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Chuck D's lessons on fighting the power

Public Enemy emcee on activism for new generation

WASHINGTON (CNN) - Chuck D has been fighting the power since hip-hop's early days, and in a new age of revitalized activism, the Public Enemy and Prophets of Rage emcee is passing his wisdom along to a new generation.

In his new book, "This Day in Rap and Hip-Hop History," Chuck D chronicles hip-hop's most iconic moments and the most influential songs since the genre's start in the early '70s.

"I wanted to document the history of hip-hop because a lot of urban myth has run rampant about it," Chuck D told CNN. "A lot of people that say that they love music or they say they love the art form of hip-hop or rap music seem to be lost on the facts of it, and I wanted to put together something that was kind of academic and a foundation for people to look at."

Chuck D, who has traveled to more than 100 countries as an artist, says he not only understands hip-hop's mark on American culture but the genre's influence globally.

"(The anti-establishment fight) is not based on individuals coming into positions of power," the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer said. "It's systems, and I've always written songs that kind of illuminate the systems so that the average person can see, whether they agree or not."

President Ronald Reagan was in office when Public Enemy released its first album in 1987. The war on drugs was in full force, and incarceration rates for non-violent crimes skyrocketed, disproportionally impacting communities of color. Pioneering hip-hop artists like Chuck D projected the sound of the streets -- a perspective that some regions of America had not heard before -- to protest and resist systemic racism.

As anti-establishment sentiments took the 2016 presidential election by storm, Chuck D formed the Prophets of Rage. The rock and hip-hop supergroup with the slogan "Make America Rage Again" includes Chuck D, Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk, B-Real from Cypress Hill and DJ Lord.

CNN's #GetPolitical series caught up with the legendary rapper, who shared his thoughts about activism today, America's love-hate relationship with hip-hop, Eminem's big political statement and whether mumble rap has a place in the genre.

CNN: Although hip-hop is finally gaining recognition for its cultural contributions, America appears to have a love-hate relationship with the genre, particularly when artists get political and don't just make party music. Why do you think that is?

CHUCK D: If you say that you love hip-hop, the question should be that since it's been the voice of the voiceless ... do you love the people that it comes from? And you know, initially it's that jump back -- 'Oh why? What does that got to do with it?' But I tell people all the time, if you don't love the people from which it came from, who evolved and created it out of being voiceless to have a voice, then you gotta kind of look at the script again and say whether you love it or not. And if you do love it, how are you going to support it and support the voiceless?

CNN: Some artists are saying that conscious rap made a comeback over the last few years. Is it coming back or is it just more visible?

CHUCK D: There is some truth that conscious rap is more in the forefront today, but it never went anywhere ... The Source (a top hip-hop magazine) was going hard every month on high dialogue in the barbershops and the streets and the salons on the intellectual quest of what hip-hop and rap music could be as well as making you shake it. That balance was definitely there in the '90s and maybe fell off in the beginnings of this millennium as it became more industrialized and more looked at from a marketer's point of view, from a corporation's (point of view). And hip-hop has just begun, in the last five or six years, to bite that hand and also attack it with the independence of where people are at.

CNN: One of the biggest political moments in hip-hop this year was Eminem's attack on Trump and Trump supporters at the BET Hip Hop Awards. What was the significance of that moment?

CHUCK D: There's a lot of pressure on him (as a white rapper). He's being ushered on a black carpet, so to speak, and he took that time out to take that road to speak to all of his fans ... He attacked not only the audacity of Trump but he also attacked the fact that he has to step up there and say, 'OK, look, I have a white demographic and I'm going to address you all to think in a way that everybody is thinking about (Trump), especially the demographic on the black carpet that let me in,' so that was commendable. He did what he had to do, and he was accountable to it.

CNN: Some rappers critiqued his lyrics, arguing that this wasn't his best work. Was that the point?

CHUCK D: That wasn't the point of it. I think we're in a nation right now that's acclimated to people giving all they can when it comes down to talking about some athlete's triple-double, but they rarely ever hear the dialogue of rap music and hip-hop at a high level.

CNN: Does mumble rap* have a place in hip-hop?

*Mumble rap is a new style in hip-hop, popularized by rappers like Future and Lil Uzi Vert, whose lyrics are difficult to decipher as they mumble over the beats.

CHUCK D: It's a very hard job to elucidate and be eloquent and come across vocabulary that you might not have, so you tend to take the musical way out of it and maybe humming, and that's African ... so (mumble rappers) get away with a license and a pass on that. Whether or not it can be classified as hip-hop or rap music is another debate. But the mumble rap is an easy way out instead of going into the complexities of learning words, and sometimes I've gotten away with it ... a lot of the guys who are considered mumble rappers also feel that the music is important. They don't want to obstruct it with their voices.


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