Artmageddon was brought to reality at Subliminal Projects in Echo Park early on the evening of Saturday, Jan. 12. It was Chuck D’s grand opening of his art show at Shepard Fairey’s art gallery, which is frequently the site of chaos of the sort that awaited.
The line to enter was out the door and wrapped around Sunset Boulevard, a reminder of the beautiful crossover between art and hip-hop. While doors opened to the public at 7 p.m., it seemed like the people who made it to the VIP reception prior were the only ones who made it inside. (Some waited an hour in line and eventually gave up!)
But then you remember the stature of both Chuck D, the leader of Public Enemy, who to this day stands as one of the most influential MCs to ever grace the rap game, and Shepard Fairey, whose Andre the Giant stickers became one of the biggest streetwear brands to date.
L.A. Weekly spoke with Chuck D in the middle of the exhibit, as he explained how both worlds of music and art collide.
“My music, No. 1, there’s a lot to talk about. Hip-hop is the spokesperson for that. Then you have life — activism, social and political commentary from the cultural and urban landscape. Those three come in a convergence.”
With the legacy of Public Enemy and their unwavering courage to reporting on politics and social injustice, Chuck remains as humble as ever. He laughs gently when he says, “With great legend comes accountability, comes responsibility.”
Contrary to what people might think, the Queens, New York, native fell in love with art long before music. “I’ve been an artist since I was born,” he says. “I came out drawing. In the presidential election year of 1960 when John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon, I was encouraged to be an artist by my parents, who thought independently. I graduated high school as an artist phenom in the New York area. I wanted to be a renderer because I had placed two times in the architectural rendering contest in the state. I got a scholarship to college for architecture but decided to go to Adelphi University.”
Chuck wanted to brush up on his drawing skills, which meant enrolling in one of the best graphic programs. In that pre-computer era is also when the music bug bit him.
“During Public Enemy, I always headed art departments and learned how to do things like computer art design. I became friends with people like Shepard Fairey, Glen Friedman, and Frank Frazier who I grew up with, who was one of my early art teachers. I’m used to the other side of my brain that’s been a professional since I was 25, and that’s to craft songs. But it’s all the arts. Since 2016, if I’m writing a song, I might get to a place where I’m tired of writing and I would go into my art. This side would open me up. A lot of my first art was personal.”
Being a rapper means being on the road 100 days of the year, performing shows and painting the town red before returning to the hotel room. For Chuck, the key is utilizing that time wisely, so he frequently turns his hotel room into an art lab. Now, he focuses on finding his place in the art world, which includes finding good themes.
“With this show, they’re looking at my nice work,” he says. “It’s kind. It’s not edgy; 90 percent of my work is very edgy, but it might not be conducive to this time under my name. Which makes that mystery a good one to ride because everybody’s like, ‘I wish I could see your other work.’ I say, ‘You sure wish you could. It’ll blow your forehead back for real.’”
The name Artmaggedon comes from the masterminds on Fairey’s team, who put together a select exhibition of Chuck’s original works in watercolor and ink accumulated over the years. But, it’s Chuck and Fairey’s friendship that makes the exhibit even more genuine.
“My relationship has basically been on the other side of him doing illustrations and poster work of me,” Chuck states. “I’ve signed as many as 1,500 pieces, so first and foremost, Shepard has been pushing my images out. Now it has come full circle.”
Full circle also means Fairey penning the forward of Chuck’s book, This Day in Rap and Hip-Hop History. From a consumer’s standpoint, it’s interesting to see how Fairey’s impact in the realm of art aligns with Chuck’s impact in hip-hop.
“Shepard answers truth with power,” Chuck says. “A lot of it, he’s not hypocritical. It’s not like Shepard is ever going to illustrate just a basket of fruit. Things that you can get at Ross, Walmart or a department store, it’s not like that. Shepard is going to find a situation to attack propaganda with a prop agenda. What’s the agenda that you want to be, for the righteous? It’s around the world. It’s humanistic. It doesn’t have borders on it or governments attached to it.”
He continues, “They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Shepard put illustrations and things out there before Instagram ever came along. Shepard Fairey is definitely Instagram before Instagram, as far as getting your point across with an illustration. It comes out of the idiom of Norman Rockwell trying to say something. It comes out of the idiom of the Dutch Masters, the illustrators, the poster makers for war bonds saying something. Say it with an image, and let it speak for itself.”
Choosing to do the art show in L.A. was mainly because Fairey and his gallery are located here, although Chuck does plan to take this show to the East Coast. With this being his biggest art show to date, Chuck remembers the best piece of advice Shepard has given him. “‘You follow what’s inside you’ he told me. ‘If you give up, someone’s going to pass you by. It’s like songwriting. You don’t write and make albums so you can just deliver it to the record company, so you get sales to buy a big boat.’
“‘You’re doing art because it has to come out from inside you out into the world,’” Shepard’s advice continued. “‘From that point on, then it becomes something else that other people have to handle.”
Upon exiting, Fairey greeted Chuck D in the hallway upstairs, sarcastically joking: “I don’t know if you noticed, but people seem to like your stuff downstairs.”
As we stood there above the art show, you could feel the synergy of two artists who genuinely respect and admire each other’s craft. At one point, the Obey founder even busted out spitting a Public Enemy verse.
“It’s about finding the right tension between order and chaos, the same way Public Enemy did,” Shepard told Chuck. “That’s what I’m doing. I’m loving the ride. Now, I’ve organized that in my mind. When you can pull off that tension, that’s really powerful. I think you’re coming into that realm with a lot of the pieces that you’re doing, but that’s the sweet spot in my opinion. For my taste.”
Chuck responded, “That’s what I was trying to convey in this room. I don’t even know what’s going on down there, but I know what I want, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to get there without a whole bunch of work that I’m doing. A lot of my work is here, but a lot of my work that has to be legal is over there. The style has got to be like, ‘Oh shit, I get that.’ I don’t think I’ve got that yet. That stuff is along the way. Cool, I’m trying out some things. It’s funny, it’s not, etc. But I know I’m close. I know that.”
“New Works by Chuck D.” is on view at Subliminal Projects, 1331 W.. Sunset Blvd., in Echo Park, Wed.-Sat., noon-6 p.m., through Saturday, Jan. 26; free.