Chuck D – My Life In Music

The Public Enemy commander on the records that inspired him to bring the noise: “It was scientific alchemy! I was blown to pieces”

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The Public Enemy commander on the records that inspired him to bring the noise: “It was scientific alchemy! I was blown to pieces”, in our APRIL 2023 issue of Uncut, available to buy here.

“Rock Box”
Profile 1984

We can talk about anything by Run-DMC: “My Adidas”, “Peter Piper” “Rock Box”, “Sucker MC’s”… but if I had to choose one to be the most influential, it’s “Rock Box”. It showed that hip-hop and rock could really work. Run-DMC was a big thing – there was nothing like it.


They were able to take the elements of everything that had gone before, from 1973 to 1983. They were like a synopsis or a culmination of the whole 10 years of hip-hop before that. The unbelievable aspect of Run-DMC is that they compressed a decade into a recording act: two dudes and a DJ. Run-DMC made me seriously know that hip-hop can be as big as rock’n’roll.

Hot Buttered Soul
Stax, 1969

Towards the end of the ’60s, Stax were stripped of their catalogue, which was all owned by Atlantic on a handshake sort of deal. So Al Bell made a merger deal with Gulf+Western and they were supplied with a good bit of money, and he had the brilliant idea of creating 27 albums. The studio was loaded and people thought it was crazy, but all of a sudden Stax had a catalogue. Isaac Hayes made two albums, and the second album was Hot Buttered Soul, which changed the whole world of album artists for black people. It was black psychedelic, you know? Take your head into the groove. Isaac Hayes is my musical godfather.


Tamla, 1963

I come from a Motown, Stax, Atlantic house-hold. My moms always played music while we were told to do chores around the house. In fact we wanted to get away from the music, so we got away from the duty of choice! But Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips” was manic enough to make us tear up the damn house. People talk about James Brown’s Live At The Apollo, but “Fingertips” was this live single that resonated to us as kids. You got a lot of kids yelling, the harmonica blowing, it was just a manic cut. People throw ‘genius’ around but there are no words for Stevie Wonder. I’m 62 and I’ve been listening to this dude since I was three years old. Go figure!

“Good Times”
Atlantic, 1979

There’s no record like “Good Times”. It’s the bridge between all that was before and all that came after, between the realms of black music and rock, R&B and soul, and hip-hop on the other end of it. It was the Big Bang Theory. With Chic, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards took us from R&B to disco, they upped the tempo and then they slowed the whole environment down with “Good Times”. Nile Rodgers is a king, man. There’s Nile, Prince, Stevie Wonder, George Clinton – absolute geniuses. Why did “Good Times” become a foundation stone of hip-hop? It’s the pulse of the blood. Trying to describe it is like trying to explain, “Why is water wet?”

Let It Be
Apple, 1970

I’m 12 years older than hip-hop. It didn’t come out of nowhere for me – it was a momentum forming, like lava pooling. So I can’t erase the fact that there’s influences that go beyond today’s narrative of what they think hip-hop is. Dude, I’m part of the result of the British Invasion. I’m four years old dancing to “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, and everything else that The Beatles offered. They had a whole bunch of different approaches on how they were going to create music for the masses, that we all could not not hear. So I’m a Beatles fan. There’s nothing crafted better than “Let It Be”. That says it all.

Live At The Armory
Unreleased cassette, 1979

What really got me into this thing was a cassette tape being passed around from a gathering at The Armory [in Jamaica, Queens, NYC] in 1979. You can find it on YouTube. “Rapper’s Delight” had been released a couple of weeks before; “Christmas Rappin’” was yet to be released. And this is the closest inside look at the fever of hip-hop and rap, before records. These cats were just going for it. It was probably the greatest live event of the combination of MCing and DJing ever. It was absolutely scientific alchemy! I was fuckin’ blown to pieces.

“Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud”
King, 1968

How can you put James Brown into a sentence? It’s impossible, man. James Brown is best described by an “uh!” and you go from there. If I had to pick one song that was influential politically, it’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud”. But James Brown was beyond what you saw and heard – you had to feel James Brown. My father was part of the Columbia record club that gave you albums for a penny. We had a record player connected to a Motorola TV: you could play records and watch TV on the same device. James Brown and Aretha Franklin were played in the house like they were uncles and aunts.

Follow The Leader
Uni/MCA, 1988

Follow The Leader was music made for 2035. Rakim cannot be misunderstood or underappreciated. His mind operates differently, as his faith was based on numerology from another era, know what I’m saying? So that’s how he approached that record. And also Eric B’s willingness to know that this is happening and make it happen in a way that was so futuristic… People still haven’t caught up with that record. I also gotta mention Boogie Down Productions’ “Poetry”, from [1987’s] Criminal Minded. That was just genius. Basically KRS-One is saying, “This is what rapping really is – we’re poets as much as Jim Morrison.”

Chuck D’s art book Livin’ Loud is out now, published by Genesis Publications (£35); see more at


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