Chuck D doesn't swear he's nice – he knows he's nice.
Proudly from the 516 territory of Long Island, this man's contribution to rap is legendary. Chuck D is a founding member of Public Enemy, known for hits like “Fight the Power” and “Don't Believe the Hype,” which skyrocketed the rapper's illustrious group and solo career and is now inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame are anchored .
My good friend Chuck D, who I absolutely adored in the 1980s and 1990s, joined me this week on “Renaissance Man” to reflect on the good old days, including his adventures and experiences in that golden age of hip-hop – beginning with the formation of Public Enemy alongside a Flavor Flav.
The duo first met at Adelphi University in Nassau County, where both had big dreams and embraced every musical opportunity that came their way.
But changing hip-hop forever as a young 20-year-old is harder than you think — especially when you're struggling to make ends meet.
“Me and Flavor used to drive the U-Haul trucks and other trucks to deliver furniture for my relatives. It was a part-time gig or whatever, so we actually sat in the cab of the U-Haul and talked about what we were doing [with music]”Chuck D told me.
They formed what Chuck D called a rap “collective” and recruited some of the island's most sought-after hip-hop talent like Hank and Keith Shocklee, as well as local radio guru Bill Stephney.
Much of this group played a key role on Public Enemy's critically acclaimed debut album Yo! Bum Rush the Show” in 1987, which incidentally is “Yo! MTV raps.”
“It was a collective before people actually saw the Wu-Tang Clan, a Long Island collective, outside of the Five Counties,” said Chuck D. “‘Yo! “Bum Rush the Show” actually meant, “We're going to break into the music business,” he added, boasting that it actually served as a “toe in the door” to get everyone up the corporate ladder.
Before Public Enemy knew it, their big hit “Fight the Power” was featured in Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing, and in the 1990s, the song “Shut ‘Em Down” was playing over a Nike commercial.
At this point there was no doubt that the group was a major force in hip-hop.
It even got to a point where Chuck D had such a solid reputation that he was able to step in to defuse tensions Ice Cube had in Compton, California when he decided to leave West Coast supergroup NWA
“[I told him,] “It's all of us against the world to prove we did it.” [some of the best] Music.' So we made a friendship. When Cube was struggling with his situation, I encouraged him to figure out how to solve it because it's important…” he said. “‘Man, the west needs you, you know?' They couldn't work it out, so I said, ‘How do you go about doing this civilly?'”
Eventually, Chuck D recruited Ice Cube to team up with the Bomb Squad — another hip-hop group the Long Islander was making music with at the time.
Ice Cube's departure from the NWA and subsequent independent work ultimately proved to be a major shift in artists' approach to the genre. That's perhaps why the iconic rap groups of the '80s and '90s are largely a thing of the past these days.
“When Cube did that and weathered all the turmoil, it also showed, for better or for worse, that solo artists can also make it bigger than groups,” said Chuck D, noting that record labels often preferred dealing with an individual rather than many.
It was that experience with Ice Cube – along with many, many others in the booth and on stage – that taught my brother Chuckie D a fundamental rule of music making. It's also a great life lesson.
“When you're making an album and you're making songs … don't always get on your knees and try to please,” he said. “You gotta know who you are, man. It's like once you go to the mirror you don't have to ask anyone what you look like. You know what you look like, you know who you are. We need to encourage all people, all people – know who you are.”
Detroit native Jalen Rose is a member of the University of Michigan's iconoclastic Fab Five that disrupted the college basketball world in the early '90s. He played 13 seasons in the NBA before blossoming into a media personality. Rose executive produced The Fab Five for the ESPN series 30 for 30, is the author of the best-selling book, Got To Give the People What They Want, is a fashion trendsetter, and co-founder of the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a public charter school in his hometown.