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Chuck D on his new hip-hop documentary 'Fight the Power'


And finally today, a documentary series looks back at the origins of hip-hop.


CHUCK D: (Rapping) 1989, the number, another summer.

FLAVOR FLAV: Get down.

CHUCK D: (Rapping) Sound of the funky drummer.

MARTIN: The PBS series is titled "Fight The Power: How Hip Hop Changed The World." And it's co-produced by one of the pioneers of hip-hop, Public Enemy's Chuck D.


CHUCK D: (Rapping) Our freedom of speech is freedom of death. We've got to fight the powers that be. Fight the power. Fight the power.

MARTIN: The four-part series tells the story of how musicians breakdancers, and emcees were inspired by the conditions around them to create a musical art form. And joining us to talk about the PBS series "Fight The Power" is the man himself, Chuck D. Mr. Chuck D, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

CHUCK D: Thanks for having me on, Michel. It's really a pleasure. Being on the other side, listening to you quite often, and sounds good that I'm on.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. So what made you decide that this is the story you wanted to tell now? Why this and why now?

CHUCK D: I asked the question often, and especially to my managing partner on this, Lorrie Boula. You know, I said, listen, we're going into the 50th year. And the last maybe 20 years, the narrative has been delivered by somewhere and somebody else. How do we become accountable to its beginnings? And how do we tell the story in its 50th year that's kind of true to the core? And also say, you know, if this was a rose that grew out of the concrete, where did the concrete come from in all its shattered debris?

MARTIN: Let me just play a little bit of - from that first episode where you kind of start the story. I want to mention that along with being one of the co-producers, you're also the narrator. And here's a little bit about where you kind of lay out the case.


CHUCK D: To understand how this movement emerged from the poorest, most oppressed borough in New York City, you need to go back to the beginning. The spirit of hip-hop was born in the 1960s. That was the decade I was born. The air of resistance and turbulence helped create hip-hop.

MARTIN: Can you just say a bit more about how you feel the environment helped to kind of inform and create this art form?

CHUCK D: I think the environment always creates some kind of art form from a people who have been silenced. I don't think hip-hop and rap music is that much different than blues, folk, jazz, especially when it comes down to Black and brown folk, especially Black folk. We weren't able to air our differences against our oppressor, so it came out in the music. But our music and our culture is always born out of some kind of situation where it looks bleak and dark and we bring light to it.

MARTIN: You know, there's a theory that hip-hop came out of the disinvestment in New York schools, where subjects like music weren't being taught, and that people kind of created music out of what they had, you know, their records, their bodies, their voices. What do you think about that theory?

CHUCK D: Yes, ma'am. Michel, it's not only - it's been disinvestment of the schools, but it starts on the bigger picture, the disinvestment of your everyday life and community. And it comes out of that. And people make something out of nothing. No different than somebody in the middle of the Delta in 1935, taking a cord and putting it on the side of a shack and making a note out of it, you know what I'm saying? Just a washboard. Well, hip-hop was able to take maybe abandoned turntables and records left to the side, take some electricity from a pole, and make really lemonade out of lemons rinds. So that's the beauty of it, you know.

And I saw, you know, with my own two eyes, like, it was a technical aspect of hip-hop that really got me engaged and saying, this is something different than a band, you know. In a band, you know, we were always privy to music, Black folk having somebody in the family that would play music. We were musically inclined, if not taught from inside the house, through church or a system inside the community that would actually endear you towards music. We were always creative people. But this terminology came in a disenfranchised period where technology happened to gravitate to electricity, turntables and records and making music out of that.

MARTIN: You know, the documentary takes its name from Public Enemy's 1989 hit "Fight For Power," which you first released as part of the soundtrack to Spike Lee's film "Do The Right Thing." And I want to play a clip where you talk about that. Here it is.


CHUCK D: Spike says, yo, I'm coming up with a movie talking about this situation in New York. Man, there's BS going down. Yo, man, I need the anthem.


CHUCK D: Fight the power. Fight the power. Fight the power.

MARTIN: Do you remember when you came up with that track? And do you remember when you realized that you said what you wanted to say? Was it like a eureka moment or was it one of those things that kind of happened, like, over time, over time, over time?

CHUCK D: Michel, I think it was a culmination. I remember the song being developed in four or five different stages all the way up to Branford Marsalis, you know, playing his sax part on on different dub versions when Hank was in the studio and Eric "Vietnam" Sadler. So it was developed in many stages. When it finally came together, it was significantly, you know, laid out for the third verse, which, you know, which is the famed Elvis and John Wayne verse, which a lot of times people isolate the song inside its own shell. But I tell people, I said, No. 1, I was commissioned to do this song. And that third verse answered specifically to Giancarlo Esposito's question to Sal, hey, Sal, how come you got no Black people on the wall? And then Danny Aiello comes up with his answer, which is pretty much answered by "Fight The Power's" third verse.


CHUCK D: (Rapping) Elvis was a hero to most, but he - Elvis was a hero to most - Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant - to me. You see, straight out, racist - the sucker was simple and plain.

FLAVOR FLAV: (Rapping) [Expletive] him and John Wayne.

CHUCK D: (Rapping) 'Cause I'm Black and I'm proud. I'm ready. I'm hyped, plus I'm amped. Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps.

MARTIN: The final two episodes of "Fight The Power" will air as a double feature on Tuesday, February 21. And I want to mention that you explore a couple of themes in that. You explore the West Coast scene, where the beat kind of moves to a different tempo. But you also explore the kind of the growth of violent imagery that became a real problem for a lot of people in the genre. It became an issue. And you also explore how the hip-hop sound that started out in mostly Black neighborhoods grew to kind of wider and wider audiences. So would you talk about those two things? They're not the same thing, but talk about those two things, if you would.

CHUCK D: I'm a firm believer that artists can be whatever. An artist can say whatever. There's not accountability or responsibility to the artist for their art. But I think the responsibility and what has dropped the ball is the curation, the management, the negligence and the caretaking of an art form when it's actually distributed to the world. That could have been better. I think that just put it in the place where it left it up to the beholder to try to have their interpretation of what it is. And that spun into a ditch. I'm not awestruck of hip-hop and rap music at all. I was 13 years old when it came about, if we want to say a start date of August 11, 1973, at Sedgwick 1520 in The Bronx.

MARTIN: Not that you're counting, but I hear you (laughter).

CHUCK D: Well, yeah, you know, I seen it as a kid on a tricycle. My job is to make sure it doesn't, you know, it doesn't drive fully into a ditch.

MARTIN: But I like what you said. You said, you're not in awe of it, so you can be critical of it. Would that be accurate?

CHUCK D: I don't like to say I could be critical of it, but I'm very critical of the caretakers of it, because I think a lot of times the caretakers have been the undertakers.

MARTIN: Well, you know, before we let you go, I want to mention that you've also released a new book titled "Livin' Loud" by Chuck D. It's an art portfolio filled with sketches that you have created over the years. I am sure the people closest to you always knew that you had been drawing your whole life. So what made you decide to finally let all of us see this work?

CHUCK D: I started out as an artist. I'm one of these guys who - I'm not a musician who did art. You know, I was always an artist that happened to stumble upon music. The art books and the art and the prints came about because there's been about 20,000 illustrations from me since 2016.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, who do you want to reach with this series? Is there someone in particular you're hoping will see it?

CHUCK D: Yeah, everybody says that they love hip-hop. I mean, you ain't got to love hip-hop. I tell people, I say, when you say that you love something, you should know about it. I think the same thing when you say that you love somebody, you should at least know about them. So, I mean, you don't got to love hip-hop. But I used to ask a real clear question that got scattered answers back in the day because I would ask that question. I say, well, you love hip-hop? Yeah, I love hip-hop. You love Black people? And sometimes they'd be like, what's that got to do with it? A-ha, gotcha. You know, because, I mean, you should know about the people that this is evolved from, as opposed to just by - going by the byproduct.

MARTIN: That was Chuck D, one of the producers of the PBS documentary series "Fight The Power: How Hip Hop Changed The World." He's also the narrator. The final episodes of the series air this Tuesday, February 21. The full series is available to stream at Chuck D, thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been a delight to have - to spend this time with you.

CHUCK D: I appreciate the opportunity always. I mean, you guys are the eighth wonder of the world. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.