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The tenacious Chuck D: Public Enemy legend is back with new album, talks activism and his time spent in Spokane

UPDATED: Fri., Oct. 16, 2020

Fortunately for Khalil Islam-Zwart, he had an airport pickup sign when he was meeting Public Enemy’s Chuck D at Spokane International Airport in 2003. The hip-hop star was catching a ride with Islam-Zwart for a speaking gig at Eastern Washington University.

Islam-Zwart, 48, who earned a bachelor’s in liberal studies and a master’s in public administration at EWU, has been a Public Enemy fan boy since he heard the game-changing hip-hop act’s debut album “Yo! Bum Rush the Show” a generation ago as a Tacoma middle-schooler.

Islam-Zwart, who was the director of the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities at EWU at the time, thought he would recognize his hero immediately. “I was about 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds then, and I was expecting Chuck to be bigger than me, maybe 6-7,” but Chuck is about 5-8,” Islam-Zwart said while calling from his Cheney home.

It’s not surprising Islam-Zwart, who is a communications instructor and adviser for the Black Student Union at Spokane Falls Community College, felt that way since D, aka Carlton Ridenhour, is larger than life now and particularly when Public Enemy was at its creative peak in 1989.

It was a turbulent time in a divided country a generation ago when Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” hit screens. The soundtrack single “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy was an anthemic salvo that disses such American icons as Elvis Presley and John Wayne. However, “Fight the Power” is more relevant now than ever considering the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Got to give us what we want (uh) / Gotta give us what we need (hey) / Our freedom of speech is freedom or death / We got to fight the powers that be / Lemme hear you say fight the power.”

Public Enemy, the combination of Ridenhour’s extraordinary fire and counterpart Flavor Flav, aka William Drayton’s amusing ice, redefined hip-hop. The Bomb Squad, Public Enemy’s production team’s dense sound filled with deep grooves, jarring funk and dub reggae, was masterful. The samples were unique and chronic.

What Public Enemy rapped about during its incomprehensible creative run, which yielded 1987’s aforementioned “Yo! Bum Rush the Show,” 1988’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” and 1990’s “Fear of a Black Planet” was about subjects that mattered. The same goes for Public Enemy’s latest album, “What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down?,” which dropped last month.

The uncompromising tunes are for the most part urgent and provocative. When Ridenhour, 60, was asked about his penchant for writing songs as serious as our continental divide, he laughed.

“Hey, I love all of Three Dog Night’s songs,” Ridenhour said while calling from his California home. “I still don’t know what any of their songs are about, but the Three Dog Night songs are great.”

Yes, Ridenhour can be lighthearted, which is a surprise to some considering his rapping style, which is reminiscent of a Marine drill sergeant. But Ridenhour is at his best when serious, which he was when he visited SFCC six years ago for a talk. Ridenhour hit home when he spoke about how activism starts early.

“They were young,” Ridenhour said to the crowd assembled. “Dr. King and Malcolm X – they were assassinated at 39. Today, someone who’s 35 might not feel they’re old enough.”

More than a half decade later, not much has changed.

Millennials and Generation Z do not vote like baby boomers. According to John Della Volpe, the director of polling at Harvard Kennedy School, which has surveyed American youth voters since 2000, younger voters aren’t turning out.

“There is credible evidence to suggest that the youth vote is flat to down in most states … young people are just not as enthusiastic as many of us expected them to be,” he said.

Ridenhour hopes those 35 and younger make their voice heard.

“I always challenge younger people,” Ridenhour said during a Zoom conference call in which he was drawing during the entire 40-minute conversation. “I don’t care what age they are. People want to age up when it’s convenient. They want to age down when it’s too heavy. It’s time to age up and understand what you got to do to get some of this stuff done.”

It’s a heavy time considering the division of the country, and there are only a few weeks left until the presidential election. When the hip-hop icon was asked about President Trump disavowing racism during his debate with Joe Biden, Ridenhour answered with a recently finished piece of art that reflected his take on the verbal sparring between the two presidential candidates.

Ridenhour says much more throughout Public Enemy’s latest album. With guests such as Mike D and Ad-Rock of Beastie Boys fame and Run-DMC, fans might think that the project is a nostalgic affair.

After a spin of the catchy and compelling single “State of the Union (STFU),” that’s apparently not so since Ridenhour is topical as usual with his incendiary raps.

It’s apparent while chatting with Ridenhour how much he enjoyed working with his old-school peers.

“I said to them that I just want you guys to be on this so I can pay homage to you,” Ridenhour said.

Ridenhour was compelled to tip the Los Angeles Dodgers cap he was sporting during the Zoom chat to the late members of those acts, MCA of the Beastie Boys and Jam Master Jay of Run-DMC.

“Those two guys brought me in to see (producer and music mogul) Rick Rubin,” he said.

The initial Public Enemy demos were dropped off by Ridenhour to Rubin’s NYU dorm room, and the rest is history. Public Enemy became one of the most well-respected acts in hip-hop history and is still standing 35 years after forming in Long Island.

The only bummer for Ridenhour is that Public Enemy can’t tour behind the album for a return visit to Spokane, which would have marked the band’s second performance in town.

“I remember when we did play there,” Ridenhour said. “I still remember pulling up to the front of the club. It was a winter tour, and we were on our way to Billings right after the show. I remember thinking about (former Gonzaga Prep and Gonzaga basketball star) John Stockton.”

Ridenhour has flown in to speak in Eastern Washington on several occasions and has a handle on the area.

“Spokane feels like a liberal oasis,” Ridenhour said. “They don’t want to be duped.”

Whenever Ridenhour returns as a recording artist or for a speaking gig, count on Islam-Zwart to be on hand. What’s so impressive about Ridenhour is that although he’s an aging legend, he doesn’t live in a fortress of solitude removed from reality.

“Chuck D is still on the ground, and he never left the ground,” Islam-Zwart said. “I saw that when he spoke. Some of these guys use the talking circuit for supplemental income for a pseudo retirement. Chuck D has maintained relevancy as an artist and activist.”

Like Ridenhour, Islam-Zwart believes the American system is broken and needs change.

“So much has to be altered, particularly our two-party system,” Islam-Zwart said. “We’re like a dog chasing its tail.

“Chuck addressed that when I saw him at Showalter Hall Auditorium. He talked about how people need to be active in their communities. He talked about how we need to be engaged. Not much has changed. We need all of that more than ever.”“I can still hear Chuck talking about it.”

As a reminder, all Islam-Zwart has to do is glance at the airport sign that bears the name Chuck D. The autographed memento hangs in his home office.

“The sign was and is dope,” Islam-Zwart said. “I’ll never forget that experience.”

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