By Benjamin Leatherman
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Troy Farah
By Roger Calamaio
By Mark Deming
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Brian Palmer
He's still the toughest-talking man in hip-hop, the self-proclaimed "Prophet of Rage" taking on the profits of rage that would dismiss him as the forgotten fossil--which, of course, he is when measured in hip-hop years. After all these years--after the rise and fall and soon-to-be rebirth of Public Enemy, after Professor Griff's fall from and return to Chuck's good graces and Flavor Flav's embarrassing multiple arrests--Chuck D stands on the outside of the hip-hop world, the lost messenger ignored by all but the dwindling cult. He was a should-be superstar in the late '80s, when Public Enemy's epic It Takes a Nation of Millions proved punk and rap were brothers of another color, who has since been usurped from the throne by the likes of Dr. Dre and "Suge" Knight's Death Row Mob. But he keeps jumping on his pulpit, ranting about self-empowerment and pride, only now he must scream louder than ever just to be heard, much less understood.
On his first solo album, Chuck's out to regain his name and retain the title as hip-hop's angriest envoy: He swaggers like a punk in time to the slow funk beats, scraps like a fallen prizefighter with a nine count, keeps swinging even when he connects with empty air (though the old conspiracy theories about the CIA funding drugs in the black community now ring with unsettling truth). There's no Bomb Squad this time out, no wailing sirens and rock 'n' roll riffs to muddle the meaning: This is a soul recording where the "muse sick" takes a back seat to the "mess age," where Chuck roars and repeats himself hoarse.
After PE's last album--Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age, a totally wacked (but almost brilliantly so) portrait of a country taken over by David Duke and his white-supremacist cohorts--Autobiography is where the former Carlton Ridenhour does his best bad shtick in that bass-how-low-can-you-go Marv Albert-copped voice: He lays blame, points fingers, speaks up and talks down, tells you how to fix what you broke in the first place. Autobiography is an assault on the music industry fueled by years of getting fucked by friend and foe, a veiled attack on guys like Russell Simmons and "Suge" Knight who rise from privation only to forget the brothers on the bottom of the pile: "Self-haters, traitors, thinkin' now than later/Turnin' their heads/Is it something I said? . . . Ashes to ashes, blunts to blunts/Some of these G's ain't real."
Autobiography kicks off with dialogue from Spike Lee's Clockers in which two kids debate Chuck's relevancy after all these years ("Chuck D's the bomb," says one, "Fuck that shit," insists another, "that nigga Chuck D is ass out"), then launches into the familiar rallying cry: Hip-hop, once hailed as "black America's CNN," is slowly turning into the Cartoon Network. He attacks the "Big Willie"--"the mercenary entertainment hotshot, mack, hustler, or player . . . an updated Stepin Fetchit or Uncle Tom," Chuck writes in his label bio--and the industry that creates him; Chuck bites, chews and swallows the hand that feeds him, appointing himself the judge and jury ready to condemn a hip-hop industry that rolls its cheap beats off the printing press like counterfeit hundred-dollar bills. It's a theme dealt with glancingly on Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age ("So Watcha Gone Do Now"), one Chuck's glommed onto now that he's hip-hop's invisible man.
He knows what he wants from the industry (some muthafuckin' respect, that's what, and for black-music execs to take responsibility for their actions), knows what he doesn't need ("No trends/No phony-ass friends. . . . No negroes with egos/no more shows callin' women bitches and hos"), comes bearing a list of demands and gripes ("Number Five: I resent the fact that failing upward is a policy adopted by blacks in the music industry"). Sure, it takes an arrogant man or a desperate man (read: a politician) to insist he's got the answers as he tumbles down the charts, but Chuck's got enough power and persona to put this over even when he stops rapping and starts lecturing.