“Cincinnati! Home of King Records, Bootsy Collins and the Reds,” Chuck D says upon answering his cell phone, his signature voice booming with authority during an interview in advance of his upcoming visit to Cincinnati. The iconic Public Enemy frontman, indefatigable social activist and cultural guru will speak on Thursday as part of The Mercantile Library’s annual Words & Music lecture series. (The sold-out event will be held at the Freedom Center and simulcast in the Harriet Tubman Theater to accommodate more attendees.)
When asked about his various speaking engagements, Chuck says he’s been doing them since 1993; most lectures hone-in on the lives and struggles of minorities in the United States and beyond.
“I’ve spoken at over 500 colleges over that long period. My topics have been rooted in my books, specifically Rap, Race and Reality. My lectures have pretty much been a show of its own,” he says. “I haven’t been doing them as much the last couple of years because of obligations and the logistics of being a left-coaster.”
Among the obligations and logistical concerns: touring with Prophets of Rage, a group he formed with members of Rage Against the Machine and Cypress Hill; the book This Day in Rap and Hip-Hop History, which he co-authored in 2017; a solo album entitled Celebration of Ignorance, which he dropped late last year under the moniker Mistachuck; and, most recently, an exhibition of his watercolor-and-ink works at Shepard Fairey’s Subliminal Projects space in Los Angeles.
Chuck’s various endeavors have been aided in recent years by a lively Twitter feed (@MrChuckD), which focuses on everything from social justice issues to sports commentary — all inevitably presented through his unique historical and cultural lens. His most recent pet peeve: the way the internet and social media can distort reality.
“People are not citizens anymore, they’re ’netizens,” he says of the internet’s pervasive influence. “And if you’re a ’netizen, then it would behoove you to become ’net literate.”
Chuck has watched, with both intrigue and dismay, how the internet has impacted the music business in recent years; a lot has changed since Public Enemy’s rise to prominence in the late 1980s.
“I just left a Prophets of Rage songwriting meeting,” he says. “A jam session doesn’t work for me because I don’t jam. Sometimes I might mumble along — my lips are my instrument — but I like to listen to generate some kind of source. A song has got to be about something. It requires some kind of thought because you also have to put in perspective that there are a trillion songs being released now.’
He notes that, when writing a song, musicians now need to realize that even if a song lands at No.1 on Billboard, it doesn’t guarantee that it will sell physical copies — it’s all in the streams.
“You have to be aware of what you’re doing it for and where it’s going and how people are getting it,” he says.
The internet also spurred Chuck’s creative collaboration with Marcus Ankeney, aka Marcus J, a rapper from Xenia, Ohio who died at the age of 47 on Jan. 26 of this year. The two met in the late 1990s via a Public Enemy message board Chuck created to encourage conversations between like-minded Hip Hop heads. They eventually hooked up on a “virtual” project called the Impossebulls.
“I’m inspired, especially this year, to stay creative in my songwriting and artist camp because we lost a soldier, as I call him,” Chuck says of Ankeney.
At the turn of the century, he continues, they created the virtual Rap squad — a notion that is now commonplace, aka people send verses to each other via email. The group of guys, who Chuck says lived in eight different vantage points, were one of the first to do it.
“We’re all shattered by his loss,” Chuck says. “I’m dedicating my lecture in Cincinnati to Marcus J of the Impossebulls. He would have been there front and center. He’s a true MC and wordsmith. He was an architect during the day and an MC at night. Ain’t that something?”
The Words & Music Lecture: Chuck D is hosted by the Mercantile Library and will be held at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (50 E. Freedom Way) downtown on Thursday (Feb. 7). Though the lecture is sold out, there will be a simulcast in the Freedom Center’s Harriet Tubman Theater. More info: mercantilelibrary.com.