The Last Word: Chuck D on Why Rap Could Be 'the Blues of This Century'

The Public Enemy and Prophets of Rage frontman on staying humble, 'rap Pilates' and wisdom from Too $hort

Chuck D has never been shy about sharing his opinions. From the earliest days of Public Enemy, the rapper spoke out about everything from police brutality to what he saw as systematic racism in American society. In the past year, he's had a new platform for expressing his views in Prophets of Rage, a supergroup he formed with B-Real of Cypress Hill and 3/4th of Rage Against The Machine. They are heading to New Zealand and Australia in March to kick off a long string of overseas dates, but before flying off he phoned up Rolling Stone for a Last Word interview in which he talked about Donald Trump, Barack Obama, his dislike of VH1 reality shows and how it feels to have been proven right about online music in the early 2000s. 

What was your favorite book as a kid and what does it say about you?
It was a book about Eddie Rickenbacker, the World War I pilot. It was an adventure, and it made me want to travel around the world.

What movie are you able to watch over and over?
Dead Presidents. I like the way that Larenz Tate throws the chair at the judge at the end. It shows the twisted hypocrisy of Vietnam and how the United States treated soldiers coming back like shit. Another favorite of mine is The Five Heartbeats. It actually depicted an era of musicianship that's under-heralded, black soul music of the 1960s. The movie shows all the crime and corruption behind it. 

What do you do to relax?
Drive. The car is a pen and the road is a pad. As I drive, I'm singing songs, writing songs, playing songs, living songs.

What's the most indulgent purchase you ever made?
My house. But I've never even had a brand-new car. In 1995 I bought a 1994 Montero, but that's the closest I ever got.

Who are your heroes?
My parents. They gave me all the tools that it took to take on life. They taught me humility, what goes up might come down. They taught me how to deal with your lows as well as your highs.

Describe your current fitness routine.
Pilates. My trainer, Kathy Lopez, invented rap Pilates, which is kinda dope.

What is rap Pilates?
Everything is about core strength, which I need to be able to do Public Enemy and do high-octane shows with Prophets of Rage. Your power comes from building your diaphragm, having your cardio balance and eating right. But your core is everything.

Tell me the best advice you ever got.
A concert-promoter friend of mine, Darryl Brooks, told me, "Don't look up at yourself on those giant screens arenas have, because your performance will be thrown off." New performers would look at the screen and get enamored with their own image.

What's your favorite city in the world?
I've been to 107 countries, so I have different favorites at different times, but I'm forever amazed by New York. It's always shaping into something else.

Do you think the New York of your younger years has been romanticized too much? Books and movies paint it as a golden period, but it was really dirty and dangerous.
Yeah, especially as a black person. There was nothing to romanticize about a ripped-up, torn-down, burned-out Bronx. There was nothing to romanticize about a disenfranchised Harlem, a dirty Lower East Side. The beauty of New York is the people. The New York that's shined up and expensive now is a beautiful thing, but they forgot the people in the process. That's called gentrification.

What advice do you wish you could give to yourself at age 20?
You get out what you put in.

What do you think he would say back to you?
I would have heard it because I was always listening. The first superstar who told me anything was Rick James. He would put up the peace sign and say two words: "Be safe." Him and his whole band checked out one of Public Enemy's first shows with the Beastie Boys on the Licensed to Ill tour on a snowy day in Buffalo in 1987. He was one of the first artists that I was enamored about.

Do the results of the Doug Jones/Roy Moore election in Alabama give you any hope for the future?
My hope is the two party notion of Democrats and Republicans will be destroyed. They have a chokehold on the U.S.'s voting process. I would have voted for Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente in 2008 if it wasn't for Obama, but I would vote for Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente right now. Green party candidates.

Are you at all surprised that a man who said African Americans had it better under slavery nearly became a United States senator?
No. Why would I be surprised? That started when Sarah Palin almost became vice president. 

Are you able to think of anything about Donald Trump that you admire?
Why? So you can take it out of context and say that Chuck thinks there are good things about Donald Trump? I ain't falling for that. But Tom Morello does say that bad presidents make great songs.

Do you think that in twenty years America will be better or worse off than it is right now?
About 10 years ago on Tavis Smiley, I predicted that America wouldn't be in one piece by 2050 and that it would be split up into 3 different countries. I still think that the United States of America has never really been united in the last 50 years, and it might be 3 countries by 2050 if there's still a planet.

Are you surprised that things got this bad this quickly?
Nah, I always paid attention to those people that voted against Barack Obama. It was 47 and 48%. I'll tell you this, that the media coming out of L.A. and New York, they are responsible for putting so many images out there that will fuel future hate.

How?
Look at VH-1. They put out so much shit that make black people look fucked. They give people a one-sided view about who we are as a people. They build up this animosity and hate based on what they see without even knowing anybody with those characteristics. So you got a country that judges us by our characteristics instead of our character. Because our character to them is on television or all these other forms of media that come across, even if it's online. It's like the cutting room floor is upside down for black people. Anything civil is on the cutting room floor and they push the other footage onto the world.

"Apple hasn't called me up to work alongside them, so I don't have any feelings. Instead, they got Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre. It figures."

How do you think history is going to remember Barack Obama?

I thought he did twice the job as any other president because he had to. And he couldn't have no mistakes, no hiccups, never even look left or right, and he still got criticism.

Do you think Trump will get re-elected?
I don't think he will last his term, with health reasons just being one of them. He ain't a quitter, but he'll be forced to get out of there. And then we gotta face Mike Pence, who is a nightmare. Trump is a clown. Pence is a nightmare. 

You were a very early voice in favor of online music. Nearly everyone that took you on was proven wrong. Do you feel any sense of vindication?
Well, Apple hasn't called me up to work alongside them, so I don't have any feelings. Instead, they got Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre. It figures.

So no satisfaction from being right?
It was already a leaning tree, so it's not like I was Nostradamus. I was a songwriter and I liked songs to live and breathe and get out. I didn't believe that a record company should prevent people from listening to a song. I didn't want radio stations or television outlets claiming exclusive rights.

They really thought if they filed enough lawsuits against fans they could stop filesharing.
They weren't music people. It was a bunch of suits.

So many rap pioneers are flat broke. It's really a sad state of affairs.
Yeah, but we have a chance to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. It may become the blues of this century where a lot of artists get their second wind and become the John Lee Hookers and Muddy Waters and Lightnin' Hopkins of this century. For rap and hip-hop, the right age might be 40 to 80 as far as your words having weight to change society. Younger people don't really know themselves or society. You have so many rappers like Eminem that are 40 and older and are like walking bibles.

Is hip-hop still evolving in ways you find -interesting?
Yeah. When you look at hip-hop around the world, you see that 33 percent of the time, women are involved. In the United States, it's five to 10 percent. America continues to throw women down a flight of stairs.

Do you think the #MeToo movement will make lasting changes?
As long as you're eradicating the male ownership and the male stockholders. You have to put women in those positions and have it be 50/50. Too $hort said the best thing recently: "Y'all dudes just gotta realize that the old days is over and you gotta step aside. Women gotta run things."