There’s a reason that “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy is my favorite Hip Hop song of all time. It is the first Hip Hop song I ever loved.
I grew up in a household where there were strictly four types of music listened to at all times: classical, rock, jazz, and Indian music. Not that I was not allowed to enjoy other types of music, but I did not usually seek out anything beyond what I was already exposed to. Back in my childhood to middle school years, I rarely listened to much modern music. I would get a taste of the top 40 stations on bus rides to school and other such songs at school dances, but I was perfectly content wallowing in my parents’ records. I was also often warned against rap music at the time; I was told that the genre, with its frequent curses and advocacy of a sinful lifestyle, was music that would be a bad influence on me. Leave it to my mother to give me this lecture when I was trying to sneak a listen to this Eminem guy everybody at my school raved about. I just wanted to see what the hype was all about, since I really didn’t believe it. But never mind that. The point was, I had minimal, if any, exposure to Hip Hop during my early music-listening years (and here I am writing for a Hip Hop blog…funny how that happens).
Around this time, I discovered Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. I have watched it multiple times since then and it remains one of the most powerful films I have ever seen. The movie gave me a unique viewpoint on race relations in America that has only grown more relevant as I have grown up. It is a movie that remains way ahead of its time and serves as the definite commentary on the racial problems that plague our country till today, in the shadows of Ferguson and Baltimore. Do the Right Thing has had a palpable effect on American cinema and culture—recently, Bed-Stuy street in Brooklyn was renamed as Do the Right Thing Way. The movie left its biggest impact on me, however, before it technically began.
I still remember sitting there, watching this remarkable film for the first time. Some soulful saxophone tune is heard as the film is introduced. A small musical buildup plays in the background, and freeze frames of Rosie Perez’s power poses are flipped through in impeccable rhythm. Then comes the HIT ME!
Hell, with fury, has broken loose. The smooth sax tune turns into passionate pandemonium. Rosie Perez starts dancing her a** off. The drums are pounding. At least three or four different vocal samples play off against each other as a high note repeats itself. And then two loud voices, almost undeniably preachers…
“1989! THE NUMBER, ANOTHER SUMMER! GET DOWN! SOUND OF THE FUNKY DRUMMER!”
The sax lets off, and the two rappers sound off. The beat remains consistent and pounding, although more samples are interpolated along the way. Rosie Perez continues to dance like the world is collapsing around her in a sea of red, even as you hear the sound effects of cars passing by. “Gotta give us what we want, gotta give us what we need/Our freedom of speech is freedom or death, we’ve got to fight the powers that be…”
Then the chorus. A three-word call to arms, infuriating and inspiring in equal measure. Adrenaline is racing through my body like never before. I want to run around and dance like Rosie and tear down everything in my sight. And yet, I stay mesmerized. I cannot keep my eyes off the screen, nor can I keep my ears of the music, even as crazy saxophones still assail my eardrums, even as lyrical sucker punch after sucker punch lands on my psyche. “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant s*** to me, ya see/Straight out racist the sucker was, simple and plain/Motherfuck him and John Wayne!”
Hoooooooly s***. Holy s***. I love the The Searchers. “Hound Dog” is my jam. These people are American national treasures. Say what say what say whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat.
The music seems to calm down slightly at this point, as does the dancing, as if all who were involved know what havoc they have just caused. And yet, the beat keeps pumping my bloodstream. After the credits finish, I pause the movie for a bit. I need a breather.
I just listened to my first proper Hip Hop song. I rocked to it just as I hard as I rocked to anything by Zeppelin and the Who. It was crazy yet insanely musical, just like Zappa’s best songs. There was no way a song like could possibly be that good. My parents lied to me. Hip Hop did not just have to be about cuss words and bad behavior. My life had just changed forever.
Do the Right Thing was released in 1989 to widespread acclaim and controversy. “Fight the Power” became the power anthem of its soundtrack and spread the message of Public Enemy further than ever before. The film also served as a bridge for Public Enemy’s works—It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was released just the year before, and in 1990, the group would release Fear of a Black Planet, a runaway yet contentious success that would be hailed as their second masterwork. “Fight the Power” was the concluding track on the album, but the album version had the saxophones and some of the samples removed, and added a speech by Thomas Todd and a question about the future of Public Enemy in their place. I wonder what listeners back then thought of the future of Public Enemy.
And here we are, more than a quarter century after the release of Do the Right Thing and the unleashing of “Fight the Power”. The spirit lives on. Not only is it one of the most important Hip Hop songs ever written, but one of the most important songs ever written period. The term “Fight the Power” may have been introduced into the popular lexicon by the Isley Brothers, but Public Enemy gave it new, immediate relevancy. For me, it got me into Hip Hop and showed me what amazing things music can do in all its forms. For others of my age, it is a classic that retains its ability to raise hype and hell. For those who were alive when it came out, it was a call to arms that they readily obeyed. For other artists, it was a sign that in a new way, the times were a-changin’. Countless acts in all genres of music have been inspired by Public Enemy, including Rage Against the Machine, Nirvana, and Nine Inch Nails. Even now, modern acts like Run the Jewels, Kendrick Lamar, and Kanye West are speaking on the same societal issues with similar amounts of intensity.
“Fight the Power” was the first Hip Hop song I ever loved, and the one that single-handedly exposed me to whole new worlds of music. Other lives and movements have been deeply affected by the song as well. More than twenty-five years later, we are still fighting the power. Salute to you, PE.