The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #82: Fight the Power by Public Enemy (KEXP)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song and going until I reach Song . When you see the song title listed as something like: Song (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #82: Fight The Power by Public Enemy.

Today’s post features one of the most important and relevant songs of all-time. In its recent countdown list released in 2021, Rolling Stone Magazine placed, “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy at (ahead of such well known songs as “Stairway to Heaven”, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Hallelujah” and “Let It Be”). There is a reason for that. You see, “Fight The Power” is more than just a Hip Hop song. “Fight The Power” is a History lesson, a technologically-innovative masterpiece and an inclusive call-to-arms, all wrapped up in an anthem that was specifically written for one of the best movies ever released, Spike Lee’s, “Do The Right Thing”. So, in today’s post, let’s look at the song, the band, the movie and why “Fight The Power” is, arguably, one of the most important songs of them all.

By the time, “Fight The Power” came to be, Public Enemy already had two successful albums under their belt and had gained a reputation for the forcefulness of singer, Chuck D.’s lyrics, the insightfulness of the history they documented in their songs and the pride with which they existed as proponents of Black culture in America. They had many songs that resonated within the Hip Hop community but, as for the mainstream music scene, their most well known song to that point was “Don’t Believe the Hype” (which we profiled in an earlier post that can be read here). One aspect of who Public Enemy were that surprises people is that they were not musicians, per se. They were rappers in the traditional set-up; with Chuck D. and partner, Flavor Flav as singers/rappers, while they employed a DJ named Terminator X, along with their “Minister of Information”, Professor Griff. Public Enemy became one of, if not, THE best act at using technology to aid in the production of their songs. They refined the use of sampling and, with their production team known as “The Bomb Squad”, Public Enemy developed their own wall-of-sound music scape that not only served as a way to provide musical structure to their songs but, the samples they used soften had some sort of musical/historical significance that added layers of meaning to their lyrics. This became very important in their song, “Fight the Power”.

“Fight the Power” came into existence because of a meeting held between film-maker, Spike Lee and the guys from Public Enemy. Spike Lee was getting ready to start shooting his third movie which became known as “Do The Right Thing”. He approached the group in the hope that they would be able to contribute a song that would not only be an anthem but would, also, provide the movie with a leitmotif, which is a phrase or word that re-occurs throughout a story in a way that is relevant each time it occurs. That leitmotif was the phrase, “Fight the Power”. Chuck D. wrote the lyrics based, initially, on a song of the same name by The Isley Brothers (of, “Shout: pts 1 & 2” fame). Public Enemy’s version of “Fight the Power” ended up playing over the opening credits of the movie and then, it re-appeared at various times throughout the movie as being played on a “ghetto blaster” carried by seminal character, “Radio Rahim”. In order to fully appreciate the genius and significance of this, let’s spend a moment talking about, “Do The Right Thing”.

We have said in every post that features a Hip Hop song that, the origins of Hip Hop were as a means for local communities to create music and see themselves reflected in the lyrics. Spike Lee’s movie shows us all how that local scene actually existed by placing his entire movie on one block in Brooklyn and having it play out over the course of one day in the middle of a heatwave in the summer. Lee populated his “neighbourhood” with a cast of colourful and eccentric characters; White, Korean, Black, male/female, young/old, happy and peaceful/angry and defiant….in other words, a collection of humans typical of who you might find anywhere.

If Hip Hop was meant to allow Blacks, in particular, to see the issues of their day reflected in song then, it is important to know what the issues facing Black Brooklynites were at the time. In the 1980s, the Mayor of New York was a man named Ed Koch. I remember hearing that name but, in those pre-Internet times, I can’t honestly say that I knew much about the inner-city politics of Mayor Koch’s NYC. As it turns out, the mid-1980s were not a good time to be young and Black. One of the most notorious examples of this was the famous/infamous case of “The Central Park Five” who were five young black men who were wrongly charged with raping a white female jogger in Central Park. Police brutality was a common complaint issued by many Black people who claimed that the very blackness of their being was often enough to invite a violent response from the Police. So it was with this ethnic tension as a backdrop that Spike Lee set his movie, on one block in Brooklyn, on the hottest day of the year.

As is often the case with brilliant songs, books or movies, it is often the tiniest of details that help to elevate it to greatness. For “Do The Right Thing”, the movie opens with “Fight The Power” playing over the opening credits. However, we are distracted from reading the credits by the fact that young actress Rosie Perez dances on screen throughout the song. She does so in a very forceful and powerful and confident manner. Why this is important is that, even though Hip Hop culture is often viewed as being male-dominated, Spike Lee began his movie by acknowledging the powerful presence of females…of matriarchs and, furthermore, of inviting them inside of the decision-making process involved in helping to find solutions for racism. Right from the opening shot of the movie, we come to understand that this is no “Boyz n’ the Hood” movie. This will be a community film and all will be welcome to attend.

The song that Lee commissioned, “Fight the Power” is, indeed, the anthem that he requested it to be. The power of the lyrics are often misconstrued as being about “Black Power” and militancy. But, in reality, “Fight The Power” is about involving yourself in the issues that affect you. It is about not being a bystander, even if the issues affecting you are longstanding and deeply complex. “Fight The Power” really touched a nerve because because it dared to tackle to idea of cultural icons and how they came to be viewed as such by society. In the song, Chuck D. sings about two of America’s heroic white icons: Elvis Presley and John Wayne. In both cases, he lays bare the longstanding grievances about both from the Black community, that they perpetuated White Nationalism by, in the case of Elvis, claiming fame for himself by singing songs written by black artists without ever acknowledging the debt he owed them thus, allowing White America to think he had invented Rock n’ Roll and, in the case of John Wayne, pointing to interviews he gave where he stated that Black people were not intelligent nor responsible enough to be allowed to vote or hold any form of office. The holding up of White cultural icons is important because, in the movie, “Do The Right Thing”, it is that very idea that sets the spark that blows the racial tensions in the movie sky-high.

In the movie, there is an Italian pizzeria named “Sal’s”. In the restaurant, Sal has put up a “Wall of Fame” on which hang dozens of framed photos of White, Italian-American celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Al Pacino and so on. Many of Sal’s customers are Black. One day, one of them suddenly tires of being surrounded by all of the Whiteness inside of Sal’s so he demands to know when “some Brothers are going to go up on the wall?” Instead of defusing the situation by realizing that the inclusion of Black role-models would be a good community-building exercise, Sal reacts in a knee-jerk fashion by replying that it is his restaurant and can do what he wants. If they want a Black “Wall of Fame” then, they should get out and open their own restaurant. This infuriates the already over-heated Black customers and brings us back to how Spike Lee used “Fight the Power” as a leitmotif.

One of the main characters in the movie is actually someone who says the fewest words. It is a huge man played by Bill Nunn and known as Radio Rahim. Radio Rahim’s thing is that all throughout the movie, he carried an enormous “ghetto blaster” around that constantly plays, “Fight The Power”. By doing so, Spike Lee allows his characters to flex a little Black positivity by way of the empowerment offered via the song lyrics. It is just like how the playing of a nation’s anthem at the Olympics brings with it a sense of pride, the playing of “Fight The Power” does the same for the Black characters in the movie. Eventually, the spark that ignites years of unresolved racial tension happens when Sal, played to perfection by Danny Aiello, tires of Radio Rahim playing his “Jungle music” and smashes his ghetto blaster with a baseball bat. When Sal’s fit of rage subsides, the restaurant falls into shocked silence. The “voice” of Black culture and pride, the song “Fight the Power”, has been silenced by a White man……again, as History has repeatedly shown. A riot erupts at this point, the police arrive on scene and, as has happened far too often in the real world, something terrible happens to a Black man at the hands of the White Police.

The song, “Fight the Power”, itself, is laden with samples of Black cultural pride; everything from historical speeches about black soldiers in Vietnam (remember our post about Bill Withers awhile back, “I Can’t Write Left-handed”, which can be read here), samples from Black entertainers such as James Brown, as well as, a bit of live music from Bradford Marsalis. “Fight The Power” is an anthem built upon a foundation of Black pride and is a rallying cry for everyone to appreciate the beauty of that cultures s well as, to become involved in protecting and promoting it.

Sometimes, the very things we view as being woven into the tapestry of our own identity are things that require effort and angst in order to maintain them. Off of the top of this post, I declared “Fight The Power” to be a song whose importance out-stretches the simple category of Hip Hop. It is a song about the importance of culture to one’s personal sense of self. It is a song that states that in order to protect and preserve that sense of self, sometimes you have to stand up and be counted. From the comfort of your warm homes, you may be reading these words and thinking to yourself that I am referring to some other group people, somewhere else and that the song really doesn’t impact your life very much, But, if you are a Canadian reading this post and saw how the evil surge of racism and intolerance swept through our Nation’s capital on the weekend with that “Trucker” convey then, you should be aware of how precarious the hold is on our own identity as a country. Is what is happening right now in Ottawa how we view ourselves to be? If not then, we may have to stand up and make our voices heard, just as “Fight the Power” implores us to do.

“Fight The Power” by Public Enemy was rated as being the song of all-time by Rolling Stone Magazine because it contains a message that is timeless and necessary. It may be about Black history and culture but, it is, in reality, about each of us and how we value our own version of Life on this planet. As such, “Fight The Power” is one of the most relevant songs you will ever hear. I hope that you give it a listen today and then, act accordingly, for Canada and our world.

The link to the video for the song, “Fight The Power” by Public Enemy, from the movie, “Do The Right Thing”, can be found here.

The link to the video for the trailer to the movie, “Do The Right Thing”, an be found here.

The link to the official website for Public Enemy, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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