Arts & Culture Blog
Chuck D Dropped Knowledge (and Got Driving Directions) at CSUMB on Tuesday
February 9, 2012
Chuck D, aka Charles Ridenhour, 51 and still one of the most current and relevant ambassadors of old-school hip-hop and rap music, on the eve of releasing two albums this year by his 25-years-strong firebrand rap group Public Enemy, spoke at CSUMB on Tuesday to help the university jumpstart its Black History Month events. University Center, filled with about 250 people, mostly students, sprinkled with local activists and arts and culture types, was warmed up with a slide show of images of the stentorian rapper/radio host/lecturer, accompanied by music from Mos Def, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and, of course, Public Enemy.
After a brief introduction by the evening's emcee, Jacinto Salazar, Mr. Chuck, in a backwards baseball cap and gold PE chain, walked to the lone podium on the stark stage to a standing ovation, insisted that he was honored but that he saluted, in turn, the assembled students, and launched right into it.
"Logic, rational thought and deductive reasoning is going to be needed in the battle ahead," he told the audience. "They've used music, art and culture as vehicles to get to your hearts and minds. We [old school hip-hop artists] had the tools to say that was bullshit."
It was classic Chuck D: informed, angry, scattered, funny and commanding stuff delivered in the lower registers of a melodious tenor voice afflicted by a "Strong Island" accent. He referred to his talk not as a lecture, which he says is paid for by students and delivered by professors, but as a vibe session. And it meandered as such.
"The things you start consuming," he warned, "might start consuming you."
He was adept at impersonations, like an anonymous rapper-made-good who bragged to him, "'Yo, yo, yo, Chuck, want to see my blue Lambo?'" Which Mr. Chuck flipped into a lesson in education: "I don't know what the fuck a blue Lambo is. I never seen one in the hood. But if someone's paying blue Lambo money, you hope to not get a hooptie education. Get your money's worth. That's common sense. That's street sense."
He applauded the student population—"collegiates" he called them—for being students.
"We got to watch out what taints culture. I know your attenaes are up…We need smart people to push the dumb people out."
While criticizing the infiltration of thug mentalities in academia: 'I'm the roughest thug in Monterey Bay'…You come to college to be the college guy. Be the college guy…The smartest kid in class gotta go, 'yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm street,' 'cuz as soon as you act smart [in the hood] you'll get beat up. You got to hide your intellect."
A sports fanatic, he made many analogies to sports: "You all picked up a fumble. The ball was fumbled in the '90s…How many of you know who LeBron James is? How many of you know where the term R&B came from?…[ESPN's] Sports Center shows something six times so you get it right, so you don't go around, 'The Packers won the Superbowl, right?' Art, music and culture needs to be taught as much as sports."
He slapped the podium to emphasize that last point, and riffed on the meeting of art, music, culture and sports in an observation of the Superbowl that went down just two days prior.
"I thought Madonna [in the Superbowl halftime performance] was real smooth. MIA threw the middle finger up, it's still news today. 'Oh my God, we've never seen that before.' Nikki Minaj, Cee Lo Green brought out the church. All in the aftermath of [Soul Train's] Don Cornelius taking himself out."
The invocation of the recent suicide of the Soul Train creator and host seemed to affect Chuck D, prompting ambivalence about the technology and social media that he's been encouraging harnessing and using himself (Twitter, not Facebook, he emphasized twice).
"You ever read the comments on YouTube? Don't read them. It's the most…They could be in some basement, hatin' on you. Not everyone has the right to comment. You have to earn that. Ignorant comments next to intelligent comments causes confusion."
Over the course of an hour and a half, he roamed, mostly, over the topics under the engagement's title of "Race, Rap, Reality and Technology." Not necessarily in that order.
"If America is in a recession, where's black people?"
"A depression," some in the audience offered up.
"In a depression like it's the goddamned 1930s."
"'We got a black president; it's a post-racial society,'" he mocked. "Who told you that shit? It's like saying because Kobe got a new contract, we're all good. President Obama is a good driver in a very fucked up car. People trying to throw rocks at him…New Gingrich is back? Get the fuck out of here. Ron Paul? Get the fuck out of here. No!"
But race, he suggested, wasn't the deepest problem: "If you get to the bottom of race, there's class…Please do not try to be in denial about what's going on."
He invoked his political fervor, informed by his broad travels.
"I been on the lecture tour 20 years. This is my 21st year. Public Enemy toured the world. I seen shit. We were in Russia, Berlin, waking up to flashlights, guns, dogs. This was in the time of Margaret Thatcher, Reagan and Bush."
And, like the formula that balanced the fiery political rhetoric of Public Enemy, he invoked the group's comic foil, current reality TV anamoly Flavor Flav.
"Flavor Flav," he smirked. "The world's oldest teenager. He was in the Superbowl [parade]. 'Flav, you don't know nothin' about sports.' There's a Flavor Flav in every family. Never two. Just one."
He ended the discourse by breaking off some wisdom of his 51 years: "The older you get [you realize] it doesn't belong to you, it belongs to the people coming up after you…Knowledge is power, except it ain't if you can't apply it to yourself."
Then he took questions from the audience. They mostly consisted of rambling and self-referential biographies and diatribes about the system, which Chuck D listened to indulgently, seemingly enjoying himself and the interaction.
"I do be running my mouth," he said, flashing a charming self-deprecating humor. "I get kicked out of places, I get to talking."
Answering one youthful question about the viability of merging hip-hop to topics of environmental stewardship, he said, "You can spit about the condor, but will you get street cred? Mmm. A million in sales? Well, you don't make songs to make money. Be a stock broker if you want to make money."
And just as a cool aside, he dropped some info about some old school hip-hop brethrens, the Beastie Boys: "Rick Rubin stopped everything to sign me [back in the day]. I didn't want to. I wanted to do hip-hop radio, behind the scenes. But you got [Run DMC's] Jam Master Jay and [Beasties Boys'] Adrock asking you to do records…I'm going to induct the Beastie Boys into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony."
Between the start of the indulgent Q&A and the end of the rambling "vibe session," Mr. Chuck asked driving directions of the audience to get to San Francisco International Airport. It was that kind of vibe.