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.
Open Mike Eagle
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.