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Public Enemy's Chuck D Still Brings the Noise

Now 59, the cofounder of Public Enemy tells AARP about the secret to his success

Chuck D and Public Enemy

Brad Torchia/August Images, Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Part of the AARP Hip-Hop at Middle Age series

What, generally, are you doing with your life now?

I’m juggling two bands around the world. I have two adult children now, one younger one, 8 years old. I’m doing what I want to do.

What did you want Public Enemy to be? Was it exactly what you wanted it to be?

There were a whole bunch of personalities. The best thing that I could see was how we all played sports. We were rough and rugged sports guys. I think a lot of problems in music and culture is that a lot of people never played sports. You wouldn’t make it on a football team thinking about just you. Regardless of what you think, you’ve got to make it fit. You all are on the front line. The thing that comes closest to it is war. Sports emulate war. 

I have the voice that would make a cheap microphone sound like a million dollars. Someone would come after me and be like, “I can’t sound like that.” I said, “Yeah, either you got it or you don’t.” What made you a top MC back in the day was your ability to cut through and be heard, regardless of what you said.

I remember you talking about wanting to inspire 100 minds that would go on to change the world. Do you think that you have accomplished that?

We wanted to introduce 5,000 political leaders. That was a narrative in our belief of who we were and what kind of group this was. You make grandiose statements and try to walk your way up to it.

"What made you a top MC back in the day was your ability to cut through and be heard regardless of what you said."

— CHUCK D

Do you still relate to hip-hop when you hear new songs coming out? Do you still relate to what they’re talking about in modern hip-hop?

What strikes me in my listening time, as well as doing a radio show for the last 10 years, I break all kinds of music and what’s brand new. I cover it. I promote it. I swim in it. 

Sometimes I might just want to hear Creedence Clearwater Revival and sometimes I want to hear Big Jay McNeely. The truth is that hip-hop is all of that. Hip-hop, once you dig it and dug it and picked it up and displayed it and played it, that’s all hip-hop. That’s the original definition that got me into hip-hop. 

We all grew up musical people in New York. People knew how to play. Schools were disengaged from instruments and teaching children about music, and out of those ashes rose hip-hop, playing records and making the most out of what they had. I come from that teaching and understanding that the talent of black people in music was frozen in records and culture, but the records were accessible, and the record players were cheap.

My parents are young. My mom was into Motown. My dad will whistle to a Mel Tillis song and also he had a little bit of jazz, but he didn’t really pay no mind to them. He probably didn’t even know who they were; he just liked the music.

Part of what we want to talk about is hip-hop stars having a second act in life. You see a lot of people doing a second thing, be it Ice Cube in Hollywood writing and making movies, to Kurtis Blow and Reverend Run in the pulpit.

I don’t have a second stage. I’m not acting. I’m a music guy and a music radical. It’s what I am. Radio is where I come from, and I do it because that’s what I do. I write songs because that’s what I do, and I’ve always done that. It’s not like all of a sudden you’re going to see me start up a cannabis company.

Let’s put it this way: What is the key to having success at an older age?

Doing what you love and loving what you do and finding something that’s satisfying. If you’re not satisfied with what you do, then other things will have to satisfy. 

I’m not the dude that’s going to sit on a boat and take a vacation. I don’t do vacations. I’m into music. That’s what I do. I love it. 

I’m into the arts, I should say, because music is a component of it. If anything, music is the second thing that came along. I grew up as an artist. I’ve been an artist since zero. I do anything in the arts at a high level. I was a phenomenon in my university. I created logos for hip-hop and for record companies such as Columbia and Def Jam. I always had that vision for advertising, which I didn’t want to get into. 

Architecture I was great in but didn’t want to get into it. When I got out of the university after winning awards, I wanted to be a renderer. A renderer is someone who sees a blueprint and can show what it will eventually look like. A lot of that stuff today is done with computers and computer graphics, but before you had to do that out of your mind and hand. That’s where I came from.

When you first started making records, you were in your late 20s and almost all the other MCs were teenagers or in their early 20s, and I always thought that that gave you an advantage over them because you brought your wisdom and your adult knowledge. Did that help you?

It was making an advantage out of what was initially a disadvantage. I ain’t going to talk about high school! I was 10 years out of high school. When I was 27, I looked like I could be 18 or 19, but there would be things I’d say that teenagers wouldn’t be into. 

We know what older rock ’n’ roll looks like. We know what older soul looks like. We haven’t seen that many older MCs who have shown us what it’s like to be an MC when you’re 50 or 60. What do you think about that? How do you be an authentic MC when you’re older?

I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. That didn’t come from me wanting to be a 60-year-old rapper. I was an athlete, so I just thought that smoking and drinking, you do that, you ain’t good anyway. That just makes things worse.

Do you see your influence? Do you see MCs who are like your sons?

What’s happening to hip-hop and rap now is like some kid wanting to check out B.B. King in the ’60s when these dudes like that were in their 40s and 50s. What made somebody 20 years old check out Howlin’ Wolf in 1974 when the man is damned near 65 years old? 

Do you see yourself on stage in 10 years?

I’m going to be in good shape in 10 years if I’m in good health. It’s about maintenance. I do it pretty well now, but on the other side of the 50-yard line, anything can happen at any time. You have to work on these things.

Myself and Ice-T, we are anomalies because I’m going to move better and sound stronger than any 30-year-old, period. My only thing that I would say that I have beyond everybody else that every MC will tell you is that no one could ever be louder than me, period. That’s the only thing that I bring to the table that nobody’s really got. 

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