April 18, 2019

Chuck D ’84, ’13 (Hon.), Returns to Adelphi to Talk Hip-Hop History and Getting His Start at Adelphi

by Kurt Gottschalk

Famed rapper, activist, artist and cultural theorist Chuck D ’84, ’13 (Hon.), received a hero’s welcome when he returned to his alma mater April 15 for a conversation on the Westermann Stage in the Concert Hall at the Adelphi University Performing Arts Center with University Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Perry Greene, Ph.D.

Dr. Greene had dubbed the evening “Inside the Artist’s Studio,” modeling it after the popular James Lipton program, but quickly rechristened it “Inside the Rapper’s Studio” as he introduced the hip-hop pioneer and co-founder of the groundbreaking group Public Enemy.

In a freewheeling two-hour talk, Chuck D—known as Carlton Ridenhour—discussed growing up on Long Island and his time on campus, during which he drew political cartoons for The Delphian and hosted radio programs on the old campus station WBAU and nearby commercial station WLIR. Laughing frequently and shouting out to his old WBAU comrades—who planned a reunion around the talk—he was a genial guest, speaking hard truths about America’s persistent racism and the importance of acceptance and education. After talking with Dr. Greene, he took questions from students and attendees about hip-hop history and life as a rap elder.

Born in Queens, New York, Chuck D moved with his parents to Roosevelt, Long Island, when he was 9. A couple of years later he discovered Adelphi during a campus visit. It was a time of white flight and new centers of integration, he remembered.

“Roosevelt became this hamlet where everybody came from everywhere,” he said. “You’re going to school with these new kids. We grew to be competitive but out of that spirit we also grew solidarity.”

Change was in the air, and the climate of the times was an early inspiration for the confrontational verses Chuck D would later write.

Recalling his parents and their generation, he said, “People that were born in the ’40s, ’30s, when they came into the ’50s, they weren’t going to keep their tongues wrapped in their mouths, and they brought that into the ’60s. By the end of the decade, black was beautiful. [The James Brown song] ‘Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud’ was right at the end of the decade.

“What’s underplayed in America is the 1950s for black people,” he continued. “The 1950s was a lot of things happening in black United States of America. You had Brown v. Board and all that stuff happening here.”

Chuck D enrolled at Adelphi to study graphic design, but soon found the newfound freedom of not being forced to go to class a bit more of a temptation than he could handle. He got Incompletes in his first year and had to get each of his professors to agree to let him retake their classes in order to avoid suspension. After that, he said, “I treated school like a business. I was a phenom in all my classes.

“This campus right here, four miles from my home, which I chose when I was 12 years old, was very important, and that’s why you can’t sleep on any student coming in here,” he added. “I had the best professors in the world.”

Today, he said, college students live a very different life, with new ways of communicating and gathering information.

“When we were here in 1984, there was a whole different way we took in information,” he said. “We’ve got to respect that people doing things now don’t do them the same way we did them rather than assuming nothing changes and no one’s learning.”

These days, Chuck D is releasing his own music and signing new artists through SLAMjamz Records, the internet label he founded in 1996. He has also published several books, most recently Chuck D Presents This Day in Rap and Hip-Hop History (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2017). And as ever, he said, he is interested in giving voice to activists and others outside the spotlight through his work.

“My next phase is trying to diminish the importance of celebrities and people who are artists having say-so on the condition of the people doing the work,” he said. “My main purpose is to shine a light on the doers. I mean, I’m doing, but there’s people working every day.”

During the audience question period, Chuck D offered advice to aspiring musicians (write about regular people, he said, citing singer-songwriter Johnny Cash as an example) and suggested what he would bring back to Adelphi from his days as a student (“definitely a radio station, without question”). Asked what achievement he was most proud of, his response revealed at least a trace of optimism for the future: “Being a father with sane kids.”

Watch our exclusive video interview with Chuck D.



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