Sunday, April 05, 2009

Now a moment of hero worship: Chuck D at Neal Marshall, Sat April 4 2009

On Sat. April 4, 2009 I had the opportunity to see one of the heroes of my college days (and today), Chuck D, founder of Hip-Hop legends Public Enemy, give a lecture at the Neal Marshall Black Culture Center Library on the IU campus. This event was somewhat under-publicized, and I was only lucky enough to hear about it thanks to some tweets from the Bloomington 'twitterati' on twitter the day before the event, specifically from deejayspikes and IUwebmonkey. Having mentioned it to a few friends since, they expressed regret at missing the chance to see Chuck's talk.

I met deejayspikes and another twitter friend, Allison, at the library shortly before the show began. I saw Chuck D and some of the event organizers outside, but left the man alone out of a mix of respect and shyness.

The talk kicked off with some rhymes by a student named Patrick. He was a white dude, and referred to himself as 'Hip Hop's Doogie Howser', and also had several other good lines, including:
you treat me like I fired God/hired Rod Blagojevich and gave him the job
He delivered two a capella rhymes, and then an event organizer introduced Chuck. He was dressed rather unassumingly, in a t-shirt with wings on the back, slightly baggy pants, and very white, new-looking shoes. He graciously gave props to Patrick in his famous baritone, and began by discussing the significance of the day, the 41st anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination. I knew this was the case, but admittedly had been unsure until I remembered that the U2 song goes 'Early morning April 4/a shot rings out in the Memphis sky'. Chuck talked about being a child in the 60s, a time of much turmoil, with Vietnam and the assasinations of Malcolm X, Dr. King, and John and Robert Kennedy. History was a major topic of the lecture, as he covered the origin of the term 'Rhythm and Blues' (a more sensitive term than 'Race Music', which offended African Americans who had just come back from fighting in World War II and rightly demanded more respect than had been given them), and the history of black music in general, from the songs of the fields ('look out love music') to the evolution of hip hop from it's Jamaican dub and reggae origins.

Chuck stressed the importance of education and a disdain for anti-intellectualism and the 'dumbassification' of our culture. It's a message similar to the one Bill Cosby delivers, delivered in a different way. Chuck made an appeal to black students at IU: if you pay for a Hummer (he made the aside the 'the Hummer is a wack-ass car, I'm saying if you pay for an expensive car'), and you get a Hooptie, that is going to lead to frustration. So he emphasized the importance of making the most of their time at IU, getting the best GPA possible, learning as much as possible, and praising 'being a nerd about the stuff you like' something I, as a nerd, really liked hearing.

Chuck also covered the (welcome) dissolution of the record companies, saying that while record companies are dying, music itself is as strong as ever, with the internet giving the artist more power than ever to get their music out. He acknowledged that there may be a window that will close if for example Network Neutrality is over-ruled, and we find the free-flow of information we enjoy today restricted. Two phrases recurred like refrains: Chuck railed against 'the exploitation of scientists and artists' and being subjected to 'the radiation of a radio, TV, and movie nation'. During this discussion of artists and music, he gave a shout-out to deejayspikes, who he remembered as the DJ of Muncie's R.H.Y.T.H.M. Chuck has probably performed with a few thousand bands and artists, and met millions of people, but he remembered R.H.Y.T.H.M., and I thought that was really cool, and needless to say DJ Spikes dug getting a shout out from a hip hop legend (Chuck referred to him as an example of artists doing their own thing back before the Internet had made it easier, the D.I.Y. spirit one saw with punk and indie rock bands in the 80s and 90s and of course with hip hop crews).

And yes, Chuck talked about Flav! Of course he talked about Flav! He said essentially 'if you look at the structure of the black family, everybody's got somebody like Flav in the family' and said 'people asked what happened to Flav, I say what do you mean? That's Flav. He was that way from day one. Now, I never thought I'd see the day I'd see grown women on TV crying over him, but those women are more hung up on the drug of fame than anything to do with Flav.'

Obviously he said plenty more, and was funny and entertaining without backup music or dancers or lights. He displayed oratorial skills honed over years in both the rap and speaking circuit games. Afterwords he did a Q&A, and was asked about the Reverend Wright dust-up ('If you look at it, that guy was saying things a lot of people had been saying and thinking') and also about his more recent appearance on D.L. Hugley's show with Michael Steele. Chuck was asked why he didn't say more during the discussion, and he replied that as a general policy he doesn't want to be on a show that's just going to be black men yelling at each other. He said Michael Steele could put his foot in his mouth anyway without him participating in some sensationalist show of people screaming at each other for ratings (and he was right. See also: super-cool Obama in the debates with 'barely keeping a lid on it' McCain). Obama came up a couple of times. Chuck referred to him as 'possibly the greatest rapper ever. He has a great voice, great delivery, and he moves people. Have you ever seen an M.C. move so many people to tears with his words?'

After the lecture Chuck came over and shook DJ Spikes' hand and said 'hey how are you doing' and shook my hand, too. Afterwards he did a signing of his book, Fight The Power. I bought a copy as did Spikes, and I got to talk to Chuck for a couple minutes and do the gushing fan-boy thing, talking about how I was in college when 'It Takes a Nation of Millions...' came out and how much it rocked my world. Chuck was super-cool and friendly and altogether an awesome guy. I said it was great he was still getting the word out and he said 'I'm gonna keep getting out there getting the word out until they shut my ass up', which I thought was awesome. The man has plenty to say and says it with the skill of a legendary M.C.

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