Chuck D always has something to say. Yet I wasn’t expecting the Public Enemy founder to have a lot to say about President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s push for a national interstate highway system. When we sat down to chat, the rapper who told generations of young people, “Don’t Believe the Hype,” launched into a detailed history of the Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Turns out that driving those roads mapped out by a bygone administration has played an integral part in Chuck D’s songwriting process and thus is central to Public Enemy’s and hip-hop’s history.
Born Carlton Ridenhour, Chuck D, who is now sixty-one, spent a lot of time behind the wheel as he meandered along the highways and byways around his childhood home in Long Island, New York. He was studying graphic design at Long Island’s Adelphi University when he cofounded Public Enemy in 1986. Chuck D teamed up with DJ Terminator X, Professor Griff, and clock-enthusiast rapper Flavor Flav, and the group released their politically conscious debut rap album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, in 1987. Public Enemy quickly established themselves as a no-holds-barred, opinionated rap group who didn’t mind pissing the right people off. Their song “Fight the Power” was memorably blasted out of Radio Raheem’s boom box in Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing, while songs like “Don’t Believe the Hype,” “Fear of a Black Planet,” and “Bring the Noise” have been in heavy rotation for decades. All this has helped cement Chuck D’s spot in the Long Island Music Hall of Fame, alongside Billy Joel and Mariah Carey.
Over the last three decades, the band has not skirted controversy, preferring to wade right into the thick of it. Their lyrics are provocative and contemplative, and Chuck D’s unmistakable baritone delivers a dose of medicine tucked inside the sweet beats. Even after three decades and fifteen studio albums, not to mention a host of live and compilation records, the band hasn’t slowed down, releasing a stream of new music, including 2020’s What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down? They generate headlines and make their opinions heard—and Chuck D certainly has a lot of opinions. Opinions he expresses in his books, his music, and his artwork, which is part of the permanent collections at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture and the Oakland Museum of California. We spoke on the phone about the Monkees, The Great Gatsby, facial recognition software, and, of course, the Interstate Highway System.
I. ANGRILY CURIOUS
CHUCK D: Let’s start with the name of your magazine, The Believer. Let’s talk about the Monkees. I’m a believer. Let’s talk about the songwriters that wrote for the Monkees and for other people and TV shows. Let’s talk about Gerry Goffin and Carole King.
THE BELIEVER: Are you a Monkees fan?
CD: I grew up with the Monkees. I was one of the ones that believed. I believed they wrote their own songs and sang their own songs.
BLVR: Did you know that the Monkees were on an FBI watch list because they were worried the band was anti-government or something?
CD: I didn’t know that. One thing my daughter just told me, like ten minutes ago, while I was taking my 2021 passport pictures, is that there’s a policy that will no longer allow pictures with smiles. Did you hear about that? That’s a new problem. I think maybe it has something to do with facial recognition software. Your face contorts when you smile.
BLVR: Do you get nervous about the government using facial recognition software?
CD: Nervous is not a good word for that. I don’t get nervous about it. I might get unhinged. Unhinged and nervous are two different things. I’m like: I’m a citizen here. I demand some kind of explanation.
BLVR: Are you worried about your phone using facial recognition? Are you worried about the government using facial recognition to monitor you out in the streets? Or are you just conscious of it?
CD: Worried? Worried is not a word I would use. I don’t get “nervous” or “worried” about any of this. I don’t want to just throw my machismo up in this thing, but I’m just saying that when you’re worried and you’re nervous, that means you’re dealing with the unknown. We demand the right to know who’s pushing the buttons on some of these things that are peculiar. And, actually, it makes me, you know, angrily curious. Like, Who the hell? What the hell? WTH is this? Like, Yo, man, give me an explanation for this bullshit.
BLVR: In China they’re using facial recognition technology to monitor whether kids are skipping class.
CD: Wow. They’ve got to find new ways of monitoring youth, especially in this century.
BLVR: Are you a big tech person?
CD: I’m a big tech person who says we should do our best to manage the technology we have. Upgrades and new gadgets piss me off because they should be managed and work well instead of just being consumed like a meal. They upgrade faster than our capabilities. You know, when things upgrade at such a high speed, they tend to make the masses asses. They just move the m over.
BLVR: Is your album What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down? related to the same idea of technology moving so quickly?
CD: Yeah, you got to figure out how you’re going to manage these gadgets and not be dependent upon them, because if you don’t manage the gadgets, they’ll master you. You’ll become dependent on them and won’t be able to do without them, and that means they will master you. Then when they do disappear, you can’t adapt. The song “When the Grid Goes Down” is not so much of an anti-gadget, anti-technology thing. It’s more: Beware of the way the government’s playing games with the grid thing. They could make the grid go down. They could make anything happen, so just be privy to what’s happening.
BLVR: One of the things you mention specifically in that song is “No GPS, what will you do?,” so I was wondering what you would do in that situation? How are your map-reading skills?
CD: My map-reading skills are probably better than those of anybody you could ever find in your life. I already have an inside GPS. I was trained with maps, with latitude and longitude readings and the parallels and all that stuff. I have an understanding of the roads in the United States and the Eisenhower interstate system. I’ll give you a little trivia that will make you understand what the Eisenhower interstate system is, if you don’t know already. Where do you live?
BLVR: I live in New York.
CD: You always lived in New York?
BLVR: Originally, I’m from Oregon.
CD: OK, and what road runs north to south in Oregon?
CD: Right. Now what road runs north to south in New York?
CD: Exactly. So you understand that the fives run straight up and down. And they run perpendicular to the roads that go east to west. So if you go from Oregon all the way over to New York, you’re going 5, 15, 25, 35, 45, 55, 65, 75, and 85 to the east. I don’t know if you’ve driven anywhere else in the country, but when you’re down south, and you go from Florida to Los Angeles, you’re going on the 10, right? When you’re up north going from New England to Seattle, you’re on the 90. Those numbers go 10, 20, 30, 40, up to 70, 80, 90, from the south to the north. And anything with three numbers in it is a beltway that runs around a city, but most people don’t know that.
BLVR: So why do you know all this?
CD: Because I had to go to all those places on tour and I was curious. I played in all these cities.
BLVR: Were you the guy sitting right next to the bus driver, following along with a map?
CD: Yeah, and having a conversation with the driver. But, you know, I would know just as much as the driver.
BLVR: Do you have a favorite road to drive, since you’ve driven so many of them?
CD: Well, I’ve written my best records while driving, ever since my first record, in 1986. So it’s been the energy I use to write a song with my hand on the passenger seat with the pad. The number one thing is to keep your eye on the road. The number one thing is to be safe. But when I’m on a dark road in the car with the pad and my pen, that’s where the ideas come from, along with the music. So my favorite road? I love driving the 101 up the West Coast. It’s beautiful.
BLVR: I always threw up on that road as a kid. It’s too curvy!
CD: You did? It’s not as curvy as the Southern State [Parkway] in Long Island. Here’s another road thing: in Long Island, the Southern State and the Northern State [Parkways] curve and swirl, but you know why?
CD: Because in the ’20s, driving was a rich person’s luxury. So when they took their drives on Long Island, they sashayed and swayed and did loops and curves with their new-order automobiles. So that was a rich-person thing until Henry Ford really popularized the Model T.
BLVR: You would think The Great Gatsby would have convinced the rich folks not to drive crazy on the roads in Long Island.
CD: No, he was on the North Shore. He didn’t go to the south. The Great Gatsby dealt with the North Shore—that’s where all the big mansions were—but the rest of Long Island dealt with, you know, agriculture and farms and stuff like that, and a lot of those roads are still there. But the Southern State and the Northern State are beautiful to drive on, and they were built for the leisure and the luxury of driving. But if you’ve been on the LIE [the Long Island Expressway], it makes no bones about it. It’s like, What’s the shortest distance between two points? A line. And that’s what the LIE is. A line that goes straight out, no curves, no turns. Cut right to the chase on the Long Island Expressway. Also, another thing is they are called “parkways” in New York. Have you noticed they don’t call them parkways in Oregon? That’s because the rich [in New York] set up parkways to look like they were driving to a park like Central Park. That’s why the overheads are so low too. You can’t drive commercial vehicles on the Southern State. If you drive a commercial vehicle on the Northern or Southern State, it is going to crash into the overhead passes, which are less than ten feet in height. And that’s why when Eisenhower set up the Interstate Highway System in 1956, the overpasses were made higher so they could move military trucks and gear, which they took from the Autobahn, which was set up by Hitler and his boys. OK, enough of that.
II. OSTRICH FARMING
BLVR: So back to your songwriting. You said you would drive and write your songs simultaneously. How?
CD: Yeah, I would never look into my seat; I would look at the scribble after. But I could read my writing.
BLVR: Is there one song you remember writing while driving?
CD: Yeah, “Bring the Noise.”
BLVR: What road were you driving down?
CD: The Meadowbrook State Parkway, driving from Roosevelt to Long Beach. And then I wrote “Prophets of Rage” [also the name of the supergroup who performed the song, made up of members for Rage Against the Machine, Cypress Hill, and Public Enemy] while being stuck on the Kosciuszko Bridge driving up into Manhattan.
BLVR: I hate that bridge. I can definitely understand writing about rage on it. Do you have any rituals in the car to get yourself in the mood to write, or is it just the act of driving that inspires your creativity?
CD: The act of driving and having time and being left alone. That’s the ritual. Start the car up and I’m good.
BLVR: Do you listen to music when you drive?
CD: Well, I have to if I’m writing a song.
BLVR: When I was watching the video for “When the Grid Goes Down,” I kept thinking about apocalypse preppers who have outfitted bomb shelters so they can live for years after the apocalypse. Are you a prepper? Do you have, like, ten thousand dollars in cash and four hundred cans of soup to ride out the apocalypse?
CD: Maybe I do. [Laughs] But how you gonna ride out the apocalypse?
BLVR: With a can of soup and a can opener?
CD: And then what you got to do about your blood pressure? A can of soup, man: the sodium will kill you.
BLVR: I was doing some research before we started chatting, and I read on Wikipedia that Terminator X left Public Enemy to raise African black ostriches. What are those?
CD: I don’t know. Although what he really said was they weren’t ostriches; they were emus.
BLVR: Is that the weirdest reason to leave a band?
CD: It ranks up there. But I don’t think that’s the real reason he left the band. I think he left the band because he was tired of the road, tired of certain things that happen in a group and also in hip-hop.
BLVR: So it wasn’t really the ostriches.
CD: No, I think the emus were a great venture. He was told it was a good venture to go into, but the emus all got wiped away by, I think, Hurricane Andrew, which went through North Carolina.
BLVR: Oh no! That is sad.
CD: Yeah, that was the end of that story line.
BLVR: I went to the post office the other day and they had hip-hop stamps and Harlem Renaissance stamps. Do you think this is in response to the Public Enemy album Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp?
CD: It’s actually a statement that first came out in “Fight the Power.” I mean, the job of a songwriter is to illuminate some discussion on things that probably wouldn’t be talked about. So, yeah, possibly. But it takes a lot more to pass a bill into a law. I do understand that my realm is in popular culture, not in law-making and -breaking. We make suggestions and hopefully the social sphere will be able to turn them into real things.
BLVR: I just thought it was so strange to be able to go in and buy a stamp that has “B-boy” written on it. That it went through whatever the stamp approval process is and suddenly I can put a B-boy or graffiti art stamp on my electric bill.
CD: Well, B-boys have been around for, like, forty or fifty years. Things evolve and, you know, the fact that you could see rock and roll on a stamp was definitely mind-boggling to somebody who was born in the ’20s or ’30s. So they kind of looked at it the same way people look at hip-hop and rap music now. But it’s not a young person’s music, so to speak. While it initially came out of the young people’s idioms, that’s no longer true. In fact, it might be the old people’s music, because young people are into a whole different other thing.
BLVR: Are you on TikTok?
CD: No, I’m only into Twitter. I don’t even do Facebook. You’re not going to see me on TikTok; you’re not going to see me on Instagram.
III. [INSERT LOGO HERE]
BLVR: I read on the internet—so it must be true—that you drew the logo for Public Enemy in the ’80s?
CD: Yes. I’ve drawn a lot of logos, and I consider myself an illustrator.
BLVR: So what inspired you to make a band logo?
CD: I believe that hip-hop should have logos, just like the Rockettes. And my influence was what Iron Maiden was doing, what the Rolling Stones were doing with their tongue [logo]. I believe that rap artists should have logos that are identifiable.
BLVR: Did you want to be an illustrator, in case your music career didn’t work out?
CD: I am an illustrator. And I wanted to be an illustrator to do album covers. So I was going to get into the record business one way or another. But I wasn’t necessarily trying to record. I just tried to get in and use my skills in the art department. That was my first goal, anyway, but Rick Rubin requested I do records. He thought I had something, and after two years of him running and chasing me down, I conceded to Bum Rush the Show and brought my homeboys to the party.
BLVR: Do you still draw regularly?
CD: Yeah, all the time. I plan to have gallery shows right through my sixties, and I have a couple of art aliases out there. Really one art alias out there.
BLVR: What’s your preferred medium?
CD: Watercolor, Sharpies, and those BIC Wite-Out Shake ’n Squeeze correction pens. Acrylics are too messy and can’t travel too much on the plane. I have also spent all my hotel time on tour setting up my room as an art lab.
BLVR: So you don’t really live up to that musician-destroying-the-hotel-room stereotype, huh?
CD: Yeah, I’m not going to go to the lobby or the bar. I mean, I do that for the camaraderie, but my hotel room is set up like an art lab. A lot of that influence came from being inspired by people like [Rolling Stones guitarist] Ron Wood. Have you ever seen Ron Wood’s art? It’s phenomenal.
BLVR: Who else inspires your art?
CD: Pete Beard, who does all the documentaries on YouTube of all the great illustrators. He has almost sixty documentaries on the great illustrators of all time. I have a team called mADurgency, which is like a collective of graphic artists and illustrators. We’re a worldwide team and we’re growing. And the beautiful thing, Melissa, is that because of the internet, you can actually see artists show their art in a very transmitted way. And it’s a great way of using the internet instead of getting on there for drama.
BLVR: You’ve been on Space Ghost Coast to Coast. You’ve been on Johnny Bravo and Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Cartoons are clearly a fan of you, but are you a cartoon fan?
CD: No. I’m grown. I ain’t gonna look at a cartoon the same way as I did when I was six. I’m sixty. I mean, I’m an illustration fan.
IV. THE QUOTA
BLVR: The original public enemy number one was Al Capone, and I was just curious if you knew he wanted to be a songwriter.
CD: Well, that’s kind of what did him in, huh? The celebrity of it all.
BLVR: Yeah, that was apparently his true passion. You hadn’t heard that one before?
CD: No, no. I mean, I knew Charles Manson wanted to be a rock star and a songwriter too. Songwriters are a little different.
BLVR: Do you remember what the first rap video you ever saw was?
CD: Yeah, the first video was, I think, “The Message.” Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five did “The Message” in, I think, ’82, and it was something I kept staring at. Because it wasn’t so much about seeing the video but who was broadcasting it. So in 1981, ’82, a few more affiliates were touching rap. I’m trying to remember if I saw something before that. Was “Planet Rock” a video? Was “Rapper’s Delight” a video? I remember seeing their performances, but I don’t recall the videos.
BLVR: I read that the first “rap” video ever played on MTV was Blondie’s “Rapture.” What are your thoughts on that?
CD: Blondie was no joke, ever. Debbie Harry was no joke. They were really New York City cats. Tina Weymouth and the Talking Heads too. They were really hip people, you know. They were hip and they got turned on to rap. If it wasn’t hip, they wouldn’t have fucked with it anyway. “Flash is fast, Flash is cool.” I was blown away when she said that, because Flash was fast, and Flash was cool. We knew that. It was fascinating coming from this white woman, coming from a record, and then coming from Blondie, no less, who were already getting some heat in New York and around the country. So we thought that was good, that was props.
BLVR: And the video had Fab 5 Freddy and Jean-Michel Basquiat, which is pretty amazing.
CD: Right? And the guy in the beginning that people always mix up and say is Flavor Flav. It wasn’t.
BLVR: Do you remember the first time you saw one of your videos on TV?
CD: Yeah, it was on Video Music Box with DJ Ralph McDaniels and the Vid Kid [Lionel “Vid Kid” Martin].
BLVR: How has video-making changed from your very first video to your most recent?
CD: I always hated doing videos. But the music business has gone from a sound business to a sight, sound, story, and style business. People usually see their music first, before they hear it. The latest generation, they kind of see music. If they can’t visualize music, it’s almost like the song doesn’t exist. So the big difference, I think, is that it’s necessary to actually let people know that the song exists. Even if the song has been out for a couple months, people think it is brand-new because they haven’t seen the video. I think we are at a time when people kind of listen a little bit too much with their eyes.
BLVR: Public Enemy was the first group ever to release an all-MP3 album [Bring the Noise 2000]. Did you have any idea that digital releases were going to be the future?
CD: Yeah, that’s why I did it. We released it because we got involved in the internet revolution in ’98, ’99. We felt that the marketplace was too saturated. We wanted to be able to go peer-to-peer instead of going through [a process] that would reject our music. And so we wanted to be peer-to-peer on our own terms.
BLVR: You’ve been telling people to “fight the power” for over thirty years. Do you ever wish that particular song was no longer necessary?
CD: Thirty years is a long time ago as far as the music industry goes, but that’s a short period of time when it comes down to real life. New generations have to have things taught their way. You can’t say, Man, did we do things this way before? They say, I wasn’t there. I wasn’t in the ’50s. But I could learn from the ’50s, right?
BLVR: I remember you talking at one point about wanting to inspire one hundred minds that would go on to change the world. Do you think you’ve accomplished that?
CD: Yeah, that was the goal. I think we got those numbers. But, you know, life goes on. You can’t bask in the numbers at all, like we reached our quota. Nah, life doesn’t work that way.