‘Fight the Power’: The Story Behind Public Enemy’s Searing Classic
This soundtrack lynchpin for Spike Lee’s ‘Do The Right Thing’ remains one of Public Enemy’s most searing anthems. Here’s the story of how it got made.
Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” may be the greatest second draft in the history of music. The anthem that anchored Spike Lee’s seminal Do The Right Thing, a film dedicated to racial animus on the hottest day in a Brooklyn summer, was originally supposed to be a Public Enemy-led jazz revamp of the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Lee had composer Terrence Blanchard on deck, but Bomb Squad producer Hank Shocklee pushed back, insisting that it wouldn’t resonate with fans of songs like “Bring The Noise” and “Night Of The Living Baseheads.”
Instead, Chuck D, lead MC of the revolutionary rap group from Long Island, drew upon his days as a youth listening to the Isley Brothers in the 1970s. Their protest-era song “Fight The Power” was the first time he’d heard a curse word in music. With atrocities like the 1986 murder of Michael Griffith still hanging in the arid air of the NYC pressure cooker, Chuck felt it was way past time for a song to address “all the bullshit goin’ down.”
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Thanks to the heavy-hitting content of their 1987 debut, Yo! Bum Rush The Show and its follow up, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, Public Enemy had already established themselves as elder statesmen during rap’s most defiant and radical era. (At 26 years old when the group started, Chuck and Flav were also literal elders.) Public Enemy elevated the social discourse in rap with Chuck’s radio announcer-trained baritone, Flavor Flav’s colorful, pithy ad-libs, and The Bomb Squad’s layered and unconventional production, which brought a sonic urgency to match the heft of their message.
“Fight The Power” opens with an incendiary quote from Chicago lawyer and activist Thomas ‘TNT’ Todd about Vietnam deserters who would rather “switch than fight.” It’s an apt way to launch what is essentially a sonic protest rally attended by some of the biggest names in Black music past and present. Musical DNA from James Brown, Sly and The Family Stone, and even Guy’s Aaron Hall were stitched together in the Bomb Squad’s signature style, forming a sonic collage designed to motivate and inspire.
Not only was it a signpost of the times, “Fight the Power” was a blueprint for serving music with a message to the 80s babies held hostage by R&B—Reagan and Bush. “As the rhythm designed to bounce/ What counts/ is that the rhymes designed to fill your mind…” Chuck wrote the lyrics on a flight over Italy flanked by members of Run DMC. But even thousands of miles away from the inspiration, he channeled the tension and rebelliousness of his native New York in every word. Incidents like the arrest and incarceration of the former Central Park Five fueled his biting critique of the justice system and the institutionalized racism that buoyed it.
In a song brimming with rage, the scathing third verse is probably the most famous, taking aim at icons like Elvis and John Wayne in an act of generational defiance. Amidst this hypnotizing groove, they sent a message from Generation X, that we would get some of our heroes on that wall of fame or we’d burn the place down.
After being recorded at NYC’s Greene Street studios, “Fight The Power” was released on the soundtrack to Do The Right Thing (featuring a saxified compromise courtesy of Branford Marsalis) and played continuously throughout the film – over 15 times – and on Public Enemy’s third album, Fear Of A Black Planet. Spike Lee directed the video, filmed on the same Bed Stuy street as the movie. The band performed the song on live TV in 1991 on Fox’s In Living Color and the late great Prince Rogers Nelson was inspired to cover the anthem during a live set in the summer of 1999.
As a testament to the endearing relevance of “Fight The Power,” an updated version was performed at the 2020 BET Awards with Chuck D and Flavor Flav – joined by Nas, Rapsody, and Black Thought – to musically acknowledge the throngs of Americans who have been taking to the streets for months fighting to reshape the criminal justice system. While James Weldon Johnson’s prayer of thanksgiving didn’t provide the musical inspiration for “Fight The Power,” the spirit of “Life Every Voice” has lived on through the steady beat, keeping time for our weary feet and an anthem for a new generation was born.
This article was first published in 2020. We are republishing it today to celebrate the anniversary of the song’s release in 1989. Black Music Reframed is an ongoing editorial series on uDiscover Music that seeks to encourage a different lens, a wider lens, a new lens, when considering Black music; one not defined by genre parameters or labels, but by the creators. Sales and charts and firsts and rarities are important. But artists, music, and moments that shape culture aren’t always best-sellers, chart-toppers, or immediate successes. This series, which centers Black writers writing about Black music, takes a new look at music and moments that have previously either been overlooked or not had their stories told with the proper context.
June 26, 2022 at 11:00 am
Please correct the typo “life” (should be “lift”)