Chuck D Details How He’s Kept The BASS In His Voice For 35 Years
Along with penning some of the most impactful Hip-Hop songs, Chuck D has displayed an incredible voice. The Long Island, New Yorker has demonstrated a commanding delivery on Public Enemy songs for over 35 years and more recently worked with Prophets Of Rage. Mistachuck’s vocals are distinct, precise, and treated like an instrument, whether speaking, rapping, or shouting.
Amid his busy 2023, Chuck D penned a chapter for author/musician Jason Thomas Gordon’s new book, The Singers Talk – The Greatest Singers of Our Time Discuss the One Thing They’re Never Asked About: Their Voices which published earlier this month through Permuted Press.
Ambrosia For Heads is proud to present the chapter that is an interview with Chuck D, conducted by author Jason Thomas Gordon. It has been lightly edited for profanity and style, while providing links to the songs referenced:
When he was a little boy, Carlton Douglas Ridenhour wanted to become a sportscaster. Thank God he became Chuck D instead.
His prophetic, revolutionary voice would go on to change the face of Hip-Hop—and the world—for good. Along with hype man Flavor Flav, Chuck created Public Enemy, where they immediately began to “Fight the Power,” bringing social and political consciousness to the forefront of music in a way that hadn’t happened since Marvin Gaye asked, “What’s Going On?” Using the strength and command of his voice to irritate and educate, Chuck has rightfully earned himself a place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. With his band, solo, or collaborating with other artists, Chuck’s unique delivery always makes you stand at attention. Prophets of Rage, his side band with the members of Rage Against the Machine and B-Real from Cypress Hill is another prime example of what Chuck has to offer. He may be filling your head with knowledge, but he’s making you bang that head like mad! So welcome to the Terrordome. And thanks for havin’ us, Chuck…
Who first exposed you to singing?
I grew up in a household with music. I’m born in 1960, so you’re talkin’ ’bout the convergence of radio and television. Your grandfather’s show [Make Room for Daddy] was a mainstay as far as the television was concerned. And the voices that came through the records, whether it was Ella Fitzgerald or Ray Charles, were always ringin’ loud in my house. What made you go, “I wanna use my voice in the world?” First thing I wanted to do with my voice was become a play-by-play sports announcer in the ’70s. That use and command of my voice happened to be at the right place, right time, right phase, where rapping really started to develop as an art form. Rap pretty much carried the same rhythms as my influences of the sports world like Marv Albert. So I developed my style of rapping by being able to put two and two together and create a vocal style that was reminiscent of sports casting and Black radio DJs.
Were you emulating anyone when you started out?
Marv Albert, Gary Byrd, the well-known DJ, and the beginning rappers—people like Melle Mel, DJ Hollywood, Eddie Cheeba. Those guys set a nice little template for me to follow. How did you find your own voice? I found my own voice as a DJ myself. I kind of knew who was doin’ what and what somebody wasn’t doin’. James Brown was definitely helpful in that because James Brown was a combination of singing, rap, and everything in between.
Did you ever have any vocal training?
I had vocal projection because my mother had the wherewithal to start the Roosevelt Community Theatre. Being in the theater and speaking your parts, you learn how to project. Also, if you’re in the park, actually sportscasting, you’re projecting quite automatically, lettin’ it be heard, lettin’ it be known. With singing, you hit notes. With rapping, you hit rhythms and tones. Your tones are your notes and your rhythms are your flow. A lot of times your tones and your flow are accompanied by synapses that pop off when you say certain things that seem like they fit. Like, there’s some science behind Dr. Suess’s The Cat In The Hat that we still can’t explain. How it works on kids. [Laughs] “I took a cat in a hat and I beat him with a bat.” Why does that happen to make you bop along with it? It has somethin’ to do with your receptors. That’s why rhyming is rhyming. We didn’t invent rhyming. Grandmaster Caz said, “It didn’t invent anything, but it reinvented everything.”
Do you feel nervous or confident before you perform?
If I would be nervous, it would just be about knowin’ my part. I don’t have the greatest memory. I’m still not good to this day after 5,000 performances. That’s repairable with repetition, but I get stuck in a box sometimes, knowing that I gotta spend twice as long to get it as somebody else. I have a photographic memory when it comes down to places, art, matter of fact, I got total recall, but vocally, I don’t. It’s always been difficult, but if I had to paint a picture of somethin’ I saw four weeks ago, I could paint it perfectly. I could name all the things in the place. It must be a glitch I just haven’t got over. Maybe I need to work on it.
Do you do any vocal warm-ups before shows?
LL Cool J and Ice Cube call me “Mr. Iron lung.” Very few times did the voice ever shut down. But I’m not doin’ anything to warm it up, no.
Do you have any rituals before you hit the stage?
B-Real, my Prophets of Rage/Cypress Hill brother, started gettin’ me into a ritual of drinkin’ hot tea before we start. That’s been helpful. Big props to B-Real, my brother.
Is there anything after the show that helps keep your voice in shape?
I’m drinkin’ my fluids. I like to STFU, ya know? [Laughs] I like to be quiet, not say s__t.
How do you take care of your voice on the road?
I don’t do a lot of talkin’. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, so maybe that’s been helpful. And then, I was blessed from my father to have a very, very, very strong voice. He had to be the strongest voice that I ever heard. No question.
He had more bass than you?
WHAT? [Laughter] I’m not half the man my father was, trust me. My father would yell across the town at me or my brothers and you could not come home and say, “No,” when he said, “Didn’t you hear me call you?” Everybody heard! My father was a U.S. Marine, and sure enough, when he yelled, it was heard. Amazing.
Are there songs where you wonder if your voice will be there that night?
We have a motto, “You have to do the songs or the songs will end up doing you.” The types of records that I’ve written and performed you have to be in shape to do. Your cardio has to be seriously on point. So there’s no excuses, no chillin’ out on the stage. These are very beat-oriented, powerful songs that you gotta be ready for. You gotta know when to move and when not to move.
Let’s get into that.
Sometimes, if you’re caught movin’ the wrong way and do a fast verse, you gotta find air somewhere. Because everything is output, your input has to be perfectly timed to the point that you’re not wasting your movement, you’re not wasting anything. You gotta find the air to continue to kick out.
Right, even if it’s finding a breath between a syllable.
Yeah, you gotta learn how to cycle air. Like you’re doing a vocal, but you’re really breathing as you’re vocaling out. M.C. Hammer was great at it—another underrated guy who they never talk about. He would dance, do all kinds of incredible things, but he’s still rapping, and he’s moving. You have to make all three work. It requires everything just to keep your tone, and your breath, and your performance. Bottom line: people gotta like the performance. It’s not whether they like the song. Your job is to perform to make them dig the song.
Plus you’re not singing a melody that you can switch up if you run out of breath. You’re inside of this rapid-fire momentum where there really isn’t much time.
Yep. And you have to keep your tones ’cause there’s some words that are stronger than others. You have to emphasize. Since you’re not hitting notes as much as words, your emphasis on hitting a word has to be heavy, and you have to be on that one. This is like rugby; you know what I’m sayin’?
Are you doing any physical workouts to keep your stamina going?
I don’t do hard physical work outs, but I’ve taken Pilates for the past five years and that’s helped my core. Everything’s about diaphragm and core at that speed.
Are there songs where you’ve had to adjust the key live?
Part of my challenge is to take on something that’s very difficult to do at a difficult speed. I don’t wanna adjust the song. I gotta adjust myself and step it up or leave it alone. What was your most embarrassing vocal mishap ever? I got cocky. Public Enemy was playing a town in California and I was showing off my chops. We did a three and a half-hour performance and, the next day, I hosted a gigantic, all-day event for eight hours and did the close out performance. That night, we had a gig in San Diego. By the time I got onstage, I had pushed it to the point where nothing came out. Voice was gone. And I paid the price because the audience was packed. Having no voice and looking at a packed audience is probably the worst thing that can happen, man.
What did you do?
Other people had to pick up the slack and do some of the other songs that they’re featured on. The only thing I could do was hug babies, sign chests, and s__t like that. [Laughter] Sign everybody’s autograph in the place ’cause they sure ’nuff wasn’t gettin’ no voice outta me.
How are you with hearing your own voice?
I’m alright listening to my own tracks, but I’ve burned myself out once the song is released. I don’t wanna hear it no more. I hear it so many times before I release it, and then, when it’s released, I’m like, alright, now everybody else is talkin’ about it; I’m done with it.
One of my favorite things you do is you’ll ramp your vocal up into the line. In a song like “You’re Gonna Get Yours,” you’ll go, “Iiiiiiiiiiin this corner with the Ninety-Eight.” First album, first track, first line, and you’re already doing what would become a signature of your style. How did that move come about?
Mimicking somebody else that was mimicking Schoolly D. Schoolly tells me he got his influence off of Melle Mel. And Ice Cube tells me he got his offa me. [Laughter] Right there you got four emcees who all bit off of each other to develop their own style.
We should mention your partner in crime. Tell me about Flavor Flav’s vocal style and the importance of having a hype man in Public Enemy?
You can’t un-hear him. He fills the air spaces and has the most irritating, grating voice in the world. He’s perfect for Hip-Hop and Rap music and he’s irreplaceable. Often imitated, never ever duplicated.
Do you have a favorite vocal performance of his?
“911 Is A Joke.” I gave him the job to write the song, to come back to me a year later with a completed song. Came back to me a year later with that gem. I’m most proud of him over that fact. I thought it was an unbelievable job by Flavor.
Let’s talk Prophets of Rage. You and B-Real join forces with the guys from Rage Against the Machine to form this super-group and part of the job is stepping into Zack de la Rocha’s shoes on the Rage songs. Not only is Zack one of the greatest rock voices ever, but tonally, his voice is so connected to that sound. I honestly didn’t feel it could work with anyone else, especially someone like Chuck D with all that bass in
your voice. But then, I went and saw you guys live, and I left drenched in sweat, from head to toe. One of the greatest concerts I’ve ever seen. Saying that it works is an understatement. What was that experience like for you, taking on Zack’s role?
Not only were you takin’ on Zack’s role, you’re takin’ on Zack’s role at twenty-one or whatever. When [guitarist] Tom Morello first approached me with that idea, I was like, hell no! But then, he said, “Would you be open to B-Real?” and that’s when it clicked. I would be shadowin’ B-Real and that’s how we could go about putting a different power and speed to the vocals that Zack had already made. If you don’t do it right, you’re catchin’ the L. But Tom Morello is not gonna accept anything less than us rehearsing it a million times ‘til we get it right. So I got my blessings from Zack. And now, with the reformation of Rage Against the Machine, Zack has to go face his twenty-five-year-old self at 50! So good luck with that one, Zack! [JTG laughs] It took two of us to manhandle those songs. But I got Public Enemy songs where the 60-year-old Chuck has gotta take on the twenty-eight-year-old Chuck.
What’s changed the most about your voice since you started?
It’s definitely deeper. There’s certain recordings where we would shave bass and I would speed it up in the mastering so it made it a little lighter and quicker. You have to take into consideration that a lot of times, if you have too much bass in your voice, you’ll drag the track. You don’t wanna drag the track.
If you could duet with one singer—living or dead—who would it be?
Bobby “Blue” Bland, one of the most proficient R&B/Blues singers of the past. But a high note of mine is, I done a song with Mavis Staples called “Give We The Pride.” I love that song. That combination. That’s utopia for me. Me and Miss Mavis.
I spoke with Mavis about her involvement with the Civil Rights Movement, singing for Dr. King, and really using her voice for change. If you can speak truth to power, unite people, educate them in a way that doesn’t feel like a lecture, and still have a kick ass chorus you can rock out to, I don’t have to tell you that there’s an art to riding that line. And from the second you dropped Yo! Bum Rush the Show, that’s all you’ve been doing.
Thank you. I appreciate it, man.
Who are your top five favorite singers of all time?
Oh s__t! Levi Stubbs, Mavis Staples, Walter Williams of The O’Jay’s, Melle Mel, and I would say Marvin Junior of The Dells.
If you could ask any singer about their voice, who would it be, and what would you ask?
I did. I asked Miss Mavis about her voice and she said people thought she was like 35 years old, and she was 14. [Laughter]
In addition to Chuck’s commentary, The Singers Talk includes exclusive interviews with Thom Yorke, Mavis Staples, and Nile Rodgers, among others. According to the publisher, all royalties from the book will benefit the kids and families at Memphis, TN’s St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital through its Music Gives To St. Jude Kids campaign, which was created by the author. St. Jude was founded in 1962 by Gordon’s famed grandfather, entertainer Danny Thomas.
As Hip-Hop celebrates its 50th anniversary, the Public Enemy co-founder has honored the culture with a PBS docuseries, Fight The Power: How Hip Hop Changed The World. He then narrated Can You Dig It? A Hip Hop Origin Story, a five-part audio series at Audible. The artist who famously donned Pittsburgh Pirates and Philadelphia Phillies ball-caps is also working with Major League Baseball as a year-long Music Ambassador and Content Architect for Hip-Hop’s 50th amid the MLB season. At August 11’s Yankee Stadium Hip Hop 50 concert, Chuck served as a special correspondent. In between developing Hip-Hop’s first labor union alongside KRS-One, Chuck is launching a social media app, Bring The Noise, which intends to keep negativity at bay.