I could keep it to hip-hop and rap to this conversation. And I could say, "Ladies First" by [Queen] Latifah and Monie Love and Crew. You said "The Message." I would say off cuts like, "Hey, DJ" by the World's Famous Supreme Team. Sky Zoo and Terminology just came up with a dope cut. Amy True from the UK got a cut called "Blam." Sampa the Great and Angelique Kidjo on Planet Earth Planet Rap, one of our stations got a cut called "Let Me Be Great." She's from Zambia and Angelique Kidjo is from Benin, which means that women in hip-hop are 25 to 30 percent of hip-hop anywhere. They're in production, they got crews, DJs, they got collective dance squads. But this country is limited. It's big. I think it's a difference between being big and swollen. It's a little swollen. There's a lot of inflammation up there.

We're going to call you walking encyclopedia.

Nah, nah, nah. [Hip-hop is] the area where I might say that I like to be a little encyclopedic about because it's what I do, what I've been a part of over the last 40 years. I'm blessed to be part of it. And like I said, I'm older than hip-hop, but I am also praising its 50-year existence as somebody who's looked at it travel on a tricycle and making sure it don't drive into a ditch.

"Fight the Power: How Hip-Hop Changed the World" premieres Jan. 31 at 9 p.m. on PBS. 


By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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