Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power’ Hasn’t Aged a Bit After 31 Years
After four decades in rap, Public Enemy continues making headlines. Following a public squabble between Chuck D and Flavor Flav over a Bernie Sanders rally (later revealed as a hoax), the Hall of Fame rappers returned with a powerhouse new track “State of the Union (STFU)” on Juneteenth.
The latest P.E. release (and hard-hitting video) proved the group is as relevant as ever while anti-racism protests continue across the country in 2020. And the “State of the Union (STFU)” video couldn’t help remind you of Public Enemy’s landmark protest anthem: 1989’s “Fight the Power.”
Thirty-one years later, the driving force of Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing stands as one of rap’s great achievements. On June 28, the BET Awards opened with a new version of “Fight the Power” featuring dynamite verses by Nas, Black Thought of The Roots, and Rapsody.
While rap fans rejoiced over the collaboration, it served as a reminder that “Fight the Power” stands on its own regardless of new takes. And the same goes for the Lee-directed video, which plays like live scenes from a revolution.
Public Enemy’s production and message on ‘Fight the Power’ remains a high-water mark of rap
As with so many other Public Enemy tracks, the music of “Fight the Power” jolts you from the opening bars. The appropriately named Bomb Squad (P.E.’s production team) pulled out all the stops on this one. In 2014, Hank Shocklee explained to Rolling Stone his concept for the track.
“I wanted you to feel the concrete, the people walking by, the cars that are going by and the vroom in the system,” Shocklee said. “I wanted the city; I wanted that grittiness, the mugginess, the hot sticky, no-air vibration of the city.” And with the help of scratches, various samples and loops, and saxophone work by Branford Marsalis, The Bomb Squad made it happen.
Of course, none of that matters without the in-your-face message and vocal performance of Chuck D (with embellishments by Flav). “Our freedom of speech is freedom of death,” Chuck D raps in the opening verse. “We got to fight the powers that be.”
“My beloved, let’s get down to business,” he continues in the second verse. “Mental self-defensive fitness.” But it wouldn’t be Public Enemy without a middle finger to a few American icons. And indeed Chuck unloaded on Elvis Presley and John Wayne before the track’s end.
‘Fight the Power’ added another chapter with 2020 verses from Nas and Black Thought
After Lee used “Fight the Power” over and over (free of charge) in Do the Right Thing, he returned the favor with the knockout video. As they explained it, they simply told Bedford-Stuyvesant residents Public Enemy was making a video and thousands showed up to take part. And what you saw was the product of the epic shoot they had that day in 1989.
Flash forward 31 years to June 28, 2020, when the BET Awards kicked off with an updated version. After an a cappella intro and opening by Chuck D, Nas enters the mix with a typically strong verse. And the train keeps rolling with Rapsody, who comes on with so much passion she makes you jump out of your seat.
But “Fight the Power” is far from over. Black Thought of The Roots comes up big with lines such as “If racism is a cancer / Black Thought is the answer.” (He removes his face covering before stepping up to the microphone in a nod to CDC recommendations of the COVID-19 era.)
After more new verses, Chuck D returns with his classic takedown. “Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant sh*t to me,” he raps. “A straight-up racist, that sucker was simple and plain.” “Motherf*ck him and John Wayne!” Flav answers. It’s 2020, but “Fight the Power” refuses to grow old.