Public Enemy – “Fight The Power”

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“1989! Another number, another summer…”

Three decades years later and ain’t shit changed, but let’s back up a bit.

By ’89 Public Enemy, the Strong Island posse of Chuck D, Flavor Flav, DJ Terminator X, the S1W dance troupe / uber-militant defense crew, and production team The Bomb Squad, was careening from one extreme to the next. Their 1988 sophomore effort It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back completely blew the doors off hip-hop and popular music, thanks to its fervently political message and chaotically dense soundscapes, brought to you by a master orator in Chuck and tempered slightly by slightly less serious, but equally passionate Flav. The record was a landmark, bringing hip-hop new visibility from the mainstream and becoming a massively influential and powerful piece of art.

It also kind of lead to the group blowing up, in a bad way.

Tensions were already running high. Flav’s unchecked drug addiction and his general flighty behavior frustrated Chuck, and he was temporarily booted from the group. There were disagreements among the team about direction and message. But those dust-ups were small compared to what happened in early 1989, when S1W leader and the “Minister of Information,” Professor Griff, made anti-Semitic comments in a magazine interview. The comments brought condemnation from all corners, and gave added ammo to critics who thought the group was racist from name-checking Farrakhan on their last record.

What happened next? PE pretty much bungled the response. Chuck issued an apology and booted Griff from the group. Then Chuck disbanded Public Enemy. Then, not long after that, he reformed the group and rehired Griff, who would later apologize. It wasn’t a good look, and Chuck himself would later look back on the debacle with remorse.

So in ’89, NYC was a powderkeg (when is it not?). The 1980s brought several high-profile killings of Black people by the NYPD and racist scumbags. The latest victim was 16-year-old Yusef Hawkins, killed by a gang of white men in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. There was a lot of tension in the city. That spring, wunderkind director Spike Lee asked PE to contribute to the soundtrack of his upcoming film, Do The Right Thing, a simmering take on what was happening in NYC at the time. Chuck took up the charge, and the crew crafted a listen for the ages, one which won back a lot of naysayers and not only set the stage for a summer of unrest, but would become a powerful piece of revolutionary rap for people across the globe. This track would also establish a tone for the group’s next record, 1990’s Fear of a Black Planet, which was faster, harder, and more apocalyptic than Nation of Millions (it’s possible, and they did it).

“Fight The Power” goes thee fuck in, angrier and more confrontational than anything seen in hip-hop before. It’s a righteous call to action, bucking the powers that be with force and disrespect. On this one, the Bomb Squad pares back their normally chaotic soundscapes to make a sound that’s more precise and pointed, like a dagger hitting right between the armor.

And Chuck! You thought Chuck was pissed off before? You really haven’t heard anything til he explodes on this one, calling out suckers by name and commanding you to get up and get out on the streets. It’s an astonishing work of protest music, and still a high water mark when it comes to pure passion, power, and rage. Black lives mattered then, Black lives matter now, and they will forever matter.

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