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The legendary rapper on politics, his Top 5 songs and PBS series “Fight The Power: How Hip-Hop Changed The World”

You only play that old stuff!” a kid named DJ I had mentored yelled from the passenger side of my car some years back.

At the time he was a high schooler and infatuated with the song “Thugz Mansion,” by west coast rappers Mozzy and YG that he had just introduced to me.

I took a pause and then laughed, thinking about all of the times that I had got into arguments with older dudes who listened to the dated music of my era and never took the opportunity to understand my generation and the sounds we chose.

Everything we liked was dumb and watered down in their opinion, even though they never tried to listen.

I never wanted to be that grumpy dude who’s so lost in the past that I couldn’t even dream of the future.

“Look here, young fella,” I said, pulling into an empty parking spot. “I used to have the same arguments and conversations back when I was your age, but I learned to respect the music that came before me, which ultimately helped me to better understand why I was listening to what I was listening to. Everything influences everything.” 

DJ shot me a confused look – before telling me that he was constantly immersed in rap music, but clearly never gave too much thought to the genre’s history.

“You know DJ,” I continued, “I love this version of ‘Thugz Mansion.’ It’s mean, but I also loved the version made by Nas in the early 2000s and the version made by Tupac in ’90s.”

DJ’s eyes stretched across his forehead as I pulled out my phone and punched in the earlier versions.

We nodded; DJ even played the Tupac original three times in a row and said, “I need to update my playlist!” 

There is an easy fix to the disconnect between our generations, our taste in hip-hop and the silly old versus new exchanges – real conversations.

We aren’t talking enough, but when we do­­ – the likenesses, similar political climates, culture, love of the art form and multiple gems dropped from both generations all bring us closer together. In that car ride, old me learned as much about hip-hop from young DJ as he learned from me.

I talked to hip-hop pioneer Chuck D about expanding these kinds of conversations across generations and an appreciation for the history of hip-hop, which is part of his new PBS documentary series “Fight The Power: How Hip Hop Changed The World,” premiering Jan. 31.

In the docuseries, Chuck D, the founder of the legendary revolutionary hip-hop group Public Enemy, Rock n Roll Hall of Fame inductee, and Grammy Award-nominated artist is working to not only trying to bridge the gap between the different generations, but also highlight the power of women in the culture, the music’s political influence and how an art form created by the most vulnerable young people in the Bronx went on to change the world.

Watch my “Salon Talks” episode with Chuck D here or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about how the genre has grown over 50 years and his Top 5 songs of all time.

 

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Mr. Chuck D, how you doing today?

It’s good to see you, D.

Your song “Fight the Power” is one of the most strongest songs in hip-hop history. Take us to the beginning of your “Fight the Power” docuseries on PBS and what made you want to put it out right now?

Real simple is I’ve always thought that that hip-hop and rap music was always high elevation to me. I grew up in the time – I’m 12 years older than hip-hop and rap, so I never was in all awe of it. I wasn’t born in the middle of it.

So when I see it came about, I said, “This is something that could rank and bust ass on the rock that was around us,” even the R&B. We had respect for all that because we, in New York we listened to radio that played everything. And when hip-hop and rap came along, it was a power of technology with the DJs that played the music loud, that we heard bands play. And it was in New York City in a broader metropolitan area. It was infectious man. It was a feeling before it even became records.

It was always on the top of my mind that saying that the curate, caretake and being able to speak for the art form at a higher level, I thought there was always room for that. Fifty years into hip-hop’s existence as an official title of the art form, the biggest question is how do we make importance great or greater than popularity?

“I became a service person—hip-hop was my military. Hip-hop to me is a worldwide cultural experience and religion.”

Because popularity, when that pops in and you have all kinds of mythologies pumping in, and the narrative could skid away from the people who created it.

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