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Arts and Raps: Music Icon Chuck D Returns to his Alma Mater

Updated: Mar 8, 2022

By Maxmillian Robinson

Carlton Ridenhour, professionally known as hip hop artist Chuck D, made an appearance on the Garden City campus February 22. Although a winter storm was in effect, there were 120 people in attendance in the University Center ballroom to hear a memorable conversation. The event was hosted by University Advancement and External Relations, celebrating the release of Chuck D's art exhibition of drawing in the University Center Klapper Gallery, featured from Feb. 1-March 5.

One of Chuck D’s original cartoons that he created when he worked on this newspaper as a student in the 1980s.

A graduate of the 1984 class who received a bachelor's degree in graphic design, Chuck D was the father figure of the hit rap group Public Enemy in the early 1990s. A native of Roosevelt, he initially wanted to be a renderer, foreseeing a blueprint design before its final creation, but eventually found his love in the rap and music industry, starting for his love of hip hop in 1978.

Kellyann Monaghan, an associate professor and chair of Art and Art History in the College of Arts and Sciences, was the facilitator. She said she believes that Ridenhour’s roles with the university’s radio and as a cartoonist for The Delphian, played a vital role in shaping his imagination.

In this discussion, the former Panther talked about his early life, highs and lows at Adelphi, his current art endeavors and a future outlook on the industry.

Monaghan: Talk about your upbringing. What led you to attending (Adelphi)?

Chuck D: “I participated in a summer program here [which comedian Eddie Murphy actually attended as well] in the eighth grade. When I heard that the university was building a pool, I wanted to go to the camp because it was the only place that offered it. Plus, [my mom] graduated from the school of social work here.”

Ridenhour joked that he initially thought Adelphi was “only a pool” and sounded like a good opportunity to go to school where he could swim. Afterward, he clarified, explaining that the school has a “great class size” and experienced professors who will help you tremendously.

Monaghan: Your time here wasn’t smooth. Can you tell us about what happened?

Chuck D: [From fall 1978-1979] I had six incompletes and became unmotivated. I was failing classes. I came here on a scholarship, but eventually couldn’t keep up with it. I was out of the art program and [expelled] from the institution. I regretted not giving it my best in school. I wanted to come back, so I asked the department head at the time, who gave me an ultimatum. From there, the rest was history.

Another thing that wasn’t smooth was the commute since he often missed the N41 bus, so had a long walk to the Garden City campus through a community that didn't appreciate seeing people who looked “different” from the rest.

The agreement given to Ridenhour was that if he could convince the six professors who failed him in his classes to let him back into their course, then he could attend again. All six agreed, and he was able to return in 1981. Upon commencement, he ended up winning the Goodwill award from the university, also known as the art award.

Monaghan: Discuss about some of the things you’ve done here, and when did your love for music develop more?

Chuck D: I was a part of the university’s radio station [WBAU]. I also chipped into creating artwork and comics for The Delphian newspaper. John [Schmidt] was the engineer at the radio station as well. We both started feeling hip hop and how it started to spread across Long Island. Growing up, I was taught to appreciate achievements and those who came before us. Therefore, I felt a need to carry on a unique tradition and be a part of something special.”

In an interview following the event, Ridenhour explained during his tenure with The Delphian, he was “one out of only two” Black illustrators for the newspaper (Jeff Thomas being the other). He was a freshman alongside Thomas, with his work being political art, while his counterpart created art, focused on Black superheroes. This was also the first time ever that the newspaper featured Black cartoonists.

“I would be excited seeing my work be duplicated,” Ridenhour said. “It's one thing to have a sample of your work, but it felt completely different seeing a stack of [Delphian] newspapers showcasing my abilities.”

Monaghan: What about your passion for art? When did that come about?

Chuck D: [My dad] passed away in 2016 and I was unsure about where his soul went. I just wanted to know that he was okay. I proceeded to visit a poltergeist and immediately I had my answer. I went back again a year later and ended up producing [70] illustrations in [four] hours and the revelation came again which made me more satisfied. [After] I received closure, I was at ease with his situation, leaving me to be more free and creative.

Monaghan: How do you juggle art, writing and music in the social act movement ?

Chuck D: People are led by images. You see things, but how often are you actually there? How often do you make relationships and get out in this world? When it comes to activism, you have to interpret the news and be able to get yourself out there. It must be ingrained early on. Know the context of the place you're in, know the laws and know when to change your mind. Challenge information.Lastly we need great storytellers. People listen too much with their eyes, not their ears.

Monaghan: What advice would you give to art students looking forward to breaking the industry?

Chuck D: My best advice would be to use the technology for good use, create something unique and put yourself out there. You need to master a skill.

The artist said in his own artwork, he is inspired by his two forms “my personal [Ridenhour] art, and my Chuck D art.”

He said that aside from his own work, he loves the work of artists LeRoy Neiman, Ernie Barnes and Jackson Pollock. He also explained that his art tools go everywhere by his side.

He concluded the event with this comment: “If it wasn’t for art, I wouldn’t be back here at Adelphi.”

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