Public Enemy's Keith Shocklee turns his heart attack into a call to action

By American Heart Association News

Music producer Keith Shocklee looked and acted healthy, but a heart attack would motivate him to take his health more seriously. (Photo courtesy of Keith Shocklee)
Music producer Keith Shocklee survived a heart attack last December. (Photo courtesy of Keith Shocklee)

Don't take Keith Shocklee's word for it when he says he didn't look like someone about to have a heart attack.

Check his photos from last year and you'll find a producer who looks lean, strong and maybe a decade younger than his actual age. Or watch the video selfie of him joyfully skating at a roller disco party in mid-December.

And of course, in 2013 you could see him looking like the definition of power itself, raising a fist onstage while the groundbreaking rap group he helped found, Public Enemy, blasts the celebrity-packed room welcoming them to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

But a video on Facebook from Dec. 22, 2018, tells a different story. Shocklee, just shy of turning 57, is lying in a hospital bed and explaining that when he felt an odd pain in his chest, "I was actually having a heart attack."

And fittingly for a founding member of one of the most action-oriented acts in music history, he wants to turn it into a teachable moment.

His message: This could happen to you.

Hours before he made the video, Shocklee had been in his Long Island studio, a few miles from where he grew up and still lives. He and studio partner Sean "Studdahman" De Vore were wrapping up a recording session. Shocklee, whose lengthy resume includes producing and remixing for the likes of Janet Jackson, Ice Cube and Bell Biv DeVoe, was snacking on walnuts.

Suddenly he thought he'd swallowed one wrong. "It was just that pain in the chest where you swallow and it goes right down the middle," he said. He drank some water, stepped out for some air, came back and joked a bit with De Vore, and decided to head home.

"And when I got in the car, my arm got numb. I said, 'Wait a minute – this is not good.'"

He made it home, quickly got to a hospital, and learned he'd had a heart attack. Shocked, he said: "I can't be having a heart attack! Because that's usually for out-of-shape people!" He would need three stents to prop open a blocked artery.

Now, he's eager to talk about the experience – to warn people that looking fit does not mean you are. And he knows both sides, from his healthy adult living to his not-so-healthy musician lifestyle as Public Enemy was getting its start.

Shocklee, born Keith Boxley, got his start as a teen DJ in the late 1970s. He spun records with his brother in his family's basement, and later at a youth center. His emcee sometimes was a neighborhood friend named Eddie Murphy. (Yes, that Eddie Murphy.)

Shocklee describes a mostly middle-class, suburban lifestyle. He and Carlton Ridenhour, better known now as Public Enemy frontman Chuck D, once worked together changing tires at Sears.

Their group coalesced at nearby Adelphi University. They were not exactly kings of health consciousness. Shocklee recalls studio sessions where the group could only pool enough money to hit the restaurant across the street for "a two-dollar meal that's just chicken legs, chicken wings and french fries."

Public Enemy's political bent came out of those early days, too. As black college students, if they walked through a white neighborhood, they'd regularly be stopped by police. "They would escort us out. And after a while that becomes frustrating," Shocklee recalled.

They turned their frustration into a powerful message that revolutionized music. Shocklee, known professionally as Wizard K-Jee, helped create hits such as "Fight the Power." Then, as a member of the production team known as the Bomb Squad, he worked with musicians from Paula Abdul to Ziggy Marley.

Early on, his lifestyle fit the stereotype of a successful musician. "I felt like I became a member of Mötley Crüe," he said, referencing the hard-partying '80s band.

Shocklee keeps a close eye on his diet and is diligent in his cardiac rehabilitation program designed for heart patients. (Photo courtesy of Keith Shocklee)
Keith Shocklee keeps a close eye on his diet and is diligent about cardiac rehabilitation. (Photo courtesy of Keith Shocklee)

Shocklee refers broadly to his mistakes of that era as "the wreckage of my past." But he knows precisely when he changed his ways: the day he faced a drug-related prison sentence.

He ended up on five years' probation and said he hasn't had a drink or taken drugs in 20-plus years. He's been physically active and even goes vegan occasionally.

"Over the last 10 years, I shot down a lot of stuff. Like red meat. No more McDonald's and all of that," he said.

Shocklee said doctors aren't sure what caused his heart problems. He had none of the usual risk factors – no high cholesterol, no high blood pressure. Doctors didn't blame his past. Shocklee suspects stress might have played a role.

But the lack of obvious warning signs, De Vore said, is all the more reason for people to heed his friend's warnings and get checked out.

De Vore, 55, gets regular checkups himself. And he acknowledged the barriers that keep everyone from doing the same. For some, it's lack of insurance. For others, it's cultural.

"We as black people – it takes a lot to get us to go to the doctor," he said. "We damn near have to be half dead. … The only time we was taught to go the doctor was when it was terminal."

Regardless of the cause, Shocklee is being even more careful with his health now. He goes three times a week to cardiac rehabilitation, the program of exercise, education and counseling designed to help heart patients recover. He's cooking even more at home, and he's lost a few pounds.

Both Shocklee and De Vore are aware of lots of men their age and younger who have died from heart problems. So even if he wasn't a typical victim, Shocklee wants people to know they have the power to make healthy choices. And need to.

"You need to get down to your doctor and get you a physical happening," Shocklee said. "And be thorough with it. And watch what you do. 'Cause it will cost you in the end."

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