Thursday, March 12, 2009

Nice to Meet You #6 - Chuck D

Usually Denny’s sucks—greasy food almost guaranteed to speed up the digestive process in a most uncomfortable way—but one evening my sophomore year of college Denny’s was about the coolest restaurant in the history of restaurants, made possible by a hip-hop legend.

The IWU Student Senate uses allotted funds for brining in interesting and reputable speakers for students and faculty to attend free of charge, mostly for the furthering of our liberal arts educations. These range from authors to experts to celebrities, and on this particular night it just so happened to be Chuck D, front man for renowned rap titans Public Enemy, who wanted to talk about digital music.

This was back when Napster was still free and pissing off the recording industry the way sinners piss of an unforgiving god, and Chuck D was there to actually encourage us to download the music for free anyway, copyright be damned. His argument was that people think they’re robbing the artists, but their not. Artists don’t make money off of record sales; labels do. And Chuck D’s opinion of labels was not an especially high one, ripping into them for ripping off young artists and skimming every dime off the top that they possibly can. So the guy who wrote “Fight the Power” wanted us to steal music. Big surprise.

Sadly, most of the younger generation’s connection to Public Enemy comes strictly from Flavor Flav, the other half of Public Enemy that never really rapped, just hopped around with his wall clock bling hollering, “Yeaaaaah, Boiiiiiiiiiy.” So the audience was relatively thin—maybe 150 people. It’s also important to keep mind that my particular university was largely white (to put that into perspective, that same year of school I lived with seven black guys, and we did the math—that put 17% of Wesleyan’s black population in our eight-man suite), so few people on campus had even heard of Chuck D.

Whatever. My roommate Dale and I had heard of him, so after he spoke we stuck around with about 25-30 other people hoping to get an autograph. We totally did, which was awesome for me because Chuck D was one of the first celebrities I’d ever really been in contact with. A friend of ours had been in charge of bringing the rapper to campus and they were going out to eat afterwards. Somehow—I’m still not exactly sure how—Dale and I became two of about 12 people that escorted Mr. D to what was probably the only sit-down restaurant in town still open at 10:00 at night: Denny’s.

This is not to say that joining in on this once-in-a-lifetime excursion was a no-brainer for me. At the time I was in a relationship that required I call my long-distance girlfriend every night when she got home from work. At 10:00. You see the conflict. Considering I was an immature 19-year-old in his first serious relationship, I wasn’t sure I wanted to risk getting dumped for a short stack and a few greasy strips of lukewarm bacon. Previous to this I had had no testicular fortitude in the relationship, and truth be told there were few times I showed testicular fortitude in the many months that followed, but happily I made the right choice that night, despite the silly, stupid, immature fight my decision caused.

At Denny’s I was star-struck. Here we are having a late dinner with one of the founding fathers of rap. I mean, if there was a Mount Rushmore for early hip-hop, Chuck D’s face would definitely be chiseled into the stone. He was probably just about 40 years old at the time, but still cooler than hell. One of those guys that walks like there’s no hurry, and everybody else around him wants to walk equally slow to emanate his laid-back style but ends up looking awkward and silly, especially in comparison. He wore black jeans, black t-shirt, black baseball hat—you know, the essential Chuck D getup—and slid into the booth like… well, like a rap star.

It was his stories that made the night so memorable. While he ordered a slam and the rest of us ordered the exact same slam pretending we were going to order that anyway, he delved into some of rap’s more interesting stories—things we never knew, but would never forget.

Take, for example, Vanilla Ice. Chuck D talked about how badly he wanted to sign the guy when he was blowing up. He asked us, “Now be honest—how many of you guys had a Vanilla Ice tape growing up?” and, embarrassed, none of us raised our hands. He replied, “You know Ice was the first rapper to ever sell a million copies of a record? Everybody bought his album, but nobody seems to have it. Funny how that works, isn’t it?” We laughed and started to admit sheepishly that yes, we did in fact own the Vanilla Ice album. But I hadn’t known that. The first rapper to sell a million copies of an album was a white dude. Just goes to show you who music labels should be (and are) marketing to…

Then there was the story of Eminem. “You know I met Eminem at a concert when he was probably fourteen years old, “Chuck D explained. “He had a demo he wanted to pass on and even tried freestyling, but I’m telling you, that kid was horrible at the time.” At such a young age, Mr. Marshall Mathers hadn’t yet honed his skill. Knew what he wanted to do—even had the flattop haircut and everything—but wasn’t there yet. “If I knew then what I know now,” D continued, “I would’ve signed him anyway, because he really got good. Man, that kid’s amazing. But at the time he just wasn’t ready, so I passed on him.”

And finally, he talked about Will “The Fresh Prince” Smith, who we all assume is this cheeseball cartoon character from what we see of him on TV and in the movies, but apparently he’s sort of a tough guy. Chuck explained, “You will never see a harder dude than Will Smith, man… I’ve seen him get hit with something at a concert, back before he was doing the television show, and jump into the crowd to stomp the dude. And he would. You have no idea how tough that guy could be.” I knew he was muscular, but I also knew he grew up in a middle-class home with both parents, both really intelligent, kind people. His neighborhood wasn’t especially rough, but I guess coming from Philly and all shootin’ some b-ball outside of the school, you’ve gotta be tough one way or another.

At the end of the night we shook the guy’s hand, said what a pleasure it was having gotten to know him, and was really kind and enthusiastic about having had our company all night. It was a great time, and I went home with this feeling of incredulity. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. It was one of the best nights of my college life up to that point.

Until I got home and let Denny’s run its digestive course halfway through an unfriendly phone conversation with an angry girlfriend.

I’d just have to Fight the Power. Word to your mother. Yeaaaaah, Boiiiiiiiiiy.

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