BHM Series: Public Enemy takes protest music to another level

If there is one song that perfectly blends the sociopolitical ideals of Black America with the rough, unapologetic sounds of hip hop, then it’s Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”

“Fight the Power” is a true musical anthem that not only speaks to the past and present climate of the African American experience, but it helped to define hip hop as a national force to be reckoned with.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of songs that have mastered the art form of expressing radically charged concepts through music.

But,”Fight the Power” is not only a revolutionary song for the masses, it is the title track in Do the Right Thing, which was one of the most controversially charged films of the 20th century.

Now, I can’t think of many tunes that are legendary in their own right and are also the featured song in a legendary film. (please email me if you know of some others)

So, I felt it only right to end the Black History Music series by briefing everyone on Public Enemy’s biggest hit, or what I like to call  “the reality check, black pride anthem of hip hop.”

Public Enemy in Full Effect

Even before PE broke down barriers in hip hop with “Fight the Power,” they were already known as the Black Panthers of rap music, addressing issues such as police brutality, government, media, and the plight of the African American working class in their songs. Chuck D, who Tricia Rose calls PE’s “prophet of rage” brings much authority to the group’s music with his rap lectures and activist-like MCing skills.

PE showcased the fullness of politically charged rap with albums such as It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and 1990’s Fear of a Black Planet, which features “Fight the Power.”

They had fans jamming as well as getting a wake up call with satirical tunes like “911 is a Joke” and the vigorous track “Don’t Believe the Hype.”

And Their Style

You won’t find a more unusual pairing in hip hop than Public Enemy whose members include Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Professor Griff,  DJ Terminator X and DJ Lord. The Malcolm X mentality of Chuck matched with the quirky vocals and eccentric personality of Flavor Flav is unparallelled, and backed up musically by up-tempo, rhythmic beats from DJ Lord and DJ Terminator X.

“Fight the Power”  truly symbolizes the colorful pairing of this group and made them authorities on black nationalism. But, had it not been for director Spike Lee, this song may not have been recorded. During the pre-production phase of  Do The Right Thing, Lee contacted the group about writing a song for the film, and as they say, the rest is history.

Fight the Power

For anyone who has seen DTRT, “Fight the Power” is the musical theme of the film, and the song takes on a life of its own as it’s blasted from the speakers of Radio Raheem’s stereo. The song is introduced in full force during the opening scene where actress Rosie Perez is dancing with boxing gloves on, literally acting out the aggressive chorus line of the tune.

“Fight the Power” added a layer of authenticity to Lee’s cinematic portrayal of black urban life in New York.1

Just as racism, pride and chaos unfold in the film, the same  scenario occurs in “Fight the Power.” Chuck D acknowledges the destructive path of racism and challenges us to be aware of our circumstances, but still “fight the powers that be.”

Funk, R&B, reggae, and hip hop samples make up this classic track as well as jazz instrumentation from saxophonist Branford Marsalis.

PE begins the song on a self-righteous note with a vocal sample of civil rights attorney and activist Thomas Todd who was known as “TNT” for his electrifying oratorical skills. And from there, we get a simplistic, yet militant message that gets the blood pumping.

“Fight the Power” came out over 20 years ago and there are still very few hip hop tunes who can hold a candle to it. This song evokes a sense of self-pride and aggressiveness, which came to define hip hop culture as a whole.

If you go back to hip hop’s golden age(in the late 80s/early 90s), you’ll find that some of its best material had a politically powerful message behind it. Critics may call artists like Ice T, Boogie Down Productions, NWA and Ice Cube gangsta rappers, but they were truth tellers as I see it and Public Enemy was no different.

PE not only gave us great music to enjoy, but they gave us a philosophy to live by.

Rap music brings together a tangle of some of the most complex social, cultural, and political issues in contemporary American society— Tricia Rose, from Black Noise

Ref.
Lee, Spike. That’s My Story and I’m Sticking to It. W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 2005

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