Things Revert: Chuck D On Prophets Of Rage And The Quest For Peace
It's late afternoon in a Central London hotel room and Chuck D is reaching for his watercolour set.
He's fresh from a visit to the Apple Store on Regent Store, and completed some sketches while staff attempted to fix his iPhone.
Daubing the results in washes of colour, he explains that this is something he does in each city he visits. It began as a type of therapy, but now it's a warm, satisfying way to fill the empty time that so often accompanies touring.
If there's one thing Chuck D hates, it's empty time. Working tirelessly, he released solo album 'Celebration of Ignorance' last year through his own label, performed alongside Wu-Tang Clan and De La Soul on the aptly named Gods Of Rap tour, narrated a special documentary on The Clash for Spotify, and worked with Prophets Of Rage on some of their biggest international tour dates yet.
He's busy, he insists, but there's always time for a few questions.
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You’ve always had an incredible intensity to your performance, how do you maintain that?
You have to come up with a regiment. I think over the last four years my regiment has been Pilates. My Pilates coach is out in California, and it’s the perfect thing for me to be involved with, especially when it comes to the intensity of a Prophets Of Rage performance, which are the little bit more intense, in terms of the band – they’re probably the hardest musicians… ever. I have Brad Wilk in my left ear!
We have this saying: either you do the songs or the songs do you. I know that these type of songs that we all created in our 20s and 30s, they become impossible to do later on if you don’t keep up. Certain things vibe you out – like a real big crowd to engage. But basically, the gigs all remain the same, and what you do at the beginning, and then at the end, is what makes the difference.
Yesterday, playing Boomtown, it was different because Salt N Pepa played with us. And that was a rare combination. They actually turned Boomtown into a Miami beach party – we had to turn it into Normandy. Which we did! I was surprised that we did, but it takes effort. It’s never just ‘oh, we want the gig to be this way’ - it’s never that, you got to make it happen. It doesn’t happen automatically.
Does working with rock and metal musicians – like in Prophets Of Rage – push you into a different space?
Oh unquestionably. You have to know that going in and you have to be ready for it. They feel the same way, I guess, with myself and B-Real.
I think that the differing element that came to Prophets Of Rage that becomes more of the language here, is DJ Lord. DJ Lord from Public Enemy is a renowned turntablist, so him coming to the program - both in live and presentation, and also the creation of recordings – has put a different spin on things.
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Prophets Of Rage is a deeply political project – have you ever felt there’s a danger, though, of preaching to the converted?
Danger as in…? What’s the death here? Where’s the injury?
Perhaps it mutes the message a little, given that the audience already share those viewpoints.
Dude, it rains out there – either you got an umbrella or you don’t. It’s gonna rain regardless. That’s the same thing that this comes down to. The worst thing is when you try to condition your message so somebody can hear you. Somebody will hear you – it might not come in a conventional way, or the way that you expected.
But when it came down to making, Rage Against The Machine, Cypress Hill type of records, we had to get out of that and try to form our own identity, too. I thought that was something which was important. Timmy C put it best, he said: y’know, people have come to Prophets Of Rage who have been a fan of neither band. It’s a band that represents, to themselves, what they think it is.
We’re a time, right now, where it’s not going to be the same thing five years from now for any of us, and it’s not going to be the same thing 20 years from now. Definitely. So don’t be afraid to make those statements now.
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So many of your peers have remained stuck in a certain mode, but you’ve always moved ahead – why do you think that is?
I mean, natural to me is to be able to keep performing, to keep going. It’s not like I come over here by myself – I came over here in May and played Wembley with Public Enemy Radio, which was a challenge in itself. It wasn’t Public Enemy per se, but it was a presentation back to the DJ unit. And I was happy that it turned out well.
It’s a thing – I’m fortunate to be who I am, and in this place, but what does that mean? Once you’re out there in the world, man, you’re the one who has to make it happen. If I don’t want to make it happen then keeping my whole ass home is an easy option. If you want to be out there, then you’ve got to make it happen. That’s how I feel. I could be wrong… but it’s alright being wrong.
We touched on the political dimensions in Prophets Of Rage, and things seem particularly bleak right now – do you ever lose hope?
You can’t afford to lose hope. You lose hope, you give up, and what’s that about? Life has a whole bunch of struggles, trials, and tribulations. I was raised to think: you got to make it happen. If you want change, you gotta make it happen. You can’t wish and pray for it.
I don’t believe in a ‘mystery God’. The mystery God, where you never see him, you never hear him, but you’re going to wait for him to bless you with a prayer. And then you never do anything but pray, and ask him, and wait. When you’re out in the world, man, you gotta be on. If you want to be off… stay home.
Do you think America has gone forward in the past 25 years?
Of course we’ve seen changes. And a lot of those changes have been positive. But have they reverted back? Yes, many have reverted back, but the thing that makes it different is that while they might have reverted back the people are different. You have new people doing the same old thing. The cause will always be that beckon, that light, that horn, the says: things must change. In other situations they call it revolution.
Do you think that’s where art and culture is at its most profound? That ability to present a difference to the status quo?
It’s different. Because you have different people, that’s why. Someone who is born in 1991 is actually a 28 year old person now. I mean, those are real, serious numbers. That person is an adult. That person is not a child. So they might not know things that happened in 1989 – they might have read it, but they didn’t experience it.
This is why they can make things seem and look and appear attractive to new generations – they sell it to people in a different way, they let it fester, or marinate. It’s racism, but they got the term different, and the person is approaching it in a different way.
This is why institutionally – although we’re in culture – it’s always wise to go at racism. It could be the same old thing but with different people and they don’t recognise it the same.
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You’re painting throughout this interview – can you also make music on the road?
I’m not a musician. I write words. But I have been arranging musicians. I mean, OK we can make music on the road, but this is what I do. I write words, I arrange – yes, I can play a little bit, but that’s a ridiculous statement being with the best players in the world to me. Oh yeah, I play too! (laughs)
Make no bones about it, I think when it comes down to this music I’m fortunate to be looking over at Brad Wilk or DJ Lord, who is a world-class turntablist. I’m very happy that I can sit in their company and just do my words.
Clearly, you don’t like having empty time…
Exactly. I’m filling in my time doing a little bit of parenting in London, and when I don’t do that I’m going to paint, get ready. And then I’ll probably walk down the street and have a message, which I haven’t had in so long… and that’s something you definitely gotta get! When you dealing with a high octane performance area, like we do. It’s intense.
Do things like painting act as a form of therapy?
Of course. It’s peace, it’s therapy. I don’t have much scar tissue. Some people need therapy because they got some serious scar tissue issues in their life, but I don’t. I’m fortunate. I’m fortunate to be involved, make it happen, and see if I can help others. I think what I try to do is engage with my record label – which is SpitSlam Record Label Group – and also Hip-Hop Radio, the rap station. I’ve done a show every week for 10 years. I try to curate the art, and we have a lot of fun doing that.
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What’s the last thing you heard that really hit home?
Well, we give a Top 10 every week. I played a record this past week called ‘Ibthiaj’ by Rhapsody. They did a song dedicated to RZA, from his ‘Liquid Swords’ album. I thought that was interesting.
Does it surprise you that artistry from that era has lasted when so much Black American culture has been pushed to one side by the mainstream?
I knew it was going to last. The minute I got engaged in it I knew it was going to be around for a long time. I didn’t worry about guarantees… because coming up black in the United States, in New York, you didn’t have guarantees anyway. You were guaranteed that it wouldn’t work out. I might have been raised up in the ghetto, so to speak – Roosevelt, Long Island – but I never was ‘in the ghetto’, as in my mentality wasn’t rooted there, to be settled with that.
So I was always exploratory and I never, ever just waited around for people to give me the determination of what was what.
To wrap up, with Prophets Of Rage be heading back into the studio anytime soon?
We’re going to go to the studio when we’re in Vienna. We’re going there next, so we might go to the studio there, and see what’s up. See if we can come up with something. I was just texting Tom about an idea.
I mean, we’re all going to be in the city, we’re going to be together, and there’s a mass of time available… and me, I like to make the most of it!
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