BEIRUT: For Chuck D. one of the United States’ pioneering forces of political rap music in the 1980s, the goal should be embracing the latest in globalizing communications technology, while keeping things simple and true to one’s local roots.
Take the mobile phone. Though it can access an astronomical reservoir of musical styles and content compared to any past electronic device, the Public Enemy MC dubs the smart phone as today’s “transistor radio.” Maybe today’s dizzying pace of change isn’t that exotic after all.
Chuck was in Beirut to deliver a talk at the American University of Beirut on hip-hop music and global culture Thursday, hoping to relay the message that aspiring artists in this part of the world should remain firmly rooted in the local.
In hip-hop’s early years, he notes, rappers and musicians in other countries might have been focused on getting heard in New York City. After having traveled to nearly 100 countries in the course of his career as a musician and activist, though, Chuck believes that, today, hip-hop artists “are more interested in planting their seeds” where they are and having a voice there.
“Never try to impress the United States by being like the United States,” he quips. “They don’t even know what they’re doing.”
Rap has been a border-crossing phenomenon for decades, spreading to Europe, the Middle East, South America and points east and south. It’s a migration that Chuck promotes himself, through a series of Internet platforms such as rapstation.com.
He is impressed by the hip-hop output emanating from non-U.S. rappers, and downplays the idea that the genre inevitably gravitates toward generating “thug” music and hate-based content – whether directed at women, gays or ethnic groups.
“You can have bad words, spreading bad rhetoric and bad karma,” he acknowledges. “It can give you a tsunami, as well as a day like this.”
He points through the window to the vista of a calm, sunny Mediterranean day.
“You have more good days like this in Beirut, right? You don’t have a tsunami here every day, right?”
He recalls a Palestinian rapper from a band called DAM, who described the winning formula for hip-hop, wherever it comes from, as augmenting the music with “30 percent literature, and 40 percent –”
To express the final element, Chuck spreads and flexes his arms into a wordless bust-out move: that indefinable attitude that a hip-hop performer needs to complement the music and the words.
“Wherever you are is the center of the world,” he says, as a shout-out to anyone making hip-hop, wherever they might be. “The center of the hip-hop world might be here.”
One of hip-hop’s most influential figures, Chuck D. is also one of its fiercest critics. He has few kind words for the kind of corporate-driven music that is heard in his home country these days.
“Corplantation” is the word he uses for the negative impact big companies have had on U.S. hip-hop labels, seeking to stamp out politically provocative content, and even destroy the phenomenon of groups and bands in favor of solo acts.
Dan Charnas, the author of a book on the commercialization of hip-hop music, was quoted this week as saying that “political rap is nowhere.”
Chuck finds the phrase laughable.
“Sounds like someone who needs to get out of New York,” he says, adding that such remarks are the kind of thing that the corporate media feels comfortable with, in order to discourage politicized music and art.
He is asked about his interaction with the people whose work he criticizes so harshly – a select group of rap mega-entrepreneurs.
“You mean Jay-Z, Diddy, Dr. Dre and Snoop?” Chuck interrupts, drawing chuckles from those in the room. “I take out the garbage every Wednesday night,” he says firmly. “I drive an Accura.”
He acknowledges that some of the work of such megastars might be artistically worthwhile but, for the most part, “they’ve lost their core.”
Chuck also wants to relay the message that, while individual talents are just fine, the world of hip-hop could use a lot more in the way of collective efforts, and the old-fashioned concept of the multi-member band.
Referring to himself as “the least talented one” in the seminal Public Enemy, he says: “Music is [in the end] performance art, and more is better than one.
“A person [in the audience] might think he or she is better than the solo performer on stage, “but you can’t be five people. That’s just math. The collective needs to be brought back to hip-hop.”
Chuck seems unwilling to delve into the intricacies of the political conflicts raging in the Middle East, preferring to stress how he considers himself a citizen of Planet Earth.
“I’m a culturalist, although Wikipedia has me as a Sunni Muslim. But, it’s Wikipedia, you know?”
He adds that he is an “Earthizen,” someone who opposes the idea of national boundaries, and stresses that “greed is the number one cancer” threatening the planet today.
“When you look down from an airplane,” he says, “you don’t see any letters down there.”
In one sense, Chuck’s message has remained consistent since the late 1980s. Yet it has not been frozen in time and impervious to change.
Asked about the difference between being an angry young man and maintaining roughly the same tone a few decades later, he pauses for one of the few times during the entire conversation.
“I’m a culturalist, and an Earthizen,” he says. “I probably wouldn’t have said that 30 years ago.”