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Chuck D: When my dad died, I was looking for answers

When Public Enemy legend Chuck D's dad died in 2016, the grief was "immense". He explains how he found solace in art and ayahuasca.

Chuck D in black and white

Chuck D found solace in art. Photo: Travis Shinn

After forming Public Enemy in 1985, Chuck D helped take hip-hop into the mainstream with a combination of raw energy and radical social commentary. Thirty-eight years later, the band have received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, been inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and still play to packed out venues across the world – but Chuck’s message remains uncompromised. “I have to speak on behalf of others who can’t,” he says. “As a Black man in this world in 2023, I can’t be afraid to say what I think.”

Now Chuck D has taken his unique power of expression into print with a new book, Livin’ Loud, which lends insight to his life and work via a collection of his own illustrations.

The Big Issue: How did this book come about?

Chuck D: Well, I was an art student when I was younger. I’ve been doing it all my life. I can paint, I can do graphics, I can do design. But I like to just say that I’m an illustrator. And I’ve been on the road for so long, over 100 tours. One day, I heard that Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones sketches out his hotel room before he goes in it whenever he’s on tour. And once I heard that, I was like, huh, something to do with my downtime?

Was boredom a problem for you on the road?

Well, how much partying can you do on tour? I mean, you know, I’m not gonna go to the bar. So the minute I knew I could turn my hotel room into an art studio, especially if we got three to four days to kill between shows, illustration was a perfect use of my time. You can’t be home and in a hotel room at the same time. So art was the closest I got to simulating something that that I felt that was close to home.

Was it therapeutic?

Yeah, I call it ‘artitation’. Because going into yourself, I mean, that’s pretty much what meditation is about. And I think when my dad passed in 2016, I was looking for answers beyond the spiritual ones about him “being in a better place”. And, you know, I actually did a bout of ayahuasca [South American hallucinogenic drink] and discovered some answers that were already inside of me.

Chuck D's drawing of him with Public Enemy bandmate Flavor Flav.
Chuck D and Flav. Illustration: Chuck D

It’s sort of like a spiritual journey through uses of a sacrament. We used DMT [the psychedelic substance that occurs naturally in ayahuasca]. It helps you to go within yourself. And that was helpful because the grief about my father was new and it was immense. I mean, it’s like you talk to somebody for 55 years and then you’ve suddenly got silence. So, I gotta say, art came through for me at that time.

Where do you think your art and your political activism came from?

You are who you are and sometimes you don’t know why. But contrary to popular belief, I don’t like to talk a lot. I like to be quiet. I like to listen more than talk. But if my calling is to speak as a on behalf of people who probably won’t be asked to talk then I will. My parents told me, “Don’t be afraid to speak your mind.”

You’ve never drunk alcohol. Why is that?

It’s a combination of reasons. My dad never drank and my mum never really drank but she’s a social drinker. So that influenced me. From an early age the idea of alcohol turned me off.

I started my recording career pretty mature, at the age of 27. But back when I was 19, we were running clubs where people were freebasing at the back, you know what I’m saying? It was wild back then so nothing could shock me once I was in the music business. I was always the designated driver. Also, I wanted to be a half-ass athlete. I was never much good at it, but I thought if I took drugs and alcohol I’d be even worse than terrible!

Did you ever feel judged for your teetotal lifestyle?

No. If I was out with friends and got tired of what they were doing I was always happy to take myself home. I was the oldest kid in my household and I enjoyed just hanging out with my siblings at home. But still, I would take myself off to bed at 10 if I wanted. I was a weirdo and I enjoyed being a weirdo.

How did you relax?

I had to find other vices. I have an anonymous art figure that does pretty controversial stuff around the beauty universe of women. Back in the late Seventies and early Eighties I did a lot of nude painting and anatomy classes. And I still do that stuff now. Art has created a realm for me whereby getting into anything else is shallow by comparison.

What do you think made you so independently minded?

I credit my parents for a lot of it. They never really forced me to do anything. I went to a high school that I wanted to go to. I went to a college that I wanted to go to, I had jobs that I wanted to have. But they were always there in case I slipped up. And when I did, they would say, “Well, isn’t this what you wanted?” They never had to chastise me because I would be hard enough on myself.

Chuck D's drawing of Public Enemy on stage
Public Enemy on stage. Illustration: Chuck D

Do you still get as much of a kick as writing music as you used to?

As a matter of fact, I’ve just been working on some new Public Enemy tracks tonight and I wrote a song for [Flava] Flav that I’m 50% sure is gonna be a hit. Sometimes you just know as soon as you write it. I was just lucky to have fallen into a zone tonight. That’s only happened to me on four songs in my life. Rebel Without A Pause, I knew right away that was gonna have a life of its own. 911 Is A Joke? I knew automatically. Can’t Truss It was another. And when we did Harder Than You Think back in 2007, I knew there was something strange going on because I recorded it in one take, and I’m not usually that kind of guy. You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned Fight The Power. There were different things that made that a hit – like being in a movie [Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing]. Fight The Power was just a really, really, really good song that received a huge amount of support and became our most significant work.

Has anyone tried to make a Public Enemy track with AI yet?

They’re not gonna beat me to the punch! I can’t wait to dance with AI. Sure, it will make some people lazy but some good can come out of it too. Chat GPT is amazing and a lot of it boils down to what sort of ideas you’re putting into it in the first place. There is an element of control you have over it. Artists need to understand that and be all over their own work and how new technologies affect it. As the chief writer in my band, it behoves me to be on top of these new tools.

Livin’ Loud: ARTitation by Chuck D is out now (Genesis)

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