Hip-hop pioneer Chuck D knows a thing or two about how music can inspire change — as a member of the iconic group Public Enemy, the MC has helped create some of the most memorable anthems ever created to help question the status quo. That’s why Audible Originals tapped the 61-year-old legend to lead the charge for the latest installment in their Words + Music series. Released Feb. 3, Audible’s Songs That Shook The Planet finds Chuck D serving as curator, crafting a list of records that have impacted the world on a political and socially conscious level.
“Right now, music is so expansive to a lot of people 40 and under, because in their lifetime they can hold 25,000 songs in their realm,” Chuck D says about the difference between himself and someone younger handling a project like this. “But also they’re in a time where music is so quick that they might lose the beauty of honing into that one song that is forced on them to captivate their environment and their whole soul, because it stays around for like three months.”
On top of hearing the actual songs, listeners will be taking a journey with Chuck D through history as he tells the stories behind records from legendary artists such as Billie Holiday (“Strange Fruit”), Curtis Mayfield (“People Get Ready”) and Too $hort (“The Ghetto”). Chuck D wrote, performed and produced Songs That Shook The Planet while also incorporating pieces of his own experiences with some songs, to create a “part history, part memoir” project.
Billboard spoke with Chuck D about his collaboration with Audible Originals, how Songs That Shook The Planet came about, the selection process and more.
How did the idea for Songs That Shook The Planet come together with Audible Originals?
Everything was like a mish-mosh, as far as duties and things that my production people and I wanted to take on. I know that my association with a former management company led one into the other. It was a great opportunity to be able to present something in the vein of what I’ve been doing as a recording artist. I jumped at the opportunity, and it became an important job last year.
This happened to be one of those particular projects that came to me and I was enthusiastic on the other side. It’s like going in a store, and all the shelves start collapsing on you and cereal boxes be hitting you in the head, but in this situation, it was like walking into an aisle that I enjoy.
What was the preparation like for a project of this magnitude?
The year before, I did a project with BBC, which was a story about The Clash. It was like seven chapters long, and it was a read of about 2,000 pages. But doing it five times was almost like 7,000 pages, so I got my chops by doing those difficult jobs.
You have classic records such as “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye and “Living For the City” by Stevie Wonder included on this project. How were you able to comb through all these songs and keep it at just nine tracks?
Being old helps. Being 61 years old, all you gotta do is kind of like Forrest Gump it, you know what I’m saying? Me adding “Strange Fruit” and maybe things before your time shows that not only do I have a list, I have a list with actual remembrances. The difference that somebody half my age probably doing it, writing it and then coming with their own voice on it is that I probably experienced most of these songs in my lifetime, or I can ask somebody who happens to be around still what they thought about it at the time.
You’re putting out a project with songs that a new generation of listeners has probably never heard before.
You can engage a 10-year-old on a song that was made 50 years ago easy because past, present and future are all the same when you’re talking about discovery. If you got 30,000 songs in your gadget, everything is discovered, and whether it was made yesterday or 100 years ago, these are some things that we can take advantage of about curating and explaining. If you can curate something that somebody is engaged in, then the story is pretty much doing what radio DJs did years ago with a song that just stuck around. You can now pick and choose, and I picked nine of them and just told a story about them.
Do you think there could be a list of Songs That Shook The Planet with tracks from the modern age?
No sir, and the reason is, different audiences treat music differently than 50 years ago. Fifty years ago, everything was about listening, using your ears and engaging your mind. Today’s music is an experience that comes in four different angles: sight, sound, story and style, you know? But sound might be last on the totem pole, so people now, in the last two years, listen with their eyes. If they don’t see it, they can’t hear it.
Hip-hop is represented through Too $hort’s “The Ghetto” on this list. With all the songs Public Enemy made that changed the world, such as “Fight The Power” and “Bring The Noise,” why not include some of your own records?
That’s like drinking your own vomit. I thought the essence of hip-hop came from digging, and it also came out of the aspect of finding a whole bunch of different music and then morphing it into what hip-hop was. That’s why I chose Too $hort, because what Too $hort did to Donnie Hathaway’s “The Ghetto” is, he brought it to another level. Once you open up the Pandora’s box of hip-hop, you go into a whole other galaxy. I just wanted to keep it at that.
Which one of these records moved you in a way that made you understand the scope of this project?
They all really moved me. I got like 40,000 songs running through my head. That’s one of the beautiful things about the technology of today is that an old head can understand how dope all this is. A young head is probably like, “Yeah, well you know that’s just what it is.” It’s so normal to them that they don’t understand it, really. I appreciate these days because all of the joints running through my head now I can go to a gadget and listen to it.
Do you see yourself doing a sequel to this project with Audible Originals?
Well, the big question is to say, do these situations out there see themselves expanding their curations into areas that they might not feel that they have to be pressured to sell. I think a lot of things with Black music in culture shouldn’t be, [but] we gotta move this in order to get this money. Now, attention is the currency, so how do you figure that to be actually about feeding your bottom line? They’ll figure out some kind of algorithm that says what the attention process is into money for this bottom line and they’re figuring that out, but I think when it comes down to culture, music and cultural things, curators [were] important storytellers of whatever existed before I think that’s the essence.