Are You Listening?

By Chad Galts / May / June 1999
November 14th, 2007
I'm not what you'd call your typical lecturer," Chuck D told a crowd at the Salomon Center in late March. Invited to campus by the student-run Brown Lecture Board, Chuck D, a cofounder of the group Public Enemy and president of the SLAMJamz recording label, announced he would talk about "rap and hip-hop and its effect on the American psyche." He then proceeded to deliver a one-hour primer on rap that alternated between carefully articulated social criticisms and brash, obscenity-laden outbursts. He kept his lessons simple and direct: "Rap music is not a music," he said. "It's made up of two words: rap over music - a vocal application over music." The form originated in the Carribean in the late 1960s, he continued, where DJs would add their own voices to what they were playing imultaneously on two turntables. Introduced in the United States ten years later, rap remained underground and invisible to most Americans, especially whites, until the late 1980s.

"In 1988, MTV decided to open up a little black thing to white America called Yo MTV Raps," D said. The show turned out to be so popular that it "made everyone at MTV reevaulate the rest of their programming."

And then, he continued with a wide grin, "there was that white guy nobody likes to talk about anymore." With his song, "Ice, Ice, Baby," the artist known as Vanilla Ice (a.k.a. Rob Van Winkle) did for rap music what Elvis Presley had done for rock and roll thirty years earlier - popularized it for a white audience. Only this time it was a little different. "When ["Ice, Ice, Baby"] came out, black people liked it until they found out he was white," D said. "And three years later, no one would admit to buying his record."

The Vanilla Ice memory lapse is hardly surprising, he added. The rap star seemed particularly amused by a recent example of selective listening, in which a cover of Time magazine announced that rap had finally achieved a mainstream audience. D asked: "Haven't they been listening to their kids?"

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May / June 1999