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Chuck D rails against Hot 97, is he fighting the right battle?

Chuck D
Public Enemy frontman Chuck D has been vocal in his criticism of mainstream urban radio in the past, but over the last several days, the legendary rapper has taken aim at New York City’s Hot 97 in the wake of last week’s Summer Jam concert. Chuck took exception to the use of the N-word in numerous performances throughout the daylong show, and says that he’s had enough of urban radio disrespecting black people and mused that stations like Hot 97 have reduced hip-hop to a “sloppy fiasco.”

“My goal by year’s end is to change the face and sound of urban radio,” Chuck said in an interview with Billboard magazine. “I’ve been in this s— 30 years, too long to just sit and let it be. I’m not going to be the grim reaper. I don’t want to be the grim reaper. But people have to stand up and we need some change, and it’s time.”

“That s— is over,” Chuck added in regard to the N-word at Summer Jam specifically. “If there was a festival and it was filled with anti-Semitic slurs … or racial slurs at anyone but black people, what do you think would happen? Why does there have to be such a double standard?”

Chuck’s frustrations aren’t unique to him. The criticism of hip-hop radio has been echoed far and wide for several years now. But there are other questions that have to be asked as it pertains to who listens to radio and what they want. We know Chuck D speaks for a lot of people who dislike Hot 97, but what about those who are fans? Does he represent the majority or no?

The generational shift in hip-hop exacerbates these criticisms. For hip-hop fans 35-50, it can be difficult listening to the radio and hearing the Meek Mills and 2 Chainzes of the world; but that’s a part of getting older. Pop culture moves on without you, and more often than not, you won’t like where it’s heading. This isn’t new or unique to hip-hop, at all — the people who grew up on ’50s rock ‘n’ rollers like Chuck Berry and the Everly Brothers were mortified by Twisted Sister and Motley Crue in the 1980s. We all eventually become our parents, dismissing young people’s favorite songs as “noise” and wringing our hands over the state of music.

It is also not uncommon to frame criticism as an attack on some establishment or industry — to believe that you are crusading against an evil influence on youth culture, not vilifying youth culture itself. But one can’t indict a particular form of art or entertainment without also pointing the finger at those who consume said art/entertainment. The fans of the music Chuck criticizes seem to be a footnote in the conversation, but it is their tastes that drive the market.

Hip-hop fans have been OK with the N-word on their favorite albums and at their favorite artists’ shows for almost 30 years, so when Chuck says “That s— is over,” who is he speaking for? The double standard is there because we, as hip-hop fans, allowed for it. Now, it’s so deeply entrenched that you can’t just attack the radio station for putting on the festival; if you’re seriously trying to affect change, you have to engage the public as to why they have become accepting of this word.

In the 1990s, when pop legend Dionne Warwick was vocal in her criticism of hip-hop artists, it didn’t slow any of those artists’ momentum in any measurable way. Rap fans didn’t disavow Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube because their elders told them the music was bad for them. Nor did the PMRC convince Prince and Madonna fans to walk away from their favorite artists in the 1980s. As we get older, we inevitably become those grown-ups railing against the evil music that the kids love.

But those kids never really listen when you tell them their favorite artist is trash. They don’t walk into a phone booth and magically adopt their parents’ tastes and perspective. So if we really want to change their minds, we would do better by engaging them firsthand and trying to see if we can meet them halfway. Because no one cares that their dad hates their CDs.

Because he’s supposed to hate your CDs.

In the wake of the criticism, young hip-hop fans have been dismissive and sometimes-disrespectful of Chuck D; as evidenced by some of the words hurled at him via Twitter. But young people aren’t actually known for showing love to older recording artists–especially when the older artists dismiss them and their favorite acts. There was a reason why Eric B. and Rakim and Stetsasonic dissed James Brown–in their minds, he dissed them for sampling his records. Youth will throw a middle finger when it’s trying to assert itself. It’s sad that so much of the backlash against Chuck comes from people who likely have no real idea who he is; but young people are brash. Their ignorance of his catalog is evident of a larger problem with hip-hop radio–beyond Summer Jams and overplayed hit singles.

The biggest problem facing hip-hop radio isn’t promoting festivals that use the “N-word.” The biggest problem, in my estimation, is that hip-hop is still expected to be sustained by one or two radio stations in each market. And both stations largely have the exact same artists/songs in their rotation. If there were classic hip-hop or alternative hip-hop stations on the FM dial, there would be less for older hip-hop artists and fans to complain about. There would be space for the genre, with its many subsets and varied generational tastes, to operate in a way that acknowledges it’s variety. Rock music is afforded numerous platforms–each one catering to a specific variation of “rock”–and it’s a stronger genre for it.

So instead of complaining about one radio station not adequately representing hip-hop; maybe we should ask ourselves why is hip-hop only relegated to one station in the first place?