Rebels Without a Pause: Chuck D’s Living Legacy

A roundup of ferociously intelligent MCs carrying his fearless torch.

by

By Will Schube

Few rappers have synthesized the inherent political nature of hip-hop like the great Chuck D. From his college days, when he spent time as a rap radio host on the decidedly rock-oriented WLIR on Long Island, to his testimonies before congress on peer-to-peer MP3 sharing, the MC born Carlton Douglas Ridenhour in 1960 has melded his hip-hop roots with greater societal aspirations for more than four decades. Now, as rap pervades popular culture in a seamless way, the idea of a political hip-hop songwriter isn’t particularly foreign. But the early albums by Public Enemy, which Chuck co-founded with William Drayton (Flavor Flav) in 1985, were a shocking upending of norms.

Chuck took the formulas of those who came before ― like Run-DMC, one of his favorite groups ― and invaded the radio with calls to arms for those oppressed. On 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Public Enemy set out to make the rap equivalent of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, turning Black equality into less of a conversation than a pivotal demand. It’s one of the greatest rap albums ever, and Chuck D, with his deep, reverberating voice, is at its center. The group aims their fervor at a corrupt media system, villainous politicians and a rotting social infrastructure that penalizes poverty and people of color.

His mission is as vital now as when he set out to change the rap game in the mid-1980s, and his advocacy is as prescient as ever; in the case of 2010’s “Tear Down That Wall,” it borders on the clairvoyant. To celebrate his 60th birthday on Aug. 1, TIDAL is highlighting a handful of younger MCs who further his powerful social and political work in the rap game.

Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick is the obvious heir apparent to Chuck D’s throne as rap’s political superstar. While K. Dot’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city isn’t always overtly aimed at social repercussions of governmental incompetence and media bias, its story-based approach reflects the trap that ensares so many Black kids in America, spinning a multigenerational web that affects everyone involved. On good kid’s follow-up, 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar takes his political approach a step further, incorporating jazz, R&B and funk to touch on themes of depression, institutional racism and Blackness in America. The album was inspired by Lamar’s trip to South Africa, specifically his visit to Nelson Mandela’s jail cell on Robben Island. Lamar digs into critical race theory, giving the album a philosophical heft that places it among the epic tomes of socially minded rap music.

Joey Bada$$

With only two albums under his belt, Joey Bada$$ has proven himself to be one of the most crucial rappers in the discourse of American politics. His debut mixtape, 1999, introduced the MC as an updated reincarnation of Golden Age rap music, nodding to his Flatbush youth and the New York heroes who came before him. But on 2017’s All-Amerikkkan Bada$$, the rapper dives deep into themes of social upheaval and turmoil. The album is both a nod to his late Pro Era partner Capital Steez, who released AmeriKKKan Korruption in 2012, and Ice Cube’s seminal AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. Joey offers political statements that are more streamlined than those by someone like Kendrick Lamar, but his ability to call out inequalities and our broken governmental system is matched by few.  

Rapsody

Rapsody’s rise has been one of constant and incremental growth. She cut her teeth in the group Kooley High and displayed such talent in her early 20s that 9th Wonder recruited her for his solo music. From there she signed to the legendary producer’s label and began asserting herself as one of the most poignant lyricists in rap. Though she’s only released three solo LPs, her imprint on the genre is enormous. She’s collaborated with Kendrick Lamar and toured with Mac Miller; she’s earned Grammy nods and a record deal with JAY-Z’s Roc Nation. Her music resonates because she makes the political personal, and vice versa. With knotty metaphors and neatly packed phrasings, Rapsody helps define Black womanhood in all its variations. Her latest LP, 2019’s Eve, is her masterpiece, paying tribute to icons like Oprah, Serena Williams, Michelle Obama and Aaliyah. It’s a concept album, but more than that, it outlines the way in which popular culture has been deeply informed by Black women.

Open Mike Eagle

Michael W. Eagle II has spent his career blending absurdist comedy with an unrepentant critique of the capitalistic monolith that is the United States of America. Even on seemingly sweet songs like “Very Much Money (Ice King Dream),” Eagle ditches his charming sentiment: “My friends are superheroes,” he raps, before adding, “None of us have very much money though.” Life for an indie artist is hard, but Eagle found greater acclaim with 2017’s Brick Body Kids Still Daydream. That album uses the imposing Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago as a case study for public housing gone wrong, and as an elegy for the people turned homeless when the building was demolished in 2007. Elsewhere on the album, though, Eagle takes his aim at this country’s 45th president, rapping, “When the king is a garbage person/I might wanna lay down and die.” Even when Open Mike Eagle is aiming his daggers, he always does so with a sardonic edge.

JPEGMAFIA

JPEGMAFIA has one of rap’s most unique stories. The MC born Barrington DeVaughn Hendricks was raised in Flatbush, Brooklyn, before moving to Alabama as a teenager. He enlisted in the Air Force at age 18, and spent a tour in Iraq before being honorably discharged. JPEG’s prolific output often touches on his experiences with racism at every stage of his life, from his teenage days in Alabama to being a young Black male in the Air Force. His music deals with weighty philosophical concepts, but the MC manages to fuse this theory-heavy approach with noise jams and a personality that shines through any weighty topics. With albums and mixtapes like Communist Slow Jams, Black Ben Carson, Veteran and All My Heroes Are Cornballs, it’s clear that Hendricks loves shock value. But beneath the surface, the music of JPEGMAFIA is rich and haunting, a cackling fuck-you to anyone in his way.

Pink Siifu

Pink Siifu’s always had rumblings of spiritual and cultural rebellion in his music, but it wasn’t until the release of his 2020 album, NEGRO, that the MC fully tapped into the righteous anger of Black America in the 21st century. That album’s predecessor, ensley, presents wavy, lo-fi hip-hop and meandering lyrics that offer a direct line to his brain. On NEGRO, though, he chops this smoothness into oblivion, presenting a masterpiece as indebted to punk icons like Bad Brains as it is to any hip-hop acts. It’s a stunning feat from the Alabama-born MC, who wrote of the album: “U are allowed to be angry.” The record interpolates noise music and jazz into a withering concoction of beats that sound like they came from a warped tape cassette. His unrelenting energy gives NEGRO the momentum of a boulder tumbling down a cliffside, and anyone at the bottom should be warned that Pink Siifu is gaining speed.

Will Schube is a writer and creative consultant based in Austin, Texas. He regularly contributes to GQ, Texas Monthly, Apple Music and Billboard. 

Main image credit: Rovi.

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